A brief discussion of techniques for writing proper haiku.
Haiku are like little poetic puzzles. There is a way to “put them together” that defines them as a haiku structurally, topically and in resonance. They are fantastic forms for group entertainment as well as for the haijin (the haiku poet) who searches endlessly for “haiku moments” to be expressed in just three lines of words.
Originally these little gems were used as introductions to renga (a longer venue) and were known as hokku. Eventually, they became separated from the larger work to stand on their own. As time passed, they came to be known as “haiku”.
A unique aspect of haiku is the inclusion of season and cutting words. Those qualities are a structural tradition. Season words are those that reference a season but do not always or necessarily state it. However, many haiku literally include a clear statement of season such as “winter chill”. “Winter chill” would be the kigo reference of the haiku. The author, in using this as a kigo, would be outright stating the season to prevent any misunderstanding as to the setting of poem.
Season words, such as “blossoms” or “cherry blossoms” are words that indicate the season without actually stating it. They are territorially sensitive as countries have marked differences to each other in their seasons depending on where on earth the country is located.
Cutting words (kireji) are a kind of punctuation that is voiced with a sound (in the Japanese language). The closest thing that we have in English is our actual punctuation such as : ; , … and -- . They are used for timing and space – thought space (ma).
Historically, English speaking haijin were very cautious about counting syllables and making sure they add up to 17. This idea came from the Japanese concept of keeping track of “on” (own) or also known as “on ji” (sound syllable). Japanese haijin count sounds. English professors tried to equate those to syllables. Unfortunately, the English language is often monosyllabic and therefore for a poem of 17 syllables, you might end up with as many as 17 words. This is unfortunate as then, the haiku written in English, become wordy, convoluted and clumsy with awkward, cluttered images.
Scholars today, have realized the error in that decision and suggest writing them with 11 to 12 syllables (not to exceed 17, in general). If the poem is too lengthy or complex, it is difficult for the reader to “receive the image”. It becomes a poem of words and not one of mental vision. These little poems need to be seen in the mind as much as read by the words. They are scenes transcribed in words that need to easily translate by the reader back to the scene in a simple, one breath moment.
There are two primary elements of haiku composition. One element is that of presenting the situation (the words). The other is the haijin’s inclusion of resonant meaning that may “hit” the reader’s consciousness. This is known as a “sudden perception” or “enlightenment.
These qualities are included into haiku through their basic structure of phrase and fragment. Two lines of the haiku should read as a phrase and are therefore connected in thought. The other line is a fragment. An example of those two lines is:
the crow hops
This is what is meant by phrase. It often reads like a small sentence.
The third line of a haiku is the fragment. The fragment for the prior phrase is:
As a result, the entire haiku reads:
the crow hops
There you have it. The kireji (or sound break) is implied at the end of line 1, without punctuation. Read it and feel the natural break after “footprints” before line 2 begins. That natural pause is a common way the kireji is included in an English written haiku. Of course, for more emphasis, one of the punctuations I have already mentioned could be used. But, in this case, punctuation would make this haiku clumsy.
Another haiku with the same set-up:
spring gust …
a cat’s tail points
to the moon
This one keeps the fragment in line 1 leaving lines 2 and 3 as the phrase. (We’ve all seen this image! wink)
A different set-up is:
hovers a moment …
Lines 1 and 2 are the phrase while the fragment is line 3 (often shown as L1 or L2/3 for written discussion).
There should be a sharp contrast and/or tension between the fragment and phrase. That contrast brings about the “sudden revelation” when the reader puts it together in his/her mind. That’s what makes these poems so unique and interesting. There are always layers of resonance: there’s always a sudden revelation that can be experienced. However, it might not be clear to the reader at first reading. Occasionally, it may take a few moments for the revelation to kick in.
The following are very important qualities to include in writing haiku:
Kigo is the seasonal reference included in the haiku. However, there are many examples of haiku that do not reference season (even from the old masters of Japan). But, generally, a season indication is used. It can be the actual word “spring” or “fall” and so forth: it can also be inferred such as “harvest moon” which is a season indicator. Harvest comes at a particular time of year that would indicate to the reader what the setting of the haiku is.
The haiku should be inspired by something of nature. This is a tradition and generally followed. Today, though, haiku have become the format for many subjects and they no longer always include something specifically from nature. In my mind, however, all things are from nature! Contemporary haijin write about everything from egrets to graffiti.
Basho was very keen on karumi. He believed there should be a lightness about haiku. It was his suggestion that haiku were not to be used for “dark” subjects or, as we would say today, for “rants” (ranting). They are not about suicide, drug use, divorce or any of those types of subjects. Rather, they are about butterflies, chipmunks, sunsets, oceans, birds, blossoms, humor and on and on. They are about the beauty and lightness of nature and the perception human-kind has of it.
Superficiality should be avoided. The haiku poem should be written with depth and resonance. There should be more to it (where the sudden revelation comes from) than simply the words.
Haiku are not poems of trickery or cleverness. They should not be written in such a manner that intentionally misleads the reader.
The real skill to writing haiku lies in the haijin’s ability to observe and write what is observed. In a way, the haijin is a reporter. He/she is a reporter of what is going on in nature – on the earth. The haiku is written objectively without the haijin’s interference or interjection. It is the job of the haijin to spot something that is profound, write it in a simple few words while retaining the deeper meaning of the moment experienced.
Haiku are poems of revealing. There is a fine line between simple telling and writing to reveal. The haijin should leave things for the reader to fill in. This is a style of poetry where the reader has to do some of the work. When writing a haiku, do not feel like you have to include every single detail. The reader needs room to ponder – pondering room.
The Japanese definition of shasei is somewhat like the word “sketch”. It references an “in the moment sketch” of something the haijin witnessed. It is nothing less: it is nothing more. The moment and haijin come together in oneness and the haijin then writes about the moment in the most clear simple way. Yet, in that moment, the haijin recognized something larger than life: he recognized a deeper meaning and hopes it will be carried through to the reader via the haiku’s resonance.
oh snail …
you were there
Here we have a simple observation. It’s very clear in what it says. The observation is real. It is something the haijin witnessed personally. With pondering, much of the meaning will reveal itself and the reader will have what is typically referred to as an “ah-haaa” moment – a sudden revelation of a larger meaning and picture (even a philosophical enlightenment).
The Japanese language doesn’t have capitals. So, the majority of your English haijin today avoid the use of capitals. While it isn’t crucial in the structure of the haiku, capitals do seem to clutter the poem visually.
The following are a few haiku to enjoy:
early spring …
the sound of frogs
the moon peeks through
a torn cloud
on his nose
a koi balances
Haiku are a wonderful exercise of clear thinking. They are fantastic short poems that reveal so much about nature and its inner workings. Haiku are wonderful poems for expressing magical, quaint moments of nature in a perfect moment of time.
They can be written and shared by the young and the old. Through nature, they can bring together minds, emotions and spirits of all cultures. Haiku are never divisive or exclusive: rather, they are crystal clear and inclusive – inclusive of everyone.