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Haiku Definition

Definition

[n] an epigrammatic Japanese verse form of three short lines

HAIKU (plural: haiku, from archaic Japanese): The term haiku is a fairly late addition to Japanese poetry. The poet Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century from a longer, more traditional phrase, haikai renga no hokku ("the introductory lines of light linked verse"). To understand the haiku's history as a genre, peruse the vocabulary entries for its predecessors, the hokku and the haikai renga or renku.

The haiku follows several conventions:

  1. The traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven, and the last line five. In Japanese, the syllables are further restricted in that each syllable must have three sound units (sound-components formed of a consonant, a vowel, and another consonant). The three unit-rule is usually ignored in English haiku since English syllables vary in size much more than in Japanese. Furthermore, in English translation, this 5/7/5 syllable count is occasionally modified to three lines containing 6/7/6 syllables respectively, since English is not as "compact" as Japanese.
  2. The traditional subject-matter is a Zen description of a location, natural phenomena, wildlife, or a common everyday occurrence. Insects and seasonal activities are particularly popular topics. If the subject-matter is something besides a scene from nature, or if it employs puns, elaborate symbols, or other forms of "cleverness," the poem is technically a senryu rather than a haiku. The point was that the imagery presents a "Zen snapshot" of the universe, setting aside logic and thought for a flash of intuitive insight. The haiku seeks to capture the qualities of experiencing the natural world uncluttered by "ideas." Often editors will talk about "the haiku moment"--that split second when we first experience something but before we begin to think about it. (In many ways, this idea might be contrasted usefully with the lyric moment in the English tradition of poetry; see lyric).
  3. The haiku is always set during a particular season or month as indicated by a kigo, or traditional season-word. This brief (and often subtle) reference to a season or an object or activity associated with that time of year establishes the predominant mood of the poem.
  4. It is striking a feature of the haiku that direct discussion of the poem's implications is forbidden, and symbolism or wordplay discouraged in a manner alien to Western poetry. The poet describes her subject in an unusual manner without making explicit commentary or explicit moral judgment. To convey such ideas, the genre often relies upon allusions to earlier haiku or implies a comparison between the natural setting and something else. Simplicity is more valued than "cleverness." Again, if the poet is being clever, using puns or symbols, the poem again is technically a senryu rather than a haiku.
  5. The poet often presents the material under a nom de plume rather than using her own name--especially in older haiku.
  6. Additionally, the haiku traditionally employ "the technique of cutting"--i.e., a division in thought between the earlier and later portions of the poem. (It is comparable to the volta of a sonnet). These two divisions must be able to stand independently from the other section, but each one must also enrich the reader's understanding of the other section. In English translation, this division is often indicated through punctuation marks such as a dash, colon, semicolon, or ellipsis.

Example

An example of classic hokku by Bashô:

an old pond—
the sound of a frog jumping
into water


Another Bashô classic:

the first cold shower;
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw.


BLACKBIRD HAIKU

beautiful blackbird

chirruping the sweetest songs

morning has broken

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See Also...

poem, verse form