Learning to write Haiku is relatively simple, but simplicity can be elusive if the writer tries too hard. Haiku is a way of writing poetry that encourages the author to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum of effort.
Directness and immediacy are the hallmarks of an effective Haiku, but how does one convey the depth of one's feeling in just a few syllables? The answer is practice, practice, and more practice!
Learning to write Haiku can be a way of 'letting go' and liberating the artist within, freeing oneself to express an intimate connection to life.
Structure and Content of Haiku
Traditionally the Japanese Haiku form is made up of 17 syllables. It was originally designed to be written from the top down in a vertical line in a 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern (mora, or sound units in Japanese).
In English this can be expressed as a 'short line', followed by a 'long line', followed by a short line. In Japan the form is just as important as the content, and the calligraphic brush work is often seen as a work of art in itself.
Nature is an important aspect of Haiku, but is not the subject matter. Rather, 'nature' and the 'seasons' of nature are used allusively to mirror human feeling and function to evoke a particular sentiment, often tinged with nostalgia - but not exclusively.
For example, 'Cherry Blossom' signifies both the freshness of new life, and the transient nature of beauty and life itself. In Japan 'seasonal words' are referred to as "kigo", and Japanese Haiku poets often use "saijiki" as a reference source for such words.
Comparison and contrast are used to effect a sudden shift of subjective focus in the reader. This is usually seen in the second part of the poem where there is an abrupt and stark juxtaposition. This device is called a 'cutting word' or "kireji in Japanese.
In English this can be achieved through normal grammatical sense and punctuation, using a colon, semi-colon, full stop or a dash. Getting this part right is essential. Saying too much, is as bad as saying too little - too obvious a connection, or too sharp a contrast can bore or confuse the reader. Experimentation and reading other Haiku will help with this.
Haiku is experiential. For good Haiku it is important to avoid the analytical or discursive. 'Use the objective to convey the subjective', is a good rule to follow. Haiku is based on the 5 senses, not on the author's interpretation of them.
English Language Haiku
R.H. Blyth was an English scholar famous for introducing Haiku to the west. Since his introduction and translations of Haiku in the mid 20th Century, it has become a popular form of verse.
Many European poets have adopted the form, and some have even adapted it in a way that has a much broader application, often to the chagrin of purists. In poetic terms it is often used to describe any short poem that contains 17 syllables or less, of two or three lines in length. To qualify as Haiku poems normally exhibit the following criteria:
• Use of three (or fewer) lines of 17 or fewer syllables
• Use of a season word - kigo
• Use of a cut (sometimes indicated by a punctuation mark) to contrast and compare two events, images, or situations - kireji
To get a flavour of traditional and modern versions of Haiku it might be useful to compare an older poem by Issa (1762-1826), with one from an unknown modern European writer:
Right at my feet -
and when did you get here,
Uphill on a bike,
eyes, legs and breath shut tight -
downhill a mountain!
The first is by Issa, but in translation has less syllables than the required norm of 17, so does the other poem and both use the dash in place of a syllable, although in different places. Snail is the "kigo" in the first poem, and the second line is the cut.
Poem 2) has no "kigo", but has a very definite cut. Both poems work as Haiku, and the only clue to modernity is in the reference in the second poem to a bike.
Practice Makes Perfect
Haiku takes practice, and with repetition comes the facility to use the form with ease. Basho, the famous Japanese master of poetry, said that each Haiku should be a "thousand times on the tongue."
By following these simple guidelines, it is possible for the ordinary person to express the extraordinary in everyday life and free the creative artist within.