Syllable: (n) a delicious mix of syllabub and bubble.
(Giles L. Turnbull, A Poetry Cookbook)
On 15 April, in Poetry 101, I mentioned that ‘I love haiku and have quite strong views on what is and what isn't a haiku.’ One of my Twitter followers, Sue Ibrahim tweeted that she'd love to know my thoughts on haiku ... always happy to oblige I decided that this week I'd talk about that most syllabic of art forms, the haiku.
Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry, with a 17 syllable format, a line of 5 syllables, then 7 and finally another 5. Content should feature nature in some way. I occasionally notice a few haiku sneaking into poetry collections but it's rare that you'll find one in any literary magazine other than one dedicated specifically to haiku. I remember reading David Bader's book 100 Great Books in Haiku and being highly entertained by tomes like War and Peace being reduced to 17-syllables! To write a haiku is easy ... to write one well is seriously difficult!
In the sixteenth century, Zen monks in Japan developed the haiku, an unrhymed poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines. Now, in One Hundred Great Books in Haiku, David Bader has applied this ancient poetic form to the classics. From Homer to Milton to Dostyevsky, the great books are finally within reach of even the shortest attention spans!
Fast Moving World
stop to write things down.
I do admit to titling my haiku, which is not a traditional Japanese approach — I like titles and they help me to find them on my computer when I want to dig them out. I also do not stick strictly to the inclusion of nature themes in all my haiku, believing that nature implies a very rural context whereas our modern world is becoming more and more industrial and factories and cars should rightly feature in haiku when appropriate.
Gold coins are gleaming,
silvers shine. Money dances
the hokey cokey.
East Meets West
At the beginning of the twentieth century, some American and English poets (including Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams) used the simplicity and directness of traditional Japanese haiku as examples of the way they wanted to change our poetry. At the same time, some Japanese haiku poets abandoned traditional ideas about what a haiku should talk about and the form it should be written in, because they admired European and American poems.
Today poets write haiku in many languages around the world, each maintaining some essential features of haiku.
(from Ron Padgett - The Teachers & Writers Handbook Of Poetic Forms (2000))
Nowadays there are differing approaches to writing haiku in the west, with linguistic arguments suggesting that Japanese words use more syllables than the western (English) language equivalents and that western haiku should use less than 17 syllables. As a standpoint I don't disagree with that but I do not like ... I very much hate in fact ... the idea that western haiku can be of varying syllable counts. I often see a haiku of 4 syllables on the first line, 5 on the second and then 2 on the third, followed by the same person posting another haiku using 5 syllables on the first line, 4 on the second and 4 on the third, for example. For me this feels like it goes against the spirit of haiku and let me explain why.
In the traditional Japanese haiku the 17 syllable structure was a framework; if a haiku didn't follow that framework then it wasn't a haiku. The framework meant that the poet was required to make their choice of words work with that framework. I am unhappy when any short poem of 17 syllables or less is deemed a haiku without there being a sense of structure to it. By all means use fewer than 17 syllables but stick to whatever syllable count in all your haiku, thereby retaining the sense of structure.
This sense of order transcends so much of Japanese culture — from the penmanship of calligraphy to the routine of the samurai soldier. By way of comparison I often used to use poetic frameworks in a variant of the accrosstic. In an acrostic a name is usually spelled out with each letter starting the next line in the poem — so, using my name, G would start the first word on the first line, I the first word on the second line, L the first letter of the third line etc. I used to play around with that and move the position so that G would start the first word of the first line, I would start the second word of the second line, L the third word of the third line. This structure was behind the poem All Worlds are Stages in my pamphlet, Dressing Up. I won't reveal the name I used behind that poem but it contained 13 letters so each line needed to be 13 words long in order to allow the acrostic to play out. By the time I had the poem ready for publication I had restructured the line breaks to make the poem work as a poem rather than as a technical exercise, to the extent that I can no longer figure out how I wove the name into the poem! The result is that I no longer call it an acrostic poem because it really isn't anymore ... and for the same reason I do not believe that a haiku approach that does not adhere to a defined structure is not a bona fide haiku.
All Worlds are Stages
The curtain raised
you make your entrance
you pause and hear the audience. Hush.
At that moment my eyes are closed
and the present becomes an intangible fragment.
Because there is only me.
Because there is only you.
And because there is only everyone else.
Beyond that lie a thousand conceivable worlds
in every one a different beginning
and half have happy endings.
In half I open my eyes
in time to witness the birth of new life;
in half I surface only to see you leave—
your audience making their own ways home;
one ending differs from another only in the detail.
In seizing one opportunity, we know one thousand doors,
one thousand other realities quietly close,
and at Fate's every touch we fall,
like two mortal heroes.
(All Worlds are Stages by Giles L. Turnbull)
Stretching the Haiku
There are other Japanese poetry forms closely related to the haiku. I'll mention them here in case haiku has whetted your appetite. (I have not tried my hand at either of these so have no examples of my own to share.)
Tanka consist of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) [with the syllable count] 5-7-5-7-7.
The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (上の句, "upper phrase"), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (下の句, "lower phrase").
(from the Wikipedia page on Tanka)
Tanka (from the Japanese for "short poem") are mood pieces, usually about love, the shortness of life, the seasons, or sadness. Tanka use strong images and may employ the poetic devices, such as metaphor and personification, that haiku avoid.
(from Ron Padgett - The Teachers & Writers Handbook Of Poetic Forms (2000))
Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道, originally おくのほそ道, meaning "Narrow road to/of the interior"), translated alternately as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Narrow Road to the Interior, is a major work of haibun by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, considered one of the major texts of Japanese literature of the Edo period.
The text is written in the form of a prose and verse travel diary and was penned as Bashō made an epic and dangerous journey on foot through the Edo Japan of the late 17th century. While the poetic work became seminal of its own account, the poet's travels in the text have since inspired many people to follow in his footsteps and trace his journey for themselves. In one of its most memorable passages, Bashō suggests that "every day is a journey, and the journey itself home".
(from the Wikipedia page Oku no Hosomichi)
I can't remember how I first heard about Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694) but its title intrigued me and its text delighted me. As wiki suggests, it is a prose and verse travel diary in the form of a haibun. I was overjoyed to find an audiobook recording on the Naxos label, Read by the famous classical Japanese actor Togo Igawa. TO give you a taste for this delicate writing, I've extracted the first 2 minutes of the start of Narrow Road to the Interior for you to either download or listen to in your browser.
The Haiku of a Journey
I know some of my poetry friends have experienced hard nights on hard beds in dingy motels, an experience I thought I'd turn into haiku:
Horrors in Haiku (Rooms I've Known and Been Glad to Leave Behind)
Fe fi fo fum I
was told there was why fi but
it appears there's none
Feel the pressure. Hot
and hard, untill everyone
showers, then drizzle
By the hairs on my
chinny chin chin I swears this
bed has F-all springs
I have only once included one of my haiku in a poetry performance. I ended my 6 poem set at Fermanagh Writers in Enniskillen on my birthday, in June 2016, with a haiku about being blind:
When I close my eyes
I see your eyes. Seeing through
them I am not blind.
His celebrated haiku has developed into a routine that can last 20 minutes. “The haiku,” he tells Shepherd’s Bush, “is a three line discipline perfected in the 17th century in Japan by a poet called Matsuo Basho. This is a poem of rigidly defined structure: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. I thought very carefully before I embarked on mine,” he explains. “Because you know what the Japanese are like. There is no Japanese term for ‘near enough’. Get it wrong by even half a syllable, and you are condemned to an eternity of spitting on your ancestors, after committing ritual suicide in a public place. Now the spitting on your ancestors… push comes to shove, I could live with that. “Now that I come to think of it,” he adds, “Spitting on my ancestors is what I do best. But the ritual suicide; that’s not really my cup of tea. So I came up with this. ‘Haiku #1’ I call it:
‘To convey one’s mood / In seventeen syllables / Is very diffic.'”
(from Wise Words by John Cooper Clarke)
#Haiku #Tanka #Haibun #Poetry