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Canadian Zen Haiku canadien Vol 2 no 4

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So just what is haiku?

A lot of silly blather has been written in the West about "the nature" of haiku, nonsense which most Japanese hajin would instinctively avoid like the plague.

Here, for your amusement (as well as my own, I dare say), are some of the nonsense "rules" about haiku we all too often encounter on the Internet and in books.

Jane Reichhold has garnered some real gems from the Internet concerning the "true nature" of haiku. Here are just a few of those she lists, tongue-in-cheek, of course. To qualify as a "real" haiku, a haiku must:

      be 17 syllables in one line;
      be 17 syllables written in three lines;
      be 17 syllables written in a vertical (flush left or centered) line;
      be less than 17 syllables long;
      be able to expess what can be said in one breath (actually, this one's not too bad);
      ; always be written in the present tense of here and now;
      use personal pronouns in lower case. Example: i am a ...;
      use only sentence fragments;
      just write about ordinary things in an ordinary way using ordinary language (whatever that's supposed to mean!);
      write of the impossible in an ordinary way (another strange one!);
      tell it as it is in the real world around us;
      use only images from nature (never mention humanity);
      use no punctuation at all for the sake of ambiguity;
      use normal sentence punctuation;
      Capitalize the first word of every line;
      Capitalize the first word only;
      put all words in lower case;
      write haiku only from an "ah-ha" moment;
      avoid too many (or even all) verbs.

Now if all this leaves you feeling just a tad confused, don't worry. It did me too.

This phenomenon has been aggravated a good deal by the Internet, on which we can find literally hundreds of thousands of "dogtrot" haiku, the vast majority of them written in three lines invariably comprised of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively, as if that were some God-given commandment never to be breached.

However, haiku is not, at least in its Western avatars, necessarily a little poem of 5-7-5 syllables. What is it, then, you are left wondering?

The answer is almost sheer simplicity. I say, almost, since simplicity never is what it appears to be. First and foremost, haiku, in the classical Japanese sense of the word, simply means "a poem". The earliest Japanese haiku, as composed by the likes of Basho (1644-1694), Buson (1716-1784) and Issa (1763-1827) were almost invariably comprised of 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 Japanese Kanji symbols, or syllables, if that's what you would like to call them. But, a syllable in Japanese is not a syllable in an Occidental language, and never the twain shall meet. Shigeki Matsumura, our co-editor and I myself examined at some length this very problem of non-transference of the Japanese syllabary into Western alphabetic script-based languages in the editorial, "r-7-5?", in the Spring 2004 issue of Canadian Zen Haiku, Vol. 2 no. 2, here:

Canadian Zen Haiku canadien ISSN 1705-4508. Vol. 2, no. 2, Haru = Spring = le printemps 2004

There's no need to rehash old material; so I leave it to you, our dear readers, to refer to that editorial for further clarification of the ticklsih, oftetimes fiendish little issue of the 5-7-5 syllable count. The whole point is, does it really matter? Do English, French, German, Italian or any alphabetically based languages, ever need to follow this syllabic rule? The answer is, quite simply, no. Occidental Haijin (haiku poets) may, if they like, invariably write their haiku strictly by this rule. But they don't have to. And no one says you have to.

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This still leaves our primal question unanswered. What is haiku?

Perhaps the less said about this the better. Yet, there are a few guiding principles determining the feel, the substance, as it were, of the haiku as a Japanese-inspired poetry genre. Steering ourselves away from rigid rules, let us content ourselves to observe the following traits characteristic of most haiku (though not all, by any means):

1. Haiku is poetic expression, the basic notion of which is closely related to Tao, the Chinese notion of "the way", meaning "the way of living", in conformity with nature, and not bound with the world's desire for position, honour and wealth and so on. The thorough observance of this way of living made Matsuo Basho such an excellent haijin. He followed the soul of nature, leaving off selfish individuality. All this he did with consistent elegance and humour even.

Shigeki Matsumura points out that, in Japan, Zen has two primary meanings: Zen Buddhism and the Good. Shigeki goes on to say, "I hear that the former [Zen] was falsely connected with haiku when it [haiku] was first introduced into English in the early 20th. century. Probably because of the difficulty Westerners encountered appreciating the stark simplicity of haiku, comprised as it was of such short sentences, as well as the West's chronic inability to grasp cryptic dialogue in Zen, Occidental haiku writers misconstrued the sense of haiku. Actually, in Japan, Haiku is not generally related with Zen Buddhism or to any religion, for that matter. Zen Buddhism normally is related with our moral behavior. But haiku does not point to such an aim."

2. Almost all classically inspired haiku (those based on the haiku of the masters Basho, Buson and Issa in the 17th. and 18th. centuries) speak either overtly or covertly of the seasons, and almost all, with few exceptions, contain what is called a "season word" or KIGO, i.e. a key word which defines the naturalistic context of the entire haiku.

3. Classically inspired haiku merely observe, almost in childlike fashion, the world they depict. They do not inject the haijin's ethical or moral values into the woof of the haiku; they do not wear emotion on their sleeves; they do not interpret the world they mirror. They simply mirror it. The poet, as it were, gets himself out of the way of the haiku, and lets it speak for itself, simply, unpretentiously, without making any noticeable demands on our conscious attentiveness. The haiku should almost seem to breathe on its own, easefully sharing its own natural life with us.

4. Jane Reichhold, who seems to be somewhat of an expert at the topic in hand, notes, "...certainly the guideline which I have consciously or unconsciously followed the longest, is the one that a haiku must be divided into two parts. This is the positive side of the rule that haiku should not be a run-on sentence. There needs to be a syntactical break dividing the ku into two parts. From the Japanese language examples this meant that one line was separated from the rest..." of the haiku by a break word or "kireji".

Shigeki Matsumura has this to say of kireji and kigo. "By the way, kireji is as important a word or concept in haiku as is kigo. Kireji hints at suggestiveness and emphasizes the subject of the haiku. It can be placed just about anywhere among the 5,7,5 Japanese syllables in the haiku."

Reichhold goes on to assert, "For purposes of this discussion, I would like to call the shorter portion, the fragment and the longer portion, or rest of the poem, the phrase." [2] Actually, a classically sculpted haiku is divided, as it were, into two "ku" or "phrases", a short one of 5 Japanese "syllables" (generally the first line), followed by the break, this in turn followed by a longer phrase, generally in two lines of 5 and 7 Japanese syllables.

To help our Western readers better visualize what Jane Reichhold means by a "ku" or phrase, perhaps we might compare the haiku with its somewhat more verbose Western semi-equivalent, the sonnet. The sonnet, as we in the West have come to know and appreciate its subtleties through the centuries, is generally divided into an octet of eight lines and a sestet of six. And in the sonnet, as in any haiku worth its salt, there is a turning point, called, appropriately enough in Italian, the VOLTA (or "turning point"). This turning point invariably falls at the end of the octet, whether the sonnet is in Petrarchan, Spencerian or Shakespearian form, or for that matter, any form at all.

The parallel is supremely helpful, because once we grasp this notion, we can see how it is used to similar effect, though in a much more telescoped and abbreviated context, in the haiku [3]. Here too, we find an opening phrase or "ku" (generally the first line), followed by the break or "kireji" [often "translated" into Western haiku as some sort of punctuation break like an ellipsis (...) or an emdash (--)], and then in turn by the second phrase, which is usually an antithesis or a countervailing image set off against the picture painted in the first ku.

All this should sound perfectly familiar to any sonneteer. In the sonnet, the sestet usually contains an "argument", antithesis or anticlimax setting off or complementing the thesis or concept presented in the octet. That is how sonnets usually "work". And in similar fashion, this is how haiku generally "work", though on a far more minuscule scale.

Oddly enough, as a sonneteer, I have always found myself strangely attracted to the haiku. Over the years, I have come to realize that these two poetry genres above all others hold the greatest appeal to me as a formalist poet. I suppose this should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all to other sonneteers. In the recent past, several famous Western lyric poets and sonneteers, such as William Butler Yeats, Amy Lowell and Robert Frost, have been irresistibly drawn to the haiku form. Of these poets, Robert Frost is perhaps the truest minimalist.

5. Thus, minimalism is perhaps one of the truly salient features of any respectable haiku.

We shall have more to add on this question, "What is a haiku" in future issues of Canadian Zen Haiku canadien.

So stay posted.

Richard Vallance & Shigeki Matsumura 2004
Editors, Canadian Zen Haiku canadien ISSN 1705-4508

August 28 2004

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References & Notes:

[1] Jane Reichhold. Haiku: Fragment and Phrase Theory
[2] Dr. Wheeler's Website: Literary Terms and Definitions: H
[3] Jane Reichhold (same source)


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