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What is Haiku?


What is Haiku?

That is an excellent question. As many people I know can attest to, I have a lot to say on the subject. But before I bore you with detail, I will try to answer your question.

Haiku is a highly misunderstood art form. Misinformation abounds, so much that it is hard to decipher just exactly what a haiku is. My dictionary, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, defines haiku as an unrhymed Japanese verse form of three lines containing 5,7,5 syllables respectively; also: a poem in this form. Okay, with this information I am going to give you instructions on how to get a better understanding of haiku:

Step 1.) Get out your own personal English Language dictionary and open it to the page on haiku.

Step 2.) Firmly grasp the edge of the page and look at it.

Step 3.) Before you can read the definition of haiku in your dictionary tear out the page.

Step 4.) At this point, you might want to read over the other definitions on the page you just tore out and jot down any you think might be worth keeping.

Step 5.) Burn that page and flush the ashes down the toilet.

Step 6.) Completely forget the definition I gave you in the second paragraph above. Yes, completely.

Assuming you haven't set off any smoke alarms, or set your house on fire, hopefully you are ready to learn a bit about haiku. Now that we have befouled the dictionary, we need a new definition for haiku. I offer what I think is the best definition I have seen:

"A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature."
Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London

Okay… for the time being, forget about syllables, lines, and Japanese Geishas, well not the geishas. I will discuss form in subsequent articles. In my opinion, the form of haiku is secondary to the concepts outlined in the above definition. My opinion is supported by a number of highly recognized haiku experts; however this viewpoint is also opposed by a number of highly recognized experts.

When reading or writing haiku, I think you need to consider several key words in the quote above. Like haiku, a lot is said in those few words. The key words I would like you to consider are:


Think about these words in the context of the quote. I would like to discuss each one.

Recording -- Basically, in haiku your job is to observe and record an event or image, nothing more, nothing less. Well, yes there is something more… you should observe, recognize a unique aspect of what you observe and record. What this means is that when you write of the image or event you should not embellish or interpret. In your haiku, you should present what you saw, allowing the reader to interpret your words.

summer day
the sun shines like
an orange lollypop

Unfortunately, in this haiku, I have done the interpreting. I tell the reader what to think: that the sun shines like an orange lollypop.

summer day
sunlight on
my orange lollypop

While it still needs some work, in this second haiku, I don't tell the reader what to think, I merely present the image to him/her. Now the fact that the lollypop is orange may help project the image, but I am not forcing this upon the reader.

As a poet who also writes haiku, this was one of the most difficult things to adapt to. I had to suppress my desire to paint a grandiose picture with flowing metaphor, insightful similes, and other poetic devices. I basically had to swallow some ego and merely present the image or event. It is tough to do, but ah… when you do it well, you realize you never needed those devices to begin with. The simple and plain language allows the reader to experience the event or image and explore it in their own mind.

The old pond --
a frog jumps in,
the sound of water


There you go. This poem merely describes some frog jumping into the pond and you hear the splash. There is no metaphor, no simile, the frog jumps in the water. But if you read it, you are freed to see the pond… not just any pond, an old pond. Perhaps there are some old trees around, with mist rising off the water. You walk past and see movement and hear a splash. A frog, yes a frog has leaped into this old pond. Now you see the ripples, perhaps see the frog swim off. Are there more frogs? If not, why was this one alone and why here? The few words can spin you off as far as you want to go.

That haiku, by Matsuo Basho is probably the most famous and widely quoted haiku ever written. Basho lived from 1644 to 1694. He is basically considered the father of haiku. While some had been written before him, he "…gave them a power and seriousness they had rarely had before."*

The crane's legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain.

Ponder the possibilities in this poem also by Basho. Again, he has just reported the event, but in reading these few words, you are transported there.

Moment -- The haiku is by definition a short poem. As I mention above, your job as haikuist is to record an image or event. Another word for image or event is moment. The haiku artist searches out the haiku moment, which is merely something he/she sees that is interesting, surprising or beautiful. But it is not the evening sunset where the sky fades from bright red, to a shadowy magenta. The haiku moment is the instant a bird makes a silhouette against the sky, or the instant a specific ray of sunlight touches a cloud and it explodes in color, or the moment the sun disappears.

In Basho's poem about the crane above, the moment is when he notices that the water around the crane has gotten deeper (making its legs appear shorter). Again, it is not the 20 minutes of downpour that made the water rise, but just the moment he connects the rising water to the image of the crane. It is your job as haiku artist to capture this moment.

Perceived -- The means you use to find the proper haiku moment to write about is your perception. You have the wonderful capability and the overbearing responsibility to filter out the ordinary in your life to find the few moments that are really special. You perceive the beauty of a dragonfly hovering above a pond, then momentarily touching the surface of the water, sending out ripples. You perceive the image as something special and you record it.

on the pond
the ripples have wings

You perceived the essence of the moment and wrote the haiku. Well actually I did all that, but you can do it too. It is not difficult once you know the general goals in haiku.

I also cheated a bit; I slipped in another important word from the definition, essence. The true beauty of haiku is how it can touch upon the beauty of a moment in such a minimal way. You take your record of the moment and take away all but the bare essence of this moment. The haiku above creates the same image as my long sentence in the paragraph above it, yet the haiku presents you the essence of the moment allowing you to see the rest. It is truly wonderful viewing nature through haiku.

Nature -- You will notice the fourth keyword is capitalized in the description. We are talking about nature around us… Mother Nature, if you will. Historically, haiku has been written about Nature or man's interaction with Nature. Although this is changing some in modern times, the vast majority of haiku features nature. One distinguishing factor in comparing haiku to a similar form of Japanese Poetry, the senryu is that haiku deals with Nature with a capital N, while the senryu typically deals with the foibles of human nature.

Now that we have at least some basic feel for what haiku is, and what we as haiku artists are supposed to do, we can look at a few of the other things we need to think about with haiku. Look for future articles regarding the form and function of haiku. In the meantime, I leave you with one of my favorite haiku. Nick Virgilio wrote this haiku as an elegy for his brother who died in Vietnam.

out of the water…
out of itself

* from The Essential Haiku, Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, The Ecco Press, Hopewell, NJ, edited by Robert Haas

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