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Things to Consider About Haiku

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Sat Jul 08, 2017 4:43 am
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Kale says...

More Than You Probably Thought You Needed to Know About Writing Haiku

In Which Kyll Gushes About Japanese Poetic Forms and Rambles About Some Issues of Their Adaptation into English

Most of you have probably learned about the haiku in school: how it is a very simple form originating from Japan; how it's a three-line poem with only seventeen syllables; how there are always 5 syllables in the first, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third line; and you may have even learned how all haiku have a "cut".

Most of the above is only partially correct.

In which I briefly cover some differences between Japanese and English...

At their core, haiku are poems about nature. This means that even if the poem follows the rest of the haiku structure (which we will cover shortly), if the subject is not directly nature-related, it is not a haiku, but rather one of the related forms.

Subject matter aside, Japanese haiku have several key characteristics: a cutting word (kireji), a season word (kigo), and three phrases of seventeen morae (on). Of these characteristics, the kireji and kigo are the most straightforward in Japanese, with both being distinct classes of words; both kireji and kigo have corresponding word lists, and if a word is not on the respective list, it is neither a kireji nor kigo. Unfortunately, kireji have no direct grammatical equivalent in English, and so punctuation or other poetic techniques are used to substitute the grammatical weight and importance the kireji would impart. Em-dashes and colons, in particular, are very common substitutions.

The largest divergence between the common understanding of haiku and the Japanese form of haiku comes from how sounds are counted, though. Much like with kireji, there is no direct English equivalent to on, and so syllables are often substituted. This direct substitution sometimes results in a rather substantial difference in length compared to straight syllable counts.

So what even is an on, or mora? In very simple terms, think of a mora as the difference in time spent saying a long-o versus a short-o: the long-o takes two mora to say while the short-o only takes one. An on, in contrast, is just a mora found in Japanese poetry.

To illustrate: the Japanese name for Japan is 日本, which can be read as either Nihon or Nippon. Both readings contain two syllables, however Nihon has three morae (にほん = ni-ho-n) while Nippon has four (にっぽん = ni-p-po-n).

Another example of the disparity between on and syllables can be seen in this haiku by Bashō which, despite having five on, only has three syllables in its first phrase:

病牀の / 我に露ちる / 思ひあり (99.1 - see spoiler)
byōshō no / ware ni tsuyu chiru / omoi ari
(I thought I felt a dewdrop on me as I lay in bed)

This is without going into how Japanese is a highly-agglutinative language, meaning that a lot of the sounds exist just to indicate part of speech, status of the speaker, relative relationship of ideas, etc. without having inherent meaning of their own: these sounds are called particles. In the haiku above, の, る, and い are particles, and they're only there for grammatical purposes.

That's three whole on lost to grammar. Ouch.

Spoiler! :
Copied from this lovely site.

As the original was written in a single line, I've taken the liberty of adding in slashes to make the phrases easier to see. I'm also not sure if this is correctly transcribed, particularly 思ひ, but whatever. Japanese poetic diction is not one of my strong points.

On a side note, if you were to translate by phrase, in order, it would roughly read "(my) sickbed / onto which dewdrop fell / thought (is had)". I would personally translate it as "On my sickbed / a dewdrop nobly died / or so I thought" due to the alternate meanings of chiru.

Translation is fun.

So what does this all mean for you when you go to write a haiku?

It means that you have a lot more flexibility than just sticking with the 5/7/5 syllable structure. There's been a lot of debate in recent years on how to best adapt haiku to the considerations of the English language, and since English is very much syllable-oriented, proposed syllable counts have ranged anywhere from ten to fourteen syllables in length to better correspond with the extreme brevity of the haiku form in Japanese.

There is also a long tradition to draw from of English-language haiku that do not follow the 5/7/5 syllable structure. A fair number of these are translations (such as the work of Hiroaki Sato) and the results of experimentation involving adapting the form for the English language. Wikipedia provides a decent overview with plenty of examples, and I recommend it as a starting point for further research into the many variations of English haiku.

In any case, if structural authenticity isn't your thing, or if you just prefer the simplicity of the form you were taught, then the 5/7/5 syllable structure is pretty universally recognized as being a haiku in English.

So long as it's about nature.

What if my haiku isn't about nature?

Then it's not a haiku. Japanese poetry isn't classified by structure alone: the subject/tone of the poem is an integral part of a poem's classification, and it's very common for the same underlying structure to form the basis of many different types of poetry.

The seventeen-on structure happens to be a very common one.

Senryū are characterized by lacking kireji and kigo, and by being all about the foibles of humanity. If your haiku-like poem pokes fun at or otherwise criticizes the human condition, then it's a senryū.

If your poem deals directly in irony, wordplay (especially puns), or otherwise derives humor from incongruities, then it's a haikai. Unlike haiku and senryū, haikai are typically made up of more than one verse, and if haikai weren't fun enough on their own, they can be linked together into long-running poems called renku, which are written collaboratively.

And if your poem isn't a haiku, senryū, or haikai, then it is a zappai. Most English-language "haiku" are actually zappai, not that that's a bad thing; zappai could use more appreciation as a form. If only so many of them weren't misclassified as haiku...
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Sun May 02, 2021 11:14 pm
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InuYosha says...

i have to admit I always thought haiku were just seventeen syllables and had to be about nature and that was it but this. . .this is a lot o-o
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Sun May 02, 2021 11:53 pm
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BluesClues says...

@Yoshikrab right! I didn't realize there were different versions of this sort of poetry structure until I read this article

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