What’s a haiku?
Haiku is the modern name for a Japanese verse form that is over 300 years old. Many haiku conventions have come, gone, and come back in the last 300 years, and the forces of tradition and innovation are still at work today.
Traditional Japanese haiku have a total of 17 syllables that are arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. The pattern is no accidentï¿½alternating lines of 5 and 7 syllables have been part of Japanese poetry for over a thousand years. But there is much more to haiku than the 5-7-5 syllable count. For example, traditional Japanese haiku include a ï¿½season word,ï¿½ and they try to convey a connection between Nature and human nature. They are often divided into 2 asymmetrical parts that do not make a complete sentence. They typically use simple language and present images with little or no commentary.
Today there are thousands of haiku clubs in Japan, and most of them focus on haiku that follow the 5-7-5 syllable count. However, since the early years of the 20th century, many poets in Japan and elsewhere have de-emphasized the strict 5-7-5 pattern in order to focus on other elements of haiku form and tradition. Other poets have broken with tradition in order to seek new possibilities in haiku.
|Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.Matsuo Basho, translated by Robert Hass (page 44 of The Essential Haiku)
Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet, is often credited with developing haiku into a vehicle for serious artistic expression. In Basho’s time, hokku was the name of the first stanza in a linked verse form called renga. Basho infused his hokku with a depth and clarity that was not typical of the form up to that time. Some of his hokku capture a moment of heightened awareness in which the boundary between subject and object seems to disappear. This heightened awarenessï¿½and the role of Nature in inspiring itï¿½are two of the most discussed and elusive characteristics of literary haiku.
William J. Higginson observed that as the first verse in a renga, the hokku had three characteristics that are typical of many haiku being written today (1):
- alternating lines of 5 and 7 syllables, which have been a feature of Japanese poetry for over a thousand years;
- a seasonal reference, which originated from the convention of having the first verse identify when the renga was composed;
- grammatical incompleteness, which occurred because the thought in the hokku was to be completed in the next verse of the renga.
Form and Content
A traditional Japanese haiku includes a seasonal reference and has a total of 17 syllables arranged in units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Hiroaki Sato and others have noted that while most Japanese poets write their haiku in a single line, the single line is often broken into three lines when the poems are translated (2). Perhaps as a result, the three-line haiku may be the most popular form for haiku written in languages other than Japanese.
Many haiku poets writing in English use a form that was inspired by the traditional Japanese haiku: three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Here are two 5-7-5 haiku by Lenard D. Moore:
Moonless winter nightï¿½
of the lobster boats at noon . . .
gulls flutter away
If you look carefully at the poems above, you may notice another feature of haiku: they are often divided into 2 asymmetrical parts, such as “Moonless winter night” and “a billow of rising fog / hides the distant pines.” Jane Reichhold calls the short part “the fragment” and the longer part “the phrase” (3). The fragment and phrase structure can sharpen a contrast, make a comparison more striking, or otherwise heighten the poetic tension in these little poems.
Higginson and others have noted that since the early twentieth century, a small but significant number of Japanese poets have championed haiku which break with the 5-7-5 pattern and which take on a broader range of subjects than a conservative interpretation of haiku tradition would allow. Likewise, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a substantial number of haiku poets in the United States and Canada began to urge similar approach to haiku in English (4).
Today, the majority of poems that are published in mainstream haiku magazines such as Frogpond and Modern Haiku do not follow the 5-7-5 pattern. Among poets who regularly publish literary haiku in English, many would say that the familiar definition of haikuï¿½”a short poem of 17 syllables, written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables”ï¿½describes only a part of the tradition, and it ignores the innovations that have developed in Japan and in other countries since the early years of the 20th century.
On the other hand, some commentators say that the 5-7-5 pattern is an essential part of the traditionï¿½even in English, and that failure to follow this convention leads to inferior haiku and perhaps to the decline of haiku in English. Other commentators praise the unique experience of writing 5-7-5 haiku, such as the pleasure of working with a strict form, of being liberated by form rather than confined by it.
Most commentators would agree that there are other elements of the haiku tradition that are just as important as the 5-7-5 syllable count, such as a seasonal reference; a two-part structure that typically does not form a complete sentence; the juxtaposition of images with little or no commentary; and the use of simple language.
Guide for Teaching Haiku, a set of lessons prepared by Patricia Donegan and Kazuo Sato for World Children’s Haiku, a haiku site maintained by the JAL Foundation, an charitable organization funded by Japan Airlines. The Guide offers a simple introduction to haiku conventions in addition to the 5-7-5 syllable count.
See also our list of links under Haiku Definitions, the topics under About Haiku, and Haiku Sites for Teachers & Autodidacts.
(3) Jane Reichhold, “Fragment and Phrase Theory,” Frogpond, XXI:2 (1999). Also available from the haiku area of the AHA! Poetry site: see Fragment and Phrase Theory.