Haiku: The Wrong Tree

I was snowshoeing and came across this tree.  The diligent work of a woodpecker caught our eye, and when we moved in to inspect the work, we found much humor in his efforts leading to a solid layer of the tree.  I am sure he found nourishment somewhere there, but it seems like his efforts were for naught.

I have been writing “my version” of haiku over the years, but in this journey of writing every day, I want to learn to write according to the traditions, skills, and wisdom of (what I call) true haiku.  In writing, I think I start to embrace a concept of haiku, only to realize that in the writing, so often I lose the concept.

So, as I continue to study, I thought I would share with you another presentation of the how-to’s so that you can study along with me:

The Japanese haiku and the English language haiku have several critical differences. In Japanese the haiku is composed of 17 sound units divided into three parts – one with 5 units, one with 7 units and another with 5 units . Since sound units are much shorter than English syllables, it has been found that following the Japanese example results in a much longer poem. The Japanese write their haiku in one line. In English, however, each part is given a line in order to clearly divide the parts of the haiku. This allows the reader time to form an image in the mind before the eyes go back to the left margin for more words. The line breaks also act as a type of punctuation.

The kigo, or season word, is a vital part of the Japanese haiku, but in English it is often ignored and not well understood. Therefore, a great number of English haiku do not have a season word and yet are considered to be haiku. The Japanese, because of their longer history of reading haiku, understand that there are two parts to the poem. In English these are called the phrase and fragment. One line is the fragment and the other two lines combine grammatically to become the phrase. Without this combining the two lines together the haiku will sound ‘choppy’ as the voice drops at the end of each line.

Steps

  1. Understand the way haiku is made. This can best be done by reading as many haiku as you can. Be aware that translations of the Old Masters of Japan are not written in proper English haiku, and many translators are not poets so their versions may show their lack of understanding of the haiku in the Chinese language.
  2. What you feel should be in a haiku. When you see or notice something that makes you want to say to others -“Hey, look at that!”-include that in a haiku. Many people go for walks just to find new inspiration for their poetry.
  3. Many haiku seem to focus on nature, but what they are really focusing on is a seasonal reference (not all of which are necessarily about nature). Japanese poets use a “saijiki” or season word almanac to check the seasonal association for key words that they might use in a haiku (thus the haiku is a seasonal poem, and often about nature. But it does not have to be about nature if the seasonal reference is about a human activity). The season is important for coming up with words to use in a haiku, because the poem has so few words, simple phrases such as “cherry blossoms” or “falling leaves” can create lush scenes, yet still reflect the feeling of the verse. Moreover, season words also invoke other poems that use the same season word, making the poem part of a rich historical tapestry through allusive variation. In Japanese, the “kigo” or season word was generally understood; “autumn breeze” might be known to express loneliness and the coming of the dark winter season.
    • Winter usually makes us think of burden, cold, sadness, hunger, tranquility, death or peace. Ideas about winter can be invited with words like “snow,” “ice,” “dead tree,” “leafless,” etc.
    • Summer brings about feelings of warmth, vibrancy, love, anger, vigor, lightness, action. General summer phrases include references to the sky, beaches, heat, and romance.
    • Autumn brings to mind a very wide range of ideas: decay, belief in the supernatural, jealousy, saying goodbye, loss, regret, and mystery to name a few. Falling leaves, shadows, and autumn colors are common implementations.
    • Spring, like summer, can make one think of beauty, but it is usually more a sense of infatuation. Also common are themes like innocence, youth, passion, and fickleness. Blossoms, new plants, or warm rains can imply spring. For more information on seasons, go to the link listed below.
      Seasonal references can also include human activities, and Japanese saijikis contain many such listings. Be aware that some references to human activities, such as Christmas, are effective season words, but require a geographical limitation; while Christmas is a winter season word in the northern hemisphere, it’s a summer reference in the southern hemisphere.

  4. Add a contrast or comparison. Reading most haiku, you’ll notice they either present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else or do the same with the first line and last two. A Japanese haiku achieves this shift with what is called a “kireji” or cutting word, which cuts the poem into two parts. In English, it is essential for nearly every haiku to have this two-part juxtapositional structure. The idea is to create a leap between the two parts, and to create an intuitive realization from what has been called an “internal comparison.” two parts sometimes create a contrast, sometime a comparison. Creating this two-part structure effectively can be the hardest part of writing a haiku, because it can be very difficult to avoid too obvious a connection between the two parts, yet also avoid too great a distance between them that , although this is not necessary provided that the grammar clearly indicates that a shift has occurred.
  5. Use primarily objective sensory description. Haiku are based on the five senses. They are about things you can experience, not your interpretation or analysis of those things. To do this effectively, it is good to rely on sensory description, and to use mostly objective rather than subjective words.
  6. Like any other art, haiku takes practice. Basho said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. It is important to distinguish between pseudo-haiku that says whatever the author thinks in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and literary haiku that adheres to the use of season words, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and primarily objective sensory picture.

Reference: How To Write A Haiku Poem, edited by Ian Henry at WikiHow.

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