The Road to Haiku
"Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not
know we knew; it shows us that we are poets in so far as we live at all." ~R.H.
Blyth Haiku, Volume 1
"A real haiku's gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing." ~ Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums (1958) by Jack Kerouac
Haiku is everywhere, or so some like to think. Just do a Google search for haiku and over 12 million results are returned in .04 seconds. Those results vary from in-depth articles on haiku history and the development of haiku from the original Japanese renga (linked verse) to information on Japanese haiku masters such as Basho and English contributors such as R.H. Blyth. Along with those, you have countless links to internet blogs, websites and web pages that have haiku, or what is really considered senryu by those who have studied haiku, on them. I even found a random haiku generator. Needless to say, the information is so abundant it's difficult to know where to begin or what to believe.
I'm not a scholar, but I have done a bit of research about haiku and senryu. Japanese culture has fascinated me since I was in my early twenties and began studying Aikido, a Japanese martial art. I also had a Japanese roommate who taught me a few things about the culture that further interested me, and while I'm not a fan of sushi, I do love some other Japanese foods. Interestingly enough, R.H. Blyth became fascinated with Japanese culture as well, and thus eventually found his way to haiku and was instrumental in bringing haiku to English.
R.H. Blyth authored Haiku (1949-1952) and History of Haiku (1964) which are some of the most read books on the subject by contemporary writers of haiku. Blyth never expected that his books would be as influential as they were in inspiring poets to attempt to write haiku in something other than Japanese. But inspire they did and in 1958, two other books on haiku were published that sparked modern haiku in America, Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and Harold G. Henderson's An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashô to Shiki.
How do we define modern haiku (and where does senryu come in)? Well, that's a tough question to answer, as you will often find many conflicting definitions. Most people can tell you that haiku is a short Japanese poem. Some will add that it is written in three lines. Others will argue that it is written in no more than three lines, but can be written in less. The typical haiku is seen in three lines, but it can be in less, never more. Then you come to syllable counts. Some adhere to a strict seventeen syllables, in a 5-7-5 pattern. Others will simply offer a guideline of: no more than eighteen syllables total for the entire poem. Haiku can be less than seventeen syllables, but certainly never longer than eighteen. In haiku, less, is typically, more.
This is the basic form of a haiku (and a senryu), but this alone does not make a poem a haiku. A haiku has other elements that most haijin will tell you, must be present before it is a haiku.
A kigo, or seasonal word is a must for a haiku (without it you venture into senryu territory).
A pause word or caesura (punctuation mark) that is usually, though not
always at the end of a line, that indicate a comparison, contrast,
uncertainty or question (different from a senryu that involves irony or
Haiku are almost always in present or present perfect tense
Simple, direct language; using minimal words.
Avoid using personal or possessive pronouns in haiku (again, these are more for senryu) as haiku describes an experience, it does not tell how you feel about the experience.
Again, different sources will agree and disagree on these points about haiku (and senryu). For experienced haijin, writing haiku is a way of life, not just an art form or a way to express themselves or pass the time. I have read that to write haiku, first you must have an experience, and then you must, as soon as possible, write about that experience. It must flow naturally from you or it will not make a well written haiku. The senryu is for all of the comedy writers out there and examines the more personal and humorous side of life. I hope this has shed a bit of light on two of the beautiful Japanese forms of poetry.
About the Author
Terry J. Coyier is a 37-year-old college student studying for an
Associates of Applied Sciences degree. She is also a freelance writer who
writes about bipolar disorder. Terry was diagnosed with bipolar ten years
ago. She lives with her son in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Terry is an
author on http://www.Writing.Com/
which is a site for Writers
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