How has the haiku changed? Is the 17 syllable format still relevant? Here are some interesting guidelines to think about when writing haiku in the English language.
There are a few misconceptions about what constitutes a haiku. Most people, if asked, would tell you that a haiku is a poem of three lines written in 17 syllables. They would tell you to put five syllables on the first line, seven on the second line and another five syllables on the third line. This is a rather old-fashioned idea of haiku.
The truth about English language haiku is that the counting of syllables is one of the least important aspects of the form. Why is this so?
The haiku is a Japanese form. Many haiku written in Japanese follow a pattern of 5/7/5. The Japanese word for syllable is loosely translated as onji. An onji is a “sound unit”. Seventeen onji do not equal 17 syllables. A poem written in 17 syllables usually contains a great deal more information than a poem written in 17 onji. So poets who are serious about writing haiku in the English language concentrate on other things besides the syllables.
There are many guidelines for writing contemporary haiku. Here are thirteen which I think are good to use if you’re a poet who wishes to learn the joys and disciplines of haiku writing.
Haiku has evolved over a span of almost five hundred years in Japan. The
haiku does not need to be complete – it is a lightly sketched and ambiguous
poem, which the reader is expected to finish. It is at its best when it
contrasts or compares two images, and is written in the present tense,
focusing on nature and capturing one moment.
Basho (1644-1694) is one of the acknowledged masters of haiku and he wrote
this most famous example where he combined what he saw and what he heard:
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
In a haiku it is sometimes a good idea to keep the reader guessing about what is about to happen. Often the final line provides us with a surprise, as in this
delightful example by another famous master Issa (1763-1827):
the village floods
As you can see, neither of these excellent examples of haiku translated from the Japanese, contains 17 syllables. Rather they concentrate on the more important aspects of haiku – writing about one or two moments and concentrating on what the poets experience with their senses.
The haiku in English has been written for about seventy years and the form
is still evolving. It often contains around 8-12 syllables. There are over
66 different ways a haiku can be written. The form is currently very
popular in many parts of the world and has become an important poetic form.
Here are a few examples of haiku I have written over the years. In these haiku I follow the contemporary way of writing what I see or hear around me, rather than expressing what is inside me:
between falling leaves
through the old pine
all along the creek bank
a man meanders along
the river escapes
into an ocean
the pale rose rests
on a tin fence
Finally, here are some quotes about haiku. Please note that the plural of haiku is the same as the singular.
“The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future –
and thus a true haiku is important because it is a moment of total and
genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.”
Robert Spiess (New and Selected Speculations on Haiku)
“Haiku has developed as a poem which expresses deep feelings for nature,
including human beings. This follows the traditional idea that man is part
of the natural world and should live in harmony with it. This differs from
the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as independent of and
perhaps superior to the rest of nature.”
Sono Uchida President of the haiku International Association.
“Haiku forces us to get out of the loops and worries or depressing thoughts
by demanding that we use our senses to explore what is around the body at
this very second.” Jane Reichhold