Haiku - What is it and why should you try it?
Updated: Jan 9
I have decided to venture away from my normal bookish posts to explore some new territory in today’s post. I hope you find this subject as interesting as I have!
I recently stumbled across a form of Japanese poetry known as Haiku. Now for everyone who knows this well I apologise as it is not something I have had much experience of. However after seeing a bookstagram image where the bookstagrammer had created a Haiku stack using the book titles I was intrigued enough to read up about the genre. The style of Japanese poetry originated in the 1600s, one of the most famous haiku poets of the Edo period being Matsuo Boshō
“The old pond” by Matsuo Basho An old silent pond
A frog jumps in -
Splash! Silence again.
After reading around the subject I became quite fascinated with the concept of this poetry. I not only enjoyed the simplicity of the structure, but the depth of feeling it could evoke in the reader. Many poems I read conjured images in my head of nature and stirred up memories I had long since forgotten.
The dictionary definition of haiku is
“a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven and five, traditionally evoking images if the natural world.”
However there has been a lot of discussion about how accurate that statement is in terms of the structure of an English haiku. Many people argue that when translated across from Japanese to English this number of syllables is incorrect and so it raises the question of whether you do in fact need to stick to the traditional form of 5-7-5 or whether you can be a little more flexible in your approach.
Syllables or not?
The reason for the debate around structure is that Japanese Haiku actually counts sounds, not strictly syllables. For example the word "Haiku" itself is two syllables in English. However the same word is actually three sounds in Japanese. This opens up a minefield of contradictory information about how you should actually write Haiku. The most common format being, as mentioned above, three sentences in 5-7-5 formation. If you want to read more about this please read the article "No 5-7-5" written by Michael Dylan Welsh, the founder of NaHaiWriMo (National Haiku Writing Month) which takes place in February. It has helped me understand a bit more about why we don't necessarily need to conform to the strict syllable structure as there are other important factors to consider when writing a Haiku.
This is not to say that all the academics who write about Haiku being 5-7-5 are incorrect. I am certainly no expert having only recently found out about this genre, however I think it can be open to interpretation. From what I have read, and some of the more famous pieces I have seen, you don't need to be restricted to a specific number of syllables. More or less is OK. As long as the feelings are evoked and a point in time is highlighted in the readers mind then you are on the right track! However there are two very important principles that are needed when writing a Haiku. These relate to the content of your piece and what you are trying to achieve or the feelings you are trying to evoke in your writing.
Kigo - This is a word or phrase that places it in a particular season, for example ice for winter, or sunflower for summer. Without overtly writing with feeling or simile, the author allows the reader to feel what is happening at that time. A Haiku will observe and describe what is happening during the season but won't infer. Surprisingly this is quite difficult to do!
Kireji - This means 'cutting word' this is a moment or word in the poem that literally cuts the piece into two parts. Almost like punctuation it breaks the rhythm of a piece. A good Haiku will link two ideas or forms of imagery together but have a clear shift between the two. Again not an easy task! The separation can't be too obvious or too massive as otherwise the poem won't flow as one piece.
Write using the five senses.
The poem should be about what you can see, hear, feel, taste or smell. It is best written at the time you experience the season or from a memory rather than something imaginary. In a way it can be used as a type of mindfulness practice as it encourages you to focus on the present and how it makes you feel. Using your five senses you are able to appreciate what is around you in nature and share that feeling through the images you conjure with your words.
The whole point of a Haiku poem is to create a feeling without actually using feelings within the poem. To describe something realistically and encourage the reader to join you on a journey so you reach the emotional destination together.
You would think writing a poem consisting of only three sentences would be a pretty easy task but when you attempt to incorporate these ideas it makes it trickier yet infinitely more rewarding.
If you want to have a go at your own Haiku poetry you can read some more about it in this masterclass article. Whether you stick to the traditional 5-7-5 format or choose to be a little more flexible I don’t think it matters. As long as you feel the moment and write in a mindful way I think the piece will be worth reading. (Apologies to any Haiku experts who disagree - this is just my humble opinion)
I found this checklist a really useful tool when I began to have a go at writing my own.
Here is one of my first attempts at Haiku, it won’t be the last as I think I may be falling in love with this way of writing. In fact while researching the poetry I came across a blog post where the creator, Courtney Symons had completed a 100 day Haiku challenge, where they wrote a haiku poem every day. This sounds like such a fantastic idea so I will be attempting this challenge myself from now.
I can't promise my poems will be award winning poetry but I know I will have had fun writing them! At at the end of the day is that not what writing is all about? Do you write Haiku? I would love to hear some of your work. Please share in the comments!