Writing poetry is about conveying feeling and experience in a way that allows someone to pick up your poem and live within its words. For poets working within any form, from a taxing, if not maddening, pantoum or sestina to the guitar solo that free verse can be, working toward an economical use of language helps to transport an audience. Haiku is perhaps one of the most challenging varieties of poetry because there is such a small space to share with a reader. If you have not read a lot of poetry, haiku can be challenging because there is not much text to work with. If you are not already familiar with the form, I hope the following will help you understand the structure of modern English-language haiku and how they work.
Brief History and Structure of the Haiku
Despite early translations of haiku in the late 1800’s and American attempts at haiku from the likes of Ezra Pound in the early 20th century, English-language haiku began with R. H. Blyth’s haiku translations. Those works inspired poets like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and James W. Hackett, who all helped to popularize the form. The very early translations of Blyth gave credence to the idea that haiku depend on a 5-7-5 syllable count.
While it is perfectly fine to write a poem that adheres to that structure, keep in mind that Blyth was translating from Japanese sound units to English-based sound units, or syllables. The Japanese “on,” which is the Japanese word for the counted sound units in poetry, counts in a drastically different way than syllables do. If you are interested in more information on that, please read William J. Higginson’s essay, “Haiku by the Numbers, Seriously.” What this means, of course, is that Blyth’s translations became a model for the English-language haiku structure without really considering how much more information a seventeen-syllable count in English adds to a poem, since the way that Japanese on are counted really make for about 12 syllables of information in English.
Since a form translates differently across cultures, the Italian sonnet now looks very different from its predecessors and this misprision, as Harold Bloom would say, is an understandable, if not necessary, vehicle by which to introduce a form in a new language or culture. However, it also stands to reason that a form changes according to the needs of its audience and just as other English-language poetry underwent a Modernist upheaval away from formal structures, so did haiku.
As a result, many modern haiku have tended toward a syllable count that conforms closer with the amount of information a Japanese haiku might convey. This gives us a haiku of around 10 to 13 syllables. Most English-language haiku poets have insisted on a poem with a shorter line followed by a longer line that ends with a shorter line, but this varies. Thank goodness! Some write monoku, which are one-line haiku. There are many other variations that include the two-line, four-line, one-word, and even circular haiku. Because of that flexibility, haiku share a lot in common with concrete poetry. It also offers variety for those who find themselves wanting to read new things.
How and Why Haiku Work
Poets have such a tiny space in which to give a reader an insightful, emotional experience that we develop a toolbox filled with tools for constructing our emotion-producing experience machines. There are a few things that the Japanese forms, especially haiku and senryu, have brought to the English-writing community that are specific to traditional haiku writing: the “cutting word” (kireji) and “seasonal reference” (kigo). If you examine most traditional haiku and scores of modern English-language haiku (ELH), you are bound to see these characteristics, but keep in mind that there are many other aspects to the Japanese forms. These are just two of the most important features the tradition has to offer.
In Japanese haiku, the cutting word operates like punctuation, so in ELH, the cutting word is usually an em-dash, but you can use a colon, a period, a question mark, even an ellipsis to indicate the cut in your poems. Some poets will use a word or phrase to create the cut, using the white space of a poem to help create it, but the traditional practice has been to use punctuation in ELH.
Like setting, seasonal reference helps to ground the reader in a particular time and place, but it was once so important to include a kigo in a haiku that there are compilations of seasonal references in Japan. In fact, many poets write in conversation with haiku poets past and present by using particular kigo. In ELH, seasonal reference can be something as simple as writing “jacket,” “bare branches,” or “migrating birds” to suggest a season, and further still, some rely on the feel of the haiku to suggest season. It remains in the form’s DNA.
And how do these elements work together? The short answer is that a juxtaposition of imagery achieves the effect. In such a little space, around 12 syllables, the poet does not have room for narrative, so the haiku poet depends on images to convey the experience and emotion through what the haiku community commonly calls an “aha moment.” In this way, haiku serve as a kind of demonstration of how readers create and find meaning in a work because these images that are neither too related nor too unrelated create a gap the reader must participate in to fill with meaning. If the haiku poet is successful, the experience transfers to the reader. They live in that moment. This can prove difficult for readers who do not enjoy the shared authorship of a poem and would rather not supply meaning where it has only been implied.
Finally, the haiku works as a form because it not only expresses and shares a meaningful moment, but its existence implies a shared experience between author and reader, requiring creative reading. Everything in the haiku offers an interpretation and expression of life in general through the specific. Haiku themselves ironically appear to only consist of trivial snapshots of the world, but the seemingly meaningless, separate images used in haiku unify during the course of a given poem’s reading, and they demonstrate a connection or connectedness originally thought not to exist. As with a spark plug or a neuron, a charge jumps the gap. A moment is regained, re-experienced. The “Aha!” unifies the poem and acknowledges a unity with the world in that moment, and it all happens in the space of a breath. Now that’s poetry!
Examples from my recent haiku collection, The Strangest Conversation:
on the needles of pines
the briefest stars
the shushing leaves
Joshua Eric Williams is from Carrollton, GA, where he lives with his wife, Kimberly. Find out more at The Smallest Words The Strangest Conversation is available from Red Moon Press. Follow him on Twitter @Hungerfield.