Haiku: A Short Form With A Long History

The letter H

Five, seven and five.
What a very simple form!
Except, it isn’t…

To be true haiku (a form which has a long and fascinating history) a poem has to do more than meet the syllable count. I found a very neat summary here which says, amongst other things:

  • Haiku is not a sentence in three fragments.
  • The best haiku are open-ended.
  • Haiku is about nature and season as experienced or observed by the poet.
  • Haiku uses minimal punctuation.
  • Metaphors, similes and other poetry elements are unnecessary in haiku.
  • Haiku does not tell but shows the emotions as experienced by the poet.
  • Haiku present specific moments rather than extensive picture

The haiku is a relatively young form, coming from a long history of Japanese poetry. It was made from a combination of two earlier forms: the haikai and the hokku. Both these forms, in turn, came from renga – a mix of poetry, word game, and competition that has been around since at least the 12th century. Poets would take it in turns to come up with verses, on either light or solemn themes. Light or comic renga was known as haikai. The initial three-line “hook” of a renga was called a hokku, and has the familiar “5-7-5″ structure that we know now as haiku.

(For a modern (and funny) example of a “poetry battle” see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7-2_gUuWK4)

Because of the nature of the Japanese language, the syllables of a haiku can have many meanings – as well as being a chosen for their sound and even the aesthetic of their written form. Since this is not the case with English, “the modern haiku need not strictly follow 17 syllables in 5-7-5 format. Some haiku poets follow 5-3-5 format, whereas some do not even follow the uniform pattern of syllables. The most common haiku format is unrhymed three lines poetry.” (Quoted from here again.)

That said, I personally prefer to stick to the pattern of “5-7-5″ where possible.

In light of all this, let’s try again to write a “proper” haiku:

Rain lashing windows
Winter plays the chimney pots
Fireside comfort


So, it turns out that haiku is not as simple as it first seems. If you’re going to honour the rich traditions of this ancient form, there are some pretty hefty rules to follow. But, you know what? You don’t have to. The origin of the haiku is interesting, but like all poetry, the rules are there to be broken. It comes from ancient Japan, but the words you write today come from you, and so in the end it’s up to you what you do with them.

Who knows – in another five hundred years, people could be writing subspace holo-vid updates about “traditional” English-language haiku, and how it departed from its Japanese roots to form a style of its own.

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4 Responses to Haiku: A Short Form With A Long History

  1. elsieamata says:

    I didn’t know it was to be inspired by nature. Very interesting. I loved yours.

    Elsie
    AJ’s wHooligan in the A-Z Challenge

  2. Aditi says:

    I love how you’ve given a “proper” definition box Haiku! :D
    I am bookmarking this!
    Lovely scene crafted by your Haiku!

  3. Alex Hurst says:

    “Haiku is not a sentence in three fragments.” YES! This is the most common thing I see in English haiku, and it drives me bonkers (no, not really… I just wanted to use that word).

    Another fun thing you can try to put into your haiku are “pivot words”, that is, words that have double meaning and carry weight in both lines. This is quite easy in Japanese (I study Japanese), because it is a syllable language, so the final syllable can actually carry forward into the next line.

    In English, you can make use of homonyms for something like:

    The shadow is cast,
    all lined up for their last bow
    Theatre for sale.

    Nevermind how horrible the haiku is, though, haha!

    Alex Hurst, fantasy author in Japan, participating in Blogging A-Z April Challenge.

  4. Pingback: HarlemCondoLife | Featured HarlemHaiku No 2 (#HarlemHaiku)

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