By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What is haiku? Or what is a haiku? Many of the things we think we know about the Japanese poetic form of the haiku are inaccurate, if not downright incorrect. The common perception, or understanding, of haiku might be summarised as follows: ‘The haiku is a short Japanese poem containing 17 syllables, following a tradition, and a name, that remains unchanged after centuries.’
There are, however, several problems with such a definition of the haiku, which this short introduction aims to address and make clear. So what is a haiku? Let us start with the origins of the term ‘haiku’ itself.
Although the haiku as a verse form is centuries old, the word ‘haiku’ isn’t. Indeed, it was only surprisingly recently – as recently as the end of the nineteenth century, in fact – that people started referring to these miniature Japanese poems as haiku (never ‘haikus’: the plural is the same as the singular), when Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) began referring to them as haiku as opposed to the older term hokku.
It’s not quite accurate to say that a haiku has 17 syllables, although it’s a rough approximation.
The problem is that the Japanese haiku contains 17 on, and an on is a sound-unit that is slightly different from our understanding of a syllable, since an on is only a short sound, and a longer syllable (like a long diphthong in English, for instance) would count as two on, even though we might count it as a single syllable in English. It’s also not true that a 17-syllable (or 17-on) poem automatically ‘qualifies’ as a haiku.
Strictly speaking, the haiku should take nature as its theme, or contain imagery drawn from the natural world. A 17-syllable poem about a sandwich toaster, however haiku-like in appearance, is not a bona fide haiku according to the traditional definition of the form.
Instead, it’s an example of Senryu (from the Japanese for ‘river willow’), a related form also comprising 17 ‘syllables’ but not featuring nature or the seasons. For this reason, Senryu are sometimes known as ‘human haiku’.
So, what is a haiku? ‘A haiku is an open door that looks shut.’ That was Reginald H. Blyth’s observation about this, the most minimalist of poetic forms. The haiku may appear small, but it contains multitudes, vastness and expanses of great magnitude. Indeed, this is even, arguably one essential element of the haiku: that it contains reference to the timeless or eternal, the vast and the sublime.
The haiku contains two elements which are usually divided by a break, a pause or a shift which is not unlike the volta or ‘turn’ in the sonnet. This break is marked by a ‘cutting word’ or kireji. The two elements divided by this kireji are usually distinct, although they may be related in some way.
One element will often be general and universal (the oceans, a mountain, the changing seasons), while the other will usually be a more local, personal, and momentary perception (the way the rain lands on the river, for instance). The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective. Otherwise it is no more than a brief statement.
In 1684, the Japanese poet Ihara Saikaku supposedly wrote 23,500 haiku in a single day, which means that, even if he didn’t sleep for 24 hours, he was churning them out at an average rate of 1,000 an hour – or around one every three-and-a-half seconds.
But the most famous proponent of the haiku, at least to readers in the western world, is probably Basho (1644-94), who wrote (among many others) this haiku:
frog leaps in
We have the general or more expansive (‘old pond’) coming into contact with the momentary (the frog leaping into the water); it is the ‘spark’ produced by these two things being placed together, almost like rubbing two stones together to produce a spark of fire, that lends the brief haiku its power. Often in a haiku, the enduring and timeless is overlaid by the transient and temporal.
It was probably this aspect of the haiku that inspired Ezra Pound’s idea of the imagist ‘Image’: ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’. Pound’s most famous imagist poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, is similarly concerned with the fleeting coming into contact with the durable. We might add this short poem by E. E. Cummings too, which seems to have been similarly influenced by the Japanese haiku.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.