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Saturday Poetry Blogging: Haiku Education Project

April is the poet’s month.

This weekend’s poetry is a selection of haiku. This calls for wisdom: what you have heard called a haiku is probably not one. For example, contrary to popular opinion, the following may be amusing, but it is not a haiku:

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

— David Dixon, Haiku Error Messages [sic] (1998)

You may have heard that a haiku is a Japanese poetic form with three lines in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. Actually, that’s doubly wrong. First, because Japanese haiku aren’t measured in syllables; they are measured in characters of hiragana, which correspond to morae, not syllables, and in some cases may be somewhat shorter than what an English-speaker would recognize as a syllable. Second, because haiku is only one of the Japanese poetic forms that are written in a 5-7-5 pattern. Senryū, for example, are also written in a 5-7-5 pattern; what distinguishes a haiku from a senryū is not their construction but their subject-matter. If you have a poem–especially a light or comedic poem–about human foibles, it may be a senryū, but it’s not a haiku; haiku are not primarily about people at all. They’re about nature, and especially about moments in a particular season. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the English-speaking world–grade school creative writing teachers in particular–have mistakenly thought that any three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern is a haiku, and they’ve inflicted this misunderstanding on a lot of kids who never knew any better because they figure that it will be a good way to get them started on formal poetry with something short and easy. But the double confusion causes a triple problem. First, if you try to mechanically transfer the 5-7-5 rule–and mechanically transfer rules based on mora counts to rules based on syllable counts–you’ll get a form that is actually subtly inappropriate to the English language, and also a form which encourages poems substantially longer than the classic Japanese haiku. (It’s for precisely this reason that most contemporary translators don’t stick to 5-7-5 form when they are translating Japanese haiku into English, and why most contemporary poets writing haiku in English don’t stick to 5-7-5 form either.) And second, since the students never learn the distinctive subject-matter of haiku, they may go through the whole course without ever writing a single haiku. And third, since most students are taught haiku as an easy form and aren’t taught anything about the sort of stylistic discipline that goes into writing them, they end up dashing off a bunch of silly non-haiku and spend the rest of their lives thinking that haiku poetry is trivial and silly.

Whatever the silly poetry that the students end up writing is, it’s usually not haiku. If it’s anything at all, it tends to be senryū. I suppose if you had to give a name to the homeless mongrel form that you learned in junior high school, you could do what L. does and call it gaiku (the poets who write haiku are called haijin; the people who write gaiku can be called gaijin).

All of this is too bad, because when well done, a genuine English-language haiku is anything but trivial; it can be beautiful stuff, and classical haiku, in the hands of the masters, is often absolutely stunning. Rather than expand on the quiet elegance or the sense of space or the intense presence of masterful haiku, I’ll simply shut up at this point and let the masters speak for themselves.

Spring

Teishitsu (1610-1673):

Ah! I said, Ah!
it was all that I could say —
the cherry flowers of Mt. Yoshino!

Basho (1644-1694):

even in Kyoto
when I hear the cuckoo
I long for Kyoto

Buson (1716-1783):

treading on the tail
of the copper pheasant
the setting sun of spring

Chigetsu (?-1708):

the songbird’s song —
it stops what I am doing
at the sink

Summer

Buson (1716-1783):

longing for the grass
at the bottom of the pool
those fireflies

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775):

cool clear water
and fireflies that vanish
that is all there is …

Basho (1644-1694):

a clear waterfall —
into the ripples
fall green pine-needles

Autumn

Kyoriku (1656-1715):

even to the saucepan
where potatoes are boiling —
a moonlit night

Issa (1762-1826):

grasshopper —
do not trample to pieces
the pearls of bright dew

Buson (1716-1783):

the harvest moon —
rabbits go scampering
across Lake Suwa

Winter

Suzuki Masajo (b. 1906):

no escaping it —
I must step on fallen leaves
to take this path

Basho (1644-1694):

the sea darkens —
the voices of the wild ducks
are faintly white

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775):

it’s play for the cranes
flying up to the clouds
the year’s first sunrise …

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