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The Haiku

The haiku is a micropoem, originating in seventeenth century Japan, which, when well handled, has a singular grace and power—lifting it high above the sound bite, the limerick and all but the best of epigrams.  It has seventeen syllables: five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third.  Like this:

Writing a haiku
Is a matter of getting
The length of line right

Poems in three lines
Five syllables then seven
Then another five

They do not rhyme, and they do not have titles:

Though peers of poems
Haikus are but commoners
They lack a title

Though rhymes are not crimes
The true worth of a Haiku
Is its sounds and sense.

But it must be more than cut up prose; a haiku should express a thought, fact or feeling of significance to the writer and reader:

Writing a haiku
A way to communicate
Brief and to the point.

Much to aspire to—
Such humbling constraints—haiku
Metaphors for life

In many of the best, the last line represents a contrast, a resolution, even a surprise—somehow completing and enlighting the previous two:

The file you desire
Needs software that you’re lacking.
Money will fix it

Great full-blooded gale
Shoulder-charges the oak trees
Seven crows blown loose

The classical haiku include season words: words relating to nature and the passing of time.  The best of them have a Zen like quality:

Walk summer night lanes
Water trickles by the path
Wind sways an inn-sign

Vast fields of sunlight
Buttercups take so little
Somehow it’s enough

More informal, colloquial subjects are however allowed—the Japanese call these senryu—and they extend the form:

Black, round, flat—with grooves
All of twelve inches across
Is this a record?

In the morning, like lizards
Take time to warm up

Many haiku have what is called a pivot word that has more than one sense or meaning—the pivot word shades into the pun:

Writing a haiku
A matter of season words
And using them well

Beneath the flight path
Small things keep falling from planes
Leaves on the green lawn

An essential haiku quality is karumi, which means lightness of touch.  The best haiku do not shout, preach or plod.  Inward smiles, as well as the occasional outward guffaw, are legitimate reactions:

Suddenly awake
Where in heaven’s name am I?
—Oh yes—Basingstoke

Suddenly awake
Approaching the next station
—Ours was the last one

A leading early exponent was Basho; he sounds like a Beano character but was in fact a Japanese sage (1644–94).  The leading contemporary exponent in English is undoubtedly Duo Terimati, also called The Great Master. All the examples given here are from his famous collection Bonsai Forest.  Two of the Great Master’s innovations are the sandwich (or mirror) where the first and last lines are (almost) the same, and the use of extended character sets:

When I lie in bed
She just doesn’t believe me
—When I lie in bed

Ye@s, 10nyson, £,
They write of grief & $
~ cows come home

Haiku about current affairs and including in-jokes about specific people or events can also be rewarding:

Other presidents
Are known by their names, but Bill…
By his Monica

Will Branson prevail
And end committee-designed

In short, haiku can be as charming, and as brutal, as life itself is:

There’s been a meltdown
They leave a sign on the door
‘Sorry, gone fission’

Two hours since you died
Bleak dawn breaks—one lone starling
Singing his heart out

Why not have a go?  They are not difficult (note: they have successfully been used in schools to encourage creative writing)—you might well surprise yourself.  The good ones are very satisfying, the great ones—much, much harder—are equal to the best of poetry and philosophy.  Can one get higher?

Why do galaxies
Being God’s greatest glory
Have nowhere to go?

A clear night of stars
That may by now have perished:
How little we are

‘A good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory.  It invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.’

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts (1962)

This is nothing but
A little froggy picture
To round off the page.

Version 1.1
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Bonsai Forest by Duo Terimati is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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