Saturday, May 13, 2006

Waka - Fun Example

Lest you think that all of the old waka were erudite and lovely paeans of lyricism, I want to share an example by an early courtier named Okimaro. He was an obscure member of the court, living and writing his verses around about the year 700 AD. At the time there was a game of composing poems that included various improbable items; Okimaro was good at it. His poems composed for the game have the natural rhythm of colloquial speech and present the aristocrats at home, letting their hair down. He gives us a picture as life as it was as opposed to the staged formalities of the royal court.

He was challenged to write a poem about chaps (leather leggings used to protect men while riding horseback), greens, a dining mat, and the beams of a house.

Sukomo shiki
Aona nimochiko
Utsuhari ni
Mutakbaki kakete
Yasumu kono kimi
~Naga no Okimaro, c 700 AD

Spread the dining mat--
Boil the greens and bring them on--
The lord is waiting,
Resting with his chaps off and dangling
Where he hung them from the beam.
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

Nonetheless, he was a courtier and attended his Sovereign in the palace. Palaces in those days were modest affairs with thatched roofs, but all the same, they were large and elegant places compared to the hovels of ordinary people.

Oumiya no
Uchi made kikoyu
Abiki su to
Ago totonouru
Ama no yobikoe
~Naga no Okimaro

Here in the palace,
Even here there comes the sound:
Shouts of the seafolk
Keeping the netmen in rhythm
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

This is not pastorialism, that would come later when the court became truly wealthy and lived separate enough from the ordinary folk to view them through a hazy ignorance that allowed room for Romantic fantasy. Okimaro's Sovereign lived in a palace close enough to see and hear fisherfolk at work, Okimaro was human enough to enjoy the sound and sight for what it was without any hint of condescension. This is a far cry from The Tale of Genji, written three centuries later, where Prince Genji, depicted as a compassionate man, is not entirely certain that the common folk are even human.

Hachisuha wa
Kaku koso aru mono
Okimaro ga
Ie ni aru mono wa
Umo no ha ni arashi
~Naga no Okimaro

Lotus leaves--
So this is the way they look~
What Okimaro
Has at home turns out to be
Nothing but leaves of taro!
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

The lotus is a beautiful flower, the taro is a homely vegetable. Okimaro is not talking about horticulture! I wonder if his wife hit him with a frying pan when she heard this one?

Later such down to earth and humorous poems would be dropped from the canon of courtly poetry, but they could not be supressed. The humor would simply come out in a new genre: kyoka.

Waka Example - modern

There are various groups that admire the classical poetry of the imperial anthologies; they are trying to maintain those virtues in their own modern English-language poetry. Unfortunately, they tend to have rather narrow ideas about exactly what the courtly poetry was, resulting in an even more restrictive genre than the already limited genre of waka. I think it is entirely possible to maintain the lyricism and good taste of the courtly genre while expanding its subject matter and techniques.

For example, the classic 5-7-5-7-7 form does not have to be -- and should not be -- maintained in English. The Japanese language is polysyllabic, therefore the number of words in a waka is much smaller than an English-language poem and the content is therefore more compressed. Waka have a haiku-like succinctness that permits more ambiguity than the carefully spelled out English verses of 5-7-5-7-7. Simply put, 31 English syllables say too much and are not a true analogue to the Japanese originals.

Items such as punctuation and capitalization are also non-essential -- Japanese has neither. Punctuation is through verbal markers, such as 'kana' (a verbal exclamation mark), and other particles. When it is realized that Japanese punctuation uses up some of the syllables of the waka, then it must be understood that the actual content of a waka is even smaller than generally realized.

in winter
the pale sun and moon
share the day sky
leaving my heart
darker than ever
~M. Kei

The above poem is classically formed: an observation of nature comprises the upper verse and an emotional expression the lower verse. The two meld together to give a lyric description of a personal place-time. The number of syllables is 3-5-4-4-5 -- irregular and shorter than the traditional form. While some modern waka poets will accept non-standard lines, they still look for a pattern of short-long-short-long-long, which this poem does not meet. Yet to me, the counting of syllables is not nearly as important as the structure of the ideas and images. The poem is classical in its content, not its trivial details. Because it is shorter than the usual 'classic' English waka, it is closer to the Japanese originals in the amount of information it carries. When read aloud, it reads smoothly and could easily be chanted.

This latter point is one frequently overlooked by English language poets. The word 'waka' means 'Japanese song.' Waka were meant to be chanted or sung aloud and this is still an important part of the modern aesthetic. When the Emperor and Empress of Japan host their New Year's poetry reading party, the selected poems are chanted, not spoken. Western authors, influenced by free verse no doubt, do not give as much attention to rhythm and meter as they should if they intend to write truly 'classical' Japanese waka.

Waka Example - classical, courtly

My early poetry was written very much in imitation of the Kokinshu models. Though criticis of the work regard it as deadly artificial, I do not find it so. On the contrary, I found in it a model whereby I could graciously express my own feelings. The poem below may not be great literature, but it sure beats writing depressing angst-ridden diary entries like, "I can't believe he won't even email me, after all I've done for him. You'd think blah blah blah." Given a choice between poetry and somebody's emotional nosebleed, I'll take the poetry. I'm way too old to find anything interesting about angst.

For a certain man.

Though I was sure you
would not be coming, I still
waited at the door;
The cicadas' shrill singing
echoed in my empty heart.
~M. Kei

The above poem illustrates another element of the waka tradition that was also picked up by other genres: The headnote. Headnotes were used in the Man'yoshu as well, but with the brevity of the five lines they provided essential context to help understand the poems. During the time of the Kokinshu -- and most of Japanese history -- exchanging poetry was a proper way for people to share their feelings, conduct courtship, enjoy the pleasures of life, express their condolences, etc. Poetry was not a solitary business and the Western image of the tormented poetic laboring in a garret does not apply. The poets of the Japanese courtly tradition were respectable members of society who believed that graciously expressing themselves was an essential requirement for all educated, well-bred people. A view I happen to share, but one which is admittedly not the majority view in North America.

But look at it from another angle: Hallmark didn't exist. Japanese courtiers couldn't run to the drugstore and grab a card; they had to actually write something of their own to comfort the bereaved, profess their love, or otherwise express their emotional life. They couldn't buy it pre-canned. I started writing poetry to other people for the same reason: I couldn't stand the banality of Hallmark cards.

Hint for men: If you want to get women, write poems. Keep it short and as long as it's not too awful, your ladylove will be impressed. Trust me. It works. I speak from experience.


Waka is the most important genre of Japanese poetry. Nowadays it is called 'tanka,' a change in nomenclature that will be explained later. Yes, waka/tanka is even more important than haiku! It's certainly been around longer... more than a thousand years longer. It is also the bulk of the official imperial anthologies compiled over the centuries. In order to understand waka/tanka's longevity is is necessary to explore what it was the early waka poets and editors thought it was and why it mattered.

In the early 10th century two things happened. One, the Emperor Daigo gave orders in 905 that a collection of Japanese poetry (waka -- 'Japanese songs') be compiled and that it be written with the new kana syllabary. Kana had been evolving over time, but it was given its final form at this time. Prior to this time everything Chinese was the fashion and considered superior to everything Japanese. Nonetheless, there was a strong indigenous poetry tradition already, and Daigo, wanting to elevate the Japanese language and Japanese literature in stature, commanded the compilation of the Collection of Old and New Poetry, the Kokinwakashu, or as it is more usually known, the Kokinshu. The principle editor was Ki no Tsurayuki, a fine poet himself and the author of the first work of poetics in the Japanese language.

In the Japanese preface to the Kokinshu (there was a Chinese preface too, which is ignored because it has little interest), Lord Ki described the origins of poetry and critiqued several of the most famous poets of the Man'yoshu -- a heresy, given the great prestige of the early work and its principle authors. Ki's full article can be read in English translation at:

It is worth quoting Ki at length as he defines the nature and purpose of Japanese poetry at this time. Given the immense influence of the Kokinshu right up to the present day, his definition forms an important basis for understanding Japanese poetry. Even those who reject his premises and work differently do so fully cognizant that they are rebels against orthodoxy and thus he continues to influence them even as they reject him.

"Our native poetry springs from the heart of man as its seed, producing the countless leaves of language. Multitudinous are the affairs of men in this world--what their minds think, what their eyes see, what their ears hear they must find words to express. Listening to the nightingale singing amid the blossoms of spring, or to the murmur of frogs among the marshes in autumn, we know that every living thing plays its part in the mingled music of Nature.

"Our poetry, with effortless ease, moves heaven and earth, draws sympathy from invisible demons and deities, softens the relations between men and women, and refreshes the heart of the warrior. Its origin goes back to the origins of heaven and earth, but its transmission to our time with regards to sunbright heaven began with the work of Shitateruhime and with regards to the earth, mother of metals, with the work of Susanowo no Mikoto. [The deity Susano-o is credited with being the author of the earliest Japanese poem to be recorded.--Kei]

"Thus, the heart of man came to find expression in the various modes of speech for its joy in the beauty of flowers, its wonder at the song of birds, its tender welcome of the spring mists, its mournful sympathy with the evanescence of the morning dew. As step by step, from the first movement of the foot, distant journeys are achieved in the course of time, as grain by grain high mountains are piled up from the mere dust at their base until their peaks are lost in the drifting clouds of heaven, so has the verse of our land, little by little, become rich and abundant."

If you're reading this, you must like poetry, and if you like poetry, how can you fail to be moved by Lord Ki's vision? The appeal is obvious and the 1111 poems of the Kokinshu -- all of them waka -- embody his editorial influence. Ki's admirers regard the Kokinshu as the greatest work of literature Japan has ever produced.

Unfortunately, the Kokinshu has its flaws as well. By Ki's time only the educated upper classes were able to participate in the literary life of the nation and their poetry reflects their culture, limits, taste, and biases. One of the things that made the Man'yoshu such a remarkable work is that it included poetry by common folk as well as Emperors; the songs of lonely frontier guards posted far from home are just as moving if not more so than the imperial elegies. No such lowly soldiers show up in the Kokinshu. The entire thing is in exquisitely good taste.

As an anthology it is extremely readable, Lord Ki and his team of editors (he didn't do it alone), arranged the poems by subject matter and with each topic, certain strands of logic and mood weave the poems together. A highly successful anthology, it became the mold for all other imperial anthologies to follow. Alas, the model became a straightjacket.

While the poems of the Kokinshu are the colloquial speech of the people who wrote them, they are not the colloquial speech of ordinary Japanese, and as time went by and the Japanese language evolved, the Kokinshu became more and more obscure, which required people with specialized education to be able to understand and appreciate, which in turn meant that the audience for Japanese poetry became increasingly rarified, elitist, conservative, and moribund. By the 19th century, it was petrified. A handful of waka families were engaged in making imitation Kokinshu poems that nobody but other waka families (...all six of them...) could understand. This would be the equivalent of scholars of Middle English writing imitation Chaucer stories and having that officially declared 'the one true literature of the United States.'

Nonetheless, the original works of the Kokinshu were not straightjacketed and obscure, they were lively and tasteful expressions of the people who wrote them, and many of them were extremely good. Translated into modern Japanese, they are still admired, and since poetry is so important to the Japanese people and the Kokinshu is a major work of world literature, a fair number of Japanese people make the effort to grapple with the poems in their original language.

Waka was my introduction to Japanese literature. I admired their lyricism and suppleness and still do, though I admit that they are, when looked at from a certain angle, rather 'mannered' poems. While this causes many modern readers to reject them, I ask myself, 'what is the purpose of the mannerism?'

Japan, like all nations, was afflicted with various disasters ranging from floods and hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, to epidemics and wars. The poets and editors of the Kokinshu, fed up with bad news, deliberately turned their back on such unpleasantness and excluded it from their poetry. Nowadays we often hear people lament, "Why is there only bad news on tv? Why don't they ever report the good things?" The mannerism of the Kokinshu is part idealism and part escapism, it is a deliberate rejection of the ugliness and misery of the real world and an attempt to create, at least in literature, a genteel utopia.

Impressed with the poems of the Kokinshu, I started off writing imitations of the courtly waka.

How many nights spent
lamenting with the fireflies
of Cloud Mountain,
hoping one will prove to be
an approaching lantern light?
~ M. Kei
Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal, Summer, 2006.

'Cloud Mountain' typifies the genre; the natural world is blended with human emotion. Love and nature were two major topics for the genre and continue to be major topics for modern poetry in every country, not just Japan. The poem is divided into the 'upper verse', composed of the first three lines, and a 'lower verse,' composed of the last two, with a pause at the end of the third line. This was an extremely common structure for waka, although others were used.

Full well do I know
that this transient pleasure
is like foam on the sea;
Yet even so I want it
to last a thousand years.
~ M. Kei
Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal , Summer, 2006.

This is also a typical waka, and demonstrates another technique that would become extremely common in the genre: Reference to older, more famous works of literature. In this case, Mansei's boat.

yo no naka o
nani ni tatoemu
kogiinishi fune no
ato naki ga goto
~ Sami Mansei

Our life in this world--
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.
~trans. Steven D. Carter, from Traditional Japanese Poetry , 1991.

This is one of the most famous poems in all of Japanese literature and justifiably so. It shows how the human and natural worlds can be melded for great subtlety and depth. My verse was directly inspired by it and shows several features typical of such verses. First, it demonstrates that the poet is an educated person: he knows the classics. Second, it is a pretty good poem in and of itself. Third, it is a member of a growing class of derivative works. In this we can see individual excellence sowing the seeds of destruction for the genre. Over the course of 1300 years, how many original reworkings of Mansei's poem can be made? Eventually the subject is exhausted, and if only traditional subjects are permitted, the genre decays. By the late 19th century, waka had nearly aphixiated itself.

To a Western audience that has not overdosed on Kokinshu imitations, this poem has a certain appeal. I doubt it would go over nearly as well with a Japanese audience sick to death of yet another Mansei rerun.

Origins of Japanese Poetry - Choka

There are about 400 choka, or long songs, in the 8th century collection entitled the Man'yoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves. Although it falls short of the 'ten thousand' promised, the Man'yo collection contains approximately 4400 poems, making it one of the most substantial poetry anthologies ever collected anywhere in the world. That Japan of the 8th century -- when most of the people were illiterate -- was capable of produce 4400 decent poems that people of the time actually wanted to read -- says volumes about the importance of poetry to the culture. Poetry is entrenched in Japanese culture to an extent not seen in any other culture. Consider the 700s in Europe... The Anglo-Saxons produced Beowulf, a rather violent story about a monster killing men, then getting his arm written off by a hero who procedes to kill him. Which may explain why English-speaking Americans, direct heirs of this tradition, prefer their violent movies over poetry.

But to return to choka... Choka were long, elegiac poems. Poems of 30 - 100 lines in length were quite common. Being elegies they covered the usual elegiac topics: homages to emperors, lovers, gods, natural beauty, etc. They followed the basic 5-7 form for an indefinite number of lines, then tacked on an extra line of 7. The final 5-7-7 was the 'stop sign' for Japanese poetry. Given that nobody knew how long a poem was going to last when the reciter started chanting it, the 5-7-7 ending was the signal that 'the poem is done, you can clap now.'

Given that most people weren't literate, poems had to be memorized to be shared. Needlesstosay, the typical person wasn't about to memorize 100 lines of anything. Further more, when gossiping with their friends after the fact, their friends probably didn't want to sit through the whole 100 lines, either. And so the custom of the envoi developed.

The 'envoi' is a summary verse of five lines, in the form of 5-7-5-7-7. Those already familiar with Japaniform poetry will recognize the pattern immediately, nowadays it is called 'tanka.' Choka did not always have envois, and they might have one or two envois when they did, there was no firm rule about it. The envois needed to cram the important points into five lines and as a result they tended to be more emotional and less detailed than the choka. In other words, they were short lyric poems. The good envois were good enough to stand on their own, and lo, a new genre was born, a genre which the people of the time were soon calling 'waka'. In fact, approximately 4000 of the poems in the Man'yoshu are waka, which is to say, standalone poems having no connection at all to choka.

I have written one choka, but I wrote it before I understood the choka pattern and so it ends with 5-7 instead of 5-7-7. The choka was written in honor of an actor friend who was portraying a Chinese Emperor.

The palace lanterns
burn like stars without number
as His Majesty
ascends the Eternal Throne.
The frogs murmuring
in the swamps sing out His praise
and the nightingales
rejoice amid spring blossoms.
The tumbling rivers
never cease to shout His name
as the ocean waves
spread their bounty on His shore.
The common people
give gifts of silk and saké
but the courtiers
compose poems of praise.
May His Majesty
Live a thousand years or more,
and may peace attend
His long and prosperous reign!
~M. Kei

While there are some defects of form, over all I think it is a successful poem. "His Majesty" was certainly gratified by it! It's not as long-winded as the usual elegies in praise of a Japanese Sovereign, but I like to think that had I lived at the time, it would have been considered a satisfactory work.

Origins of Japanese Poetry - Short Poems of the Man'yoshu

The Japanese people have been composing and singing poems since before they had a written language. Approximately 4400 of these poems were compiled into the Man'yoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, during the 8th century AD. They were written down with an awkward system in which Chinese symbols were adapted for phonetic use. Two centuries later the system would be streamlined and become truly useful with the establishment of hiragana and katakana writing systems.

Several kinds of poems are present in the Man'yo collection: waka, choka, sedoka, mondo, and katauta. 'Waka' means 'Japanese song,' and originally meant anything in Japanese, as opposed to 'kanshi,' poems in Chinese, which were also popular among the educated classes. However, the vast majority of poems in the Man'yoshu were five line poems (now known as tanka), and so the term came to mean this kind of poem. Approximately 4000 of the poems in the Man'yoshu are waka/tanka.

The Man'yoshu poems are built on a pattern in which lines of 5 syllables alternate with lines of 7 syllables, and end with an extra 7 syllable line. The shortest possible combination of this pattern is the 5-7-7, which is a katauta. Katauta almost never stood alone, instead they existed in pairs, for a two verse poem (written as one stanza) of 5-7-7-5-7-7. When both verses were written by one author, it was called a 'sedoka,' but an extremely common form for these poems was the 'mondo,'in which a male lover wrote the first half and the second half was the woman's response. Men back then didn't have any better luck than they do now, so the second half was often a lover's retort in which the lady expressed her skepticism. I have not written any sedoka or mondo so I cannot offer any examples here. Although there are several of these sorts of poems in the Man'yo collection, they did not catch on as a genre, and so we may leave the lovelorn Japanese suitors of the 8th century and move on to choka.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Senryu Example - serious

While humor is very much a part of senryu, serious senryu are not just important to senryu but also to haiku in general. As mentioned in previous posts, a great many senryu are published as haiku in the West, though this is rarely done in Japan. In fact, it is so common than even professional editors fail to see any distinction between the two. Yet the differences are profound.

frayed to nothingness,
the raveled string of life


~M. Kei

The verse above is not a haiku -- no seasonal reference, no formal pattern, nothing of nature in it. It makes use of a metaphor (frowned upon in haiku) and makes use of formatting to convey part of the meaning of the poem.

This verse was written after my mother died and describes exactly my experience of her dying and death. The long decline into illness, fraying her fragile frame, until at last... she died. It is a case of an event so packed with emotion that it is impossible (and unnecessary) to describe the emotion. A bald statement of the facts suffices; anyone who has ever watched a parent slowly dying needs no explanation, and for those who have not, no amount of explanation is sufficient. The mind that composed this poem was not a haiku mind.

Senryu Example - humor and parody

Senryu take their name from the poet Senryu ('river willow') one of the foremost poets and editors of the genre. Senryu are sometimes glossed as 'humorous haiku,' but they are really a different genre. In Japanese they are traditionally written as three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, but all other requirements of haiku are cast away. Senryu can be written about anything using any techniques and the human presence looms much larger. A great deal of what is published as 'haiku' in the West is actually senryu -- if it lacks a seasonal reference, if it is not a nature poem, and if it lacks the two images divided by a caesura that are the three principle elements of haiku, then it is either a failed haiku or a senryu.

Senryu is not nearly as well known in the West, probably because all short Japanese forms are lumped together under the label 'haiku,' and where senryu is known it tends to focus on humor. Regretably, this can deteriorate to the level of bumper sticker humor, which may also explain why senryu is not nearly as popular with 'real poets' as haiku is. Nonetheless, serious senryu are very much a part of the genre and have immense power of their own. Therefore, I usually prefer to say that while haiku is about nature, senryu is about human nature.

be afraid!
No Buddhists in this house!

~M. Kei

Previously published in TempsLibres (Belgium).

Buddhists are forbidden to take life, so swatting flies is definitely out of the question. Insects are a popular topic in haiku and a variety of verses sympathize with these small and humble occupants of the cosmos. This senryu is thus a parody of haiku as well as having inherent humor. And yes, parody of the more formal (critics would side hidebound and stuffy) genre of haiku has been at least as popular as haiku itself.

This is also a rare verse that straddles the borderline between haiku and senryu; the poem is about a fly and a fly is definitely part of nature. It was even published as haiku, but I regard it as senryu. The difference is very apparent in my head when I am writing them; the mindset that produces a haiku is very different from the mindset that produces a senryu. For me, haiku composes the poet, but it is the poet that composes senryu. I will not even attempt to explain what I mean by this; haiku is numinous, senryu is noumenal. Leave it at that.

Haiku Example - modern

Modern haijin (haiku poets) feel little obligation to stick with the formality of lines and syllables, but retain the insistence upon a caesura and a seasonal reference. Well written modern form haiku do not need either punctuation or capitalization because the structure of the poem is such that it is plain where the breaks occur and what kind they are. This is why so many haiku appear to have been written by people under the influence of e. e. cummings. However, Japanese has no capital letters and no punctuation marks, Japanese uses verbal symbols such as 'ka' for a question mark and 'kana' for an exclamation. Because the punctuation must be written out is another reason why English-language haiku are longer than the Japanese; English can use punctuation and capitals, thereby packing more into a sentence than the equivalent Japanese sentence. Ergo, those who strive to match the Japanese aesthetic also pare down their verses.

tattered green and white
hanging on the line

~M. Kei

In the poem above, there is no need for punctuation marks at the end of the first and second lines, the phrasing is obvious. At first glance this poem might seem to lack a reference to nature and the seasons, but it is definitely there. The words 'stars' invokes the stars in the heavens and it is only as the rest of poem is read is it realized that the stars are terrestrial ones. The haiku does not explain exactly what those stars are, but that they are hanging on the line implies a patchwork quilt. The tatters in turn tell us more about the quilt itself -- an old, well loved quilt. As for why it is hanging on the line, that too is obvious for anyone familiar with the rhythms of the country life: It's spring cleaning time. Old quilts are washed and hung to air them out at the end of a winter season. Thus the poem has an extremely strong seasonal reference and though the object is a manmade one, the freshness of the spring air pervades the poem. The long lasting and much loved quilt pairs well with the endless cycle of the seasons and the happy feeling that people get when spring finally arrives. Even the choice of the quilt's colors, green and white, invoke the sense of spring.

All this may seem terribly contrived, but it isn't. The poem also features something I regard as being a distinguishly feature of the genre of haiku, something that gives it real merit in my eyes: Reality. The scene as written actually happened. The quilt was made by my mother (now deceased) for my daughter when she was a baby. That baby is now a high school graduate. The quilt is worn and tattered from being loved to death and has been washed and hung on the line every year. This poem was written a couple of years ago but has now acquired a special poignancy; after my mother passed away at Thanksgiving of 2005 my daughter folded up the quilt and put it away to save it as a special keepsake of her grandmother.

When a poet is deeply in tune to the nuances of a lived life, poetry is the natural result.

Haiku Example - formal, traditional and modern

This haiku is composed of lines of 5 - 7- 5 syllables in the formal English-language form. It is divided into three phrases, indicated by the line breaks. It lacks a caesura so many editors would consider this not to be a haiku; however, some editors do permit the use of a single, grammatically correct sentence as a haiku. Read aloud it has no natural pauses.

the whirling snowfall
batters my weary heart with
insistent beauty

~M. Kei
Previously published in Haiku Harvest, Summer, 2006.

This poem could just as easily be written as a single line, and indeed, in Japanese, haiku are so written. It is a convention of Western languages to write them on three lines:

the whirling snowfall batters my weary heart with insistent beauty

Perhaps the reason Westerners prefer the three line form is because multi-line stanzas are so ingrained in Western traditions that it doesn't 'look like a poem' unless it is composed of multiple lines. Nothing in English tradition is as short as the Japanese haiku -- another reason why many Westerners have trouble regarding haiku as 'serious' literature. Anything so small much be easy to write, enit? Yet strict modernists would consider both versions of the poem to be excessively wordy. They would strip out all adjectives and adverbs as well as personal references, leaving:

batters the heart
with beauty
~M. Kei

While there is a certain severe beauty in micropoems, the limits of the form do not provide the flexibility I prefer. As a poet I prefer to utilize length and brevity, lyricism and objectivity, and all other approaches as I see fit. While I value the structural integrity that forms provide, forms should be guidelines, not dogma.

Haiku Example - formal, classical

Haiku - classical, formal English-- 5 - 7- 5 syllables, caesura, seasonal reference. This haiku is divided into two phrases, with the pause (caesura) coming at the end of the first line. The sound-image of pine trees soughing in the wind makes this nature poetry; the human reference is secondary to the natural phenomenon. This piece is classically formed, Japanese poems did not have titles, but they were often accompanied by 'headnotes' that gave information about the occassion of the composition of the poem, or some other information to help understand the poem in context. In addition, the poem makes reference to 'pine surf' which is an ancient Japanese phrase describing the sound of pine trees in the wind. It shows up in numerous poems and is much older than the haiku tradition. Haiku itself is a relatively recent (17th century) offshoot of older Japanese genres. (More on them later.)

Upon hearing the approach of Hurricane Isabel.

'Pine surf' they called it,
those old poets who loved storms
as much as I do.

~M. Kei

Previously published in Haiku Harvest, Summer, 2006.

kumo haruru
arashi no oto wa
matsu ni are ya
tsuki mo midori no
iro ni haetsutsu

~Saigyo (b 1118, d 1190)

the clouds blowing and
the storm roaring like surf
in the pine trees;
the moon also
a deep green

trans. M. Kei

The above poem is a 'waka,' not a haiku, but more on waka later. To me this poem evokes the greenness not just of the pine trees, but the storm as well. I too have seen the green tornado sky in one quarter of the heavens with a ragged full moon revealed by a break in the clouds. Awesome! However, that is not the conventional interpretation of the poem.

The sound of storm winds
clearing all the clouds away
is up in the pines--
where even the moonlight now
seems of a deep green hue.

trans. Steven D. Carter, from Traditional Japanese Poetry


What is haiku? For the average North American, a haiku is an exercise from elementary school in which they learned that the poem was composed of three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables, or 5-7-5. While this is the original form of haiku in Japanese, the Japanese method of writing syllables means that the content of the poem is briefer than could be contained in the same number of English syllables. Thus in English, formal haiku adheres to a format of a short line, a long line, and a short line, the whole to be spoken in a single breath. Yet this is not the Japanese practice -- Japanese haiku are written in a single line. This leads to English haiku written in one line. But Japanese haiku are also distinguished by a caesura, or pause, that connects and links two ideas, usually two images, which causes some English-language haiku to be written in two lines. Nonetheless, three lines is the most popular because the phrasing of Japanese naturally breaks into the alternating pattern of 5-7.

Various other patterns are proposed as well, while others have abandoned the idea of 'counting' syllables, lengths, words, beats, or anything else. There is general consensus among poets and scholars that 5-7-5 is NOT what defines a haiku in the first place. No, what defines haiku is that it is seasonal poetry about nature.

If you're familiar with the 'joke-ku' 'haiku error messages' and your banal elementary school 5-7-5 poems about kittens, you may be baffled to discover that these in no way qualify as 'haiku.' They are what the Japanese call 'zappai' -- or parodies, knockoffs, jokes, etc. Certainly there is a place for such things -- we all love a good joke and parody is as much an art as poetry -- but they aren't haiku.

Haiku must have some sort of reference to nature or the season in it. Period. It's a genre, you see, not a form. Other poems are written in the same form, but are not the same genre. As mentioned above, zappai shares the form, but not the content. Another popular genre using the same form is senryu. Sometimes called 'humorous haiku,' it began as the 'lighter side of life,' and has evolved into a serious genre that can treat serious subjects. The chief difference between senryu and haiku is that senryu is about human nature while haiku is about nature. There is overlap between the two and novices are often hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Further, many magazines call themselves 'haiku' magazines but publish both senryu and haiku without distinction. Some publications will even go so far as to subdivide between haiku and 'hokku' -- but this is splitting hairs to a degree that will only frustrate the novice. Haiku magazines do not publish zappai; they don't consider it to be 'real literature.' Zappai doesn't need any help getting published; the world is full of people willing to forward it to everyone they know via email.