Wednesday, May 10, 2006


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.

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