The haiku is a quintessentially Japanese verse form, and phenomenally popular in Japan. There are estimated to be a million Japanese who write haiku. The word "hai" means unusual, and "ku" means lines, verse or stanza.
There are differing opinions about what an English-language haiku ought to be, and often strong disagreements about the matter. There are those who question whether there is any point in trying to write haiku in English.
The simplest definition is that it is a three-line poem with syllable counts of 5, 7, 5, no rhyme and no particular metre. For example:
Real men will eat quiche
If it can be smothered with
Some people would consider this a well-formed, acceptable haiku - if not particularly poetic or profound! A haiku enthusiast, though, would complain that it lacked a reference to the seasons of the year, which is considered obligatory in Japan. It also makes its point explicitly, leaving the reader with no work to do. The reader is not supposed to be spoon-fed.
OK, let's try again:
At balletic white crystals.
A lorry jackknifes.
Better, but not quite there. The reference to winter is clear enough, and the reader is left to reflect about the pros and cons of snow without being drawn to any particular conclusion. But a haiku isn't supposed to have a title, and a purist might not be comfortable with the references to the Greek Muse of dancing, or to such modern technology as road transport. If he had got out of the bed the wrong side this morning, he might also complain that each line was a syllable too long, because in Japanese a long vowel counts as two syllables. (What the Japanese are counting are not precisely syllables, but onji.)
Many people deduce from such considerations that the whole business of syllable-counting - and even line-counting - is a waste of time when you're writing your haiku in English. Such people would (I think) be perfectly happy with:
among the butterflies
This last example may be more in the proper haiku spirit than either of the earlier two, despite its cavalier disregard of the syllable count.
Although each haiku is usually reckoned to be a poem in its own right, linked sequences of haiku are often written. Such a sequence is called a haikai (short for "haikai no renga").
Prose that breaks off for a haiku every now and then is called haibun.
An illustrated haiku is known as a haiga. Traditionally this would involve brush art work coupled with a haiku poem done in brush calligraphy.
A senryu has the same syllable count as a haiku, but does not require a reference to the seasons; rather it deals with human nature, and is more likely to be funny. The dividing lines between haiku and senryu can easily become blurred. In English, to make the distinction at all might be considered a little pretentious - but the quiche-eating example above could well be considered a senryu.
The word hokku is just a synonym for haiku.
A slightly longer Japanese verse form is the tanka. I may have something to say about the tanka when I have tried my hand at writing some. Other Japanese forms such as the mondo, sedoka, choka, dodoitsu and naga-uta may have to wait a bit longer.
Japanese forms are closely related to Chinese forms, which also have a long tradition. There's an excellent introduction to Chinese poetry available on the web - see poetry links.
If you like the shortness of the haiku but prefer a bit more structure, try the than-bauk or the pathya vat.
The Classic Tradition of Haiku (ed. Bowers) is an excellent anthology. Being a "Dover Thrift Edition" it is also very reasonably priced, so strongly recommended. For modern haiku, try the acorn book of contemporary haiku (ed. Stryk and Bailey)
There are several magazines devoted entirely to haiku, some of them beautifully produced (and correspondingly expensive). HQ Poetry Magazine publishes other poetry too, but still has a fair proportion of haiku (variously defined), such as this one, and these, and these; plus the occasional haikai such as this.
If you get hooked on haiku, there's a British Haiku Society.
For light entertainment, you can easily find on the Web a collection of truly inspired haiku error messages - a long way from the classic tradition, but very funny. Mathematicians may also appreciate the haiku proof in the (highly recommended) XKCD web comic.
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© Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 06/06/2004