October 3 (Changing winds): What should haiku look like?

changing winds — your frozen apples
slush beneath my feet


I’m trying to decide why this seems so satisfying to me as two lines, rather than three or one, both of which I tried and rejected. And why I like it broken up after “apples” instead of “winds,” or for that matter “slush.”

I tend to be really inarticulate about these things and to have instinctive preferences rather than intellectualized ones. Which worries me sometimes, maybe because I irrationally think that if I could figure out some systematic theory of poetics to justify my seemingly random choices, haiku writing would become a simple matter of following a foolproof poetic recipe and I would begin constantly spouting brilliant ku and writing lengthy, brilliant essays about why they were so brilliant and all the world would admire me and give me some kind of catchy haiku-poet nickname, like Banana Leaf. (Which in case you didn’t know, is what Basho means — apparently there was a banana tree in front of his house. All I have in front of mine, in case you are already trying to come up with a good nickname, is a lilac bush in desperate need of pruning and a bunch of flower beds that I absolutely never weed because I can never figure out which things are weeds and which things are flowers, so basically at this point the weeds have won and the beds are weed beds, and I might as well start over from scratch and pull everything out and plant new flowers.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about this line thing a bit lately, in my inarticulate non-thinking kind of thinking way, if only because of an interesting passage in The Haiku Apprentice. Abigail Freedman is having a conversation with her Japanese haiku master, Momoko, about haiku structure. Momoko starts out by explaining the conventional structure of Japanese haiku, good old seventeen syllables, three sections of 5-7-5 — then acknowledges that even in Japanese not everyone thinks this structure is an essential requirement of haiku:

“Writing haiku where the first phrase is six sounds, or ji-amari, it turned out, was common. Some haiku broke more naturally into two phrases, of seven and ten or ten and seven sounds. These were referred to as ‘two phrases, one haiku.’ Other haiku read best as a single phrase, not broken up at all. These were called ‘one phrase, one haiku.’ ”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 86)

I would have loved to see more discussion of this, or some examples, just so I could get a grasp on what to the Japanese mind constitutes a “natural” two-line or one-line ku. Not that it necessarily matters. I’m writing in English, I don’t know Japanese; even if every single Japanese haiku poet insisted that every haiku had to break naturally into three sections or it wasn’t a haiku, it wouldn’t mean that my English-language haiku had to follow their dictates.

Freedman says,

“I asked Momoko whether I ought to use a seventeen-syllable structure in haiku in English. She replied almost with indifference, Oh, in other languages, other rhythmic patterns might be more appropriate. … I said I had read haiku in English that were written all in one line, and other haiku written in two lines. She nodded and … simply stated, You should ask an English-language linguist or poet what form is best in English. The important point is to seek a natural rhythm in your language, and work your haiku from there.”

(Abigail Freedman, The Haiku Apprentice, p. 87)

To seek a natural rhythm in your language. This sounds so simple and sensible, but what is natural in English? The Japanese seem to have a very clear idea of what kinds of sound patterns are natural in their language — they’ve been writing poetry broken into sections of five and seven syllables for well over a thousand years now and they seem very happy with it.

I don’t know much about modern poetry trends in Japanese, if there is a strong movement like the prevailing English movement of free verse that doesn’t follow any particular prescribed pattern of rhythm or rhyme. Even if there is one, still, there is such a strong tradition of syllabic poetry in Japanese that the free-verse poets must have a clear idea of what it is they are not doing, which I sometimes think is what many English-language free verse poets are lacking. Are we not-writing iambic pentameter, which did dominate English poetry for some centuries and which some people think more closely approximates natural English speech rhythms than other kinds of verse? Are we not-writing sprung rhythm? Are we not-writing sing-songy rhyming couplets of the greeting-card variety?

And are haiku poets in English closer to free-verse poets, or to poets like Robert Frost who considered the constraints of meter vital to the creation of effective poetry? What is it we’re doing, exactly, when we write a haiku? If we’re not slavishly counting syllables — and most of us don’t think we are — and we’re not rhyming, and we’re not muttering “da-dum, da-dum” under our breaths, what the heck are we doing? Just kind of looking at what we write uncertainly, and going, “Well, that sounds okay to me”?

Some people get all antsy about having the middle line longer than the other two, or about having a certain number of beats in each line. I think there’s value in experimenting with doing those things and seeing if you can make them work and when. And maybe, as some people think, you should only call what you write a haiku when it conforms to some such rule or expectation; if all you’re doing is writing a nice little poem of no particular form, maybe it’s just a “micropoem” and you can forget about the Japanese entirely, because what do they have to do with anything?

I do think it’s possible that English-language haiku may never come fully into its own as a poetic form, because it is just too borrowed and we are too uncertain about what we’re doing with it to make it entirely ours. I go back and forth between thinking that we should just forget about the Japanese when we’re writing haiku, and thinking that we should look to them more — not for considerations of form, but for a certain kind of confidence in the possibilities of haiku for emotional and artistic expression, which I think that English haiku poets who worry excessively about form can be lacking.

I read so many haiku that seem so “haiku-ish,” so perfectly reflective of the theoretical haiku form and structure, that they are actually completely devoid of emotional resonance. I don’t believe them. I don’t care about them. And yes, I place most of my own ku in this category. (I mean, not that they’re technically perfect, but that I don’t believe them.) I need to delve down deeper and be less afraid of somehow “breaking” my haiku or not “doing it right.” What difference does it make if I do it right, if “it” isn’t worth doing in the first place? I think the Japanese are so comfortable with the form of haiku, which is so natural to them, that they are able to focus on the content, and it ends up being so much richer and riskier than ours.

So that’s where I’m trying to go now — in the direction of more risk. It’s possible that this is not remotely apparent from the blog. 🙂 That’s okay. It’s just a blog, I’m just learning, they’re just words. (That’s my mantra for the month: repeat as needed.)

6 thoughts on “October 3 (Changing winds): What should haiku look like?

  1. Great post, Mel – I love the idea of more risk in haiku.

    It reminds me of writers like (let me try a link to some translations http://www.geocities.jp/travelingforms/kindai.html#hakusen ) Watanabe Hakusen, who wrote around WWII and included social commentary in his haiku, and was arrested by Secret Police in 1940.

    I’ve discovered something that makes my own haiku seem troubling – that writing renku changes the way you write haiku (or maybe only look at them) but I often find it hard to write stand alone haiku – I feel like I need the verses of friends around me (in a renku) to unlock whatever is good in my haiku. Odd huh?

    • Yeah … I have definitely been influenced by the gendai haiku movement (which Watanabe was part of) — or maybe it would be more appropriate to say that I admire the gendai haiku movement, I am not sure there are actually any discernible traces of gendai in my work. 🙂 It’s interesting that as I write and read, I get a clearer and clearer picture of what kind of ku I would like to be writing (though I’m not entirely sure how clearly I can describe them), but I don’t know if I’m actually any better at writing that kind of ku. 🙂 I’m hoping that’s the next step …

      Interesting that you find it easier to write renku verses than stand-alone ku … I know what you mean in a way, since I really enjoy writing haiku sequences and narrative poems that consist of numerous ku strung together to tell a story. I don’t think it’s anything really to be worried about, just a stylistic/personal preference — some people write one way and some another. You have such a great intuitive understanding of link and shift, I think — why shouldn’t you capitalize on that and concentrate on renku if you find it more natural and pleasant than individual haiku?

      I sometimes wonder if haiku are really where I will end up putting most of my literary energy or if I am using them as a stepping stone to longer forms of verse — training wheels, if you will. 🙂 But for now I’m just enjoying the ride and not worrying about it too much …

  2. Of course, I should have know that you’d know him – I remember your post on gendai! 🙂

    Thanks, Mel! I feel like such an utter beginner at renku, so it’s very nice to hear you say that. I think you’re right about concentrating on renku, it may be happening naturally, I’m producing less and less haiku as the years pass by, but as you said, if I’m enjoying renku more, then good!

    Aren’t they amazing training wheels though – working with haiku taught me to strive for that famous ‘economy of words’ in all my writing, makes a big difference to the way I edit.

    • I wish I could say that I thought writing haiku had made my other writing less verbose (that was one of my goals when I started writing it), but I seem to rattle on as much as ever. 🙂

  3. I think writing haiku is a process that no-one perfects in their lifetime, the important thing is to work at it, experiment, learn about it and share the results. One thing I just read was that the middle line can be longer by having a pause in it, so there may be only two syllables spoken in that line but there can then by 5 silent syllables in it too (or enough to make that line longer than the other two lines, which don’t need to be 5 syllables). I find it constantly fascinating!

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