Culture Corner – The Haiku


furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water
– Matsuo Basho, 1686

Haiku are a very short form of poetry. Originally they were the opening stanza of a longer collaborative poem, written by two or more people, called renga, and they were called hokku. In the seventeenth century, however, the haiku acquired a life of its own at the hands of haiku masters like Matsuo Basho. Its modern name, haiku, was given to it by Masaoka Shiki in the late 1800’s.

A Japanese haiku has 17 on, roughly corresponding to syllables, in a pattern of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 on. The haiku should contain a seasonal word (kigo), and also a ‘cutting word’ (kireji) which separates the different images in the poem. English haiku generally follow the same pattern, but are sometimes shorter than their Japanese cousins.

Jane Reichhold, on her informative website devoted to haiku, has this to say regarding current haiku fashion: “First and foremost, and certainly the guideline which I have consciously or unconsciously followed the longest, is the one that a haiku must be divided into two parts. This is the positive side of the rule that haiku should not be a run-on sentence. There needs to be a syntactical break dividing the ku into two parts. From the Japanese language examples this meant that one line (5 onji) was separated from the rest by either grammar or punctuation (in the Japanese an accepted sound-word – kireji – was as if we said or wrote out “dash” or “comma”).”

Reichhold is also quick to say that, although haiku has an ‘astounding’ number of rules, you can pick and choose which rules you will follow. In fact, you have to, since some rules contradict each other. Even Basho was known to break the rules of haiku when it suited him. Techniques such as comparison, contrast, association, riddles, metaphor (a hotly-contested technique, one not permitted by haiku purists), simile and double entendres and word-plays are all used in haiku.

This year, I took up the hobby of writing haiku in English. It was completely on a whim, I must confess. On Facebook, all of my status updates this year have been in haiku. At the time of this writing, mid-July, I have written over 325 haiku – almost two a day. I started with a vague memory of grade nine English class, where we all scrawled atrocious teen-aged poetry. I also turned to my long-suffering friend, whose only claim to haiku expertise stems from the fact that he is Japanese. It was he who told me about renga, and carefully separated real haiku, with its seasonal references and ‘cutting words,’ from senryu, which tend to be humorous or cynical. Senryū do not include cutting words and do not generally include seasonal words.

My friend’s most important advice though, was this: “Haiku should feel like a breeze.” Hinting more than showing, a haiku is like a tiny, 17-syllable magic act. “A breeze, and feeling.” And I find myself waiting days before that feeling hits, or incubating a haiku that takes a while to come. I can imagine those long-ago Japanese courtiers, scholars and wandering poets alike, entertaining themselves with the challenge of squeezing a wealth of feeling into a few wisps of words.

AJET also hosts a yearly haiku contest. This fall, in our new online magazine, AJET Connect, we’ll publish haikus and photos by JETs every month. In the spring, we’ll choose the best haiku from the submissions for the haiku contest, so I encourage you to start counting out the words and composing!

I will be writing a full year of my life in little poems, some of which are haiku, some of which are senryu, and some of which are simply bad. AJET also hosts a yearly haiku contest in the spring, so I encourage you to start counting out the words and composing!

I’ll finish by sharing some of my favourite haiku from the last few months. I hope you enjoy them!

Sarah Jane Blenkhorn

10. gently falling snow

 did violence to the trees

 weight on weight on weight

27. a boy in the class

 sees a map of Canada

 dreams of northern lights 01.21

46. aikido tonight

 dreaming of throwing sensei

 while my poor toes freeze 02.02

70. wrapped in fleecy clouds

 dreaming volcanic dreams

 Daisen sleeps 02.24

98. please don’t worry, Mum

 the earthquake was far away

 I’m perfectly safe 03.11

110. private moments caught

 they cry, trying not to cry

 throats rough with tears 03.14

162. Kyoto-bound, leaving

 Senjuin’s cherry tree to

 flower without me 04.02

206. through rain-splashed windows

 the lake mimics an ocean

 a deep mystery 04.28

227. rain carries the sound

 drumming from the hilltop shrine

 Shinto heartbeats 05.09

265. a kind of blue day

 Miles Davis, soft and slow

 jazz swirling in rain 05.29

270. fortune, left behind

 tied to a tree near the shrine

 “give up on true love” 06.05

296. bare feet, knees drawn up

 quiet Japanese rainfall

 peace in the evening 06.22

319. you are ever young

 our shared days bright in my mind

 your laugh in my thoughts :-) 07.10

322. rainy season’s end

 heat, blue skies, salty sweat, sun

 oh, the beach, the beach! 07.11