What is a haiku?
As far as I can see it’s a tiny nugget of enlightenment in the form of two (written) images juxtaposed in such a way as to form a meaningful connection. According to the Academy of American poets: the traditional Japanese haiku focuses on an association between images at a specific moment in time. Form wise it consists of a single line of 17 on, broken into 3 phrases of 5, 7, and 5, that contains a kireji and a kigo.
The Japanese on is a unit of sound, and though they’re not the same the nearest thing we have is the syllable. And as we have to organise our haiku somehow it’s syllables we use, and generally, but not always, stick to the number 17, and the 5, 7, 5 format. We usually separate the phrases into three lines, but, again, not always: it’s a rare poet who rigidly sticks to a rule at the expense of meaning.
A kireji is a word that acts rather like the volta in a sonnet. It effects a turn, or change of tone, and connects, and adds meaning to, the two separate images. Again, we don’t have direct equivalents in English, so we tend to use punctuation and/or line breaks to do this job.
Finally, A kigo is a word that refers to something specific about a season. For example: the smell after a late spring shower. The Japanese have a whole stash of these, but as we don’t English language poets have found ways round this element of the haiku without eradicating its essential haikuness.
For a little clarification:
Here’s more from the Academy of American Poets:
Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a “season word,” or kigo, specified the time of year.
As the form has evolved, many of these rules—including the 5/7/5 practice—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.
Rather than tangling us up with more elaborate explanations, it’s probably best to show some haiku so you can see for yourself how they work. Look out for the two images, the ‘turn,’ and the sense of illumination. It seems only fair to start with a Japanese one, so this is by Matsu Bashö, and, according to Wikipedia where I took this from, is the best known Japanese haiku:
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
This one’s by Ezra Pound called ‘In a Station of the Metro':
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here’s one by Seamus Heaney:
but I face the ice this year
with my father’s stick.
And this is by Dag Hammarskjöld:
The boy in the forest
Throws off this best Sunday suit
And plays naked**
Poetry Clubbers have been asked to write as many haiku as they can for our next meeting. As it would seem wrong to ask this of them and not do any myself I’ve been stabbing away at it when time allows. It ain’t easy, but here’s one inspired by the photo above:
Pulled across beach sand
winter waves crash and rise;
boy, kite, wind: engage.
For those of you interested in the solutions to the Anglo Saxon riddles of the last post they are: 9: a cuckoo, and 30: a beam of wood
*Translating literature is difficult enough, translating poetry is virtually impossible, so here are another 30 English translations of Basho's haiku. **Found in The New Yorker.