Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry consisting of seventeen “syllables” (“on” or morae) contained in three phrases (three lines in English). The first line has five syllables; the second has seven; the third line has five. However, to write a poem with only those characteristics is not enough to have written a traditional haiku.
Japanese haiku are about nature and each has a reference to a season, called a kigo, alerting the reader to the season of the year that is the subject of the haiku. In addition, a turn or cutting sets off a juxtaposition of ideas, separating one from the other. Another trademark of traditional haiku is the “haiku moment”, stressing a moment in the present. Thus, present tense verbs are used.
Modern Japanese haiku do not necessarily have all the characteristics of traditional haiku. Free-form haiku, for example, may omit the kigo. Also, some Japanese poets today write their haiku on subjects other than nature.
English language haiku differ, by necessity, even more from traditional Japanese haiku. English syllables are not the same as “on” or morae. Since syllables in English are longer, some suggest that 3-5-3 is a better English language equivalent than 5-7-5. Others even write haiku of 2-3-2.
One of the greatest writers of haiku was Matsuo Basho, who was born about 1644 and died in 1694. The following is one of his haiku, “A Caterpillar”, translated by Robert Hass.
this deep in fall–
still not a butterfly.
The translator chose not to stay with the 5-7-5 format. Notice that fall is mentioned, the kigo of the haiku. The haiku speaks of a present moment in time about a caterpillar that is still a caterpillar into fall, the wrong season. The cutting occurs at the end of the second line, marked in this English version by the hyphen. The two ideas, caterpillar and butterfly, are thus separated.
Haiku has become a popular form of poetry, perhaps because of its simplicity and brevity. In the classroom, for example, a haiku writing assignment won’t use as much class time as longer poems. And, as haiku has grown in popularity, its form and subjects have become more diverse, straying from traditional Japanese haiku. Often, just as in the movie, something is “Lost in Translation”.
(1) William Harmon and Hugh Holman, “A Handbook to Literature” (Prentice
Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1996).
(2) http://www.brooksbookshaiku.com/batz/whatishaiku.html, Lee Gurga,
“Fresh Scent” (Brooks Books, 1998)
© Dennis Lange and thebardonthehill.wordpress.com, 2011.