The Haiku Debate

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As more and more haikus are scribbled into my journal, it’s entirely clear to me that my interest in the form has turned into nothing less than an obsession. Naturally, I set out to learn as much I could, which means I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject of haikus and collections of haikus.

Between backtracking to the classics and getting a sense of the modern aesthetic, my understanding of the form has changed significantly. All my life I’d been taught that haiku is essentially a rigid form: three lines with 17 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 layout.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that this is almost completely wrong!

It’s true Japanese haiku is poetry consisting of 17 beats (technically not syllables), but that beat count applies to the Japanese language which naturally falls into that rhythm. The idea of a syllable count came about when haiku migrated to the English language and it was seen as a excellent way to teach children how to count syllables.

Even more surprising is that the concept of three lines is quite the myth. Most Japanese haiku is written in a single line, which is usually vertical. Once again, the idea of three lines in the 5-7-5 layout evolved from the translation into English. While a misnomer, the format stuck until English language poets began to experiment and break out of the three line division.

At it’s core, haiku is about capturing a single moment or experience. Nature usually serves as the backdrop, but modern poets are even pushing that traditional boundary, by mixing humanity with natural elements. Modern haiku ignores syllable counts and focuses instead on clean, crisp language that hones in a small detail. The resulting poem is often far less than 17 syllables with no set line count.

Polar opposite visions of haiku naturally lead to a debate. On one side, there’s the 17 syllable, 5-7-5, 3 line format and on the other there’s the modernist approach with few restrictions other than maintaining the essence of haiku. As a poet enthralled with the idea of haiku, I find myself stuck in the middle.

The so-called traditional 5-7-5 layout has been around for a long time.  Even though the connection between this format and the original Japanese haiku is shaky at best, it’s a form that everyone knows. It’s part of the poetic psyche and allows just about anyone to be a poet, (how cool is that?).

On this side of the argument, I feel my childhood holding tight to what I’ve been taught. I like the rigidity of the 5-7-5 layout. The finite quality of it forces me to work within certain parameters and choose my words carefully, but it also pushes my creativity to go to places I never would have considered.

Most modern haiku poets have dismissed the 5-7-5 layout as passé, given it’s disconnect to the traditional Japanese form. They certainly have a point as the whole idea of 17 syllables is an invention rather than a hardcore sentiment of tradition. Hence, there’s no point in counting syllables if they are kept to a minimum.

As for line counts, modern haikus are all over the place. Some poets prefer single lines, while others will employ three. There’s no steadfast rule, so words and/or subject matter dictate how lines are constructed. For modernists, line divisions can have meaning that goes beyond form.

I like the fact that modern haiku is sparse and poignant. Like the “traditional” 5-7-5, the challenge of operating with limited syllable and line counts pushes me to be particular about my words and focus on small details. However, the complete lack of a set syllable and line count creates a sense of uncertainty that can be a little daunting. In many ways, it’s that daunting element that reminds me to keep an open mind and embrace the freedom.

The verdict: There’s something beautiful about both. I find myself dabbling in the rigid form of the 5-7-5 haiku, while also wandering into the new waters of modern haiku. Despite the fact that the majority of modern haiku writers discredit the 5-7-5 form, I believe it still has a place on the poetic stage…

Birch bark peels; white curls
summer breeze, fluttering leaves
silver branches sway

Yet, one the same page I’ll happily write two lines with 4 syllables each …

Wind scattered leaves
life’s broken pieces

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Recommended Reading:

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c.b.w. 2014

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9 thoughts on “The Haiku Debate

  1. Yes!! I loved this article on the debate about haiku, CB! This, “On this side of the argument, I feel my childhood holding tight to what I’ve been taught. I like the rigidity of the 5-7-5 layout. The finite quality of it forces me to work within certain parameters and choose my words carefully, but it also pushes my creativity to go to places I never would have considered.” is exactly how I feel about it! And also though…your beautifully crafted examples explain so much in the way of making space for less than even the prescribed three line if that’s what the muse is calling for! So, you know how all November I puzzled my words in tanka, (I think you’d love that form, too but that aside – as if you need more to research!! 😉 any way, now that the challenge is over, I’ve had a difficult time getting back into longer verse and I’ve found myself making tanka trains with stand-alone one liners between the succession of tanka…I noticed you’ve pooled a few haiku together, too…it’s all so much fun isn’t it?! 🙂 Thank you, for sharing your findings and thoughts on haiku…I appreciate it so much!

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    • I love how the challenge not only pushed me to write a poem everyday, but also how it inspired me to read and learn about the haiku form. I’m excited to continue writing haiku every day, even though the PA challenge is over. Now the challenge is exploring haiku with my voice and pushing the boundaries.

      I’ve run into the same problem – I’ve always written longer poems for my Sunday post, but I’m having a hard time working with more than three lines! The only thing that’s helping me is the fact that I’m playing with the Erasure Form that PA posted about during the challenge. I’m fascinated by it and I’m creating one or two of those every day. It’s fun and gives my muse a different place to play while working out a haiku.

      I love pooling haiku together into what I call a “double haiku.” It’s like a mini movie with a mini sequel. 😉

      p.s. I love tanka and I know I could easily get obsessed with it! Maybe during my next extended break from work …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The essence of the haiku is ‘mono no aware’, which implies that the words have to be ‘in the moment’ and ‘of the moment’, hence the brevity of the work. All that 5-7-5 does, when used, is add discipline to the mix. Discipline and spontaneity should, ideally, sit on a beautiful knife-edge.

    There are other ‘rules’ – the use of a ‘kireji’ (cutting word) for example. But at the end of the day, disregard for the ‘rules’ is no bad thing, if what disregard brings with it is perfection. Here is a piece I wrote about how haiku is written; you will notice it doesn’t mention ‘rules’:

    http://thezenspace.wordpress.com/essence/

    By the way, I am looking for submissions from new contributors for ‘the zen space’. Anyone who would like to write some short-form words for me, please on the ‘Submission’ tab and follow the… um… rules there.
    🙂

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    • Rules are made to be broken, right? 🙂

      I read something interesting regarding the “cutting word” in “Haiku in English.” Modern haiku is moving further and further away from the use of a cutting word, except in Japanese haiku. More surprising is the growing absence of a seasonal word – a long held tradition even in the absence of the 5-7-5 format. I love how the form continues to evolve!

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  3. I can’t go on about how much I enjoyed this post. I love haiku, but find myself not always writing it because I don’t ‘feel’ like I am getting to the heart of it. I feel inferior, yet your post makes me realize that I could probably dabble in this more. I like that you cite Basho as a source, and I wonder if you have ever read Liza Dalby’s East Wind Melts The Ice? She is an anthropologist that has a significant impact in the Japanese culture. She has cited Basho frequently and I though you might like it.
    Now I feel I need to read up more on haikus and push myself a bit more. Thank you for the inspiration and oh, also for mentioning that original haiku was all in one line. I’ve never heard anyone talk about that before, though Ms. Dalby is always showing the haikus that way. 🙂

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    • I’ll definitely take a look at Dalby’s book. Thanks for recommending it! 🙂

      I’m so glad you’ve found some inspiration. Poetry is such a beautiful thing because there so much room within it to experiment. Have fun!

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  4. I had no idea that the Anglicized haiku is so different than the original Japanese form. I’m with you. Both approaches are great, the one because it’s such a longstanding tradition here and the other because it embraces the ideals of traditional Japanese haikus. I feel inspired to give the more traditional Japanese ones a try!

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