Writer’s Corner: Haiku

By Helen McCarthy

The simple definition is that haiku is a poem of 3 lines consisting of 5-7-5 syllable written in plain language capturing a moment, movement in nature. But beneath this simplicity is a rich history and complex meaning.

The haiku can trace its origins to 7th century Japan. Poetry and lyrical songs make up the fabric of the Japanese culture. Royal courts had poets and song writers as part of their entourage with the renga being a popular form of poetry. This was a long poem in which many poets met together and added verses.

The gathering of poets writing a renga was held in a sacred place like a temple. At the beginning of the poem, the poets thanked their host, honored the place they were gathered and paid homage to the spirits within. The poets would each contribute a verse or verses to the renga. Part of the renga included the hokku which was considered the most important verse or to put it in contemporary terms, the “meat” of the poem.

When parlor games became popular among the people, the renga was part this entertainment. However, the classical traditions were eventually ignored and the renga was cartoonish and often bawdy.

Then in the 17 the century Japanese Master Matsunaga Teitaku wanted the renga to ruturn to its classical roots and taught his students in the old traditions. Among those students was Matsuo Basho who would become the foremost haiku poet. He took the hokku again, an important part of the renga, and turned it into the shorter form which became known as the haiku. Following Basho would come renown poets Yosa Buson in the 18th century and and Kobayashi Issa from the 19th century.

Interestingly, the haiku did not become well known in the United States until the 1950’s. Some well-known writers however, were familiar with it such as Alan Ginsberg and Carl Sandberg. Eventually the haiku influenced the Beat Poets.

Today, the haiku is well known with worldwide haiku societies and even haiku twitters where you can receive daily haikus.

There’s a company in Seattle called Haiku that sells haiku handbags which they describe as… “beautiful handbags that function poetically and reflect our need for balance and well-being.” If they are talking about how their product reflects the poetry of haiku, they have it all wrong. Well-being is not what the haiku is about.

What follows are haiku basics in which you will see that the Haiku is more complex than a feel good feeling. The moment in Nature that the poet describes may create a beautiful scene for the reader yet it also has meaning beyond the imagery.

* * *

Haiku Basics

It’s a poem of 3 lines with a 5-7-5 scheme. The first line has 5 syllables, the second line 7 syllables, and the last line 5 syllables.

The haiku uses simple language capturing a moment, movement, or full experience in Nature.

It is attentive to time, place and season.

With the seasons there is a sense of change, the transience of life and exposure to the elements (this especially reflected when writing of snow)

The beginning of traditional haiku’s first level is its location in Nature.

The next is the Buddhist reflection on Nature. In the Buddhist religion there is no creator-being. In Buddhist cosmetology there is no higher meaning to which Nature refers.

This the Buddhist view of Nature which is reflected in the haiku:

  • Nature is transient
  • Nature is contingent
  • There is suffering

When writing a haiku poem, imagine you are holding a camera and capturing a moment in time which is what we do when we take pictures—capture a moment.Your observation is that moment and your words are the “click” expressing that moment.

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