What Is a Haiku—And What Isn’t

        by John J. Dunphy
 
This essay was first published in the 3 July 2008 online edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I recommend it because of its clear exploration of the problems of assuming that haiku in English should consist of 5-7-5 syllables. For more details on other strategies for writing haiku in English, please see “Becoming a Haiku Poet.” For more about John J. Dunphy, please visit his website.

 

 

to write a haiku

there is a set formula

one has to follow

 

My dear Aunt Minnie

loves to bake banana pies

for her family

 

sitting on my porch

I contemplate the full moon

in my wisdom quest

 

What do these three poems have in common? Some erudite readers who didn’t sleep through high school English will engage in a bit of syllable counting and proclaim, “They’re all haiku! The first line of each poem contains five syllables, the second line has seven syllables and the third line contains five syllables, for a grand total of just seventeen syllables. That’s the formula for writing haiku, which is a Japanese type of poetry.”

        Well, I’ve got news for you, friends. As far as your high school introduction to haiku was concerned, you would have been better off catching a few Z’s like some of your classmates. Your teacher, regardless of his/her grasp of Shakespeare and Chaucer, didn’t know beans about haiku.

        “Haiku” example 1, cited above, fails on two counts: (a) It’s wrong about haiku having a set formula one has to follow and (b) the poem itself, despite the 5-7-5 syllable count, isn’t even a haiku. While many early English-language haiku poets indeed wrote in the 5-7-5 style, modern haiku poets have pretty much discarded that format. We believe that it tends to make a haiku too wordy and stilted-sounding. A genuine haiku is characterized by a freshness and spontaneity that simply can’t be conveyed by strait-jacketing its expression.

        A declarative sentence that has been chopped into the 5-7-5 format, such as example 2, is not a haiku! Does a rambunctious fan who jumps into the playing field at Busch Stadium automatically become a Cardinal? Of course not—no more than a three-line sentence written
5-7-5 automatically qualifies as a haiku. Pseudo-mysticism, as embodied in example 3, doesn’t make the cut either. A haiku should not sound like a line of dialogue from the old Kung Fu TV series.

        Real haiku nonetheless are written in three lines and traditionally deal with nature.

 

the blood-red dawn

duck hunters crouch

behind a blind

 

cemetery

wind sweeps a floral wreath

into the paupers’ section

 

dawn

a beachball

goes out with the tide

 

VA hospital

a tree in the courtyard

scarred by lightning

 

        A senryu is a three-line poem that is similar to a haiku. Senryu deals with the foibles of human nature in a humorous or satirical manner.

 

wet footprints

in a U-turn

on the diving board

 

school restroom

the English teacher corrects

the misspelled graffiti

 

class reunion

the ex-football team captain’s date

handsome in his tux

 

New Year’s Day

my champagne glass bubbling

with Alka-Seltzer

 

        Please note that the preceding senryu are written in three lines, yet there’s nary a 5-7-5 format in sight. But check out the following poems.

 

IRS audit

examiner keeps chuckling

without looking up

 

emergency room

parents tell their child to say

he fell down the stairs

 

during the campaign

even his sign in my yard

leaning to the right

 

her suicide note

she checks the dictionary

for correct spelling

 

        There it is—that classical 5-7-5 style that I’ve been telling you to erase from your memory banks. And all four were published in reputable English-language haiku journals, no less. So what’s going on here?

        It is permissible to write a 5-7-5 haiku or senryu, as long as the spontaneity of the poem isn’t compromised. Does the poem really work best when written that way? Then write it that way.

        I urge you to check out the web site of the Haiku Society of America to learn more about haiku. Frogpond, the official journal of the Haiku Society of America, and Modern Haiku, the oldest English-language haiku journal in continuous existence, should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in haiku. A plethora of other haiku periodicals exist that also merit perusal. Get to know real haiku by subscribing to journals that publish the stuff.

        Oh, one last thing. If you just know that the plural of haiku is haiku—not haikus—that alone will put you literary light-years ahead of the general public.

 

Note: All poems in this essay were written by the author and have been published in various haiku journals . . . except the three examples of pseudo-haiku, of course. If you’ve seen “poems” like those in print, you can rest assured that the periodical’s editor knew as much about haiku as Ed Wood knew about film-making.