Skip to content

news (7.2.09)

721px-kastenbein_setting_machine Some news items:

DailyHaiga (an edited journal of contemporary and traditional haiga) is a new online gallery, now up here, that will be publishing a new haiga daily. DailyHaiga‘s Editor is Linda M. Pilarski and its Associate Editors are Patrick M. Pilarski (Poetry) and Nicole Pakan (Artwork).

For those not familiar with the form, haiga is the art of combining a haiku poem (or other short poem) and an illustration of some kind. Fused into one, the two create a new, independent work of art.

Some other valuable sources on haiga for those interested:

Looking and Seeing: How Haiga Works by Jim Kacian
Reeds: Contemporary Haiga
World Haiku Association (haiga contests)
— Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiku/haiga blog See Haiku Here

Periplum’s own David G. Lanoue was recently interviewed for NHK while visiting Japan for the publication of his book, Haiku Guy, into Japanese: Part I, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

I found it interesting to know that David, like myself, first discovered haiku through the work of J.D. Salinger. For him, it was a hokku/haiku by Issa mentioned inside Franny and Zooey that got him going:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

For me it was two haikai/haiku by Bashō inside “Teddy,” the last story in Salinger’s Nine Stories:

Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die

Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve

David also repeats part of an interesting, and open, definition of haiku given by The Haiku Foundation’s founder, Jim Kacian: A haiku is, “as long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be.”

Episode 3 (Senryū, Son of Haiku) of Haiku Chronicles is now up here.

Over on The Huffington Post, Susanna Speier has created an ongoing section for what she calls Politiku. Speier writes that, “Politiku is my attempt to capture the ever morphing emotional response to the political landscape. . . Politiku replaces the traditional Kigo with a contemporary political reference.”

Though haiku have often tackled political subjects through the ages, both head-on as well as metaphorically, the aim and flavor of Speier’s Politiku seem closer to senryū and zappai. Only submissions written in 5-7-5, however, are accepted for consideration (and only selected ones are published on THP). This bow to “tradition” is a shame since it excludes many poets who compose haiku and short poetry who don’t prefer to do so by counting with their fingers. So, 5-7-5ers, put on your padding gear and helmets and dive in! Thus far, there have been calls for Politiku submissions concerning the topics of: Where Is My/Their Vote?, Father’s Day, Empathy, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, and The Obama Administration’s First 100 Days.

Click here to see the archived Politiku posts.

For submission guidlines, click here, or here for the same and the latest topics.

Finally, a winner has been selected from among the 84 submissions sent in for naming the new (and next) troutswirl section, to be headed by Peter Yovu. The winner will be announced on July 4th. Thanks to everyone who sent in their ideas!

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Thanks for re-framing the macro context, Merrill. Unlike haiku, Politiku is a hybrid genre. While it adapts the structure of traditional haiku (thus, the name and the concept) and circulates it through blogs and twitter as concise political commentary. Much as I love working with poets and writers, the Apollo 11 Politiku I posted on Huffpo yesterday, was selected based on the writer’s relationship to the topic: the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. I therefore sought out individuals with NASA affiliations. As might be expected, the posts reflected a variety of literary skills and talent. Some even deviated from 5-7-5 and I let that go, in deference to the expertise they brought to the table as well as time constraints. (Most of the publishers and publicists who helped me pull things together were astonished the contributors cooperated with the enthusiasm that they did). The outcome, I like to think, is as much historiography as it is poetry:

  2. Christopher, Perhaps the question is whether or not the structure is essential to poetry or in this case haiku…or ipso jure…is the poem/haiku a thing in itself…the fact. I guess that’s what I was getting at. Once you can identify the fact, the law of the thing itself, you can then determine if it is poetry or propoganda or if it requires certain structures or not. What I was getting at was that I have always felt that a poem has its own laws.
    I may not write in 5/7/5 and may find it deadening to haiku, but that is my poetry…others may require that structure to determine what the law of their poetry is and find it essential to writing haiku. The decision then comes whether or not formula becomes another class of poetry or not?
    And when you come to a type of poetry that we are dealing with here, is it not yet another form of poetry… Is the motive, is the fact of a poem fine art or is it propaganda or for that matter prose poetry? We have these designations to deal with.

  3. In response to:

    “Far as I can tell, 5-7-5 resonates with English Language writers and readers alike and I have yet to encounter a situation in which it limiting the overall rigor or complexity any more than, say, adhering to the iambs of a Shakespearean sonnet would. ”

    and echoing Allan Burns’ and Merrill Ann Gonzales’ above comments:

    As an English language writer and reader, I don’t really feel any great resonance with 5,7,5 structure. Occasionally a good haiku is written in English with that structure but, by and large, by chance.

    I think Hasegawa Kai said it best in Richard Gilbert’s interview of him: 5,7,5 is the heartbeat of the language… (or words to that effect).

    5,7,5 is simply a natural, rhythmic flow which the Japanese language falls into. Sometimes Japanese haiku are not written in 5,7,5 – whenever it suits the individual poem and flow is not compromised.

    5,7,5 is not a natural rhythm for the English language, it is not its heartbeat. Perhaps the English language may have a slightly broader array of natural rhythms as the sound units vary so much in length (whereas all the Japanese sound units are of identical duration as far as I am aware).

    It seems as though consciously trying to write an English haiku with 5,7,5 structure is actually changing the fundamental type of poem being written – one which has a greater emphasis on manipulating language for its own sake rather than in order to enhance the poetic power of the creation.

    The gist is that while an English language haiku can occasionally work in the 5,7,5 structure, it generally won’t because the languages of Japanese and English are too different, and the reasons for having a 5,7,5 structure in Japanese actually dictate a different structural outcome in English.

  4. Some of these arguments attempt to shed a bit of light on a situation in all poetry – when does fine art become propaganda? and can poetry or haiku hold them both? Perhaps if we get back to the motivation behind each composition, we might be able to determine which is which and where we want to be. My own muse would divorce me if I employed a formula or tried to mess around with the meter or length of the lines. Not that that makes me any better a poet than anyone else, but possibly a happier one?

  5. It’s just about impossible to translate a Japanese haiku into 5-7-5 syllabic form in English and not pad it out.

    Take Eli Siegel’s trans of Basho’s most famous haiku:

    Pond, there, still and old!
    A frog has jumped from the shore.
    The splash can be heard.

    It adds a lot of stuff not in the original (“there”, “still”, “shore”, present perfect tense instead of simple present, etc.) just to squeeze out those syllables.

    Harold Henderson provides the following literal word-by-word translation of the original:

    Old-pond frog jump-in water-sound

    That’s all the information in the original poem in eight English syllables although it’s not intended to be an idiomatic rendering into English. A good modern translation is Jane Reichhold’s

    old pond
    a frog jumps into
    the sound of water

    Which comes out to 12 syllables and is entirely faithful to the meaning of the original.

    Also note that I never mentioned Elizabeth Bishop in this discussion; but I did cite one imagistic haiku-inspired poem by Amy Lowell.

    I suggest consulting a readily available book like The Essential Haiku (The Ecco Press, 1994, ed. by Robert Hass) to get a feel for translations that approximate the duration of the originals. Some can be extremely terse:

    I go,
    you stay;
    two autumns.
    (Shiki; previously attributed to Buson)

    That’s what the poem says; why pad it out? English and Japanese are very different languages.

  6. Up to this point, the Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki translations I’ve been reading are from a 1960 Peter Pauper press three volume anthology. Although the translator is unnamed (presumably it was a team) Jeff Hill did illustrations and lettering. Are you familiar with it?

    Although most are in 5-7-5 there is an occasional deviation. Coming across one of these deviations is something like coming across a mutation in an otherwise identical DNA strand. A glitch in the genomic symmetry which, to me, simply comes across as more human. The mutation is acknowledged and absorbed so that life may continue to move forward and new haiku may continue to be formed. At least that’s how it resonated for me. But then, I lack your familiarity with the Japanese rhythmic cadences.

    Yesterday, my boyfriend was telling me that when my cat, Kee-hap, meows and purrs simultaneously it is physically uncomfortable for her because cat’s aren’t designed to meow and at the same time. Many cats do this, however, if they want to be fed or let outside, because they know people respond to it and Kee-hap just happens to be one of the many domestic cats whose smart like that.

    Far as I can tell, 5-7-5 resonates with English Language writers and readers alike and I have yet to encounter a situation in which it limiting the overall rigor or complexity any more than, say, adhering to the iambs of a Shakespearean sonnet would.

    Nothing in the anthology I have seems remotely Western (in the Kerouac sense). Doesn’t even evoke Elizabeth Bishop although you cited her as a haiku writer also.

    Perhaps what I really need is to put two translations of the same haiku side by side. One of them would be a 17 syllable translation and the other would not be. That would enable me to really compare.

  7. Not sure about the precise percentage, but we definitely find variations among Basho’s haiku from the period of what’s usually regarded as his early maturity (late 1670s to early 1680s)–e.g., such forms as 6-7-6, 6-8-5, 5-9-5, 10-7-5 (all cited by Ueda).

    But more importantly from the standpoint of English-language practice–and as I noted earlier–these patterns aren’t based on “syllables”. And they certainly aren’t equivalent in duration to the same numbers of English syllables. On the basis of extensive study of the matter William J. Higginson concluded “that an English-language translation of a typical Japanese haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original” (The Haiku Handbook, pg. 102).

  8. Did Basho’s earlier works adhere more to 5-7-5 in Japanese? Allen mentioned some works that exceeded 17 syllables but he didn’t say as much as one-third did.

  9. Basho’s letter to Biji, dated June 20 1682, is one of the oldest remaining documents containing his teachings on the art of haikai. In it he says: “Even if you have three or four extra syllables — or as many as five or seven — you need not worry as long as the verse sounds right. If even one syllable stagnates in your mouth, give it a careful scrutiny.”

    (from the book Basho and His Interpreters, by Makoto Ueda, p.80)

    Needless to say that the Master himself wrote quite a few hokku of irregular structure, different estimates have it up to 1/3 of his hokku. So did all other Japanese classics…

    FWIW 🙂

  10. “Omoiyari hito ni kuruma ni kono machi ni
    (Sympathy / toward people, toward cars / toward this town). Seventeen syllables. Five-seven-five format. ”

    Right, the format is 5 7 5, which is in Japanese language almost like Wilhelm Bush is for German rhyme. It works in so many fields of our daily life in Japan.
    This one could be called senryu, if that fits it better as a label.

    “five seven five” is the rhythm of the Japanese soul !
    as one Japanese haiku poet has put it.



  11. Bump bump

    This message got buried so fast, which is good, but I want to lift it again, so please read what this bossy, grumpy old Frenchwoman said right up there.

  12. I have a problem with the blog.
    Not the blog, but where are the people? Alright, I am pretty old now, and sometimes when you are old to feel a little young again it is good to stir things. This is the way I see this blog:

    I have a sky chart, names of many stars, little stars, big stars, names I have never heard, names I have heard like Hotham, van den Heuval, Mountain, tripi, Swist, Tico, Olson, Aoyagi, Brooks, Clausen, Swede, Tchouhov, Patrick, owen, Reichhold, Merwin, Snyder, Brandi, Lippy, Herold, Hackett, Welch, Beary, Berry….

    And many, many more, a big sky chart, so many names. I take it out into the night, I look up, but I can only see a few stars, a half dozen maybe, scattered. Is it cloudy? No, how strange that is. It is strange to have the feeling that there are so many stars up there and they are not lighting, and I want to see them! In France, when I was a child I was told by my
    grandfather that the stars have voices, too, you have to be quiet to understand, to hear them.

    I want to hear them!

    So that is how I see this blog right now. What good is
    a sky chart if the stars are wearing hoods? Well, I must be clear (that is my name, after all)– I’m not talking Hollywood. I’m talking everyone.

  13. “The problem came to a head one day as I was driving through Tokyo. While waiting for the light to change, I saw the following public service announcement on the side of a bus: Omoiyari hitonikurumani konomachini (Sympathy / toward people, toward cars / toward this town). Seventeen syllables. Five-seven-five format. It must be a haiku, I thought. But when I reached the office and repeated the announcement to my Japanese coworkers, none of them thought it was a haiku. I knew they were thinking to themselves, What kind of a lunatic is she? One tried to break the news to me gently, It’s not a haiku, it’s an advertising jingle. Well, I knew it was an advertising jingle, but still, wasn’t it an advertising jingle haiku?”

    Abigail Friedman: The Haiku Apprentice

  14. Thank you so much. And since the English language lacks a good operative for you…plural, I’ll clarify. Thank you V. Alison, for fearlessly jumping in and dropping the gauntlet, thanks Dan for balancing the yin w/ the yang and by doing so, framing the discourse for all of us. Thank you Allan for providing such a comprehensive account of the historical evolution of the American haiku and providing such a treasure trove of suggestions to start building with and thank you Scott, for scribing the first three Politikus to be scribed by a member of the haiku movement. Can’t wait to post them on Huffington, tomorrow and please let me know if you’d like me to give you a url hyperlink.

    One last thing I’d need to clarify. I do not speak Japanese and my understanding of haiku will therefore always be limited because of that. According to my understanding, however, the decision to bring a certain meter through is that of the translator. Take Musa’s translations of Dante. He somehow miraculously manages to maintain the Terza Rima, the Hendecasyllabic pentameter and the alliteration. I’ve no idea how in the world he does it but I assume the challenge is the same for translating Politiku. The specific Basho and Bunsun translations I have been studying are translated in 5-7-5 and I find it is an accessible way of making Politiku available to everyone. That is, I suppose, one of the myriad reasons I continue to refuse to dispense with it. Also, many writers, even seasoned ones, are inclined to try and package free verse as Politiku and 5-7-5 helps to correct for this as it establishes a trio of metaphoric arcs that can remain autonomous yet fit together. Think of Chuck Close creating a grid in order to develop the hyperrealism technique. I love Elizabeth Bishop but always thought of her as a miniaturist, rather than a haiku writer so I suppose I need to revisit her work in a different context since –as a result of this dialogue– I now have newfound appreciation for the deep rooted and more content driven Western kind.

    Politiku is not empty calories and I do not think of it as something with a ‘clear target.’ I suppose –were I less ambitious and had less talented friends– it could easily become that. I am, however, lucky enough to have some extraordinary resources at my disposal and hope that you will, at some point, consider participating on some level. Whether through theoretical feedback, as you have been, of perhaps one day you will even consider regressing to 5-7-5 barbarism and writing one yourself;-)

    Artists from Shakespeare to Strindberg have embraced structure. Without this grounding, who knows how many poetic risks would have been taken? Colson Whitehead’s 5-7-5 and other short structured means of poetic storytelling, like Larry Smith’s Six Word Memoir use structure to get at places that would otherwise be inaccessible and to bring literary craftsmanship to individuals whose stories might otherwise go untold. On a personal level, I find the structure helps me to handle the often indigestible chaos of news media.

    At any rate, I enjoyed chatting and look forward to keeping in touch.

  15. Susanna,

    You address your remarks to me, but I certainly have not asked you to “abandon” your conception of Politiku. I actually imagine that for what you’re doing a 5-7-5 framework is perhaps the right thing, even if it’s not the right thing for the haiku journals.

    A few tangential further points:

    Let’s not exaggerate Kerouac’s historical importance in relation to English-language haiku. The earliest well-known attempts to adapt haiku to English were by a group of poets known as the Imagists, Ezra Pound foremost among them. His famous haiku-inspired poem “In a Station of the Metro” is two lines consisting of 19 syllables (or 27 if you include the title, which provides essential info and functions like a first line). Another ex. would be a poem such as Amy Lowell’s “Nuance” (written before Kerouac was born):

    Even the iris bends
    When a butterfly lights upon it.

    Two lines, 15 syllables (16 including title).

    After the Imagists but before Kerouac there was a poet named Paul Reps (1895-1990) who wrote title-less haiku such as:

    Snow man
    snow woman
    melting away in the sun.


    From puddle
    to puddle…
    the moon.

    Obviously not 5-7-5. Twelve and eight syllables, respectively–and fair approximations of the actual length of Japanese haiku.

    Then you had not only Kerouac but other Beats such as Ginsberg and Snyder writing free-form haiku (or “haikus”) and also Cor van den Heuvel’s earliest books (which predate American Haiku).

    What I’m getting at–beyond the fact that Kerouac was far from the only show in early American haiku–is that the idea that haiku “should” be written in 5-7-5 syllabic form in English is actually a fairly late development and not at all self-evident. I think it derived in part from the work of the scholar Kenneth Yasuda. And inside the haiku movement it was popularized and insisted upon principally by the editor/poet Clement Hoyt. But it was a short-lived phenomenon (within the movement), and when “we” moved away from it, we didn’t do so because of Kerouac’s example but because of our own needs as poets. There were already stronger models than Kerouac’s for shorter, free-form haiku–notably Nick Virgilio’s “lily” and “bass”.

    Despite its short-lived hegemony within the movement itself, 5-7-5 has obviously had a huge popular impact. Haiku tends to be taught and understood that way–that 5-7-5 is the main thing–never mind Basho’s karasu and other classical deviations, never mind Santoka and jiyuritsu, never mind the Imagists, the Beats, and most of the haiku movement itself. Note that much of this free-form haiku activity isn’t simply “western haiku”; it’s also Japanese.

    There are reasons for the popularity of 5-7-5–first off, it’s easy to grasp, it’s “exterior”, and it gives one a clear target. And it can be a good way of starting to hone one’s craftsmanship. But the essence of haiku is much more about content than form–or so we argue here. That’s nuanced, though, so it’s harder to popularize. But haiku history and practice are quite definitely a lot more complicated than what is widely taught and believed.

    Also, I think Daniel and I missed one thing in our discussion of “spheres” yesterday. There is the haiku-as-genre conception that we promote here, and there’s the haiku-as-form conception of popular culture and its light verse. But there’s also haiku-as-form within the practice of mainstream poets such as Richard Wilbur, who have latched onto 5-7-5 as another kind of stanzaic form. And it’s not light verse but serious poetry, even if pretty far removed from Japanese haiku and the English-language haiku movement.

    I’d also like to toss out a crude analogy: There’s such a thing as wrestling as sport (high school, college, Olympics) and then there’s “professional wrestling” as spectacle, a fixture of popular culture. There’s a tendency for the former to disdain the latter; but the latter is hugely popular and not going away anytime soon, regardless of the quixotic wishes of “purists”. It comes down to Shakespeare’s question, “What’s in a name?” Words are tags and often have a slippery existence. How many different things does a word such as “get” signify? My Webster’s gives 83 different meanings for the word “run”. As long as we aren’t put out by the different meanings words such as “wrestling” and “haiku” have taken on in our culture and understand which we mean in context, we should be fine.

    And I do appreciate, Susanna, that you personally are maintaining a distinction between “haiku” and “Politiku”–I’m simply referring to the way “haiku” tends to be used within our culture generally.

    Lastly, I sincerely wish you all the best with Politiku, and I hope we’ll hear from you here as well. Your presence expands the conversation.

  16. Allan,

    Although my MFA is in Playwriting and not poetry, I am not unfamiliar with Western Haiku. Kerouac was actually one of my earliest literary influences and some of my earliest wordsmithing efforts drew direct inspiration from his spontaneous prose and western haikus. Notebook after notebook was filled with ‘first thought, best thought’ and snapshot of eternity scribblings.

    When I approached Kerouac’s long-time colleague, David Amram about contributing a Politiku there was, for obvious reasons, resistance. I stood my ground and he stood his. The result was Amram’s unmistakably western haiku written in 5-7-5 in my Father’s Day Politiku post on Huffington.

    I am not unaware that the Politiku Posse (the writers who contribute Politikus) vary in talent, emotional accessibility, range and literary background. The Politiku Posse also includes, but is not limited to: an Army Drill Sargent, a city Councilwoman, a partner in an intellectual property law firm, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, a freelance broadcast new producer, a staffwriter for a hit network television show, a Harvard instructor, a playwright, a stay-at-home dad, shall I continue?

    Politiku, as explained from the get-go was never meant to take the place of haiku. Nor did it ever claim to be haiku. In fact, since it’s conception, I’ve gone out of my way to define it as a hybrid of haiku and political commentary. The essays in which I have discussed it have mentioned Renku and Kerouac. The ubiquitous nature of Twitter, blogging and Facebook also have an impact. When I brought the idea to Arianna Huffington, she responded with warmth and curiosity. Soon after, Politikus were being featured alongside her nationally renowned political commentators.

    My efforts to reach out to and involve members of the “haiku movement” however, have been considerably less fruitful as I am repeatedly denied access by virtue of the 5-7-5 restriction which, by the way, I continue to stand behind.

    My decision to dispense with the Kerouac influenced western haiku and revert to 5-7-5 when merging the genre w/ the genre of political commentary was not an arbitrary one. Nor was my decision to approach writers who have chosen to dedicate themselves to the haiku movement on the topic of Politiku. The fact that I am initiating a dialogue with a distinguished haiku foundation, however, does not mean that I am willing to abandon a genre I have been building at that distinguished foundation’s request. If you would like to know more about why I made this choice, you have simply to ask.

    FYI: Colson Whitehead also writes 5-7-5 haiku these days…

    Susanna Speier

  17. Daniel,

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. I really don’t disagree with your comments. I’m not a purist, and I understand the populist attraction of the kinds of light verse you mention. Also, I don’t believe I ever tried to claim such things are “sullying the legacy of Nick Virgilio” and other poets. That’s honestly not my take on things. You’re correct that my consideration of form focused on haiku as poetry.

    I think your way of viewing the matter is sensible (different “spheres”)–and I also think you get what we’re about here.

    As I said before, “There’s nothing wrong with writing 5-7-5 poems if that floats your boat”. We’re here, though, to serve a community of poets with a different understanding of haiku–haiku as genre rather than form. We hope to share our enthusiasm about haiku and to provide accurate information about haiku history and composition.

    I think almost everyone enters haiku through the gateway of 5-7-5 (I did); but those who really commit themselves to haiku as poetry and/or “way” usually throw off that scaffolding when they come to a richer comprehension of the genre’s history and possibilities–and simply of contemporary practice. I realize not everyone is even interested in going that route. If people like what you suggest might be termed a “puzzle section or humor section” approach to poetry, it’s really not our business to rain on their parades. If they come in here, though, and announce that “The haiku format is 5-7-5 syllables – no exceptions”? Well, then we’ll explain where we’re coming from.

    Btw, by “haiku movement” I mean the community of poets who have contributed to the small haiku magazines, starting with the founding of American Haiku in 1963. THF grows out of that tradition. And most of the people here are editors, former editors, and/or contributors to those magazines. For instance: Scott Metz, who runs this blog, is also editor of the online journal Roadrunner; and Jim Kacian, the founder of THF, is the former editor of Frogpond (the journal of The Haiku Society of America) and the founder of Red Moon Press (the largest haiku publisher outside of Japan).

    Hope you’ll stick around, Daniel.

  18. Allan–

    Thanks for writing back. I do know, and am conscious of, the poet’s attitude toward form–in the grand scheme of things, I fall on the Whitman-Williams-Ginsberg side of the poetics debates of the past 100 or so years. I am a proponent of organic form, of form being a proper extension of content, that latter of which I will return to soon.

    But first: My blind areas in haiku studies notwithstanding, I think mainstream media’s use of poetic form–see Calvin Trillin in the Nation, Politiku, and the countless humor books using haiku, etc.–fall outside the discussions of form you hint at here. Perhaps it has to do with what I assume to be a different take on the intersections of aesthetics and politics and form, which I think have parallel, as opposed to co-dependent, lives.

    And here is where form is nothing more than a PROPER extension of content (Olsen quoting Creeley). With politiku, as was the case when I edited McSweeney’s Sestinas section for many years, we’re talking about a mainstream media take on poetry. Call it a puzzle section or humor section, but that’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about sullying the legacy of Nick Virgilio, a poet I became familiar with in my years at Rutgers-Camden, Kerouac, or other poets you address.

    With the politiku section of The Huffington Post, we’re talking about a place in the general sphere, far outside the “haiku movement,” as you call it, or Poetryland, as I call it. It’s the equivalent of light verse in daily newspapers up until mid-century.

    Make no mistake: There’s a hunger for this kind of poetic conversation, as there is for the kind you take part in on this site and others. Not quite apples and oranges, but close.

  19. Thanks for your comments, Daniel.

    I’d like to make it clear that I don’t dismiss 5-7-5 haiku out of hand. In the early days of the haiku movement (roughly 1963 to 1968), that form was normative, and there are some wonderful poetic achievements in it by pioneers such as James W. Hackett, Nick Virgilio, and O Mabson Southard, in particular. Earlier, the famous African-American novelist Richard Wright had written about four thousand haiku, mostly in that form (c. 1958-60), and some are quite excellent. I’ve featured some of this work in my weekly Montage series.

    Hackett and even more so Virgilio, though, did not always stick to that form, and the trend among serious English-language haiku poets has been away from it ever since–for some of the reasons I outlined. Still, it is sometimes revived, usually in a “knowing” way. An extremely interesting 5-7-5 haiku by Peter Yovu was recently featured in the Virals series here.

    (Btw, I use the word “serious” w/o self-conscious quotation marks because I mean something quite specific: poets who have truly devoted themselves to mastering the genre and its history, who publish regularly in the major haiku journals, and whose work represents a genuine enrichment of this tradition.)

    Another consideration in terms of form I can only touch on briefly has to do with the intersection of politics and aesthetics. Keep in mind that the trad form of haiku derives from earlier courtly verse genres such as renku and tanka. The trend in poetic form generally as we’ve shifted from aristocracy to democracy has been toward greater *freedom* in the handling of form (along with more casual dress, manners, etc.) and less arbitrary artifice for its own sake. In Am lit there’s a clear line from Emerson’s organic theory (influenced by German Idealists/Romantics & Coleridge) to Whitman’s then-aberrant practice and finally to the mainstream triumph of a terser free verse line (also heavily influenced by post-revolutionary French vers libre, another product of democratic society) championed by such as Pound and W. C. Williams. (Fewer poets–but some significant ones, such as Jeffers and Ginsberg–have followed the lead of Whitman’s longer line.) Organic American haiku from Kerouac to the present have undoubtedly been heavily influenced by that legacy. And as I’ve noted, there were parallel developments in Japanese haiku: Santoka (b. 1882), for instance, was an exact contemporary of Pound (b. 1885) & Williams (b. 1883). Something was in the air, and not just in the US.

    Let me close, though, with some examples of more recent English-language 5-7-5 haiku that I think are very good haiku. The key isn’t just compacting any utterance into a mold; it has much more to do with an informed approach to content, avoidance of padding, and a genuine poetic feeling for the sound, rhythm, and suggestiveness of words. Some of these don’t scream out that they’re 5-7-5, and many readers might not immediately recognize them as such. First, from outside the haiku movement itself:

    Dangerous pavements…
    But this year I face the ice
    with my father’s stick
    (Seamus Heaney)

    Then, two from the heart of the movement:

    Sierra sunrise…
    pine needles sinking deeper
    in a patch of snow
    (Christopher Herold)

    haze-blurred horizon…
    a painted bunting hovers
    in the sea oats’ curve
    (Peggy Willis Lyles)

    And one from a recent issue of Modern Haiku from a poet who has largely disappeared from the scene in recent years:

    a dusting of snow–
    the light from the rising moon
    shines through my window
    (Wally Swist; it even rhymes, but unobtrusively on an unaccented syllable)

    Forgive me for closing with one of my own that few readers have recognized as 5-7-5:

    a red-tail’s echo…
    the reservoir the color
    of surrounding pines

  20. Thank you Daniel Nester for your post. I’d like to hear more from you about this. Do you also write “serious” haiku. I’m sure that questions around politiku and sci-fiku etc. will come up in “Sails”, to which I hope you will be a contributor.

    This advertisement was paid for by the Sales for Sails Commission.

  21. Hello there–Daniel Nester, poet and editor, writing here.

    I respect the view, presented here very well in Allan Burns’ comment, that the haiku is much, much more than a 5-7-5 “format.” From what I have read about haiku and the anthologies I have, the haiku, of course, is much more than that, even in its Americanized form.

    I am of the mind that such features as Huffington Post’s politiku project–to which I have sent some haiku, to be sure–and other haiku books, so popular in humor sections of books, etc.–as more of an homage to what regular readers of this site and other haiku practitioners do. Sure, it’s a strict 5-7-5 format, a bowdlerization or too-strict for serious practitioners, it could be said–but I would say it’s more of a parallel practice than something that would be published in a literary publication dedicated to haiku or other like forms.

    I would love to see serious haiku writers write politiku. At the same time, I respect and am familiar with the argument that such a project isn’t what writing “real” haiku is all about. Call it parody, call it a parallel practice, but I do not think it’s “eroding” what so-called “serious” haiku writers are doing.

  22. V. Alison,

    Let’s cut straight to the chase: You have a lot of catching up to do.

    Although a 5-7-5 metrical structure has been normative for classic Japanese haiku, it has never been an absolute requirement of the genre. One of Basho’s most famous haiku is

    kareeda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

    That’s 19 sound units in Japanese. So I guess Basho himself “doesn’t deserve” to be called “a poet or a wordsmith”? Even though he essentially invented the haiku genre as we know it today….

    But it gets more complicated. Japanese sound units (now sometimes called “on” but formerly known as “onji”) aren’t equivalent to English syllables.

    For instance: Translate Basho’s haiku into English, and you’ll get something like:

    on a bare branch a crow has landed–autumn dusk

    That’s 12 syllables. And, in fact, if you skillfully translate most Japanese haiku into English, you’ll get poems about that length, 10 to 13 or so English syllables.

    That’s why most serious practitioners of haiku in English don’t stick to a 17-syllable format. The resulting poem is a good bit longer than an actual Japanese haiku. Most serious haiku poets in English also avoid “padding” their haiku simply to meet formal requirements. Good haiku are as long as they *need* to be, not as they are “supposed” to be.

    Further: Many modern practitioners of haiku in Japan no longer adhere to the 5-7-5 format either. The free-form (jiyuritsu) haiku movement in Japan dates back to 1910–almost a century ago. It includes some of the greatest modern Japanese haiku poets, such as Taneda Santoka (1882-1940).

    I suggest you get yourself a copy of The Haiku Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Cor van den Heuvel (W. W. Norton, 1999) and a copy of Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press, 2003). Lee includes an excellent overview of the 5-7-5 issue (pgs. 15-17), and Cor’s anthology collects a lot of the best haiku written in English from the time of Jack Kerouac–who did not follow 5-7-5–in the mid-50s up to 1999. Beyond that, check out the major haiku journals in English: Modern Haiku, Frogpond, The Heron’s Nest (online), Acorn, Presence, Roadrunner (online), and others. You won’t find many 5-7-5 haiku in them.

    As Lee says, “When trying to establish an appropriate form, differences between the Japanese and English languages need to be taken into consideration” (pg. 15). He also points out that Japanese sound units are all about the length of the word “be” in English whereas English syllables can be as long as something like “heaved”. And even the word “haiku” in Japanese consists of three sounds (“ha-i-ku”) whereas in English it’s just two syllables. Bottom line: Japanese sounds are not equivalent to English syllables. Sophisticated haiku poets have understood this for a long time.

    There’s nothing wrong with writing 5-7-5 poems if that floats your boat, but before you issue a blanket condemnation of haiku poets who don’t follow that form, you should make an effort to understand what the basic issues are. For starters, it helps to understand that haiku is a *genre* (a word you use yourself), not a form. It’s more elastic than a mere form–which is why poets from Santoka to Kerouac and beyond have been able to make substantial contributions to it without adhering to 5-7-5. The genre is in no danger of being “eroded” by an informed approach to structural considerations. The essence of the genre is to be found in its content, not in an exoskeleton that has never genuinely made any sense in English.

    To echo your conclusion: I hope you’ll rethink your stance on this.

  23. The haiku format is 5-7-5 syllables – no exceptions. To criticize Susanna Speier for her “bow to tradition” is ridiculous. The challenge of haiku is to stick to the format. Anyone who can’t follow the format doesn’t deserve to call themselves a poet or a wordsmith. Instead of hinting at “dumbing down” this fine tradition, why don’t you promote haiku for what it is? 5-7-5 syllables. It’s laughable that you call this site a “Haiku Foundation” when it seems like you want to erode the genre. I hope you’ll rethink your stance on this.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top