On form, spirit and resonance: an essay with three commentaries by Matthew Paul
Whether haiku in English can actually be called ‘haiku’ at all is a vexed question. They cannot hold the weight of cultural allusion – especially to other, famed haiku – which Japanese haiku carry. My belief, though, is that many English-language poets have written very fine haiku which bear the original form’s essence.
Haiku is a form, but it isn’t any old form and it deserves respect. Nevertheless, the ‘rules’ of haiku are there to be broken and it is futile to seek a consensus about what haiku is. Rather, it’s easier to define it by what it isn’t. The haiku poet and editor Martin Lucas wrote that, ‘Haiku isn’t as easy as just looking, and it isn’t as easy as it looks’. They’re not just nice observations or nature notes.
Neither is haiku child’s play – it may be on the English National Curriculum but that doesn’t mean that adults shouldn’t expend serious effort on haiku. Haiku has the concept of ‘beginner’s mind’, that, very occasionally, someone new to haiku can write them with freshness and lightness; but, as with all literary forms, its most consistently proficient practitioners are those who have bothered to research its origins and history (as they would for, say, writing sonnets), to read the oeuvres of some of its finest exponents and only then, after practising their craft, to publish their own output, and do so sparingly.
Equally, writing haiku isn’t merely a tool for sharpening a longer-form poet’s abilities – though it very helpfully can be! In such a short poem, word-choices stick out; hence line-beginnings, line-endings, line-breaks, rhythm, internal rhyme and the mysteries of poetic sounds are as important in haiku as they are in longer forms – and arguably more so because there is nowhere to hide.
A haiku isn’t just any old tosh written in three lines of five, seven, then five syllables, any more than any old tosh written as 14 lines makes a sonnet. While most, if not all, accomplished haiku poets will have written some haiku which naturally fell into a 5–7–5 rhythm, it’s often too many – and padding out lines in a haiku is even more glaring than in poems in iambic pentameter. People who insist that haiku must be written in 5–7–5 are Flat-Earthers. Haiku’s essence isn’t syllable-counting, because Japanese sound-units aren’t directly comparable to English syllables, but its spirit.
A haiku isn’t just any old tosh written in three lines of five, seven, then five syllables, any more than any old tosh written as 14 lines makes a sonnet
Spirit? I hear you ask. Yes, a feeling of being in tune with the present and capturing that feeling in a ‘haiku moment’. Before you retort that that sounds like Zen (or airy pretentiousness), then it’s worth investigating haiku’s origins; though I won’t go into that here as there are plenty better qualified than me who have already written engagingly on the subject, among them Ilford-born R.H. Blyth, and William J. Higginson, whose The Haiku Handbook remains as good an introduction as any.
Yet writing haiku is about more than just being acutely attentive to your surroundings and what your senses are picking up. Translating that attentiveness into haiku requires a keen, intuitive appreciation of how, and why, a moment is special and worthy of recording in a brief poem. The worst criticism to be made of the proliferation of badly-written haiku on social media isn’t just that they lack poetic qualities, but that their subject-matter is banal and, crucially, that they are unoriginal.
Haiku shouldn’t tell stories either; its two parts shouldn’t be cause and effect. Two parts? Yes, they normally, though not always – and particularly not in one-line haiku – comprise two distinct parts, with an obvious or more tangential relation to one another. One of the parts is usually, but not always, a season reference or time-stamp. It is for the reader to sense the spark – comparison, contrast, connection, unifier – between those two parts and thereby complete the poem.
The most memorable haiku tend not to be pyrotechnic ones but those which have an enduring, affecting resonance, with an emotional core derived, firstly, from a superficial reading of the haiku and the moment it articulates, and, secondly, a deeper, maybe metaphorical one. For example, a haiku depicting a moment in nature can possess an implicit metaphorical reflection on the human condition or state of mind – and which the poet might not have consciously intended.
Haiku possess a concise simplicity which all but forbids overt similes or metaphors, and conspicuous adjectives and adverbs. But they shouldn’t be simple to the point of unpoetic; the opposite is true. In a landmark essay in Presence haiku journal, Martin Lucas (with input from Stuart Quine) discussed how many of the most resonant haiku, including those written as one line, contain extraordinariness, so that they cast what he called a ‘poetic spell’. The essay is essential reading.
The worst criticism to be made of the proliferation of badly-written haiku on social media isn’t just that they lack poetic qualities, but that their subject-matter is banal and, crucially, that they are unoriginal
My addition to Lucas’s arguments is that the choice of verb(s) – active or passive – in haiku is key. (As ever, there are exceptions to this, because there are many fine haiku which are verb-less.) One verb is usually enough, and as the ‘action’ word it propels the haiku; therefore, it must be apposite, though not necessarily the most obvious – though neither should it be an exact synonym for the obvious one either. Too many poets use dull verbs, and dull verbs unsurprisingly make dull haiku. Haiku can seem so-what-ish and / or formulaic – at worst they can be trivial, clichéd, uninspiring, and generic – but the finest of them glimmer in the mind.
So let’s examine some examples. The following aren’t the best three haiku ever written, but each has exemplary qualities which merit close attention, as much for what they don’t say as what they actually do.
the slowest duckling
tries to catch up
(by Jack Barry)
Barry is one of a few contemporary American haiku poets who follow(ed) a simple, reclusive life, reminiscent of Thoreau, Gary Snyder (as fictionalised as ‘Japhy Ryder’ in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums) and Kerouac himself (in the haibunesque Desolation Angels). Their haiku exemplify an ability to let observations find their best poetic distillation, whether that takes a minute or years. This haiku was originally published in Presence in 2005 and later anthologised in Where the River Goes (ed. Allan Burns, 2013), subtitled ‘The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku’. It presents a familiar scene, and does so with an enviable simplicity which could easily have slipped into triteness without very considered word-choices born, I suspect, of intense looking and thinking.
The first line places the reader squarely in midsummer; we can feel the heat and the torpor. We know, too, that daylight will stretch into night. It takes a bold poet to use two superlative adjectives in one haiku, taking up a third of just 12 syllables. That ‘slowest’ serves three purposes: implicitly enabling the reader to imagine the duckling as the last of several siblings, almost certainly with a large, maybe growing, gap between it and them; reinforcing the sense of torpor, that any strenuous movement feels like hard work; and bestowing an unspoken sympathy for, or empathy with, the duckling and its plight: who among us hasn’t seen, or been, that duckling? It begs the question as to why the duckling is the slowest – has it momentarily been distracted by its curiosity to explore its surroundings and thus not noticed its family sailing away? That the two nouns both begin with ‘d’ and each follow one of the superlatives enriches the poem’s sonic balance.
It presents a familiar scene, and does so with an enviable simplicity which could easily have slipped into triteness without very considered word-choices born, I suspect, of intense looking and thinking
Barry might’ve chosen a more explicit present-tense verb in the third line – ‘struggles’, ‘hurries’ or ‘rushes’ perhaps – but ‘tries’ is markedly more ambiguous, and so it opens up any and all of those alternatives. It also sounds better, because it’s one syllable rather than two. Is there an implicit ‘and fails’? And what about the infinitive verb? Would ‘to keep up’ have been better or worse? For me, ‘catch’ is simply the right one.
the Oxford Spelling Dictionary
shouts asshole at me
(by Hamish Ironside)
This poem, from Ironside’s 2018 Iron Press collection, Three Blue Beans in a Blue Bladder, is what haiku poets would call a senryu, a haiku solely or mainly about an aspect of human life, characteristically lampooning a foible. Ironside arguably writes senryu which are as sharp and funny as anyone’s in the small pond of English-language haiku publication. In ‘working weekend’, we encounter self-deprecation; a laugh at the poet-persona’s expense, enhanced by a very British reference book blaring out a very American expletive when he assiduously checks a spelling. Beyond the comedy, however, lies a harassed individual at the old toad work, involving editing or typesetting, who’s undoubtedly aggrieved to be having to work at the weekend, either to meet a deadline or because of the money, or both, rather than relaxing and enjoying himself. As with much of the best comedy in any form, an underlying seriousness renders it bittersweet and consequently richer.
A look at the structure shows that here we have the typical two parts: the first has a concisely expressed time-stamp (though not a season reference) and the second encompasses the action. Again, the poem’s verb is important: ‘shouts’ is an inspired choice, almost as if the poet-persona’s grievance has become paranoia. The choice of expletive, too, works well, through the rhyme of ‘-hole’ with ‘Spell’, and within the context of the third line as a whole, perhaps because the stress in ‘asshole’ is trochaic and because its ‘a’ sound is repeated in ‘at’. There’s an incidental end-rhyme between the last two lines which quietly augments the sound-pattern.
from the practice room …
a bee stirs applemint
(by Peggy Willis Lyles)
This summery haiku, first published in the online journal The Heron’s Nest, has a lot going on within its 2–5–6 syllabic structure. Note the structure: the caesura, or ‘cut’, comes at the end of the second line which puts extra emphasis on the content of the third line, which, in this case, it fully withstands and abundantly justifies. Instinctively, the reader presumes the poet is in a garden, and that the chords from a room in the attached house emanate from a piano. Maybe a young person is at their daily practice; or perhaps it’s a band rehearsing and those chords are coming from guitars. Are doors or windows open; or is the music loud enough to be heard outside? The poet can’t give the full picture in such a compressed form, and each reader may complete it differently, so the words effectively become shorthand. The poem’s adjective is noteworthy: as the opening word, it sets the tone, and as a word with multiple meanings, it opens out the poem rather than facilitating a closed, definite interpretation.
The best nature haiku might just be the purest ecopoetry you’ll ever read
The ellipsis allows a brief pause before the second part: a focused, visual description, providing more specific information: it is the mellifluously-named applemint with which the bee is concerned. Naming it implicitly conveys the colour(s) of its flowers. Let’s look at the verb: ‘stirs’ is an inspired choice. Its half-rhyme with ‘chords’ falls subtly on the ear because the two words are separated by a line, but we see the rhyme also. (Of course, there is a more noticeable, fuller rhyme in the haiku, between ‘deep’ and ‘bee’.) Moreover, it’s a word which implies, and so economically, that the bee’s movement is loosening the nectar in the plant’s pinkish-white flowers, so that life’s cycle will continue. The music coming from the ‘off-stage’ practice room soundtracks the bee at its work. Perhaps the reader is also invited to discern a comparison, as if the bee is busying itself at the pace of the music, thereby providing a joyful, light and timeless picture of synchronicity. For a nanosecond frozen in time, all matter – both human and not – is in harmony. Here is Lucas’s poetic spell. The best nature haiku might just be the purest ecopoetry you’ll ever read.
In this essay, I’ve barely explored haiku’s possibilities. If you’re interested in haiku, then whatever you do, respect it like you would an old friend: don’t take it for granted and make sure you care for it.