Haiku and the Problem of English


Toodling around on WordPress for the past few days, I keep seeing people writing what they undoubtedly think of as haiku. I got taught what everybody else got taught about haiku in fifth grade English class: a haiku is a Japanese three-line poem, the lines having five, seven, and five syllables, for a grand total of seventeen syllables. Easy-peasy, right? Well, actually, no.

First of all, that description is a definition of a senryu, not a haiku. For the poem to be a haiku, it needs a kigo, a word that refers to the seasons and nature. Also there should be a kireji, a “cutting” word, that is like a caesura (pause) in English poetry. Often, translations of Japanese poems in English will use punctuation like a colon or a period to show the stopping and starting again. Often the first two lines set up an image and the last line pulls the rug out from under the reader or possibly gives the reader something new to appreciate.

Second, syllables in English are very different from syllables in Japanese. The word for teacher, sensei, looks like two syllables to an English speaker, but is in fact four in Japanese, se/n/se/i. This means that while you could feasibly have as many as seventeen words in a seventeen-syllable poem in English, Japanese poets are using very few words indeed.

One of the ways that the classical poets got around this problem was with a kind of poetic shorthand, phrases or tropes that everyone recognized. So, for example, the phrase “wet sleeves” implies the end of a love affair.

One of the uses of these shorter poems (we can talk about tanka, renga and haibun another time) is to write a final farewell poem at one’s death. Often a samurai would write such a poem before going off to battle, as presumably, one fights with more ferocity if one has accepted the possibility of one’s death and prepared oneself for it.

To the Western world, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is probably the most well-known and widely quoted Japanese poet. You probably had his frog haiku in your schoolbook just as I did: furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

an ancient pond

a frog jumps in

the splash of water [1686]

I also really like Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828). He is one of the four great haiku masters, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Here is one of his poems.

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

Practical Poetry

You might think, if you are not a poet, that poetry isn’t practical. You might recall Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” and think, well, maybe poetry is interior decoration… You would be wrong. Or, if right, not in the way you think.

Poetry won’t keep the rain off your head and unless you have a really thick hardback book of it in your breast pocket, it probably won’t save your life. (Teddy Roosevelt once survived an assassination attempt because he had a thick speech in his pocket, but bullets were slower and smaller back then.) Poetry does not protect us the way architecture does. But what is the practical purpose of interior decoration?

Many of us, when thinking of interior decoration in the abstract, might think of the crowded Victorian parlor with its innumerable mementos on tables and mantles, and walls so filled with pictures that the wallpaper is invisible: lots of things that have little value and serve mainly to distract the viewer and make the room feel full. Abundance presumably symbolizes wealth here, with quantity being more important than quality.vic parlor

It is no surprise then that it wasn’t the Victorians who invented the haiku! A lot of us were taught that the haiku is a 17-syllable poem of 3 lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. Actually that defines a senryu, which can be about any topic. Strictly speaking, a haiku needs to be about nature, the seasons, etc. But here is the problem that nobody explains. A 17-syllable poem in Japanese might have as few as 5 to 8 words. The word sensei, teacher, sounds like only 2 syllables in English, but in Japanese, it is 4 syllables: se-n-se-i. So those brilliant haiku poets, Basho and Issa? They are even more brilliant than you thought!


Similarly Japanese interior decoration is traditionally minimalist. A home might have a room where you would greet guests, and in that room is an alcove called the tokonoma where the family will display a scroll or flower arrangement or holiday decoration. Not ten. One. Keeping it simple and classy. Often the decoration will change with the seasons, making a small artistic statement about how we move through the year, and how the seasons move through us. I think poetry can be like that, a beautiful moment to acknowledge a truth about the world and ourselves. And to me, that kind of poetry is very useful, very practical.

In the introduction to her 1982 collection of poetry, Marge Piercy explained how she wanted her poems to be of use. “What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom w all and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we must fear, in the small release of cadenced utterance. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives” (xii).

This is what I look for in poetry that I read, and this is what I work for in poetry that I write.

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.