NUDGE: Misconceptions about Haiku

The contemporary Western abuse of the haiku form really riles me. I’m not even a haiku writer, so you could say I don’t have a dog in this fight. The abuse I’m referring to is the prevalence of popular “haiku” in which a stark 5-7-5 syllable form is used to write about anything, from beer to movies, with no attention to any of the other elements of the form.

It’s not the subject matter of these “haiku” that bothers me. I’m annoyed that no one cares that a haiku is more than breaking up words into a certain count of syllables over three unrhymed lines. I’m annoyed that writing inferior non-haiku has become a kind of game, played by people who probably have never read a true haiku and never will, nor do they know a thing about haiku, past or present.

In 2009, I wrote along with the April Poem-a-Day (or PAD) Challenge on Robert Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog. His daily prompts included 2-for-Tuesday offerings; the April 21 two-fer was to write a haiku, then write about the haiku.

I vented my frustration with the Western bastardization of the haiku form with these two (titled to drive home my point, even though haiku usually aren’t titled):

1)      HAIKU FAIL

Western poet counts
each syllable on fingers.
Sparrow slams plate glass.

2)      HAIKU, NOT

Think this is haiku?
Guess again. It’s so much more
Than 5-7-5.

 

Neither are good haiku, but at least I’d gotten some of my frustration out of my system.

As I prepared this blog post, I decided to see what the experts have to say on the subject of haiku abuse. The following is a direct quote from the “Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms” page of the Haiku Society of America website (the emphasis in the last paragraph is mine):

HAIKU

Definition:  A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today’s poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen “sounds” (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a “season word” (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a “cutting word” (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called “deep metaphor” or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition. Various kinds of “pseudohaiku” have also arisen in recent years; see the Notes to “senryu”, below, for a brief discussion.)

AHA! The rise of “pseudohaiku” in recent years. So what does the entry on “senryu” say?

SENRYU

Definition: A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.

Notes: A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break. Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also “borderline haiku/senryu,” which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them.

Many so-called “haiku” in English are really senryu. Others, such as “Spam-ku” and “headline haiku,” seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads “pseudohaiku” to make clear that they are not haiku at all.

So there you have it. The so-called haiku that so irritate me are not haiku at all, but senryu. Of course, uninformed, unpoetic Westerners don’t know what senryu are and would never bother to find out, so fat chance of correcting the misconception.

I was curious about the reference to zappai and why there was no definition on the HSA page. A Google search of “zappai” turned up an article from the Spring 2005 issue of Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry. “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: and the Need to Reconsider its HSA Definition” by Richard Gilbert and Shinjuku Rollingstone makes a case against the HSA description of zappai as “doggerel” and for zappai as a practiced, respected literary genre:

“Several haiku and haikai poets we have spoken to in our locale of Kumamoto feel that the linking of zappai to such writings as spam-ku and headline haiku in English is inappropriate and culturally offensive, as zappai has evolved directly out of the ancient haikai tradition.”

Regardless of whether pseudohaiku are actually senryu or zappai, be aware and spread the word: Those 5-7-5 verses about pop culture, sports teams, or zombies are not haiku! Protestations will no doubt fall on deaf ears, but aren’t you glad to know the truth?

Here’s a learn-something-and-write prompt: Review the HSA’s definition of senryu above; their journal Frogpond includes examples. Then try the form yourself. Even if you’re not a poet, the exercise of compressing thoughts and words is valuable. Feel free to post your creations in the comments section (but be aware that many publications and contests will consider these senryu “published” if they appear online, even in comments).

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