Thursday, August 30, 2012

I Don't Understand Haiku

I mentioned before that I do not understanding haiku.  What I do recognize about it is that Japanese poetry is just not as lavish as English poetry.  And really, in traditional English poetry, lavishness of language is as much a part of our poetic tradition as rhyme and meter.  These days, of course, rhyme and meter often give way to free verse so without lavish language, what is left of poetry?

That was my problem when I first learned about haiku in late elementary school and junior high.  My teachers explained that haiku was a type of Japanese nature poem without rhyme or meter, in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.  So I tried to write it and got the 5-7-5 pattern right.  But I tried to fit the lavishness of English poetry into those 17 syllables and was never able to.  And besides, whenever we heard or saw real haikus, they never had that kind of lavishness.  In fact, they seemed kind of dull and mundane. 

Looking up haiku in the Wikipedia, I find that it need not be a nature poem, only to have a seasonal reference.  Still, traditionally it has been about nature, so I am going to compare it with descriptions of nature in English poetry.  Wikipedia gives some Japanese classics.

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in

water’s sound

the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

how many gallons
of Edo's rain did you drink?


Compare that, now, with some admittedly extreme descriptions of nature in early 20th Century English poetry.

The Highwayman (Alfred Noyes)
The wind was a torrent of darkness amid the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Comparing that to haiku, the first thing that occurs to me is that any one of those lines could probably make an entire haiku.  The next is that the haiku would probably not contain anything as fantastic as a torrent of darkness.

The Skater of Ghost Lake (William Rose Benet)
Ghost Lake’s a deep lake, a dark lake and cold;
Ice black as ebony, frostily scrolled;
Far in its shadows a faint sound whirs;
Steep stand the sentineled deep, dark firs.

Once again, you could probably make a haiku out of either of the couplets.  It also occurs to me that I was wrong in saying there is only so much lavishness you can fit into 17 syllables.  Each line in The Highwayman is 15 syllables; each couplet in Ghost Lake is 20.  And they contain a lot of lavishness. 

These poems also point to the importance of meter in English poetry.  Meter can be quite complex; it gives poetry a rhythm that immediately distinguishes it from prose; and it can be use to invoke an image –a highwayman galloping on his horse in The Highwayman, or ice skating strokes in Ghost Lake.   In both poems, the nature description is merely setting the scene for the longer, narrative poem.  The description is not really there for its own sake, but mostly to set an atmosphere – eerie in Ghost Lake, extravagantly romantic in The Highwayman

To my English-trained ears, Japanese haiku seems flat and prosaic by comparison.  I have to wonder how the lavishness of English poetry sounds to Japanese ears.  Is it powerful and vivid, or comically over the top?  Certainly, I will acknowledge that poetic language can be too lavish, especially when lavishness of language makes it hard to understand what the poem actually means.  In high school, the entire class, including the teacher, was baffled when Ghost Lake said:

Ice shooting fangs forth – sudden – like spears:
Crackling of lightening – a roar in their ears!

Only in looking up the poem on the Internet to prepare this post did I get an explanation – the skaters skate out onto thin ice and it cracks underneath them.  How would one express that in haiku?  Without “ice shooting fangs forth,” I am sure.

The Highwayman  and Ghost Lake are admittedly extreme cases.  Most English poems are not quite that lavish.  But consider a more restrained description of nature, like William Cullen Bryant’s To a Waterfowl:

Whither ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day
Far, through their rosy depths dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

This is not as lavish as the previous two poems, but has some dramatic  images – glowing heavens with rosy depths and the figure of migratory bird “darkly painted against the crimson sky.” 

When I first tried to fit the lavishness of English poetry into 17 syllables of haiku, I did not include any “torrents of darkness,” or “ribbons of moonlight,” let alone “ice shooting fangs forth – sudden – like spears.”  But I did try to convey something like Bryant’s glowing colors of sunset with a dark figure against it – a bare tree in my case.   But trying to create a lavish image in 17 syllables just didn’t work and wasn’t like real haiku at all.  I might attempt it now in plainer terms:

A black silhouette
Of a leafless winter tree
Against the sunset

That contains the requisite syllable pattern and is not too lavish.  I do not know enough about haiku to know if it is any good.  But I do know that it does not really convey what I want to say.  The beauty of the sunset is in its glowing, formless blend of colors.  The beauty of the tree is in its sharply defined, colorless form.  And although we usually see the beauty of a tree in its leaves and regard a bare tree as looking dead, barren, and ugly, against the sunset a leafless tree is suddenly more beautiful than one with leaves because they no longer obscure the clarity of its outline.  I doubt that I am a good enough poet to convey that no matter how many syllables you gave me.  And I don’t know if it is conveyable in haiku at all.

And that is perhaps why haiku baffles me so much.  I expect a nature poem in English to create a visual image, like trees bending in the wind, or fir trees around a winter lake, or a bird outlined against the sunset.  The classic haiku do not appear to be painting a visual image.  And I do not understand what it is they are setting out to achieve.

So here is my plea to any readers out there who understand haiku better than I do.  Can you convert any of those English poems into haiku.  And can you explain how to find the beauty in poetry without lavishness?


  1. I have a thought here. I am guessing the writer of haiku expect you to have seen a lot of frogs jumping in ponds, or monkeys getting rained on, or whatever theme they choose. The goal is not to show you something you haven't seen before.

    The goal is to make you stop short and review scenes that you think are familiar. Many haiku contrast two ranges of experience - perhaps visual and sound, or closeup and panoramic views, or natural and intentional language, in a tiny frame of thought. I think we are meant to suddenly contextualize a familiar scenario into a surprising or pleasing new setting.

    Also as someone who struggles with editing out the extraneous (as you see, this is a very long reply to a blog post), I admire the haiku as an exercise in removal. Honestly, ribbons? Ships? Ghosts? Do we need all the baggage to enjoy a windy night?

    I'm going to take a crack at this. I will probably write a better one in November when our seasonal elements are more in line with the theme.

    The windblown full moon
    Through clouds above moor and trees
    One beam paves the road.

  2. Sarah,

    I know that you regard the lavishness of English poetry as excessive, with each new generation of poets trying to be more lavish than the last until it got out of hand, and the counterreaction against lavishness a great improvement. I guess the two poems I quoted are the end product of a decadent process.

    Anyhow, it sounds as though you are saying that thinking a leafless tree is ugly until you see it outlined against the sunset and realize the lack of leaves makes the pure tree outline clearer is exactly the sort of thing you want to convey in haiku. That my haiku above was failing precisely because it still tried to paint a visual portrait, and that a better haiku would be something like this:

    A leafless winter tree
    Seems barren until outlined
    Against the sunset.

  3. HAIKU

    To start with, it’s important to realize that different languages have different intonations, sounds and rhythms that tend to affect their poetry. English and German poems, for example, have emphasized end rhymes and patterns of stressed & unstressed syllables. French and classical Greek poems pay more attention to the length of syllables and lack the rhythmic strong/weak accent patterns we associate with verse. The Japanese count sound symbols (onji), which are shorter than our syllables, so the 5-7-5 syllables in Japanese Haiku may sound more like 2-3-2 to us. (This point can “legitimize” an English haiku that comes short a syllable in a line or two!) Haiku may also use repetition of the same or similar vowel or consonant sounds.

    Also, every national literature goes through different stylistic periods, frequently addressing different audiences with different tastes in the process: think folk songs, courtly literature, satirical verse, patriotic epics. . . English was very lavish and descriptive during the 19th century and used a lot of words and verb forms that were obsolete in daily language. (Romanticism and nostalgia for a lost rural past overlap a lot.) But even then there were some great poets--William Blake and Emily Dickinson come to mind-- who relied on powerful plain language.

    Haiku were originated by poets for other poets in contests, then grew into an independent form of verse—strongly influenced, I suspect, by the Zen Buddhist aesthetic of minimalism and attention to the beauty of common objects. [I sometimes wonder if Japanese aesthetic tastes were shaped by Zen, or Zen was differentiated from other branches of Buddhism by Japanese aesthetic tastes; probably some of each.]

    The examples you gave were story-telling poems that expressed moods and action. Haiku have a totally different purpose. I think of a haiku as a verbal snapshot that captures a transient moment—concrete, physical thing(s) seen/heard/smelled—in words that can recreate its full emotional impact when you encounter them again. Writing them can make you more observant and aware of the world around you.

    Like other poetry, haiku require a lot of verbal discipline to perfect. Not only do you need to select words with the right nuances/associations from many similar but not quite fitting words, but you need to fit them into the 5-7-5 structure. Deciding the order to put the images in, searching for a better word (or one with one more or less syllable), analyzing how you felt or what really attracted your attention all take a lot of thought & experimentation.

    The Japanese have developed elaborate rules for “classical” haiku: they have a seasonal reference (snow-winter, moon-fall, etc.), they describe things directly (not through similes or metaphors) in ordinary language, they usually juxtapose two items unexpectedly, they often make an elliptical leap between the second and third line, and so on. (Some of these charac-teristics reflect Zen principles of minimalism, objectivity and sudden insight.) However, it is more enjoyable to write haiku based on your own feelings & observations for a start, rather than trying to follow elaborate rules based on a different time, language and culture.

    -- If you are interested in learning more, you can look for The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson, which I discovered accidentally while waiting to get an automobile license: unexpected juxtaposition!

    I too have been struck by the beauty of a bare tree against the sunset (as have many others, based on the popularity of this theme in photography), although I never wrote a haiku on the subject. Here is what I came up with, based on what you said about your experience:

    The blazing sunset
    Silhouettes the bare branches
    Of a winter tree.


    The hidden beauty
    Of a bare-branched tree revealed
    By glowing sunset.


    Black against red—
    Transformed by the sunset—
    Winter’s bare tree. (syllables missing; sounds like translation from Japanese!)