Haiku restrictions


ince I’m kinda focused on my work right now and thinking mostly literature, I thought I’d respond to a question posed a few posts earlier by TheWaterJar–I’m not sure what it means either…

I just wanted to ask: what do you feel about English senryu and haiku that do not follow the 5-7-5 syllabic form? I write haiku/senryu but I do not follow that form. I feel that form is too restricting for the English language. I guess that leaves the question of: what form DO you follow then? My first answer to that might not be too satisfactory to strict formalists, but I’d answer: the “spirit” of haiku or senryu is the form. My second answer, to appease such formalists would be that, at least as far as the haiku goes (as of yet i’m not so sure about the senryu), it will start with a traditional image of something in nature that may or may not be seasonal, followed by another image which anchors it down in reality and makes it feel more real and grounded, followed at last by a statement/commentary on what preceded or just a thought or side thought that follows from it. Or something like that. What are your thoughts?

Am I a formalist? Hmmm… that sounds like a dirty word. Heheheheh. But seriously, I think that there is no right or wrong way to approach haiku in English, because in reality, it isn’t haiku. It is one culture trying to grasp the style of a verse form developed in another culture and language. So what is the style? Is it the form? Or is it the “spirit” of haiku. It is neither, as neither really exists.

Let’s take form. The recognized precurser of the haiku is the hokku, which is the first verse in a sequence of 36 verses of alternating 5-7-5 syllables and 7-7 syllable verses. The hokku is 5-7-5. This 36 verse sequence was called haikai, a type of linked verse–renga–that foused on non-traditional topics. The more formal renga and its precurser, waka–Japanese court poetry–were all combinations of verses of 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllables. This combination of 5s and 7s seems to a part of the rhythmical pattern of the Japanese language. I’m not sure if it was originally artificial–copying classical Chinese poems that follow patterns of 5s and/or 8s–or if there is some innate rhythm to Japanese. Either way, by Basho’s time, 5s and 7s was the pattern for most “poetic” expression. For example, 5s and 7s dominate most proverbs:

  • i-so-ga-ba ma-wa-re (7): Haste makes waste.
  • shi-ra-nu ga ho-to-ke (7): Ignorance is bliss.
  • to-ra-nu ta-nu-ki no ka-wa-za-n-yo (7-5): don’t count you chickens (or badgers) before they hatch.

Even common expressions like mi-n-na wa-ta-re-ba ko-wa-ku-na-i (7-5)–If we all cross together, there’s nothing to fear–follows this pattern.

Comparison of syllables
school ga-k-ko-u
car ku-ru-ma
cool su-zu-shi-i
warm a-ta-ta-ka-i

And yet, for those composing haiku–or senryu–selecting specific diction, the right combination of words to fit this pattern is part of the art. It is a restriction that they all follow. Japanese is more syllable heavy than English, so in many ways it is even more restrictive in Japanese than in English. But does this mean your statement–I feel that form is too restricting for the English language–is invalid? Not in the least. English is not Japanese. But the point is still the same: haiku is restrictive in Japanese, as well. It is part of the art. Choosing to use a different syllable count doesn’t render it as a lesser poem, but it will not–by definition–be a haiku in any language.

As for the spirit–this is a more interesting issue. Basho–the master himself–went through different approaches to his art. There are, of course, some basics which you touched on. The single most important aspect of a haiku–at least in the haiku practiced in premodern Japan–was the seasons. Each poem must denote a season. The reason is clear. As the hokku (first verse) of a haikai sequence, rules required it to mention through imagery a season. While these rules are old and tradtional, no modern haiku poet in Japan would even dream of deviating from this requirement. But this is a physical/structural matter. In terms of the contextual spirit of haiku, it is–in my humble opinion–an expression that conveys the dynamics of human life, that which is at once momentary and yet eternal, something that is black but cannot be black unless there is white. It celebrates the variety and differences in life in a 5-7-5 format: This is the contradiction and hence the beauty of haiku. The celebration of the changing, the fluctuation and instability of life, of meaning, all in a very strict unchanging format.

Let’s look at some of the poems of the master, Basho, to understand this:

kagebou no
akatsuki samuku
hi wo takite

A silhouette
in the cold of dawn
lights a fire…

This is a winter poem as recongnized by the word “cold”. But more importantly is the representation of man going through his mudane life. He wakes up in the morning when it is still dark–hence silhouette–to light a fire in the cold morning. What makes this poem effective is the play of opposites, something that is so prevelent in our world, always pushing back and forth in a very Hegelian way. The poem presents a silhouette because it is dark, but a silhouette cannot be made unless there is light. Of course, light is appreciated only because of the dark, and the dark is exists because… well, you get the idea. There is a co-respondance between these opposites that goes back and forth. There is also the correspondance between the cold and fire which… well, maybe someone would like to comment on that aspect? How about some feedback?

Here’s another poem that I like:

hiya hiya to
kabe wo fumaete
hirune kana

cooly, so cooly
I press my feet on the wall
for an afternoon nap

This haiku is obviously summer. The subject presses his feet against a cool surface to escape the heat, therby allowing him to take a nap. The scene is mundane and yet evocative, the perfect example of Basho’s style of karumi, the style that proved to be, I think, his greatest achievement of insight, and certainly his final contribution to haiku, as he died in the same year as these poems. This style of karumi attempted to capture the truths of the existence for man, his relationship with the world–not just nature–and express them in the simplest terms possible. I mean, who cannot relate to the beauty of coolness on a hot day, and how simple it is to just place you feet against the wall to absorb its coolness. It reminds me of my childhood when I used to lie down on the cool tile of the bathroom floor on hot LA summer days…

In the end, however, as these Basho haiku suggest, there is no real “spirit” of haiku except to express the truths of human existence. He initially tried to express them through nature–surely a reflection of his understanding of literary tradtion–but he moved away from frogs jumping into ponds and ducks crying in the dark, and focused on what mattered most: man and his daily life.

As for composing in a set format of 5-7-5 in English, I feel that it is, as I suggested above, restrictive as well. But that is the challenge, isn’t it? It is the format that defines a haiku or a senryu. Indeed, I think that restricting it to the prescripts of haiku/senryu expands creativity. It forces the individual to dig deep into the mind to find the appropriate lexicons and combinations. Many can express their thoughts if there are no limitations to length. To say things succinctly and effectively is an art unto itself. Moreover, giving expression to the variety of human existence–or to its ironic moments through senryu–in a tightly controlled space is almost a metaphor for Japan: A dynamic society of man in a very small restricted island. I hope that the budding poets who attend our senryu salon will also strive to express that which reflects the varying aspects of our lives in our very limited world of Xanga… Haaahhahaha, Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!

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