Writing the 'Not-So-Simple' Haiku
by Patricia Spork

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Haiku is revered for its simplicity. But how simple is it to write haiku? Reading English-translated haiku of the seventeenth- century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho (considered a haiku master), can lead one to believe haiku is easy to write. Not so if you follow the Japanese use of their phonetic script "onji" (sound symbol).

The traditional form of Japanese haiku has seventeen onji. Onji, most of them considered as one syllable in English, led modern haiku to having three lines containing seventeen syllables (5-7-5). But onji has shorter sounds than our English language. Sometimes two or three onji characters can be translated to one syllable in English. Many haiku translators believe ten to twelve English syllables would best be used to mimic the original Japanese sound- length form.

Then there is the "kireji" (cutting word). The Japanese kireji's purpose is to separate one phrase from another in the stanza of a haiku. A kireji pauses the reader. The break is generally in the first or second line. In English, punctuation, like ellipsis, exclamation point, colon and semicolon are generally used as the kireji.

And we can't forget the "kigo" (season word). Standard season words describe the time of year a particular event occurs in a haiku. Words like bright, robin, and cherry blossom denote Spring; heat, fawn, and mimosa denote Summer; typhoon, scarecrow, and pear denote Autumn; and snow, chestnut, and bear denote Winter. How the season word evolved as a standard for Haiku is how Haiku was eventually created.

Originally haiku was the hokku, or starting verse of a renga (a collaborative poem containing several stanzas, each stanza written by different or alternating poets). The hokku was about nature and gave a season word so that the collaborators knew what time of year the renga encompassed. Eventually the hokku became independent of the renga and became known as haiku.

But as modern haiku evolved, the use of season words dissipated, as did the traditional format of haiku. Haiku can be written as 3-3- 4, 4-4-3, and 5-10-5, to name but a few variations. No matter the length, an important thing to remember when writing haiku is to allow your reader to experience the same special moment you experienced, to see or feel what you thought or felt at a particular instant in time. If you can do that, your haiku is a success, and as you intended the moment to be shared.

To have a successful haiku, you should try to eliminate unnecessary words, especially articles (a, the) and prepositions (of, but). That doesn't necessarily mean not use them at all, just use them sparingly. Vivid images and vivid actions are what haiku are about; the sharper image you convey, the easier a reader is impacted by the same image and moment in time. By taking two objects, adding an action to combine the objects, eliminating all unnecessary words, rearranging the words time and again, you can write haiku. As an example, let's look at one of Basho's famous haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water's sound

The first line, there is a pond (first object). Also notice the kinji, the ellipsis in the first line. The second line, there is a frog (second object) and an action ("leaps in"). The action and the last line tie the two objects together for one breathtaking and thought-provoking instant in time. We not only see this moment in time, but also hear it.

When writing haiku you don't really have to stick to any tradition unless you're following market guidelines or you're a traditionalist by heart. You can experiment with free-verse-haiku (my term for "anything goes as long as it's short, sharp, and captures a special moment"). I have found that staying in present tense helps capture the same moment for other people that read my haiku, but that hasn't stopped me from writing haiku in past tense at times. I guess what I'm trying to tell you is write what you see as you see it, or write what you saw as you saw it. Or even make up a special moment -- something you haven't seen, but something you'd like to see or to let other people see (through your imagination).

You can experiment with the use of similes and metaphors (a no- no for traditional haiku). You can add sensory perceptions like touch, sound, smell, sight, and taste. Make a man drink water like a thirsty dog, or a woman scratch her head like a dog that has fleas. Have a kite fly like a swallow or a crane dip its head in water like a hammer driving nails in a wall. Let rain sound like the clicking of tap shoes on a floor, or a child's cry for a bottle like the shriek from a jaguar at losing its next meal.

The most important thing to remember before writing haiku is that you are the writer of the haiku. Make a special moment come to life using your words. Use your freedom of expression to convey images in words as sharply as you can. Follow traditional haiku form or stretch the boundaries of tradition and try new things. By doing so, you can write the `not-so-simple' haiku.

Copyright © 2001 Patricia Spork
This article previously appeared in NAWW Weekly.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Patricia Spork is a freelance writer/photographer living in Texas. Her articles have appeared in Grit Magazine, femme musique, Cox Newspaper Services, and online in Bill Platt's Marketing Magazine, Adventures in Parenting Newsletter, and Inscriptions and other writing zines. Patricia's poetry has been published online at Neverworlds and in the print anthology Seasons to Come. She is publisher and editor of Writers Graphic Image. Patricia invites you to learn more about her by visiting http://patriciaspork.us/.

 

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