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Haiku Basics
by CarrieAnn Thunell

This article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of the SP Quill Quarterly Magazine.

Artwork by CarrieAnn Thunell In putting together this short introduction to haiku, I asked Christopher Herold, Managing Editor of The Heron’s Nest, to check it for accuracy. Mr. Herold told me that, “although the roots of haiku go back many hundreds of years, into Chinese verse structures, as well as waka, tanka, and linked verse forms, haiku itself is really less than 400 years old. It wasn’t even called “haiku” back then. Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694), the most famous Japanese haiku master, was really known more as a master of linked verse forms. It was at about that time, however, that the movement towards recognition of the hokku (first verse in a series of linked verses) as a verse that can be enjoyed independent of the renga form. Not until Shiki came along (1867 - 1902) did the term “haiku” (one Shiki coined) begin its popularity.” (Personal communication dated Dec 15, 2004).

As haiku began to drift like dandelion seeds into the west, various problems occurred involving its assimilation. We, in the west, are still in the process of creating our own adaptations of haiku as the transplanted seeds grasp the new soil of a foreign land.

In January of 1973, the Haiku Society of America formed a committee whose goal was to create an official definition of haiku, hokku, senryu, and haikai. They did this in order to provide reference works with accurate and consistent information. The 1973 definition was good as far as it went, but in March of 1993, HSA president, Francine Porad, formed a new committee to address the definitions of haiku and senryu, and added renku and haibun to the list. A draft was circulated, but no further action was taken.

In 2003, HAS president, Stanford M. Forrester, again called for a definitions committee, and the 1993 draft was further revised.

Here is the current definition reprinted from the HSA’s Report of the Definitions Committee, adopted at the annual meeting of the society in New York City September 18, 2004: “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.”

My personal favorite definition is a quote by Robert Spiess, who stated that “A haiku is an up to a breath-length poem in which two, rarely three, objects in a now-moment of awareness are juxtaposed so that each enhances one’s appreciation of the other, and together they evoke a felt depth, insight, or intuition of the suchness of things.” (Robert Spiess quoted in “Haiku: A Poet’s Guide,” by Lee Gurga, © 2003 Modern Haiku Press, page 2).

American convention is to write the haiku in three terse lines totaling seventeen syllables or less. The lines are usually asymmetrical, with the middle line often being the longest. Nature is linked to human nature by light implication, never by overt metaphor. A caesura, or pause, is often used to separate the two. Cristopher Herold told me that “the juxtaposition of two images sets up a resonance, or vibration, which causes the readers to intuit something profound about their relationship. Also, it’s true that a cut is often preferable, but not absolutely necessary. There are some wonderful poems in which two images are juxtaposed effectively within a ‘sentence’ structure. It is tougher to achieve success, however, without a cut, and there are far fewer of this sort of haiku.” (personal communication dated Dec 15, 2004).

One should also strive to include a seasonal reference as shorthand for evoking a very concrete sense of time and setting linked to the natural world. Mr. Herold agrees, and adds, “. . . but the kigo (season word) also acts as an implication of the many other things that can be associated with a particular time of year. When one says ‘hot evening’ summer is implied and along with it, the middle years of life when performance is at a peak, when life forms are reaching maximum potential. One’s own personal experiences of summers-past can also come to the fore. When we say ‘plum petals’ we are not only associating with early spring, but with infanthood and the beginnings of all things, regardless of when they might actually occur during the year. The point is not easy to put into words, but it is an important one.” (personal communication from Christopher Herold, Dec 15).

Haiku is unique in that it is co-created, evoking a spontaneous participation from the reader. It is minimalist, relying on terse concrete imagery and subtlety or lightness (karumi). Haiku rely on strong images and understatement to evoke a state of emotional resonance. Anyone who reads and writes a great deal of haiku will find that their perceptual orientation to life begins to change. One notices that each day is filled with mystical moments if we train our hearts and minds to be aware of them.

With roots deep in Zen Buddhism, haiku teaches us to become fully present to the now-moments of our lives. The title Buddha literally means “awakened (or enlightened) one.” For me, this is the true gift of haiku. I find myself spending less and less time on past regrets, obsessing over the bills, and future worries. I take more time to celebrate the natural world and the love of people that are in my life right here, right now.

Haiku has helped me to live the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

– Reinhold Niebuhr

To garner the inspiration to write haiku, grab a pen and notepad, put on a jacket, go outside to observe the natural world, children at play, etc., and embrace the now moments of life and love.

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