Haiku – Good Things Come In Small Packages

In the West, Haiku poetry is a Japanese import that is almost as well known as Sushi. One is food for the body, the other, for the soul. Haiku are known for their brevity – just three short lines, totaling seventeen syllables. They are as short as a breath. And good ones take your breath away. A Haiku poet lives with the understanding that “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Sushi is no longer only eaten by the Japanese, and is now enjoyed by millions of non-Japanese. Shouldn’t the same be said for Haiku? I’m not merely suggesting that you READ Haiku, but that you WRITE it. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. The subject of Haiku is nature, so writing Haiku is about connecting with Nature, plugging into it, and tapping into something far greater than ourselves. Immersing ourselves in nature is like diving into a pool of spirituality. It is like becoming a raindrop and falling into the ocean, where we lose our identity and become one with the world.

2. Writing Haiku frees us from idle dreams of the future or meaningless lingering in the past because it forces us to live in the present moment. How else can you taste and savor life than by living in the NOW? And that’s precisely what Haiku trains us to do.

3. Like meditation, creating Haiku quiets the mind and envelops us with peace. Patricia Monaghan & Eleanor G. Viereck write about using Haiku as a form of meditation in their book, “MEDITATION, The Complete Guide” (New World Library, 1999). Since writing Haiku has the same stress-reducing benefits as meditation, isn’t it worthwhile exploring?

4. Writing Haiku exercises the right hemisphere of brain, thereby strengthening our intuition and creativity.

Before we can write Haiku, we need to know a little more about it. Haiku has four characteristics:

1. FORM. It is written in three lines. Line one has five syllables; line two, seven syllables, and line three, five. So, the form is 5-7-5 syllables. Here’s an example: Stormy mountain night: (5) / Following a way revealed (7) / by moments of day (5).

2. SUBJECT. The subject matter of Haiku is Nature.

3. SEASON. In addition to dealing with nature, the season is suggested or implied. For example, in the above poem, it is the rainy season (summer).
How do we know? Well, the poet is struggling to find his way on a mountain path on a stormy night. And flashes of lightning (“moments of day”) help him by lighting his way. We know it is summer because that is when we have lightning storms.

4. BREAK. A Haiku consists of a point and counterpoint. It has a subject and an element of contrast. Or the break may reveal a new insight or change of perspective. For instance, in the above poem, written by James Hackett, the author invites us to look at lightning in a new way; mainly, as “moments of day.”

The best way to learn more about Haiku is to look at more examples. But before doing so, I will briefly mention a controversy among Haiku poets who write in English. One school of thought says that English Haiku should adhere to the same form as Japanese Haiku; that is, 5-7-5 syllables. The other school believes that 17 syllables in English are too many to capture the brevity of Japanese Haiku. That’s because English 5-7-5 Haiku have more WORDS than their Japanese counterparts. How can this be? Well, English is rich in one-syllable nouns, adjectives, and verbs, whereas in Japanese they are all polysyllabic. Here are some examples. Cloud, snow, rain, grass, and sky are all one syllable in English, but two syllables in Japanese. And walk, run, jump, or fly, are one in English and two or three syllables in Japanese. Finally, cold, hot, warm, big, and small are one in English and three or four in Japanese.

Although Japanese Haiku cannot contain as many words as English 5-7-5 Haiku, this ‘weakness’ is more than offset by the nature of the Japanese language. You see, Japanese implies much more than is spoken or written. As an example, let’s look at a poem written by (Masaoka) Shiki (1867 ~ 1902). He is one of Japan’s legendary four Haiku Masters. Here’s the poem in English:

After coming out / to close the gate, I end up / listening to frogs.

And here’s a literal translation of the Japanese:

To close the gate / after coming out / Ah! Frogs!

Note how the Japanese “Ah! Frogs!” is equal to many words, for what Shiki is saying is, “After I left my house to close the front gate, I unexpectedly heard frogs croaking in my garden and stopped to listen. Ah!”

So, in conclusion, I don’t believe it is necessary to write English Haiku with fewer than 17 syllables. To do so is to ignore the form and write without rules (free verse). And as Robert Frost (1875 ~ 1963) said, “I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” So, my suggestion is to stick with 5-7-5.

Now, let’s look at a series of poems to get a greater feel for what Haiku is about. We’ll begin with a sample taken from each of the three other Japanese Haiku Masters: (Matsuo) Bashô (1644 ~ 1694), (Yosa) Buson (1716 ~ 1783), and (Kobayashi) Issa (1763 ~ 1828).

BASHÔ: A clear waterfall: / Into the ripples / fall green pine-needles

BUSON: A strong gust of wind: / And the flock of waterbirds / now all become white (Because the wind exposes their white down)

ISSA (Example of free form translation): Snow melts / and the village floods / with children (After the heavy snow melts, the village children can come out to play once

Here are examples from my own Haiku:

Lively children play / among the cherry blossoms: / In the old graveyard

A wilted lily / resting on a rusty gate: / Stolen by the wind.

Winter morning mist: / The receding village fades / like a memory

Frost clings to dry leaves / and greets the sun with bright tears: / Born from thoughts of death

Rugged mountain path / disappearing in the clouds: / Voices from afar

Wave, splash, foam, wet feet: / Sinking in the sand of time / immemorial

A glistening trail: / on fallen leaves is all that / remains of the snail

Late fall’s bitter cold: / Shoulders hunched while walking on / sounds of fallen leaves

Barren winter trees / sprouting birds on every branch: / Memories of spring

A swaying tree branch: / Shrouded in the swirling snow / a dove tightly clings

Even the ghetto: / Becomes beautiful in the / gently falling snow

While it is eating: / Large drops of melting snow hit / the mouse on its head

Cat paw prints in snow: / Melting and leaving behind / warmth of early spring

Countless pearls of dew: / Sparkle in the sun amidst / fragrance of flowers

What do you think? Are you ready to begin? All it takes is a walk in the park and a willingness to allow nature to speak to you. The purpose of prose is to inform; the purpose of poetry is to stir one’s heart, and the purpose of haiku is to connect to life. Don’t miss out; plug yourself in and discover how Haiku is proof that good things come in small packages.

This web site offers an archive of 6,000+ Haiku of Issa

History of Haiku

An Introduction to Haiku

The Way of Haiku” by a Master of English Haiku, James Hackett (Japan Publications, Inc., 1969)

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, An Anthology” by Faubion Bowers (Dover Publications, 1996)

Haiku, The Poetry of Nature” by David Cobb (Universe Publishing, New York,

“Haiku,” a landmark study in four volumes by R. H. Blyth (Hokuseido, Tokyo,
1949 ~ 1952)