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Haiku - an old, yet refreshing art form

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2001-12-20

Haiku is sometimes viewed merely as a short, simple poem, and many people don’t take it seriously, just like some individuals don’t take much of the world’s greatest literature seriously. Much of this is due to the fact that haiku is often portrayed as an ancient, dead art form. We read many of the great haiku of the past as skeletons of a previous artistic movement; however, haiku is still very much alive in some circles even today. Those looking to revitalize their poetic selves will find haiku a simple, elegant form of expression that is fun to create and surprisingly relevant to modern-day life.

The essential element of form in English haiku is that each haiku is a short, one-breath poem containing a combination of images. Haiku capture moments of life conveyed through the five senses. They are gifts of the here-and-now, with just enough information to allow the reader to enjoy the moment as his or her own. Haiku is one of the most important forms of traditional Japanese poetry. Today, it is a 17-syllable verse form consisting of three units of five, seven and five syllables. For instance, here is a simple haiku:

Four in the morning
She dreams beneath a gray sky
While I dream of sleep.

Not the best haiku ever written, I know, but I never claimed to be a master! Haiku can be written to describe almost anything, but you seldom find things too complicated for the normal person’s recognition and understanding. The most beautiful haiku describe daily life in a way that portrays a brand-new experience in a familiar situation.

Five-thirty a.m.
The scent of steaming coffee
The sun starts to climb.

In her article entitled Haiku Techniques, published in the Autumn 2000 issue of Frogpond, Journal of the Haiku Society of America, Jane Reichhold describes many different techniques for writing haiku. Here are a few: The technique of comparison is done by showing how two different things are similar or share similar aspects. Contrast is achieved by comparing two separate images. “Most of the surprises of life are the contrasts, and therefore this technique is a major one for haiku,” writes Reichhold. Association is done by demonstrating how different things relate or come together. It is showing how everything is a part of everything else. The technique of narrowing focus is done by starting with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switching to a normal lens for the second line and zooming in for a close-up at the end. For instance:

A large city sleeps
A light shines through a window
I doze at my desk.

The technique illustrated above is executed to make a tiny haiku into a well-rounded thought. The first and last lines exhibit a connectedness or completeness, and some say you should be able to read the first and third lines to find a complete thought. For more information on these and other forms of haiku along with as examples, check out www.ahapoetry.com/haiartjr.htm.

The origins of haiku can be traced back to 15th-century Japan, when a new poetic form called renga was developed. Individuals writing renga added alternating verses of 17 syllables (5-7-5) and 14 syllables (7-7) until they had completed a poem generally composed of 100 verses. In the 16th century, a humorous poetic form called haikai replaced renga in popularity. Haikai was a poem comprising verses of 17 and 14 syllables like renga, but it parodied the older forms and introduced a more vulgar brand of humor. Basho Matsuo (1644–1694) is known as the first great poet in the history of haikai. He wrote poems using jokes and word play but began to attach an importance to the role of thought. Haikai became less popular in the 18th century, when poets began creating hokku. Painter and poet Buson Yosa (1716-1783) exerted great effort to evoke clear images in his picturesque hokku. Yosa’s poems are very descriptive, but the scenery is idealized rather than realistic. He meant to describe the essence of objects rather than their blemished surfaces:

A kite floats
At the place in the sky
Where it floated yesterday.

Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959) was a well-known haiku poet. His pieces, however, are not limited to a fixed style. His art was a mix of the many styles of haiku written before him:

A snake slipped away
Only his eyes having looked at me
Remain in grass

Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887-1946) is known for having rebelled against the general idea of guidelines for the number of syllables that could be used in a poem and developing a style now known as free-form haiku. He advised haikuists to deviate from established rules and guidelines and develop their own personal style and voice, introducing a colloquial style of haiku:

Murmurs behind the cart of hay
A summer day is coming

In past centuries, numerous other well-known haiku poets have come and gone. There is not enough space in this article to examine every one of them, but there are hundreds of pages on all aspects of the art form waiting to be found on the Internet.

There is something in haiku for everybody. Writing a long, deep poem can be tiresome for many people, but those with a hectic lifestyle will find these short poems both fun to write and worth saving to read in the future.

For movie buffs, humorous haiku have become quite the craze on the Internet in past years. The following site has movie reviews for many of the most popular contemporary movies: http://www.igs.net/~mtr/haiku-reviews/ From “Clockwork Orange” to “Toy Story 2,” there’s a haiku review for each film. Now it’s your turn. Get out there and haiku-it-up!

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