How to Haiku
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Ask Haikujane

# 1
April 7, 2003

Dear haikujane,
            I learned that haiku consisted of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables and yet some of the haiku I find online do not hold to this signature rule and still are still called haiku. The other problem I have is that I actually often prefer the shorter haiku to those with an accurate count.
                                                                                              Confused in Chicago

Dear Confused,
            The culprit is the differences between the two languages using one common term – haiku. For the Japanese writer of haiku, the rule of using five or seven sound units in a phrase works perfectly and has for over four hundred years. The problem is that there are several differences in our language that prevent us, English and other European languages,  from following their rule for our haiku.
            The first conflict is the fact that a Japanese sound unit, what is being counted on their fingers as the haiku is read, is much shorter when written or spoken than most of our syllables. In Japanese, each vowel is counted as a unit. Sometimes the vowel will stand alone and other times it is combined with one or two consonants. Basho’s name is a good example and contains another of the hidden problems with counting sounds.
            The first unit is “ba,” a vowel and a consonant along with “sho” that is a vowel with two consonants. We have blithely ignored a part of his name (meaning banana tree) because only recently have we had the typographical mark, a macron, which is still not available on most Internet browsers or computer fonts. This looks like the line over the vowel that we use to indicate a long sound as in “bay” instead of “ba”. In Japanese it indicates that that the vowel is not changed, as we do, but doubled.
            So to be accurate, when we type his name we should, and some do, write Bashoo (spoken as Ba-show-oh). Some systems of changing spoken Japanese to roman letters use an “h” to indicate the double vowel as in the word for Noh theater. Before I get too far off the subject, my point is that Basho’s name actually has three sound units and two English syllables when we all are saying the very same word! Just from this one example you can see that sound-unit blocks are smaller than English-syllables blocks so if you use the same number in building a tower, the English one will be about one-third taller.
            Over the centuries of their poetry, the Japanese have devised a myriad of phrases using either five or seven units until it seems like second nature to them to use these conventional  expressions. We have a similar phenomena, but our phrases have never been dominated by a system that constrained them to a set number of sounds. A Japanese finds these traditional phrases comforting and beautiful with a host of associations while we too-soon find them boring and call them clichés.
            Added to this, in Japanese, any punctuation is not indicated by marks, but is given a word. It is as if we wrote out “dash” or “comma”  and counted these one or two syllables as part of the 5 – 7 –5.
            Also the Japanese have no plural for their nouns so they can save sound units by using the same word as we do with “fish,” “deer,” and “sheep.” This is also why we speak of haiku and never haikus.
            When the Japanese began teaching Westerners their poetry they naturally passed along their most basic rule, without understanding the vast differences in our two languages. A 5 – 7- 5 English haiku is almost impossible to translate into a 5 – 7- 5 Japanese haiku because our poem will have about one-third too much material or information. You can write haiku in 5 – 7- 5 syllables, it is excellent practice, but you must allow others, with a greater understanding of translated Japanese haiku, the right to write closer to the bone. When you say you like the shorter English haiku you are appreciating a nearer equivalent to the sense of a Japanese haiku and I think you are on a good path.

Blessed Be! \o/ haikujane

# 2

Dear Haikujane,
I'm wondering why you feel it is so important to hold so closely to the haiku form of ending with a noun vs. a verb (reading your comments from the soap box on your web site).  I agree that form is important but what about sound and rhythm, as well as the notion that Haiku (and all poetry for that matter) allows for a measure of movement and change within its historical tradition. Doesn't language become brittle when structure takes over all of its other elements? Freedom in Canada

Dear Freedom,
            Because haiku are so short and pointed, we usually make an effort to drop all adjectives and adverbs unless we really need a modifier to add to the depth of the linkage between the images and the inspiration. In Japanese, as well as in English, there is an avoidance of ending a line (or a sentence) with a preposition. So this rather leaves us, in English, with having either a noun or a verb as the last word of a haiku.
Because haiku is a direct descendant of the form known as renga, it still carries some of the four-hundred year old rules. One of these archaic rules, that some of us still follow is: the third link in a renga (the daisan) should end with a verb. Thus, to give this link its honor, the others need to end in a noun to set off the one with the verb ending. The reason it had to end with a verb was to cause a “carry-over,” hooking it more securely to the following link. This was intended to capture the reader’s attention and not let it go by forcing the mind to want to know the object of the verb, which was found in the next link.
            All of this is well and good and rather ancient. My personal gripe with haiku ending with a verb, in English, is because it often is the result of the author being too lazy or not inventive enough to create a third image for the haiku. An example would be:

a spring day
the young girls

Skipping what? School? Home? Lunch? Rope? Stones? Hopscotch? I feel a better haiku would result if one put “skipping” up on the end of the second line (where it feels like it belongs) and added the third and final image. It takes some work to find the exact thing young girls would “skip” that expands the concept of a spring day. Here is the work and the genius.
            As with any of my “rules” and opinions, this does not mean that every one (or even I should ) always obey them. But looking over the masses of haiku written, I think you too, will find that  the majority of them end with a noun. Still, when your haiku asks to end with a verb, and you have the three needed images, why not let it make itself special and different. Go for it. I agree with you that too many rules can make a form brittle and bottled. That is why I advocate changing your own rules often – like socks. Blessed be! \o/ Jane

# 3

Dear Haiku Jane, Would you mind commenting on the use of upper case in
haiku please?  I have noticed that some haijin begin their haiku in
upper case, while others maintain lower case for the entire
haiku. Thanks. AC

Dear AC (does that stand for All Caps?),
            Your question is a good one; one that has no short answer because in writing a haiku in English we will have to find our own way. The Japanese language does not normally use any indication, as we do, with capital letters.
            Since we are trained to have a capital letter starting a poem, and even have believed that the first word each line of a poem should be capitalized, we get caught in a gap between cultures. This rule of caps in English poetry is slowly being dissolved for other genres, and there are those poets who want to follow this trend and to give a nod of recognition to Japanese by putting the whole haiku in lower case. I am one of those who feels a lower case haiku looks simple and uncomplicated, gentle and humble.
            Some people, defending the use of initial caps, say they do it because they want the haiku to be given a “little jump of energy” with the use of a capital letter in the beginning. Others are bothered by this because it seems the capitalized word is the beginning of a sentence and yet, a good haiku is never a sentence but a fragment of a sentence and along with a phrase. Thus, you will find that those who do use periods do so mostly to make their caps “feel right.” Others, seeing this problem, will use the leading cap, but then omit the period at the end.
            For me, the period is a strong signal of “this is the end” and I feel the mind is conditioned to close down the thought at this point. For haiku this is completely the opposite action that is needed. At the end of the last word of a haiku is when the whole poem begins – when the reader starts to imagine, to make connections and leaps with heart and mind instead of eyes!
            The Japanese do not use commas or periods either, so to not use them feels right in our path of imitation. However, they do have words which convey the sense of “dash,” “exclamation point,” and “question mark” as well as about 8 –9 other indications of emotion for which we do not have any marks. Thus, people who use only lower case, will often include the marks we do have, if they need them, while eschewing our commas, and periods of sentence-making.
            Some people, in an effort to be totally correct, over-use caps on seasons’ names, the names of birds and plants which most of us agree is unnecessary.
            Others take this lower case activity to the point where words such as the personal pronoun “I” and proper names (such as months and personal names) are also put in lower case. Some people find this practice distracting since something inside of us jolts when recognizing an “error” in a haiku and we get sidetracked into grammar, rules and being right instead of enjoying the poem.
            For several years I typed my haiku in ALL CAPS because the ups and downs of the tops of lower case letters bothered me. Unfortunately others saw my ALL CAPS as “shouting,” and I did not want to present my haiku with a bellow, so I gave that up – regretfully and slowly.
            So here we have a place for each of us to show our individuality by deciding how we want to present our haiku for the eyes of others. When you know the reasons behind your decision to do whatever you do, and can remain firm in that understanding, then I think you have the right to write your haiku in whatever case you wish. There is no right way yet for us, and whatever you do will surely bother someone, but you should do what you feel best represents yourself in your work. And then be tolerant of how others want to present their work. Blessed be! \o/ haikujane
When publishing your work among the work of others, do allow the editor the freedom to make your work “fit” in with any typographical considerations that person has. Editors and publishers, though dependent upon your good works, are doing you a service by showing your work to a wider audience. If they wish to make changes in the cases of your haiku, if you can go along with this graciously, you sometimes simply have to let go of your highest ideals to be included and maybe see your work in a new light.

# 4

Dear Haikujane,
            Why are some people in haiku so mean and so vitriolic? I always think of haiku as a gentle, shy way of pointing out beauty, yet some of the people in positions of leadership come across as being extremely dominating. Calm in Colorado

Dear Calm,
            For writers in general, because in their skills with words also lies their ability to wound, the better they are with words the greater the temptation to use these words to defend themselves by battering others. Unfortunately it often has the effect of the nuclear accident where the very people who are to be defended as a nation are the victims.
            For haiku writers there is a special problem. Many people are attracted to haiku because of the discipline demanded by the form. Look at all the possible rules and the vigor with which some of these rules are defended! People needing discipline in their lives are the ones who are often most attracted to the form. In their need for discipline for themselves and parts of their being that they perceive as being “out of control,” they choose a form that gives them what they need. By extension, out of their need to control themselves, they try to control others. Instead of encouraging people to have wide experiences and permitting them to make their own choices and decisions, a dictator-like person will use any method possible, words for the writer, to stop this process even if it means saying untruths.
            Another factor is the actuality that haiku is perceived as a masculine poetry form. Men have always excelled at it, and the coolness, the objectivity of the form all lend an air that fits with the typical male personality. RH. Blyth, who brought so many excellent translations from the Japanese, was convinced that women could not and should not write haiku. This statement, instead of saying something about women’s work, says a lot about Blyth’s own shortcomings. It should not be used as to mean there is no place for women’s work in haiku. We need to be a balance of the male and the female in our lives and in our work. Some people want to forget this, believing that only men are smart enough, dedicated enough, to write haiku.
            The greater the soul of the writer is, the less that person sees the works of others as threats to themselves and can be more accepting of the additions others are making to the total literature. The smaller the spirit of the person, the more threatened they are by the good works of others. In fact, the one can often judge the true worth of someone by the intensity of the attack against them.
            By staying calm, as you are Calm, by deciding whether to listen those who are obviously not interested in the form or its literature, but only in defending what they have done or want to do, you can counteract this tendency. You can also look at the kind of energy these people have. Do you admire their haiku? Do you feel good reading what they write? Can you learn from them in the way you want to? Do you have a good feeling about the magazines where they work? Then you decide what kind of energy you want in your life and set aside the stuff that offends you. You do not have to read it, believe it and especially – pay for it with either your time or your money.

# 5

"  I don't understand why everything I read about Haiku says that it should be about nature and never about people.  Yet several of the ones that placed and were voted on to win were about people.  It seems that the people voting don't know what a good haiku is supposed to be about.  I guess I'm just confused. How is focusing on a hungry Afghani child an aesthetic experience of nature?  How is it that "lean deeper into him"  merits votes? That is so humanistic.  I could go on and on.   First place for instance was about missing a loved one, "your long absence deepens". That is SO MUCH about humans.  Also, the nesting dolls and the old folks in their empty nest. I didn't think it qualified as Haiku unless it portrayed an aesthetic experience about nature and was not about
people.     I'm just confused. Linda

Dear Linda,
            Your question touches several topics, each of which is deserving of an answer, so I’d like to separate my responses into a couple of possible replies.
1. You are right that in teaching about haiku it is said that haiku should be about nature. We in the Western world often make a separation between ourselves and nature, by viewing ourselves as either above or outside of the rest of the natural world. Yet we speak of our “human nature” and we, as bodies, are formed completely of things of nature: air, water, soil and sunshine. Seen in this way, we are a part of nature and nature is a part of us and therefore there is room for humanity in haiku.
            In each of the poems, to which you referred there was a reference to a part of nature outside of humanity: “morning frost,” “heavy frost,” and “frostbitten.” In all of these cases, there was a connection between human nature and nature-nature (as it is sometimes lamely called).
            Part of your confusion is caused by the way we Westerners view these two aspects and part of it comes from the Japanese. In separating out the haiku (or hokku as it was called then) from the rest of the links in renga, one of the rules was that the verse should avoid mentioning persons because it was supposed to be elegant, placing the poem within seasons or places to set a scene, and to be concerned with the world greater than that of humanity. For other links within a renga this was not necessary and those links could and would handle subjects of love (certainly needing humanity), travel, lament (another strongly human occupation), and religion (also human-centered). It was only the first stanza that avoided these subjects. As the haiku was separated off and away from the renga, this rule stuck. When haiku was first introduced this was one of the rules we got – partly because it helped to disconnect haiku from our Western poetry that was so very concerned with ideas, philosophy, and feelings. Yet it is almost impossible to keep ourselves out of our poetry, so much of what we write as haiku is about ourselves. By making a connection with the nature-world (with kigo words) we attempt to align ourselves with the greater world so our smallness is not quite so puny.
            If you have done much study of haiku you probably have read that senryu are only about people and that this is the difference between haiku and senryu. It is only in Japan that the two forms are really separate and that is because the Japanese haiku writers know and use the season words and the senryu writers do not. Since most season words come from the world of nature, and senryu writers must avoid them, by writing about human affairs they can. In the kukai you mention the poem “anniversary /  my mother’s nesting dolls / tucked within themselves” if written in Japanese would probably be called a senryu. Both forms are the same and only tone or intent separates them.            I personally dislike the term and this further segregation of poetry so the idea of “free form” to mean without kigo is a good alternative. In English, we never completely understood these differences so from the beginning we have mostly written a hybrid haiku that combines both aspects so I do not think we need to continue to use an out-dated and often pejorative term.
            I will admit there is a certain cool charm to a haiku that contains only references to the world of nature-nature. By concentrating on the eternal world of nature, the poem has a deeper, richer more secure feeling than recording the more petty foibles of human experience. Yet, if one only wrote such haiku, or only read such haiku, the form would be greatly reduced and we would miss out on a lot of good inspiration and poetry. We do love ourselves and we love to talk about, and read about, us!

            The second question you raise is about how people judge a haiku. Fortunately (or maybe you see it as unfortunate) everyone has a different idea of what constitutes an admirable haiku. I know my standards even change from year to year and what I admired ten years is not what I would pick today. As difficult as this is for someone trying to learn from contests, I find it good thing – that our concepts of the form change and grow. Even among haiku “experts” there is truly no consensus as proved last year in a contest with nine judges each picking three winners and out of the 27 picked poems only in two cases was the same poem picked and never with the same rank.
            When you have a kukai (or a contest judged by the contestants) you have an even wider range of factors as to what constitutes an ideal haiku because you will have people new to haiku along with a few more experienced persons. In any contest, often the poems with human factors in them do win because they more easily touch our hearts and thus, stick in the memory long enough to rise about the rest of the entries. Put in a pitiful cat or dog and your chances are even better.
            The sponsor of a contest may set forth certain aspects for the contest but the judges may disregard these and choose what they like and not follow the rules the contestants were given. Also, it is not unknown in large contests for the sponsors to make final judgments, not on the quality of the work, but in order to give the prizes to certain people for the work they have done in the haiku community, to encourage persons where haiku is new, or to payback for old favors. Even contests with several judges it is too often is not about excellence but who the winner is. If Jack Kerouac and Joe Blow are in a contest, the “wise” sponsor would give the first prize to Kerouac knowing that his fame would then rub-off on the contest and gain more publicity and more entries in the following year than poor Joe’s better haiku would bring. This is a good reason for entering kukai – at least you know what is pleasing to your fellow writers. I did not say they would pick the most excellent poem – I said they would pick what is most pleasing to them. From your question I feel you understand the difference.
            One more word. I truly feel we need all kinds of haiku in our world just as we have weeds and orchids. Even you as a writer can (or should?) accept all kinds of haiku that come to you. Silly ones, ego-ridden ones, nasty-letting-off-steam ones, along with the sublime. The time of discernment comes when you let the haiku out of your notebook into the rest of the world. When you publish or enter a contest you will pick the haiku that comes closest to your highest goals for the form. Not everyone will agree with you, but if you have studied the form, and asked the questions, as you have done, you can be secure in knowing that even if your poem did not win, it was the best you had.

# 6
At 11:27 PM 10/25/2003 -0400, you wrote:
Dear Jane:
Would you please tell me just what is a tanka series and what is a tanka thread.
 I think I know what causes a thread but I am not sure of the series.
   Much appreciated.

Dear Betty,
            I am glad you know what a "string" is because I only know that is Sanford's term for a series of connected tanka but am not sure what method of linking his term refers to.
            The terms are often used interchangeably and almost no one pays any attention to the differences, but you are right, that writers should know what they are doing.
            A series is a group of poems hooked thematically to the title or chosen subject. Usually there is no or little chronological pattern so the poems could theoretically be set in any order.
            A sequence is a series of verses or poems that follow a sequence either in time or as narrative. In this case, each poem needs its precise place and has the function of moving the story or revelation forward. In more modern tanka sequences the relationship between the individual poems is based on linking as in renga. So again, each poem must be in a certain place as it gains meaning from its connection to the poem preceding and following it. For these reasons, a sequence is harder to write than a series.
            From my understanding of rengay, it is a series of links all relating only to the title or theme. Though the name implies it is related to renga, it lacks the link-to-link associations.
            I hope this helps you! Blessed be! \o/ Jane




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