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November 21, 2022
"Mes de los Muertos"

Poetry for Pikers 01

By Cheryl Haimann

If you learned about just one poetic form when you were in elementary school, chances are it was haiku. The instructions for this short Japanese poem were simplicity itself:

First, five syllables
A longer line with seven
Followed by five more

It's easy to see why this type of poem might appeal to a harried teacher. For one thing, it is a sneaky way to find out if the students know what syllables are. The resulting poems are short and easy to mark, because unlike much creative writing, there is a right answer. You hit the syllable count or you don't. You pass or you fail.

If you've never written a haiku before, go ahead and write one now. Go on. We'll wait...

Don't know what to say-
I never write poetry,
But this is easy.

It was easy, wasn't it? Armed with this experience, you can now write miniature movie reviews, political commentary, or any number of other snarky or humorous little observations in the haiku style.

Star Trek: Wrath of Khan
Genesis stolen, Kirk screams
Spock dies? Maybe not...

That sort of silly haiku does a disservice to the real deal, though. Some of it is amusing, but if the only thing clever about it is the line length, the joke can wear thin quickly.

More traditional haiku is not out of reach, though, even for a novice. If you learned haiku in a more enlightened classroom, you may have been instructed to write about "nature" and to avoid using capital letters or punctuation.

winter snow is cold
when it blows onto my face
my nose gets runny

Japanese haiku traditionally show a moment observed in the natural world. Each poem includes words which refer to a particular time of year. Robin, falling leaves, and icicle, for example, each refer to a different season. Old Japanese haiku writers had lists of seasonal words that were acceptable for haiku. Such lists are not used in the West, in part because winter in Florida suggests a very different set of words than winter in South Dakota or Ireland.

Haiku focuses on things that are observable and avoid sentimentality. Emotions are not spelled out, although they may be suggested by the words of the poem. Notice how this poem suggests both peacefulness and untapped energy while describing a specific visual image:

two sleeping kittens
head to tail and tail to head--
yin and yang in fur

The poem above also demonstrates another element of haiku, the surprise. The first two lines are a straightforward description of the image. Then there is a slight break, in this case represented by a dash, and a different description that amplifies the first description as well as adding another layer of emotional impact.

If you like extra short poems, then it pays become more traditional in your haiku writing. The prescribed syllable counts are a Western interpretation of Japanese word sounds called onji. Onji are somewhat shorter than English syllables, and so a seventeen onji haiku is equivalent in length to roughly twelve English syllables. One way to approximate this length is to use 3/5/3 syllables.

spring drizzle
near abandoned barn
horses...hay...

These days, much Western haiku abandons syllable counts altogether in favor of generically short lines. Also, the nature theme is sometimes broadened to include man-made objects. The common thread through these variations is that the poet takes time to see and record a fleeting image at a specific moment.

corner pawn shop
tools, diamonds, tvs
in a casino's glare

If you enjoy writing haiku, you may want to sample some other similar forms of poetry.

Senryu uses the same 5/7/5 syllable count as haiku, but the subject is human nature, and the tone is witty or humorous.

pretending to sleep
if I outlast my husband
he will make coffee

Tanka has five lines, with a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count, with a break after the second or third line. The poems traditionally were about love, but have evolved to encompass sadness and other moods. Unlike haiku, which uses specific images, tanka can include metaphor and other literary devices.

Haiga is illustrated haiku. Traditionally, the poem and a simple sketch were placed on the same page or scroll.

Renga is a poetry collaboration, and the parent of haiku and senryu. Poets would write traditional season-and-place haiku and bring them to a party with other poets, each hoping that their stanza, or hokku, would be selected to start the renga. Then, each poet in turn adds a verse, alternating 5/7/5 and 7/7 stanzas. Each verse should link to the previous verse, by continuing or amplifying an image or a mood.

Renga should have a beginning, middle, and end. In practice, renga poets may want to agree in advance on a theme so the poem does not get out of control. The beginning and end are usually more haiku-like, while the middle can have the more light-hearted characteristic of senryu.

Lune is a Western form, invented by a poet who wanted to more accurately mimic Japanese haiku. The poem has thirteen syllables, arranged 5/3/5.

Smooth glassy river
a leaf falls
rip-rip-rip-ripples

A later poet mis-remembered the form, and so it is also taught as 3/5/3 words, not syllables.

yappy little dog
chases tail in circle, then
assaults my ankles

Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-07
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