What is haiku?

by Alan Summers (2009 With Words)


"Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it."
Hiroaki Sato: Author; Columnist; and Editor of "One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg"


"There are as many descriptions of haiku as there are stars in the night sky: this is mine." Alan Summers, founder of With Words.

An English-language haiku is often written in three short lines and read out loud in about six seconds. 'Haiku' is the singular and plural spelling, there's no 'haikus'.

They're written in the present tense, in ordinary language, and work well as two different images that spark off each other.

It's good to include one or more senses such as sound, smell, taste or touch, and not just what we can see.

Haiku don't tell, or merely describe, they allow the reader to enter the poem in their own way.

They are ideal for non-fiction observations as a kind of short-hand for remembering events or incidents.

They can be therapeutic and they exercise both the right and the left side of the brain.

Traditionally haiku are rooted in natural history and the seasons, and make us conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we've even put pen to paper.

Haiku have a seasonal clue called kigo in Japanese. Obvious season words are snow for winter; and heatwave for summer; but you could use less obvious kigo like beer for summer, and Orion or Orion's Belt for winter.

Where does haiku come from?

Haiku evolved from a "first verse" called hokku; they often look incomplete as they originated from a linked verse poem where the first verse (hokku) was finished by the second verse and then the second verse was completed by the third verse and so on.

'Hokku' held a special place in the multi-poet-multi-linking-verse-poem known as renga, or renku, which enjoyed a renaissance in 17th Century Japan: people started collecting them, as not all the composed hokku, on the day could be chosen to start off the renga.

Japanese writers began to adapt foreign literary techniques into their poetry as Japan in the late 18th century, when it was opened up to the West. Journalist, writer, and poet Masaoka Shiki took full advantage when he officially made hokku an independent poem in the 1890s and called them "haiku" (singular and plural spelling) bringing this poem into the 20th Century.

Alan Summers (2009)