Recently I worked up the courage to look through my old poems. I found two very fat files—one labeled “Poems, Very Bad,” and the other labeled “Poems, Almost As Bad.”
Very privately, I read a few and skimmed a lot. They dated through my high school and college days, and most were still sticky with honest adolescent suffering.
I was interested, however, to see the forms I had been using back then. There were lots of sonnets, quatrains, a triplet or two, varying degrees of free verse, and hundreds of nondescript pieces. But one form that I rediscovered with much affection—and found I had used more than fifty times—is the haiku.
There are two things among their many achievements that I personally bless the Japanese for—one is my transistor tape recorder, and the other is the haiku. What a delightful verse-form—one that everyone can enjoy reading, and one that poets and nonpoets alike ought to take a stab at writing.
Very simply, the haiku is a tiny verse-form that for hundreds of years has been a favorite of Japanese poets of all classes. It grew out of a five-line poem known as the tanka, written by two people as a literary game.
There are only seventeen syllables in the haiku. The first and third lines contain five, the second line contains seven. Like this:
There are three lines and
Seventeen syllables in
the haiku verse-form
But does putting a statement in the haiku form make it a real verse? About as much as putting a cat in a cradle makes it a baby. The above is a statement about haiku—an accurate piece of information—but it is not a haiku. Let’s put together a few pieces to see what a haiku is.
One Japanese poet has described it as a “one-breath poem.” It relates a complete, poetic experience in miniature. There is almost always in it a reference to a season, either direct (autumn rain) or indirect (cherry bloom). Fragmentary grammar is often necessary for condensation as well as for effect. There is no punctuation in the Japanese originals, though many translators supply some for the sake of clarity. One also finds that the various translations given a poem are quite different—some following the seventeen syllable format, others departing from it.
The haiku is much akin to the simple, elegant wall paintings of the Orient, giving only an outline, rich in suggestion. There are few words in the haiku, but much is said. One high moment is captured and recorded. It may be a sad moment, or it may be happy, deep, shallow, religious, satirical, or humorous. It gives a clear-cut picture, unloosing in the reader a train of thought, an emotion.
Who can read the following haiku by the master of that form without his mind leaping distances? And the poet gives us only the push.
“See: surviving sons
Visit the ancestral grave …
Bearded, with bent canes”
Immediately we see the visual picture. And just as immediately we are thrown into an experience with eternity, with the transitory nature of life, and with life’s perpetuity. And much more—depending on what we bring to the poem.
In a thin volume of haiku that I’ve had for several years, I find that many of my favorites—marked with a red check—are by the writer of the above, Basho (1644–1696), who crystallized the style. He was a student of the mystical philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Immersing himself in a rapturous awareness of even the tiniest things, he converted them, with a religious fervor, into poetry.
“Dewdrops, let me cleanse
In your brief sweet waters …
These dark hands of life”
An interesting story told of Basho well illustrates his attitude toward poetry. One day when he and a pupil were going through the fields, looking at the darting dragonflies, the boy made a seventeen-syllable verse:
Take off their wings
And they are pepper pods!”
“No!” said Basho, “that is not haiku. If you wish to make a haiku on the subject, you must say:
“Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
And they are dragonflies!”
Buson (1715–1783) followed Basho in time and fame. Critics call him “a little more sophisticated and detached than his predecessor, and an equally exquisite craftsman.”
“My two plum trees are
So gracious … see, they flower
One now, one later”
Considered the third great master of the haiku is Issa (1763–1827), tender, witty, unhappy. He wrote about his dead children, his bitter poverty, and about such seemingly unlikely subjects as worms and toads. I was astonished to learn that Issa had written 54 haiku on snails, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on fireflies, more than 150 on flies, and over 100 on fleas—in fact, about a thousand verses on such creatures.
The thing that charms me about Issa is his wit, as in this verse:
“Buddha on the hill …
From your holy nose indeed
Hangs an icicle”
Issa’s last poem was found under the pillow of the bed on which he died, deep in midwinter, in the storage building he had moved into after his own house had burned down.
“There are thanks to be given:
This snow on the bed quilt …
It too is from Heaven”
I can’t resist sharing two other verses that to me are a perfect blend of picture and philosophy.
“Don’t touch my plumtree!
Said my friend and saying so …
Broke the branch for me.”
“Dead my old fine hopes
And dry my dreaming, but still …
Iris, blue each spring”
Hundreds of thousands of new Haiku are published each year, and many, many times that number are written. Most haiku are written simply for the pleasure of the author and his friends and not for publication. There is an enormous satisfaction that comes from expressing one’s feelings, discoveries, sorrows, happiness.
Look around at your world. Notice the little things as well as the big things. Capture and define your own emotions. Translate them into a visual image. Here are a couple of my first haiku, shared mostly to make you think, “Hmmmm, I can do as well as that.”
“Where is umbrella …
Poor foolish heart will not come
In out of the rain”
“Three drops of spring rain …
See how they shake the roof of
I tried it again last night while my three tiny ones were in the tub together—just to see if it’s as much fun as it used to be.
“Ah, bubble filled with
Sun is bright … reach, blink … hand filled
With bubble is empty”
A relationship with the haiku, once begun, just doesn’t stop. Here’s another one I wrote today while pondering the problems of some young friends of mine.
Forgot to wait for seasons …
Shivers under snow”
And this one soon followed.
“Butterfly lifts from
Finger … ah, when this cocoon
Falls, I too will fly”
Maybe I’ll start another file: “Haiku, Improving.”