Sunday, November 14, 2010

...but is it Haiku?

Jim liked the first haiku I posted (well, maybe he's not the most objective critic?). However, out of curiosity, he read up a little on how Haiku are written and he found some things that make me wonder if much of what I've written fits the definition of traditional haiku.

I had learned that haiku structure was the three line, 5-7-5 syllable format. My more recent reading added to this by suggesting a haiku should be able to be spoken in one breath. Jim uncovered a few more details I had never heard before. For instance, the 17 syllables are actually moras (or ons).  These are different from syllables in that a long vowel sound or an 'n' at the end of a syllable 'count' as moras. I checked into this and, while it's true, a lot of English haiku come in at under 17 syllables because some translators say that 12 syllables in English seems about equivalent to 17 moras. 

Losing 5 syllables in such a Spartan form of poetry is a major issue! On the one hand, this excites me because what I think most people like about haiku - and what appeals to me about it in using it to write about Zen Buddhism - is the immediacy.  The poet must make the most of every word used. Nothing can be wasted. The poet Basho apparently revised his haiku as he searched for the perfect word, and he regularly used words that had multiple definitions or homonyms in order to layer on extra meanings. That's something I regularly did in my poetry, so it's a tactic I'm well familiar with.

I've also picked up a few more things about traditional haiku from the introductory sections in my hardcover book of Basho's haiku. For example, there should be a reference (either a word or phrase) that tells the reader what season it is. This can be very, very subtle but some people feel its a requirement for the form. And there's also 'cutting word', a sort of pause in the flow of the haiku that would be similar to a comma or semi-colon. I've definitely noticed this in haiku I've read. Often, after the first two lines provide a mental picture, the cutting word comes and then the haiku has a sort of philosophical comment or another image that makes the meaning clear.

While I like the idea of writing haiku in a more traditional format, I'm not sure I'm going to edit anything I had considered finished. It seems like a bad choice to edit something that I'm happy with just for format concerns. But I will keep it in mind for the future. Frankly some of this (I'm especially thinking of the cutting word) may be something I'm already doing.  I know I've used the cutting word device already because I could pick up as a reader how dramatic and effective it was in some of the haiku I'm reading.

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