How simple can art be while remaining beautiful and interesting? Haiku strip the superfluous to offer minimalist glimpses into life’s complexity.
How simple can a literary form be while still managing to say something beautiful and interesting? Very simple. Consider the following two examples:
frozen to the bone
gets all chopped up
after his turn to wash
her sweater tighter
The language is straightforward – everyday even – there are no metaphors or similes in sight, it does not rhyme, the meter is free too, and it’s frighteningly succinct. I borrowed these examples from Shuson KatoTranslation by Minoru Fujita and Richard F. Fleck. and Katharine Hawkinson, two haiku poets.
I have always admired simplicity and perfection in form. You can appreciate these qualities in many areas ranging from the clean architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, through the simplicity of Zen Buddhism, careful calligraphy, well-prepared sushi, meticulously shaped bonsai, all the way to – of course – haiku.
I imagine these art forms were gradually stripped of all that is unnecessary or superfluous, until the results were objects distilled to their essence. This does not equal straightforward simplification: in graphic design, music, cooking, literature and possibly everything else, if something is too simple, it becomes uninteresting.
Haiku often spring up spontaneously and strive to show things simply as they are. But in doing this, they offer us precious glimpses into life’s complexity in a minimalist form.
Haiku developed in Japan as the opening part of a larger poem at about the same time Shakespeare was writing his sonnets. The custom dictated that it be seventeen syllables and it should mention a so-called ‘season word’ as part of establishing the time of the year in which the poem is taking place.
When you think about it, it is not unlike if Will decided that he likes his closing couplets so well that he would devote his energy to writing just those – two lines of iambic pentameter and that’s it:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
To 5-7-5, or not to 5-7-5Unfortunately, people often equate haiku with anything which has three lines of five, seven and five syllables. But that is hardly a correct starting point because Japanese haiku are not written in lines, and while the words are grouped into 5-7-5 ‘syllables,’ the language differences render copying this characteristic meaningless.
Whether someone writes in short-long-short statements, in 3-5-3 syllables or anything else, the esthetic contribution of any such unfamiliar meter is so negligible that, ultimately, English-language haiku is better spending the energy on other aspects of the form.
Except, of course, Shakespeare would be able to adapt it so that the preceding premise – your beauty will be immortal – would not be lost. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the format in an alternate history.
Some of the things that make good haiku are ‘cuts,’ the already mentioned season words (at least for traditional haiku), ‘freshness’ (run-on sentences stating something banal or obvious are boring) and honesty.
The cuts are a key aspect of haiku because they define the inner structure of the poem but their importance is often overshadowed by counting of the syllables, which is an outward consideration. There are often two distinct ideas or images in a haiku with a jump between them. Japanese language has several ‘cutting words’ that can suggest different relations. In English, these are either left implied or represented by punctuation marks.
The last ingredient I listed was honesty, and I am using the term quite broadly: It means that haiku should be about something that the poet has really observed, not something he or she made up. It also means that the writer should stop short of telling the reader what to think, how to feel or what conclusions he should draw.
Does that mean that haiku cannot be personal or convey feelings? Of course not, they just go about it in a very honest and simple way; not venturing far from what can be perceived with the senses.
Where other works of literature can span seven volumes (I haven’t read Harry Potter but so I hear), haiku have around seven words, start to finish. This makes the genre very easy to explore, especially with many great examples available online. If you feel so inclined, the Haiku Society of America or their facebook page is not a bad place to start.
tempt the old cat,
but not enough