How simple can a literary form be while still managing to say something beautiful and interesting? Very simple. Consider the following two examples:
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 Katharine Hawkinson and Shuson Kato1, 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.
Shakespeare and Haiku
Haiku developed in Japan as an 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 Shakespeare 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.
Except, of course, Shakespeare would write something better than my cruel attempt which chopped off his premise – your beauty will be immortal.2 It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the format in an alternate history.
Issa and Basho
Arguably the two most famous haiku poets, widely available in English translations, are Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa.
One of Issa’s most touching poems was composed after the deaths of his two children. Here is the original Japanese text, with English pronunciation and my translation attempting to reflect its structure:
tsu·yu no yo wa tsu·yu no yo na·ga·ra sa·ri na·ga·ra
a dew world is
ever a dew world–
A much more poetic translation by Patricia Donegan is below:
Some of the things that make good haiku are the already mentioned season words (at least for traditional haiku), ‘freshness’ (run-on sentences stating something banal or obvious are boring), honesty, and ‘cutting’ words.
The ‘cuts’ are a key aspect of haiku because they form the inner, two-part, structure of the poem. There are often two distinct ideas or images in a haiku with a jump between them. Japanese language has several ‘cutting’ words (kireji) that can suggest different relations. In English, these are either left implied or represented by punctuation marks. Outside of Japanese, their importance is therefore usually overshadowed by counting of the syllables, which is an outward consideration.
The other listed ingredient is honesty. 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 direct and simple way, while not venturing away from what can be perceived with the senses.
Where other works of literature can span seven volumes (Harry Potter), 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
— Bruce England