I’ve been reading about haiku.

All I ever knew about haiku was that they're supposed to have 17 syllables (which I always thought was pretty silly since I’m not reading them in Japanese), but it turns out they’re more subtle than that.

Haiku developed from an intellectual party game in which the guests wrote a poem. The host would start with a short verse, and then each person would extemporaneously compose a sort of couplet which referred to the preceding verse until all the guests had contributed and the poem was complete. Eventually, some of the individual parts came to stand on their own, and new rules were applied to their creation.

A haiku was to begin with a reference to classical poetry that was, in turn, associated with a season of the year. Next came an image to comment on the theme or “penetrate its essence.” The image was to be accurate and drawn from everyday life. In addition, the language was to be plain. Over time, these strict rules have been relaxed somewhat, but this is the tradition. Also, the number of syllables may change from language to language, but the idea is to duplicate the duration and the rhythmical structure of the original form.

Some haiku are influenced by Zen which teaches “how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.” In other words, seeing things as simply phenomena. The poet merely records an observation and lets the reader make the associations, if any.

Haiku are sad, ironic, funny, lonely, inspirational–all the things good literature can be. Some of the references are so obscure that you really do need a score card to follow along, but the knowledge that there’s more to know intrigues me.

Some are quite obvious and wonderfully to the point.
Summer grass;
all that remains
of warriors' dreams.

Goes out
comes back–
the loves of a cat.

This one made me laugh:
Year after year
on the monkey's face
a monkey face.

Here some biographical background is needed. The poet Buson was staying at a place called "Fallen Persimmons House" where he was apparently plagued by visitors wanting to see the famous poet. His friend Boncho wrote:
Tourists are also directed
To the bean field
and the firewood hut.

It reminds me of one by a famous calligrapher who also had people coming by to ask that he write something for them:
I must be living in a toilet;
everyone who comes here
brings paper.

Haiku are mysterious:
Tethered horse;
in both stirrups.

or gently humorous:
Don't worry, spiders;
I keep house

But some come alive only after explanation:
Plums in blossom
and the courtesans of Muro
are buying sashes.

Is seems the courtesans in question are of a class called yujo. They were prostitutes who were regulated by the government and were not allowed to leave their quarter of the city. Since they couldn't go out to look at the spring blossoms, they bought flowered sashes for their rooms. How's that for pathos?

Don't kill that fly!
Look–it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.

Ambrose Bierce would like this one:
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

One human being,
one fly,
in a large room.

On his 50th birthday, Issa wrote:
From now on,
it's all clear profit,
every sky.

Here's another you may like:
Writing crap about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

And one of my favorites:
A fallen leaf
returning to the tree?

There are many, many more.


Most of these examples were taken from The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass. Another excellent discussion of the Haiku form for English is The Haiku Handbook, by William J. Higginson.


More haiku links on the internet.