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I am big on precise language. Why am I so damn mellow about whether a poem is a haiku? The answer hints at bigger things (like reconciling polished theory with rough-hewn reality), but there will also be a few jokes.
Yes, there are short poems that are not haiku. Limericks are not haiku. Googling «one word poem» yielded more hits than I expected (and infinitely more than I would like). U can read about one that made national news here. One word poems are not haiku. (As candidates for a one word poem about one word poetry, words like [prank] and [scam] come to mind.) On the other hand, trying to say exactly what is a haiku is a lot harder than it seems to many people. It is also a lot less important, and we should be thankful for small blessings.
A list of several common characteristics of haiku is a good starting point as a tentative definition. Such a list can be good for introducing people to haiku. Whether it should be carved in stone is another question.
Here is a plausible list of things one might say about a short poem in English, such that the poem “should” only be called a haiku if they are all true.
- It does not rhyme.
- It has 3 lines, with a total of 17 syllables distributed 5-7-5.
- It includes some seasonal reference.
- It includes a poignant relationship between nature and humanity.
I got this particular list from a thoughtful comment by Sue Ranscht on a post with a 3-5-3 haiku. Amicably and implicitly, the comment posed the question that starts this post. It deserves an amicable (but explicit) reply.
§1: How Do I List Thee?
Let me count the ways. Hmmm. Do I have enough fingers?
There is a downside to defining the word [haiku] in a way that excludes much of what the best haiku poets actually write and much of what the Haiku Society of America considers to be a haiku. What are we to call that stuff?
Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) was among the many eminent haiku poets who do not adhere to our 4-item list. She was also an advocate (so am I) of haiku with a characteristic that is not in that list: juxtaposing 2 contrasting images (rensô in Japanese). Rather than import yet another Japanese word into English, she wrote about “fragment and phrase” as parts of a haiku, in an insightful essay that was nicely formatted in a CDHK episode. The juxtaposition may seem incongruous at first, and much of the fun comes from realizing how it does make sense. Sometimes one part clarifies the other. Sometimes the fragment (the shorter part) is the punch line of a joke set up by the phrase, as in the essay’s clever classic
Haiku © Jane Reichold superimposed on
Photo © Vladlena Azima | ShutterStock
Another criterion not in our 4-item list is interchangeability of lines 1 and 3. While Jane did not advocate interchangeability (neither do I), it matters to some people. Should we have a 6-item list? There is no need to consider here the whole multitude of criteria that are sometimes important to some people. There is no need to try wriggling out of the contradictions between some of these criteria. This section’s takeaway is simply that there is no single authoritative list. Do U find that conclusion stressful? Maybe a musical interlude will help.
§2: Musical Interlude
Back in 1800, Viennese concert-goers knew what a symphony was, with or w/o knowing much music theory. A symphony was an orchestral composition with 4 movements. Movement #1 might have a short slow introduction; otherwise, movements #1 and #4 were both at a brisk pace. Movement #2 was slower; movement #3 was a minuet at an intermediate pace. Performing the whole thing took a while, but well under an hour. And so on. That was before Beethoven began shredding the dictionary.
Did anybody abuse the new freedom by writing schlock that was long and loud? Of course. But some composers crafted some beautiful and enduring symphonies with great care and skill. Works like Dvořák’s From the New World are classics, tho in various ways they are not classical.
Saying that something is “a symphony” no longer says much about its length or layout. With no claim that they are all great symphonies, here are a few examples of the diversity.
- We have symphonies with less than 4 movements (Hovhaness; Schubert). More movements were apparently intended for Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony, but it is deservedly popular as is.
- We have a short strings-only symphony that does have 4 movements, but the 2 (not 1!) based on dance forms are not minuets (Britten).
- We have humongous symphonies with vocal parts (Beethoven; Mahler).
And so on.
Maybe it would be nice if the word [symphony] had a more specific meaning, but we get by. When Prokofiev revisited the old layout from before 1800, he did not claim to be writing the first “real” symphony in decades. He just wrote his Classical Symphony. The title’s meaning is clear enough.
§3: Back to Haiku
I wish those who advocate one of the narrower concepts of haiku would imitate Prokofiev. Speak of “classical” haiku or (better still) “traditional” haiku. Say which of the various traditions U have in mind. Want to make a discussion of a single tradition flow more smoothly by temporarily restricting the word [haiku] to that tradition? That might work, but it is hard to avoid any hint of permanently excluding other traditions in other discussions. Want to claim that working within your favored tradition tends to help people write good haiku? OK. I may well agree, unless U go on to claim that all haiku (or all good ones) are necessarily in that one tradition. Ain’t so.
Most of my own haiku (and many that I admire by others) do comply with at least 2 items in our 4-item list. Full compliance is common but far from universal. Want to be careful and focused when writing haiku? Pay serious attention to a list like this. But don’t let the tail wag the dog.
§4: Leery of Labels
The 6-item list briefly contemplated at the end of §1 is much like the 7-item list of rules that was actually used in a challenging CDHK episode. The main difference between the lists is in whether rhymes or words referencing the poet (like [I] or [dunno]) are forbidden. Neither is common in haiku; both do occur.
I responded to the challenge with a cheekily titled but fully compliant haiku (This Haiku Is Kosher), followed by one that breaks a few of the rules (Not Quite Kosher). Which rules? In the unlikely event that anybody cared, I could say. As it happens, my Not Quite Kosher is a wry lament (about crediting an image illustrating This Haiku Is Kosher). The title’s double meaning would be lost if it somehow specified which rules in the 7-item list were being broken.
Not Quite Kosher
Zen frog bronze sculpture
(credit lost, like casting wax).
Dunno who to thank.
Suppose we want to discuss partial compliance with a list of rules in some detail. Would it be helpful to have a noun as a 1-word label to pin on my partially compliant haiku, so as to indicate exactly which rules it obeys? Not really. With 4 rules we would need 16 nouns. That would be burdensome. With 6 (or more) rules, we would need an absurd 64 (or more) nouns. Better to just say what happens with each rule, if there is any need to say it.
Maybe a single noun for obeying all the rules would still be helpful? No, it is better to just plop a convenient adjective (like [classical] or [compliant] or [kosher] or [traditional]) in front of good old [haiku]. Remembering which rules are relevant at the moment is enough of a cognitive load.
A cluttered vocabulary is not the only downside of a profusion of special nouns, one for full compliance with each of several lists of rules. People tend to confuse pinning a fancy label on something with understanding it. They also tend to assume that labels are mutually exclusive. When the recipients of labels are other people, the results can be nasty.
Tho willing to break the 5-7-5 rule, I obey it more than might be expected of somebody who knows about its origin in a translation error. I am especially respectful of 5-7-5 when I write an aphoristic haiku (as a zingy summary of some nerdy philosophizing) rather than a moment-in-nature haiku. With a linebreak after the comma, this post’s title could be a 2-line aphoristic haiku. (Yes, there are 2-line haiku.) Maybe a 5-7-5 aphoristic haiku will reinforce the point.
Precision < Accuracy
is great, if we speak about
what is really there.