haiku, humor

On Rules: Moral Hazard; 5-7-5; …

The difference between respecting a rule and worshiping it can be vital, as with the Moral Hazard Rule against bailouts and the like.  A discussion of the Moral Hazard Rule could bog down in controversy over who is to blame for a mess, who is suffering, who has a hidden agenda, and so on.  So I will discuss something simpler and less important by itself, but good for illustrating that vital difference.  Please remember that difference the next time U hear somebody who worships a rule arguing with somebody who ignores it.  Maybe each of them is partly right and partly wrong.

The 5-7-5 Rule says that a haiku is a 3-line poem in blank verse, where the lines have syllable counts of 5, 7, and 5.  Tho he was razzed intensely at the time, Bill Clinton had a point when he fussed about what “is” means.  Does the rule say how the word “haiku” is (or should be) used?  By whom?  Does the rule specify the essence of haikuness?  My own attitude is both traditional and pragmatic, more nuanced than I can express in 3 lines.

I first encountered the 5-7-5 Rule as a junior in college, back when students used typewriters and people with scholarly aspirations kept bibliographic info on 3×5 cards.  (Yes, that long ago.)  A friend was interested in Japanese culture, but not so interested as to learn the language.  He was enthusiastic about some short Japanese poems that, as translated into English, were limp and vague.  Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my friend explained that these translations had the special burden of being translations of haiku, using the 5-7-5 Rule to define a word that was new to me.  My friend said he was settling for bad poems in English that began as good ones in Japanese, and that people cannot write haiku in English anyway, in part because we do not have Japanese calligraphy.  I took the purported impossibility as a challenge.

After some scribbling and counting, I put a 3×5 card in my typewriter, banged on a few keys, and silently handed the card to my friend.  It had 3 lines:

Haiku written on
a typewriter: ultimate

We shared a laugh and I kept the card.

In the course of about 50 years, I eventually wrote about 50 haiku, all conforming to the 5-7-5 Rule.  While thinking about ways I might publish some of my haiku, I did some web browsing and found many haiku that I liked, including the following gem by Alexis Rotella:

Just friends: …
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.

I barely noticed the violation of 5-7-5 and did not mind it at all.  Some time later, Lew Gardner sent me a handout from the haiku class he teaches, with examples that included Just friends: … and the following gem by Anita Virgil:

walking the snow-crust
     not sinking

Now the violation of 5-7-5 is integral to the imagery!

Anybody who gripes about the foregoing violations of 5-7-5 is just being churlish.  Anybody who is oblivious to 5-7-5 is missing much of the fun in a successful translation by Harry Behn of one of Basho Matsuo’s haiku:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

I needed strict observance of 5-7-5 to prove a point long ago, but the 5-5-5 of my last borrowing from Lew’s handout is close enough to support a funnier joke with a haiku that refers to itself.  I salute whoever topped my 1st effort with the classic

You have just started
reading the haiku
that you just finished.

Far from being hidebound about tradition, I often write on oddball topics, always provide titles, and sometimes write 3 lines that would be unintelligible w/o stage setting by the title.  But I also honor tradition with a serious effort at abiding by 5-7-5.  So far, I have almost always been happier with the result (of all the heating and hammering that effort entailed) than with the looser early version that I brought to my wordsmith’s forge.

Abiding by 5-7-5 has been helpful to me; I recommend giving it a try.  The precision of 5-7-5 is also appealing, and I deeply appreciate the importance of precise definitions in math.  I also know that poetry ain’t math.

Who Miscounted?

This so-called “haiku”
ignores 5-7-5, so
it’s not a haiku.