Small Stones and Haiku

Poetry

I’m delighted to have a haiku published at the beautiful a handful of stones blogzine of tiny poetry, with more from me to follow on 30th March and 15th April. Haiku are a form I’ve been working at for a while — you can also find some of my better efforts in Haiku Scotland 29.

Friends are likely to have been on the end of one of my rants about haiku. The Japanese form is one of the most abused in all poetry because of the supposed simplicity of its rules: many of us will have been taught the 5-7-5 syllable count at primary school, in a misguided attempt to provide easy access to poetry. (The result, I suspect, is that loads of children are left asking “If it’s that easy, why does it matter?” as screeds of joke haiku are produced.) It turns out haiku are a lot more complicated than that. Just for starters:

– The haiku traditionally contains a kigo, a word or phrase that connotes a specifiic season
– It also traditionally uses a kireji, or cutting word: a symbol that splits the poem into two parts which oppose and complement each other
– The 5-7-5 counts not syllables but on, a Japense linguistic unit which on average carries much less information than an English syllable — which is why Japenese haiku in translation are so much more parsimonious than English haiku using 5-7-5 syllables.
– The haiku’s subjects are observation, nature, objects and events — feelings, introspections and metaphors are to be used with extreme caution

I have found learning to work to these strictures an absolute joy. Working within constraints is always liberating; the tightness of haiku in particular requires deep and careful attention to the meaning of every element. What graceful kigo can I use? Where is the kireji best placed to balance the poem? What is extraneous? How can I express the precise moment in my mind? In any poem every syllable must be weighed in the balance; the constraints of the haiku give us time-tested mechanisms for doing so.

All of which makes the prevalence of joke haiku even more distressing. My rants are only partly motivated in “Well, actually…” corrective pedantic pleasure — really, it’s more disappointment in the limitedness of folk’s poetic imagination when encountering haiku. And also, I think, genuine distress that by refusing to encounter the form on its own terms, slapdash haiku writers are missing out an extraordinary poetic journey — one that teaches care and humility more than any other, characteristics I’m glad to be able to bring to other forms.

Paul Henry talks about these issues and more in his brilliant Call for the complete elimination of joke haiku on the internet, a comprehensive take that will totally refute the part of your brain that’s shouting “killjoy” right now. One of my favourite things about Henry’s rant is that he points us towards a brilliant alternative to those seeking short joke poetic forms: the limerick. Like the haiku, the limerick is very easy to do quickly and badly, and very hard to do well — it’s also perfectly suited to humour in the way the haiku is perfectly suited to observation. The world needs more good limericks in exactly the way it doesn’t need more bad haiku.

I’ll finish with something more positive still: Martin Lucas’s brilliant essay, The Haiku as Poetic Spell. That’s an essay that’ll take you through contemporary responses to the classic form, discuss the current state of haiku culture, and tell you much of why it’s worth learning to meet haiku on their own terms.

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