Sandra Simpson, champion of haiku, writes to those who misunderstand – and disrespect – the form that defines her writing life. (This weekend, a response from Uther Dean).
On March 15 this year The Spinoff published in its coveted Friday Poem spot 11 “haiku” by Uther Dean. The quote marks are intentional.
Brace for a bit of horn-tooting. But as I have no doubt that my name is unknown outside the haiku community I believe I need to establish my credentials, that I know what I’m talking about.
I have been writing and studying haiku since 1993, when I met Catherine Mair, founder of the Katikati Haiku Pathway. She offered her support as I began to explore the form that has captivated me ever since.
After I got my rubbish poems out of the way I’ve gone on to win many haiku awards around the world, judged international contests, and had poems published in Britain, the United States, Australia, Japan, India, Croatia and New Zealand.
After the first Haiku Festival Aotearoa in 2005 I took responsibility for building and running the Haiku NewZ website which functions as a hub for this country’s haiku community and has become respected internationally as a clearing house of haiku news, and reading on the forms of haiku, senryu, tanka, renku and haibun.
A request from The Haiku Foundation’s website (US) set me writing and compiling The Haiku History of New Zealand, published by Haiku NewZ and by THF. Both sites are updating the piece in 2019.
With Margaret Beverland I organised the 2012 Haiku Festival Aotearoa in Tauranga and in March we published the fourth New Zealand haiku anthology, number eight wire.
I’m writing now to attempt to convey the frustration that people who write haiku feel about the people who use the term “haiku” for what are really short poems.
Several mainstream poets in New Zealand have, or do, occasionally write haiku. Very few get near the real thing. And there seem to be plenty who don’t even try to understand the form even while labelling their poems “haiku”.
Haiku as we know it today originated in Japan and was sliced out of a much older form of poetry by Matsuo Basho in the late 17th century. The new stand-alone form was known as hokku (head or lead verse) until the 19th century, when the poet Masaoka Shiki renamed the verse haiku and reinvigorated its practice in Japan. Basho’s most famous haiku, still known throughout Japan and around the world, was composed in 1686. The most favoured translation is: old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water
When I’ve taught haiku it’s clear there are two things people feel confident in “knowing”. One is that the form originated in Japan (true). The other is that they are written to a strict syllable count of 5-7-5. This is untrue, and if only the school curriculum would update: one primary teacher wailed, “but how will I know it’s a haiku if it’s not 5-7-5?”.
The vast majority of poets writing haiku in English in the 21st century do not bother counting syllables at all – being able to say a haiku in one breath is as good a measure as any as to whether the length is right. Of course, some poets choose to write within the 5-7-5 structure and are perfectly entitled to do so – but unfortunately, for most people, counting syllables encourages poor poetry, either by adding unnecessary words or by omitting necessary words and creating Tonto-isms (after Tonto in The Lone Ranger who usually left out definite articles), for instance, ‘baby blows bubbles’, instead of ‘a/the baby is blowing bubbles’.
So what’s with the 5-7-5 idea? It’s based on a misunderstanding by early translators who recognised that Japanese haiku fell into a regular pattern, and deemed that one Japanese sound unit was equal to an English syllable. That ratio simply doesn’t hold – the very word “haiku”, for example, is two English syllables and three Japanese sound units.
No less a poet than Gary Snyder has said: “I don’t think counting 5,7,5 syllables is necessary or desirable. To reflect the natural world, and the season, is to reflect what is.”
As an aside, of the 330 haiku by 70 poets in number eight wire, which surveys the decade from 2008, only one is 5-7-5.
My next point is that haiku are poems – sadly, this is not blindingly obvious to people who write “haiku” with no grounding in haiku. They are poems that find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary while using everyday language.
They are not jokes or puns, they are not epigrams and they are not statements. They do not shout. True, the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-94) formed and taught a theory of “lightness of touch” (karumi) that includes humour, but belly-laugh humour about the human condition belongs to senryu, a whole other poetic form (and no, Uther Dean’s poems don’t cut the senryu mustard either).
Haiku are nature-focused and while that can, and does, include humans and human activities it is generally with a strong sense of the surrounding natural world and our place in that world.
Almost always, haiku do not start with a capital letter and do not end with a full stop.
They are generally written in the present tense. Why? Because they are capturing a single moment in time, this one, now. They are part of the ever-moving stream. No beginning, no end.
Haiku show and don’t tell. They have been described as “wordless poems”, meaning the words fall away and only the moment/experience is left. In fact, the best haiku are also a partnership with their readers, the poet leaving space for readers to bring their own life experiences to the poem – meaning every reader can “complete” the haiku in a slightly different way.
Haiku engage the senses to enrich the reading experience. They are sensory poems in a way that longer, mainstream poetry so often is not.
The most widely used technique in English-language haiku is that of juxtaposition – compare or contrast two things that on the face of it are unrelated. The best of these links are like lightning, in a flash illuminating the detail of an otherwise dark landscape. The two pieces of the haiku (often called “fragment” and “phrase”) essentially complete one another. Bound up with juxtaposition is the use of a cut (caesura) between the two parts of the haiku, generally in English a piece of punctuation.
All of the above is just a small taste of the theory and practice of haiku. There is still much I have to learn and master and I look forward to spending as much of my writing life as is left on this task.
Here are 11 fine examples of haiku from number eight wire. Try and read them slowly, giving each word its weight, rather than letting your eye skitter across the lines grabbing at key words. The poets have chosen their words with care – each must earn its place in such a short form.
a duck’s eyelid
Catherine Mair (Katikati)
next to the rake
the rake’s shadow
Tony Beyer (New Plymouth)
the moth’s feelers
Barbara Strang (Christchurch)
sunlight all around
of an eggbeater
Richard von Sturmer (Auckland)
a horse pisses on
the new road
Nola Borrell (Wellington)
the orange bones
of a willow
André Surridge (Hamilton)
news of her death
I start to dig
a winter garden
Katherine Raine (Milton)
takes it away
Marion Moxham (Palmerston North)
spattering rain the pulse in a sparrow’s throat
Sandra Simpson (Tauranga)
sowing mustard seed …
the brush of a bumblebee
against my arm
Margaret Beverland (Katikati)
Christmas eve –
the neighbour comes round
to borrow some data
Owen Bullock (Waihi/Canberra)
Why would anyone focus their writing on these small poems? After all, they’re just a few words that a five-year-old could write. That’s true, and often children write astoundingly good haiku because they’re still seeing the world with fresh eyes.
Haiku have made me more aware of my surroundings, which often leads to a pleasing sense of wonder. They make me observe and think. Writing a good haiku sets my pulse racing; reading assured poems by others is a delight. Haiku have, I believe, helped me to a deeper understanding of the world around me and my place in it.
So the lack of respect shown by mainstream poets towards haiku bothers me – I wouldn’t write something in 10 lines with no rhythmic beat and call it a sonnet, yet many of them feel comfortable writing something – anything – in three lines and calling it a haiku (sometimes literally calling it “a haiku”) without thinking too deeply about what a haiku actually is, without any effort to upskill.
Generally speaking (and there have been some notable exceptions), mainstream poets in New Zealand don’t interact with haiku poets, barely recognising that our community exists. The well-known literary journals who never publish haiku; the well-known literary journals who publish “haiku”; the anthologies of New Zealand poetry that ignore haiku time after time; and let’s leave the subject of national-level arts funding well alone. One hardens one’s heart to stop being continually disappointed.
Seed funding to publish number eight wire came from Windrift haiku group (Wellington), Small White Teapot haiku group (Christchurch) and the NZ Poetry Society. The rest – and it was quite a bit more – was on the two editors. Happily, the anthology print run of 200 is almost sold out, just five months after its launch.
If you decide to try the internet for information on haiku, please use your critical filter – there are beerku, scifiku, cat haiku, Christian haiku, aetheist haiku, Valentine’s haiku, falconry haiku … you get the idea. Count to 17, cram an idea into three lines and wham! You gotcha self a ‘ku.
Or, by now, dear reader, I hope you realise, not.
Haiku NewZ has a fine collection of essays and articles for beginners, as well as more experienced haiku poets. The Haiku Happenings page is updated monthly and contains links and information about what’s going on in the world of haiku. The Contests page is also updated monthly and on this same page find a link to some of the world’s best English-language haiku journals, both online and in print.
NZPS member Katherine Raine has written a useful, free booklet about haiku for teachers (and anyone else interested).
Katherine has also penned a quick Haiku Checklist for poets new to the form.
The History of Haiku in New Zealand is a living document.
You can order number eight wire here.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.