I’m not a fan of haiku, the unrhymed “poetic form” that is based on syllables rather than beats (three lines: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables). The haiku, as you already know, originated in Japan. I have learned from Wikipedia that in Japanese, the key unit of the haiku is the on rather than the syllable. There is a difference between the two. I don’t know the difference myself, but it must be a crucial one. I can’t imagine haiku surviving among a people as sensible and aesthetically gifted as the Japanese unless the effect of a Japanese haiku is very different from the effect of an English haiku.
In English-speaking countries, of course, the haiku survives because anybody who can hold a pencil and count can write one. If your third-grade language arts teacher did a unit on creative writing, I’m sure you’ve written several yourself.

Here’s my real problem with haikus: If you were to meet someone who spoke only in perfectly-formed haikus, you might talk to that person for an hour before realizing that he or she was speaking in poetry. You would surely notice (after twenty minutes or so) that there was something unusual about this person’s speech, but I’m not sure you would understand that it was poetry that you were hearing.

My son is writing a play, and in one scene the protagonist finds himself shipwrecked on the Isle of Haiku. The natives there only speak in haikus, and they punish anyone who doesn’t. It takes our hero a little while to understand why the natives are so offended by his speech, but once he catches on, he finds it easy enough to comply with their custom. I asked my son what it was like to write a whole scene in haiku, and he assured me that it was only a little harder than writing in non-haiku. This is what I’m talking about.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have a word to say in defense of the haiku. If so, I’d love to hear it.

Bonus haiku link: I allow myself one exception to my strict anti-haiku stance. My friend Andy Gullahorn, a singer-songwriter, often writes “haiku reviews” of shows he has played. They are quite funny. In at least two of his haikus he mentions that he doesn’t read books. This may or may not be relevant to the fact that he is a gifted haikuist.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    4:54 PM, 26 April 2011

    Hahahaaaa. You couldn’t resist, could you. Hahahaaaaa.

  • Jess
    5:18 PM, 26 April 2011

    Wow. I wanna read that play.

  • Joe
    5:26 PM, 26 April 2011

    cheesecake is betterthan a Twinkie any day
    but they’re still eaten

  • Kenny Clark
    5:29 PM, 26 April 2011

    While I am inclined to agree with your hypothesis that the margin between best and worst haiku is not very great, I can’t help think of the Mythbusters who have the motto “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I’d love to see some submissions from your readers of haikus that are so terrible they widen that gulf.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    6:06 PM, 26 April 2011

    I’m with you that perhaps there’s more to this form than meets the Western eye. My teachers always pressed the 5-7-5 syllable rule, so most of what they called “haiku” doesn’t sound much different than prose. However, I get the feeling much has been lost in translation.
    When I was three, I took Japanese lessons from a friend. I’ve clearly forgotten most of what I learned, and even then I only studied hiragana (not kanji). But from the little I do remember, their whole system of language functions quite differently.

    I think that a mora is more of a unit of time than a syllable. A long syllable might have more than one mora (which suddenly makes a ton of sense if you live in East Tennessee like I do, and words like “dog” are pronounced “dawwwwg”).

    In a word like “Nippon” (which means ‘Japan’), I think there are four moras (ons). The starting and final sounds are split into their own mora, so that each can have its own hiragana character when spelled out. に っ ぽ ん. (I added extra spaces between each of the characters to make each sound more clear.) http://www.brymck.com/ (This guy discusses the idea more fully here.)

    I think the formation of a legit haiku is based on delicacies like these. Of course, right? So often Asian art has brilliant little nuances that we miss.

    Also, I think there is more to the ideal haiku structure than we typically integrate into our understanding. I’ve read that many incorporate a phrase and a fragment, season words, a splice, etc.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    6:09 PM, 26 April 2011

    Also, please take all of that with a grain of salt. It’s been years since I’ve even looked at this stuff, so I might be totally off. It would be loads better if someone who really understands this could explain it.

  • Tom Hoffman
    6:19 PM, 26 April 2011

    You’ve done it again, Jonathan, and tempted me to weigh in on something about which I know next to nothing. Oh, well. It hasn’t stopped me before.I do not know Japanese. I do have a passing familiarity with Chinese, though. And it is not a language know for economy of words. Bette Bao Lord was born in Shanghai and later married a man who became the American ambassador to China. She was obviously fluent in both languages, and had this to say about each: Speaking English is like playing tennis. You don’t bother unless you intend to win. Speaking Chinese is like fishing. You can go about it all day and enjoy yourself whether you “catch” anything or not.
    I don’t know if this carries over into Japanese or not. But if it’s so, then the goal of Haiku might be an economy of words that is forced on the Japanese, but which we miss in English. Then it’s like an Elizabethan sonnet, where the rhyme scheme and pentameter require a discipline not ordinarily seen in everyday language.
    Of course, I personally still prefer the limerick, as it adds the discipline of content in that it has to be funny.

  • Dryad
    8:01 PM, 26 April 2011

    Maybe the problem is that we only ever read haikus written by American third-grade equivalents? After all, I have never read a haiku by an accomplished poet, either of Japanese or other descent.

  • Canaan Bound
    12:03 AM, 27 April 2011

    Dryad, you obviously h

  • Canaan Bound
    12:04 AM, 27 April 2011

    aven’t read any of Andy G’s haikus.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    12:04 AM, 27 April 2011

    Jonathan, how do you feel about the spamku?

  • Loren
    2:26 AM, 27 April 2011

    I never thought of a haiku in this light, but you do have a good point JR!
    The haiku is one I have always liked, though (and I think I did a practice lesson on haikus when I was a student teacher). What I like about the translated ones (and the point we always tried to get across in teaching them) was that a haiku was a type of imagery; condensing something seen, touched, or felt (etc.) into those few lines and syllables and so eliciting an emotion for the reader. I suppose there could be other more poetic ways of doing the same thing, but it was fun to work at it.

    I have one somewhere that I wrote back in college about the Canada geese that flocked the campus and went about eating; they looked like miniature oil derricks bobbing up and down. Nope, that’s not my haiku, but that’s what it was about!

    So that’s my positive spin on haikus that I can dredge up out of the deep past 🙂 .

  • Katie Hart
    2:54 AM, 27 April 2011

    Twitter: Haiku for the 21st century.

  • Dan Kulp
    1:34 PM, 27 April 2011

    This stirred my memory of Histeria! – Superwriters.This was a show that was on during my younger years and this episode stuck with me. (I can’t say formative or juvenile years as I am still being formed and often juvenile).


    Thru the magic of the info-age it is there, and still juvenile. Haiku (Basho) is at the 1:45 mark.

    frisbee getting big.
    Then huge. I wonder – how? why?
    And then it hit me.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    2:28 PM, 27 April 2011

    This is all most enlightening. BuckBuck, you seem to have gotten the most out of your toddler Japanese lessons. Tom, I’m interested in this possibility that Japanese people find the haiku interesting because it’s foreign to normal use of language rather than because it is characteristic. I will overlook the fact that you don’t know anything about Japanese.
    Spamku–very nice. I saw that the Spamku archive has 19,000 entries. It made me wonder if there were Chuck Norris haikus. According to Google, txhere are. They aren’t very good.

    Dan, that was my first experience with Histeria. Very funny.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    2:52 PM, 27 April 2011

    That Spamku exists in the MIT domain makes it better somehow, don’t you think?
    Toddler Japanese. The teacher lived next door to us, so learning to read/write both languages at the same time came easily back then. I hate how age changes that. Last year, I nearly split my pancreas trying to learn Lesson One in basic French; but I can easily remember how to write a lot of the Japanese I learned at age three. Crazy.

    I never learned the term “mora” as a kid, but as you are memorizing the hiragana table, some of this becomes intuitive. The hiragana sounds go, “a, i, u, e, o,” then “ka, ki, ku, ke, ko ” then “sa, shi, su, se, so ” and on, and on. (Look at the chart, and that will make total sense http://www.japanorama.com/hira_ref.html). So you can see how it’s not really a mix of consonant + vowel + diagraph + whatever like English, but units that include both sounds.

  • Dryad
    8:11 PM, 27 April 2011

    If we can all writeIn haikus without effort
    What’s the point of it?

  • Dryad
    8:11 PM, 27 April 2011

    Don’t hurt me.

  • Fellow Traveler
    11:10 PM, 28 April 2011

    BuckBuck said something about Michelle Obama and a scarf in here…I think. Have I got the wrong thread? Can’t seem to find it now.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    11:18 PM, 28 April 2011

    FT, I asked Jonathan to remove it. He was gracious enough to help me out.

  • Fellow Traveler
    12:18 AM, 29 April 2011

    Oh, all right. I did not find it at all offensive, if that’s helpful.

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