It’s easy to think that because many of my haiku are funny that I don’t take the art form seriously. In the course of writing a haiku every day for The Haiku Project I did give the matter quite a bit of thought. The other day, a friend of mine (and a very talented poet) posted a couple of poems on Facebook which he called haiku. But they did not follow either the 5-7-5 or the 17-total-syllable tradition. So, I replied with the following:
Sure, but you’re writing haiku;
There are rules, dammit!
Now admittedly I was just being a snarky jerk when I wrote that. I am well aware that many poets eschew the 17-syllable rule, and sometimes even the three-line rule. I bristle at this.
Traditional Japanese haiku has very specific elements:
- it has a form of 5-7-5 onji, which are not exactly the same as syllables;
- it has nature, especially the seasons, as subject matter;
- and it has kiergi, or “cutting words,” usually in the middle and designed to change the way the preceding lines are interpreted. (I often refer to this as a “punch line,” not like a joke but as in that’s what gives the haiku its punch.)
Of these, the last is the most essential element of haiku. As Billy Collins writes in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years,
“the heart of the haiku lies something beyond counting, that is, its revelatory effect on the reader, that eye-opening moment of insight that occurs whenever a haiku succeeds in drawing us through the keyhole of its details into the infinite”
Generally speaking, American poets (myself included) don’t seem to keep the constraint of the natural/seasonal subject matter. That leaves only the structural elements to define what you’ve written as a haiku. However, you’ll see a lot of poets out there you say that because onji is not the same as syllables, that this requirement can be ignored. Here’s an example of just such an argument from Lou Freshwater, “The Art of Haiku.”
I contend that the form, the rules, are equally important. That rigidity of form is part of the beauty, the medium upon which the poet creates his art. The syllables are the closest we can come to onji so without the syllable count, no matter how lovely or revealing the poem may be it is a tercet, not a haiku, just as a 14-line poem without pentameter lines cannot be a sonnet. These forms have constraints, and the constraints make the form. Quoting Mr. Collins again, “with the form in place, the act of composition becomes a negotiation between one’s subjective urges and the rules of order….”
When I wrote The Haiku Project I decided to hold to the 5-7-5 scheme for exactly that reason: to see what the restriction would do to the art, to see what I could fit inside the shape of a haiku. If we are to test the form, to see what it can hold, it makes no sense to change the shape of the container. To go outside these bounds is to change the vessel, the way a fine wine can be changed be the shape of the glass into which it is poured. Your brew may still be potent, but it no longer has the shape of a haiku.