It’s great how you learn something about writing from every new form you try. I tried haiku, the Japanese form of poetry, recently. It’s good for your writing because as well as being a type of poetry, it’s a way of experiencing the world by focusing your attention on individual, insightful moments. It teaches you about change and movement and endings too, by use of a cutting or pivot word that turns the meaning of the poem in some resonant way.
Basho (1644-94) is considered the father of haiku. It’s a short, 17-syllable form, traditionally written in three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5 in Japanese. It’s closely related to the spirituality of Buddhism. It looks deceptively simple to write, but can take years to really master it.
A good haiku is grounded in the physical world of the senses, but suggests something deeper, more mysterious and existential, often referring to the transitory nature of all existence.
Haiku has become a popular poetic form of the 20th & 21st centuries. Perhaps its brevity and precise illumination of the spiritual suits a contemporary audience that needs meaning among all the chaos and speed. Many poets including Alan Watts, Robert Hass and Jack Kerouac have written and been influenced by the form.
Some practitioners are loyal to the traditional Japanese format of 17 syllables, but others have adapted haiku to the English language and also use non-natural images found in modern life.
Why not have a go at capturing a single moment in time? It’s relatively simple to learn, but the more you read and practice the form, the more complex and fascinating it becomes.
Here’s an example by Issa (1763-1827) who loved all creatures and had a sense of humour which comes through in his work. Translation by Robert Hass:
Don’t worry, spiders,/I keep house/casually
‘spiders’ is a seasonal word – a ‘kigo’. The cutting or pivot word is ‘casually’. The poem’s ‘satori’ (insight), deals with the precarious nature of all life.
You can find rules that have come and gone here. It’s fun to pick a few then raise your game and add another rule, or learn some rules and then break them.
Some Irish practitioners I admire are Michael Hartnett (who chose to write in the traditional Japanese form) and was the first Irish poet to publish a collection of haiku and senryu, Inchicore Haiku; and John W Sexton who posts regularly on Facebook.
You Might also like:
- Exerpts from Inchicore Haiku published on Irish Haiku Society website as a tribute to Michael Hartnett
- Forms in English haiku