Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Haiku Apprentice

What is Haiku and Why do I Care?

Haiku is one of the most recognizable and popular poetic forms around the world.

It originated in Japan from a pedigree of courtly refinement, and its precursors took shape as early as the 8th century.  Educated members of the Japanese Imperial Court entertained themselves and each other, as well as demonstrated their refinements, through their engaging in artistic and literary pursuits, especially poetry. The traditional forms of "waka" and literary games of "renga" - with their opening verse or "hokku" - were transformed by the 17th century poet Bashō into stand-alone poems that have ever since been recognized as literary jewels. The name "haiku" was actually invented and applied to the works of Bashō and following, by an early 20th century Japanese poet and literary critic, Shiki.

The classic characteristics of "traditional" haiku in Japanese are:
  • they are written in 17 'on' (the Japanese equivalent of English syllables), with 3 phrases structured into 5-7-5 on.
  • there is a juxtaposition of elements or ideas in the poem, separated by a "kireji" or "cutting word".
  • the poem is identifiably set at a particular time of year, through the inclusion of characteristic "seasonal references" or "kigo".
Although it originated in Japan centuries ago, the format has been adapted and transplanted by people all around the world as a form matching their poetic needs and desires.

Haiku in English

There have been numerous attempts by English-speaking enthusiasts, poets, and even literary and poetic associations, to define how "Haiku" should be written in English.

Poetry in English-speaking countries has become increasingly professionalized, and self-proclaimed occupational "Poets" would have us believe they possess special skills or insights for capturing and recording such encounters.

Notwithstanding these efforts, in English "Haiku" has become extremely popular among what I would like to call "personal poets". That is, among people who are thoughtful in their encounters with the world around them, and who recognize - or simply feel - the need to crystallize those encounters in emotive language that can be recalled in the future, and even shared with other mindful people. 

Such "personal poets" are free to explore the poetic impulse that Bashō turned into haiku, and find the English form that can catch and hold that impulse for them. 

In my opinion, literary structures exist solely to assist people express their ideas, not to bind them. Since haiku is not a native poetic form in English, we have more freedom to experiment. 

In some cases poets have found the discipline of a syllabic structure such as 5-7-5 eminently suited to their needs, and have written beautiful and profound records of their poetic encounters. Others have preferred not to be restricted to a particular syllabic count, but retained the triple-phrasal movement for their poems. And still others have written brief poems to record their encounters in the world, simply in a single line (which actually matches the written appearance of Japanese haiku, since these are written vertically in Japanese characters in a single line).

It seems to me that the "fact" of writing "Haiku" in English derives solely from the intent of the poet. If we are wanting to write "a Haiku" type of poem, then so we are. But it doesn't really matter what we call it, since the important thing is the quality of our poem. Did we capture the experience? How well? How lyrically? (or how brutally? or how comically?) With what connotations and allusions? With whom will we share it? Ourself alone, or with others?

Poetry and Mindful Living


Poetry is a natural manifestation of mindful living - the thoughtful encounter between humans: with their hopes, desires and loves; and the cosmos, in all its manifestations. Poetry is therefore part of human nature. To be "a poet" is the birthright of every thinking and feeling human person, not the exclusive profession of a self-proclaimed elite.

Haiku, as such a brief and immediate form of poetry, is particularly suitable for fostering a continual, yet deep appreciation of life in all manifestations. 

Such, at least, is the opinion of many people who have had the pleasure of encountering masterful Haiku poems - translations from Japanese, or original haiku by native English poets.  And such is power of these works to delight and enchant, that many who take the time to truly enter the works of a Haiku poet, find themselves also desiring to capture and record their own experiences in the haiku form.

A Haiku Apprenticeship

That, indeed, has been my experience. Over the past 9 months I have been making the determined effort to write at least 1 haiku each day. And by continually reading the works of the acknowledged masters of the art (in translation) I find myself inspired, indeed enlightened.

The purpose of this blog is to apprentice myself to such master Haiku poets, taking the time to record my reactions to some of their works, and imbibe, as it were, their techniques. It is not to promote my own poems, which will in general remain entirely private, but to make those private poems better - in my own mind.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

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Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!