A Haiku Comes From Far Away

Haiku always feels elusive, yet the form is often taught to children as a beginning writing exercise. The poem seems too small to be worthy of writing down. Yet the emotion felt when reading it is large. The actual words have simple meanings, but I would find it hard to describe the feelings they give. They are like a mist, mysteriously concealing, and at the same time like a lightning strike, with flashes of insight. What a simple, complicated thing!

A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem form. The lines do not rhyme. It is made of three phrases, in three lines, with a 5, 7, 5 syllable pattern. Yet you don’t need to hold too strictly to the syllable count if the poem ‘feels’ better not perfectly arranged. English syllables are not the same in Japanese, obviously. A haiku captures an emotion by describing tangible things found in nature. The poem includes a kigo, or seasonal reference, which ties the poem to a certain time of year.

In Japan, haiku also include a kireji, or cutting word. This is a sort of spoken punctuation, and it may use up one or two syllables. We have no cutting words in English but might create the same effect by having a pause between two parts of the poem. This can be a dash or ellipses, or break in the line. It creates an unexpected synergy, like mixing baking soda and vinegar. The cutting word is the break in the poem that says ‘stop here’ or ‘think about this’.

Haiku always feel a bit unfinished, but this is part of it’s charm. By leaving out so much, we make room for the reader to fill in the blanks and find his meaning in the images presented in the poem.

A few attempts at haiku:

S beautiful the mist when it is seen from the mountaintop.

So beautiful the mist
when it is viewed
from the mountain peaks.
A time of lilacs
has come to Redstone Valley
purple scents the air.
The setting sun
 lengthens quiet shadows
of marble tombstones.
Five geese winging
black against the hunter's moon --
honk for safe flight.
Under the oak tree
 a swing creaks back and forth--
only breezes play.

And here’s a few famous haiku written originally in Japanese and translated to English. Read them slowly and pause between each for best results.

In pale moonlight
the wisteria's scent
comes from far away.
-- Buson
Old pond...
a frog jumps in
water's sound. 
-- Basho
The light of a candle
is transferred to another candle--
spring twilight.
-- Buson
O snail
climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly!
-- Issa
A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle.
-- Issa

I want to keep reading haiku! Share with us a haiku you wrote or a favorite that someone else wrote.

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