The Stone Lantern

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What is haiku?

I had a great time last night giving a talk about my book at the Japan Information and Culture Center in Washington, D.C. The audience as far as I could tell was a mix of westerners with an interest in things Japanese, and Japanese with an interest in haiku. All of the questions were excellent, and I enjoyed trying to answer them, and I especially enjoyed thinking more about the questions in the car on my way home.

Here's one question that came up: What is haiku? It's actually a really good question, and it is one of the hardest ones for me to answer. Often, someone will say, "Oh, it's a seventeen-syllable Japanese poem about nature," or "It's a poem in three lines about nature." But in fact, nowadays most haiku poets outside Japan are moving away from a structural definition of haiku (x number of lines, x number of syllables) and toward a definition based upon content.

In my book, I quote the current Haiku Society of America (HSA) definition of haiku:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

I like this definition not because it is perfect (after all, there are some good haiku out there with no connection to nature or to the seasons) but because it gets budding haiku poets away from thinking about syllables and lines.

You might be asking what's so bad about focussing on syllables? Well, for one thing, the seventeen syllable bit comes from the Japanese, but in Japan a "syllable" works very differently than in English. (In fact, the actual Japanese term isn't syllable but "sound.") Here's the challenge: In Japanese, all "syllables" are the same length, so seventeen syllables are seventeen "beats." Seventeen syllables in Japanese gives you a rhythm. But in English, the length of a syllable has no bearing on rhythm as it is not equivalent to a common length of a beat. For example, "a" is one syllable, but so is "read." "A" is a short beat, but "read" is a long beat. So if you try to write a seventeen syllable haiku in English, you are really doing nothing to help give a rhythm or beat to your poem -- which is what you would be doing in Japanese, of course.

I think I'll stop there. There's tons of information on this subject on the Web. Next time I sit down to write, I'll address some of the other questions that came up, like do differences in languages beget different kinds of haiku? And if so, how do they differ?


  • Some independent booksellers would be happy to see you walk in the door with "poetry" emblazoned on your book, and perhaps even more with "haiku" on there. We love the book. More, the love the spirit that moved you to a) experience haiku in Japan and b) write about it.

    By Blogger peggopgoz, at 2:50 PM  

  • Hi Abigail,
    I have not read your book (yet ...) but
    just wrote a bit on the


    Sensei 先生, a haiku teacher, haiku master

    and researching for it, found your perfect

    haiku apprentice !

    I am lucky to live in Japan since 1977, being born German.

    All the best for your Haiku Life!


    By Blogger Gabi Greve, at 11:31 PM  

  • Thank you, Gabi. You ARE lucky to be living in Japan. The best thing is living in a culture not one's own....any culture. One learns surprising things about life that way.

    Here's a haiku I wrote when I was in Quebec:

    la neige tombe
    les flocons ralentissent
    le temps

    Now I am back in the U.S. Have a wonderful O-seibo and O-shogatsu.

    By Blogger stonelantern, at 6:03 AM  

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