A few years back when I found myself in four countries in three months, I wrote four poems dedicated to a body of water in each of those countries. I also decided to write the poem in four poetic forms native to or popular in those countries. They included an Elizabethan sonnet about the Thames River, a villanelle about the Seine, an open-form or beat poem about the San Francisco Bay, and a haiku about the Tama River. I’ve since added a sijo about the Han River.
I’m going to print those here in a series, with an explanation about the poetic form so you can try it too. And periodically I’ll try to add more poems in different poetic forms around the world. I’m already planning to write a sijo about the Han River.
So today I present the haiku.
The haiku is a Japanese poetic form that evolved in the 19th Century. It was an abbreviated form of an earlier poetic form, as if the couplet detached from a sonnet and became its own kind of poetry. Extremely popular, it has spread throughout the world, probably because of its simple and short construction, and mutated into several variations. Nevertheless the basic form persists, or is at least casually adhered to.
To write a haiku just follow these simple instructions.
- In Japanese, a haiku is usually written in one line. But in English it’s commonly written in 3 lines.
- The first line has 5 syllables. The second line has 7 syllables, and the third line has 5 syllables.
- There is one word or phrase that refers to the season in which the haiku is written. For instance, this kigo could be “tadpoles” for Spring, “Superbowl” for Winter, or “candycorn” for Autumn.
- There is a grammatical break, called a kireji, that separates the second or the last line. In Japanese, these are actual words. In English, it could be a comma, hyphen or colon.
- The kireji serves to contrast two different images, events, or ideas.
See if you can identify these elements in the following haiku. I wrote it to compare the Tama River that flows through the Tokyo area, and the dense stream of people that pour into and out of trains.
i am a tossed stone
in the slow stream of people,
not so cicadas