Haiku

"Haiku" written in kanji

“Haiku” written in kanji

This is one of my favorite poetic forms to write and it was what got me interested in other Japanese forms of poetry.

The essence of haiku is to capture a brief moment that moves you in some way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be so moving that it’s life-changing or gives you a new perspective; it can be as simple as appreciating the beauty of nature (personally, this is why I write haiku).

Typically, people usually think haiku are just three lines of verse with a syllable count of 5-7-5, totaling 17 syllables, contain a seasonal reference, and are primarily about nature. That’s…somewhat true.

My main gripe is the syllable count people typically associate with haiku. In Japanese, there’s no such thing as a “syllable;” rather, they have what are called on or morae. These refer to the “sounds,” or character sounds, in a word. For example, if the word haiku was written in hirigana (as: はいく) it would contain three on even though it has two syllables in English. The word on itself has two on (おん) even though it’s only one syllable in English. So, a haiku in Japanese would most likely not have 17 syllables if translated to English.

Here’s an example of Matsuo Bashou’s most famous piece:

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと (furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizuno oto)
The old pond- / a frog jumps in, / sound of water.

Notice how the original, Japanese version has 17 on, but the translation completely breaks the 5-7-5 rule.

Along with containing the specified number of on, haiku need to have some sort of “cutting” word, generally a verb or particle, that differentiates between two different images within the poem. In Bashou’s haiku above, the “cutting” word would be the particle ya (や). This separates the scene of the old pond from that of the frog jumping in water. English equivalents would be punctuation marks such as dashes (which I personally use), ellipses, semicolons, or periods/full-stops.

Finally, haiku traditionally have a seasonal reference. This doesn’t necessarily have to directly reference one particular season. Such is the case in Bashou’s haiku: kawazu (かわず), or frog, is a reference to Spring but it could also be viewed as a reference to Summer, since you would normally see frogs during the warmer months in temperate zones.

So there you have it. Haiku is much more than three lines of verse with a 5-7-5 syllable count that can be used as a way to BS a poetry writing assignment for school. It’s a way to capture a brief moment in time, of beauty.

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