What is …

What is a haiku?

Anyone who reads this blog will tell you that I am the last one to answer that question.

I just write them.

I recently wrote a series of haiku that I felt was one haiku with five stanzas.

Was this allowed I wondered.

I knew who to ask.

My brother Pete teaches a class on poetry, through no fault of his own, at Michigan State University [sic].

I asked him if my use of the word stanzas ‘worked’ when constructing haiku.

He responded:

…does this work? Hmmm…

Well, yes, it works if it accomplishes the purpose you intend for it.

But is it a “haiku in five stanzas”?

That is little like saying, “I have a car with wings that flies.” You can call it that if you want to, but if you brought it to 456 Auto Fix, Hendrick would tell you that is not a car – it’s a plane.

Historically, the most popular Japanese poem form was called a Tanka, consisting of 5 lines and 31 syllables. The first three lines were 5-7-5 syllables, and the last two lines were 7-7.

Among the common people, a kind of slam poetry was developed, where two poets would try to outdo each other. The first poet would offer the hokku – the first three lines, and the second poet would complete the final two lines. These tanka composed by two poets were called Renga. These Renga were of two types – serious and comic. The comic forms came to be known as haikai.

In the Imperial Court, these Renga could be extended by five more lines, with the poets reversing roles, but still connecting the themes of the previous stanza. This could go on and on, up to 100 lines or more, with the “competitions” becoming highly structured and rule-governed.

Haiku is Basō’s reaction to these long court poems that tended to drone on and on. Instead, he tried to say as much as possible with just three lines. He took the hai from haikai and the ku from hokku, and made ‘haiku’ – and called it complete; no poetic completion or response or extension was necessary. It depended on the listener to complete the poem – to connect the dots, so to speak – in his head.

So in a good Japanese haiku, what is unsaid is just as significant – and just as clear to the listener! – as what is spoken. This skill – hearing what is not said – is highly valued not only in Japanese poetry, but also in Japanese life. (It also helps a lot in conversation with your wife!!)

It is a bit like Elijah sensing the presence of God – not in the wind, or the fire, or the earthquake, but in the utter silence – something that sounds like sheer nonsense to the modern western scientific mind. But now I am talking about theology, not haiku.

So a “five stanza haiku” is as oxymoronic as a long shortcut or a tall midget.

Too many words…!

And that is pretty much everything I know about Haiku…

Thanks for sharing your words and thoughts, and for all the things you didn’t write…

As I am so fond of quoting, Frank Lloyd Wright would say, “There you are”