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Haiku You

16 August 2010 Stories and Appreciations 5,036 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

“Pray, you try Japanese Hokku, my American poets!” So wrote Japanese poet Yone Noguchi in 1904, and American poets (and school kids and wiseacres and greeting card copywriters) took up the call with gusto, making haiku the one form of poetry that everyone knows and anyone can, in theory, write. Except that they can’t, at least according to the little haiku I received from the editor of this fine blog:

please explain haiku—

what is it? why does everyone

f— it up?

Perceptive readers will look at the above bit of verse and immediately cry “Dude, you f—ed that one up right there! Everybody knows haiku is seventeen syllables long, in three lines of five-seven-five each! That haiku is five-eight-three! Fail!” Alas, the failure is ours, dear reader—that haiku, while not particularly edifying, is closer to a proper haiku form in English than the five-seven-five Kool-Aid your middle school teacher handed you.

As usual, something was lost in translation. Here’s the basic problem: unlike English verse, which use meter, Japanese poetry counts sound units known as on. While haiku does indeed use seventeen on in a pattern of five-seven-five, on are not equivalent to syllables, even though that’s how on was initially translated. English and Japanese perceive syllable units differently—seventeen on in fact usually translates to about twelve syllables in English.

This sort of misunderstanding often arises when importing poetic forms from other languages. Most serious writers of haiku in English, while retaining the three line structure (in Japanese, haiku are printed in a single line), rarely follow the five-seven-five syllable count, resulting in variable syllable counts. These poets regularly publish such haiku in journals like Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Mayfly, which is part of the reason you’re unaware of this haiku fact, as you’ve very likely never seen a copy of Modern Haiku, Frogpond or Mayfly in your life.

Yes, but how did haiku become so popular? Easy—it’s easy. So, so easy. The five-seven-five structure made haiku highly teachable—if brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also the soul of a harried elementary school teacher’s week-long poetry unit. The traditional subject of the haiku—meditations on the beauty of nature and the evanescence of life, with a referent to the seasons (kigo) and a “cutting word” (kireji) that signaled a shift in topic within the poem—was also eminently teachable and, for English-speakers, eminently ripe for parody. Most haiku in English are comic; if fact, haiku has replaced the limerick and its pesky, potentially obscene rhymes as THE comic verse of choice.

And did I mention that it was easy to compose?

So easy: counting

syllables, fingers drumming.

Hey look—a poem!

Thus, most people who write haiku are really writing pseudoku. But that’s okay (especially once you know the difference and can seek out the real stuff). Pseudoku is a truly American poetic form, a highly democratic little structure that allows anybody to approach the writing of poetry, even if just for a joke, without fear. In a great historical irony, a culture (Ancient Japan) that prized, nay insisted upon, the ability of every well-rounded person to compose poetry bequeathed to a culture (Modern America) that devalues and derides poetry the one form of poetry that nearly everyone in that culture feels comfortable writing.

And in a culture of excess like ours, the less is more quality of haiku and pseudoku is appealing (even when the results are a little appalling). As the famed haiku master Basho put it, “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” With that in mind, I’ll close with

Leaping from branch to branch,

you see only bananas.

Wear these instead.

Gregory Crosby


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  1. What a wonderful way to commence my Monday! (12 syllables.) I needed inspiration to face a day of writing about shoes. (17 syllables.)

  2. My office has a subscription to Mayfly, actually. It’s a teensy little magazine!

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