Saturday 28th October, 2000








by  Mario Petrucci




There is always a problem ‘translating’ poetry from one age, one culture, or one language, to another.  In attempting to write Haiku, we face all the usual problems of writing a modern sestina, villanelle or sonnet - and more besides.  Transferring the ‘rules’ of traditional Japanese verse - where these meaningfully and unambiguously exist - into English can be problematic at a number of levels, whether it is knowing in the first place what those rules are, or rendering adequately in English the historical and cultural significance in Japan of, say, the Haiku’s ‘season word’.  The first port of call, then, in the process of understanding and uncovering the Haiku is to look at its origins - in effect, the history of Japanese verse.  Many forms populate this history; we shall focus on the Haiku and the Tanka.



1.  Haiku History



The term ‘Haiku’ was formally established in the 1890s by Masaoka Shiki.  It  emerged from two older poetic forms, the Tanka and the Renga.  These earlier forms were collaborative, where poets and other kinds of artist continued one another's work.  For a long time in mediaeval Japan the Haiku was only the ‘starting verse’ (‘Hokku’) in a linked sequence (the Renga); but the Hokku set the whole tone of the sequence and thus enjoyed a privileged status.


It was the samurai Basho (Basho = ‘banana tree’, a name he gave himself because such a tree grew outside his hut!) who helped to develop the Hokku into the stand-alone form we now recognise.  Strictly speaking though, the work of masters such as Basho, Yosa Buson and Issa should be termed Hokku (or ‘Classical Haiku’) and those of the 20th century as Haiku (or ‘Modern Haiku’).


      Basho (1664 - 1694)                Akutagawa, Ryunosuke (1892 - 1927)


            The temple bell stops -              Green frog,

            but the sound keeps coming        is your body also

            out of the flowers.                  freshly painted?


It could be argued that after Shiki, there were two major strands to Haiku writing: the traditionalists (who followed Takahama Kyoshi) and the radicals of the ‘New Trend’ who moved beyond ancient conventions.



2.  Hokku: The Classical Haiku



Classical Haiku were written in one line, vertically.  There were natural pauses in the character sequence: after phrases consisting of the first 5, and the next 7, ‘syllables’.  Although these pauses can be rendered in English by other means, it became customary to denote them by line breaks - hence the conventional Haiku structure of 17 syllables in three lines, deployed 5-7-5.  However, the whole idea of syllable counts is problematic as a means of interpreting Japanese verse, where a phrase of many characters can be considered ‘short’.  It is not even clear how the term ‘syllable’ itself translates: for instance, the established western use of the term ‘on-ji  ’ for ‘syllables’ is not generally understood in Japan, and is considered by some theorists to be defunct.  ‘On’, ‘ji’, ‘moji’ and ‘kana’ have been suggested as more proper alternatives to ‘syllables’.  This is a fascinating area of research - but any further discussion of these refinements lies beyond the scope of this introduction.


The spirit of the poem is, in any case, far more important than any proposed syllable count.  Hokku were often used as a method of teaching in Zen Buddhism, and there is an important sense in which Classical Haiku are not just about making striking observations - they attempt to ‘enlighten’ the reader through, say, an arresting image or a revealing juxtaposition of images, or through oxymoron.  However, this sense of ‘teaching’ is not to be overplayed; Haiku are not pompous or didactic.  They are more to do with a sudden, precise insight or understanding of a situation.  Where this applies (usually wryly) to people or human behaviour, the Haiku form is more properly called Senryu.


As we know, subject matter is crucial in traditional Haiku.  This usually focusses on the seasons of the year:


                                      The first soft snow!

                                      Enough to bend the leaves

                                      Of the jonquil low.

                                                              Basho (1664 - 1694)


The classic ‘season words’ (or kigo) in traditional Hokku were cuckoo (summer); leaves, moon (autumn); snow (winter) and cherry blossom (spring), but many others were used (in a kind of hierarchy) and any ancient seasonal phrases were meant to be used with a sharp eye for modulation and subtle invention.  This seasonal word was one of the main ways in which each new Hokku  connected to the existing literary body.  In a very real sense, each new Hokku was an extension of one vast historical Renga.  Modern Haiku still tend to include a kigo  which indicates the season in which the Haiku is set (icicles, steam from a puddle, etc) - but the kigo  can be subtle, and need not be as obvious as snow!


Most Haiku attempt to capture the spirit of a key moment, a single concrete first impression, such as the fall of an autumn leaf from the twig it has graced all summer.  Simplicity is important, the desire to give the common experience, as it were, a fresh lick of paint, a sense of delight (even in its darker subjects).  Again, Basho:


                   Clouds appear

                   and bring to men a chance to rest

                   from looking at the moon.

                                                              Won’t you come and see

                                                              loneliness?  Just one leaf

                                                              from the Kiri tree.


As the latter Basho poem reveals, the ‘rule’ in Haiku about avoiding abstracts is far from absolute!  Indeed, Basho was a key character for Hokku and other Japanese forms, not only as a result of his many wonderful poems but also because of the long-term effects of his teaching around the development and reinterpretation of traditional ideas.  He had much to do with the key notion that Haiku should look both backwards and forwards: emanating from unchanging poetic truth; yet revitalised by constant reinterpretation and innovation.  Also, that the great Haiku poet maintains an appropriate balance between high ideals and the common touch.  Basho often dropped Hokku  into his travel writings, as a means of illustrating a moment or situation, and composed many verses as greetings or parting thanks.  This should serve as a warning not to put too much weight on the Haiku, or to misunderstand it as some kind of ‘purist’, detached form.


A final point.  The difficulties of translating, or composing, Haiku in English are exemplified by the fact that Classical Haiku deployed a common understanding of the seasonal word in order to support an on-going and expanding tradition of subtlety and nuance - in the west there is no equivalent understanding, mainly due to the nation-complex of traditions and the immense variety of seasonal weather.  Ultimately, each of us must decide whether to look upon these difficulties as sites of potential opportunity, or as barriers, in the writing of Haiku.



3.  The Tanka.



The Tanka (or Waka) is a five-line poem with 31 on  arranged: 5-7-5-7-7.  It has remained one of the most popular poetic forms in Japanese for at least 1300 years.  It is older than Haiku and grew out of earlier forms such as the Katauta, which were question-answer poems forming a part of religious rites.  The Tanka’s greater length gives the poet an opportunity to explore a situation in more depth:


                                      Our life in this world -

                                      to what shall I compare it?

                                      It is like a boat

                                      rowing out at the break of day,

                                      leaving not a trace behind.


                                           Sami Mansei, 8th century.


Often composed as a final word at public occasions, the Tanka was a means of ‘completing’ the experience.  Traditionally, each line consists of a single image or idea, with the five lines merging seamlessly into one piece.  Tanka has not influenced western verse as powerfully as the Haiku, though poets such as Amy Lowell have imitated it.  Recognised as a classic Japanese form, it is often adhered to rigorously in terms of its formal structure; but it is far more important that each of the five lines is evocative and concise, and fewer syllables than those specified may be used to achieve this effect.



4.  British Poetry: the Influence of Japanese Verse



The main influence over here has probably been through Imagism, a revolt against ‘Romanticism’ which was spearheaded by American and British modernists just before the First World War.  Its proponents included Ezra Pound, H.D., Amy Lowell, TS Eliot and Ford Madox Ford.  This led to a number of new characteristics in British verse, listed below:



   BREVITY overall, as well as within a line.




   IMAGES -  hard, precise and clear rather than SYMBOLIC.



Many great writers of the first half of the 20th century took these ideas on board (W.B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Pound in his Cantos, to name but a few) and so it is not surprising that the Japanese influence is still discernible in much recent and contemporary poetry, not only directly (eg James Kirkup, and via a growing number of Haiku competitions and anthologies) but also by more indirect routes such as poetry-workshop etiquette.


It is worth noting here, Haruo Shirane’s excellent paper which challenges many modern misconceptions concerning Haiku.  According to Shirane, Japanese and western verse were in considerable dialogue in the late nineteenth century, so that many of the later imported notions of ‘Japanese verse’ had already been modulated by western ideas.   That dialogue continues.



5.  The Haiku Today, in Britain.



The Haiku has become extremely popular in English.  Why is that?   Perhaps it’s something to do with its accessibility, its ease of recognition.  Or, as suggested by Martin Lucas and David Cobb, it may even spring from an island-based obsession with the weather, as shared by the British and Japanese!  Whatever its source, this very popularity has also contributed, I suspect, to the often heated debate between different Haiku factions, among them the North American school, Japanese scholars and British groups.  Disagreement has focussed variously on points of precedence, technique, history and authenticity.  In keeping with its paradoxical spirit, the quiet/wry Haiku has been a site of continuing aesthetic conflict.  I cannot bring to mind any contemporary equivalent to the ‘Haiku Wars’ over, say, sonnets or villanelles.


These issues aside, I believe that the notion of a moment of stillness, captured by a few brushstrokes of words, has a profound psychic appeal to our overwhelmed modern sensibility. Indeed, it is surprising how many ‘classical’ Haiku read well in a modern context:


                                      plum trees blooming -

                                      even Hell’s gate

                                      CLOSED                             Issa, 1820.


Being so condensed, the Haiku may be vulnerable at times to a kind of throw-away, as-it-comes laxity.  This possible abuse of the Haiku, however, goes way beyond the problems of pandering (paradoxically!) to short attention spans, or forcing/ falsifying a supposed ‘Haiku Moment’ (whatever that means), or encouraging the instant gratification of writing-workshops in which ‘MacPoems’ are composed to order; it touches on deeper issues of the historical evolution and aesthetic potential of the form.  Quoting Shirane: ‘…if Haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry… then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time’.


The challenge for the west is to explore for itself a suitable synthesis between the Haiku’s paradoxical qualities of lightness and depth, to find ways of dissolving that perceived ‘paradox’.  For me, Haiku are rather like soufflé: light and delicate; but requiring a great deal of effort and care to prepare.  The higher effort involved is that of preparation for receptivity and an inner stillness which is able to receive the Haiku insight, rather than of any vast editorial labour.  Haiku are rooted at least as much in the larger processes of an attentive, passionate creative self as they are in any critical school.  As such, they are part of the crucial contemporary challenge against poetry as a purely cerebral or ironic activity.


At its best, then, the Haiku can captivate and arrest us.  Its freshness, particularity and vitality offers a welcome antidote to the ‘global village’, while its lightness-with-depth flies in the face of modern reductionism.  Of course, Classical Haiku were part of a web of literary allusions, of historico-cultural continuities and discontinuities; but in a fast-moving world, Japanese forms such as the Haiku can be adapted to provide the type of snapshot which, unlike most demotic attempts with the camera, enriches and rejuvenates the process of living in the moment.  The ultimate aim for us as writers is to respond to, and delight in, these forms - to become much more than mere tourists.



6.  Some further Contacts, Papers and Books.



*  British Haiku Society:  c/o Sinodun, Shalford, Braintree, Essex CM7 5HB:


*  The Iron Book of British Haiku (ed. D. Cobb & M. Lucas):  Iron Press, 5 Marden Terrace, Cullercoats, North Shields NE30 4PD. £6.50.


*  The Acorn Book of Contemporary Haiku (ed. L. Stryk & K. Bailey):


*  Haruo Shirane, ‘Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths’:


*  Susumu Takiguchi, ‘The Twaddle of an Oxonian’ (2000; ISBN: 1 902135 02 4) and ‘Kyoshi: a Haiku Master’ (1997; ISBN: 1 902135 00 8), both published by Ami-Net International Press (Oxfordshire, OX25 4RA).  Insight into Japanese masters, with challenging discussions about the significance and practice of Haiku, etc. in English.



7.  Some Questions.                   There is no consensus concerning the answers to these!



a.       Beyond Imagism, how can traditional Japanese forms speak to us as part of a 21st century western sensibility?


b.       How do we adapt, as practitioners, to Japanese forms; what can we learn from them?


c.        How do we find the right balance, for ourselves, between capturing the ‘mood’ of Japanese forms and a desire to extend them experimentally into the English language?





Mario Petrucci.  ã 2000.                                                 Produced by Blue Nose Poetry, for the Barbican.




This simple summary does not pretend exhaustiveness.  We are approaching Japanese forms as practitioners, rather than as theorists or scholars.  We assume that you want to be faithful to the original forms, but also inventive.  The general hints below will help to keep us on course, particularly if we are to preserve in English the mood and the style of Japanese verse.  Look upon this list as a meditation exercise: it will be unhelpful for you to try to remember it all, or to treat it as a checklist of requirements.



·         Japanese poems are valued for:             lightness (or ‘karumi’)             simplicity

                                           openness                           depth


·         In Classical Haiku, inspiration and cleverness are generally less important than meditation, deep involvement and insight; but that does not mean Haiku cannot be humorous or quirky.


·         Three lines and 17 syllables are not mandatory, but avoid drifting too far from this.  Aim for three lines with the middle line slightly longer.  Fewer than 17 syllables is fine, but only overshoot 17 for good reason - or you will lose the natural economy of the form.


·         Referring to Nature in Haiku follows the Japanese tradition, but modern Haiku abroad need not do this.  They can strike an urban note, for example, or involve people (when they are more properly called ‘Senryu’).


·         Accessibility - above all!  The best Haiku bring us a common moment, albeit in a fresh light of recognition.


·         Pare to the bare bones.  The essence of these Japanese forms is economy.


·         Try to leave space, too, for the reader to complete the experience for themselves.  [One ramification of this (for some commentators) is that ‘I’ should be used rarely and with immense care - in such cases, participles may be better: ‘walking’ instead of ‘I walk’.]


·         Adjectives, adverbs - use these with caution.  Avoid abstracts and conceptual ideas.  Stick to the concrete, to the PARTICULAR, to the attentively observed.  Use direct, vernacular English; avoid archaisms, theorising and high diction.  TRUST NOUNS!


·         “Show, don’t tell.”  Always a good warning - but never more so than in Haiku.  Avoid similes and metaphors.  Remember - the thing in itself.  [Many great Haiku have, of course, used subtle forms of allusion and metaphor: so - this is not a rule, but a suggested starting point.]


·         Use the present tense - Haiku generally inhabit, and represent, the transitory moment. [Again, not a rule!  Haiku can imply a vast expanse of time - either overtly, or just ‘behind’ the moment.   The more important idea is to communicate immediacy, a vitality.  So, the present tense is a natural place to start!]


·         Avoid titles.  Minimise punctuation.


·         Most important of all: Remember - there are no absolute rules!  Contemporary English must find its own ways of interpreting the STYLE, MOOD, FORM of Japanese verse.



For the advanced Haiku-ist:


·         You may wish to incorporate a ‘pivotal’ middle line: this reads both backwards into the first line, and forwards into the last, but with a shift in emphasis or sense.


·         Strictly speaking, Haiku should incorporate a ‘cutting’ - a writing of the poem in two parts.  These must have a ‘pause’, a certain imaginative distance, between them.  Each section should enrich the other.  The cutting is often signalled in English by a colon, dash or ellipsis after the first or second line.



                   Right at my feet -                    First autumn morning:

                   And when did you get here,                         The mirror I stare into

                   Snail?                                     Shows my father’s face.


                   Issa  (1762 - 1826)                    Murakami, Kijo  (1865 - 1938)


Mario Petrucci.  ã 2000.                                                 Produced by Blue Nose Poetry, for the Barbican.