Thursday, July 7, 2011

Editorial: 5-7-5 Does Not Make a Haiku

What's that, you ask?  What's that?  Why are we printing an editorial almost diametrically opposed to our mission statement?

Well, for starters, we here at High Coup Journal have been spoiling for this fight for a long time.  But we also want to foster alternate viewpoints, and so we'd like to start off Volume 2 of the journal with a polite but well-researched explanation of everything that is wrong with our lovely journal.  Mr. Boyer has proven to be a great sport about all this, and we encourage responses to this editorial, yea and nay.  Do some research of your own and dish it right back, and we'll be happy to print your editorial as well!


This editorial is part one in our continuing battle over the nature of the haiku.  Read part two here.



I would like to start by thanking Mike Miller for this opportunity. I’d also like to thank A. Jarrell Hayes. It was my comment on his post at Reddit that got this whole thing rolling. I clicked on the link he provided to the February issue and made the comment that what I was seeing really wasn’t haiku. I said it was more in line with senryu or zappai*. I don’t mean to lessen anyone’s enjoyment of this journal. I just need to stand up for the haiku tradition.

Haiku is one of the most amazingly powerful verse forms ever invented, but it’s in the unfortunate position of being poorly understood even though everyone thinks they are familiar with it. Part of the blame for this goes to our early education, where the overly simplistic 5-7-5 paradigm was instilled in all of us. I know I stared this way, and wrote 5-7-5 for a long time.

My interest in haiku took off when I bought a copy of The Haiku Anthology. It was a book full of interesting, vibrant poetry that I didn't have to sweat over, as with the T. S. Eliot or E. E. Cummings that I had been reading. When I started to really get into the anthology, it was a revelation. So many moments where my breath was taken away. You know that moment when you're reading a poem and something just clicks, you have an Aha! moment or maybe you get goosebumps? Haiku was able to give me that again and again. I also saw, for the first time, the breadth and depth of haiku. People wrote in 5-7-5, sure, but there was so much variety that I quickly realized the 5-7-5 structure was not really important.

Lee Gurga (an award-winning haiku poet, former president of the Haiku Society of America and former editor of Modern Haiku) writes in his Haiku: A Poet’s Guide: “A majority of people among both poets and the general public seems to believe that haiku poetry is synonymous with haiku form, and that anything written in the three-line form they remember from elementary school is automatically haiku.” He then goes on to quote the Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama, who says “The 5-7-5 pattern by itself does not make a haiku.”

Gurga also gives the Haiku Society of America definition of haiku in his guide: “A poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.” The “moment keenly perceived” is the important thing here. A haiku is the essence of a moment, the poetry of a moment, in just a few impressionistic brush strokes. In good haiku there is always more unsaid than said:

clearing out
their mother’s house
last leaves on the maple
--Jack Barry

This poem give us a picture of the end of things, just moments before the season ends, before the house is no longer really their mother’s house. But in those ends we can see a glimpse of a new beginning, perhaps. The tree that will grow new leaves, the house that may become a home for another family. This is from the most recent issue of Modern Haiku, Volume 42:2, summer 2011. A few more examples may help:

transit of Venus...
something struggles
in the orb weaver’s web
--Lorin Ford

It’s a very rare thing to catch a glimpse of Venus moving against the face of the sun, just as it’s a rare thing to see an orb weaver at work with its prey. Visually, we can see the two small orbs, Venus and the spider, moving against the much larger forms of the sun and whatever the spider has caught. Though nature is beautiful in its diversity, we feel the passing of time and shiver.

at the Playboy Mansion
the plastic trees
--Gregory Hopkins

This one hardly needs an explanation. It’s a good showcase of how haiku poets use nature to talk about human nature, and how with subtlety you can say much more than with a direct statement. The poem would be much less of a poem if the poet had said something like

at the Playboy Mansion
plastic trees and silicone breasts

This version gives too much away, it makes what was implicit explicit and destroys the poetry of the original.

from the big bang to my funny bone
--Christopher Patchel

I don’t know if I can do this one justice, but as T. S. Eliot so rightly said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” To me, this poem, with the laugh of a Buddha becoming enlightened, takes in the entire universe through the perspective of one small bone in one small human body. Banging your funny bone (and seeing stars, no doubt) is related to the Big Bang and suddenly the universe expands through this exquisite and ludicrous pain. That’s one of the real gifts of great haiku and great poetry: the sense of expansiveness, that there are larger things we are a part of. When you finish a great poem, regardless of the length, and you’re left with a wow on your lips or your mind reeling with possibilities and implications, then poetry has done its job.

a lightning-blasted pine in my pencil the black spine
--Peter Yovu

There is such powerful drama in this piece and such powerful peace. The blasted tree, a rough mirror of the pencil in the poet’s hand, which he uses to memorialize the same tree. And I think the rhyme (it’s quite rare to see rhyme work well in haiku) makes the poem sing.

panties tossed on the melon rinds wet in spots
--Chris Gordon

The heat of summer, and all that implies, comes through in every syllable. You almost feel a bit breathless reading this.

High Coup has printed some poems that I think are in the tradition of haiku. Each of the following are carefully and vividly presented scenes, and each leaves you wanting more, asking what else is going on or what led up to this:

from June 2011:
A white seagull floats
above the turbulent waves
of the parking lot.
--Michael Morris

February 2011:
Whispering tender
Terms of endearment in
My frostbitten ears.
--Megan Milligan

However, reading High Coup I find most of the poems are along the lines of little jokes or fortune cookie type sentiments, that tend to just stop at the end of the line, with little or no resonance.

William Higginson and Penny Harter in The Haiku Handbook say that writing a haiku is saying “It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the events that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own.” Haiku don’t tell you how to feel, they show you a scene and hope that you will come along.

In the end, what I’m trying to say (and what I say to myself every day) is, don’t limit yourself! Don’t settle for just writing jokes and a blind adherence to 5-7-5. Haiku can be so much more.

DAVID BOYER's haiku have appeared in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Mayfly, Acorn, bottle 
rockets, Presence, Heron's Nest and other haiku journals. He was a featured poet in A New Resonance 5: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku.

* “A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all.” (From the Haiku Society of America.)


  1. This post demonstrates exactly why I like High Coup Journal. Not many journals would open up a critical discussion about its content in this way. As a publisher of a short form poetry journal (notice I didn't say haiku journal), I get sucked into this discussion all the time. I think the important thing that Mr. Boyer states is that we shouldn't limit ourselves. I would carry his exhortation to both ends of the haiku spectrum. I enjoy "little jokes or fortune cookie type sentiments" and ones that follow the haiku tradition Mr. Boyer is sticking up for. I don't think most readers of this journal really think the content featured on this site is all haiku has to offer, but for those who might, I applaud High Coup for allowing Mr. Boyer to expand their definitions. I suppose this isn't really a "yea" or "nay" response, but I look forward to what other, more opinionated posters, will have to say.

  2. I think this editorial on haiku is fantastic...and truly does justice to the art of Haiku. I love the line "Haiku don’t tell you how to feel, they show you a scene and hope that you will come along."

    I have noticed that most of my attempts at haiku turned out to be senryu. I have taken time to look into the art if Japanese short form poetry and tried my hand at several types, yet, I often find myself sitting somewhere, in what looks like a daze, counting syllables in my head.
    5-7-5! Knowing it is not what makes a haiku has not stopped me from finding myself in a 5-7-5 state of mind...sometimes I find it kick starts my brain! I dig High Coup Journal for so many reasons. One reason being that I have a whole slew of poems that fall in the 5-7-5 but don't quite adhere to traditional haiku standard. Here, at High Coup Journal, those little gems (usually capturing an emotional state) have a place.

    one from yesterday:

    I already know
    that the tongue cannot create
    what I hold for you.

    senryu? haiku? pseudoku? You tell me...

    One more thing. I appreciate Mr. Boyer's knowledgeable and passionate approach to haiku. Also appreciate his ability to write an opinion piece that is neither 'preachy' or judgmental. A true pleasure to read. Thank you to High Coup and Mr. Boyer.


  3. Haiku in the Japanese tradition underwent plenty of change over the centuries from renga, to hokku, to haibun and haiga, to renka. Heck, many of the most famous examples of "haiku" weren't even haiku when they were written, but hokku, and were only retroactively called haiku latter on, often as part of Shiki's ideological struggles with the older material in the 19th century. Even as late as the early 20th century it was hokku far more than haiku that was influencing Pound and the Imagists. That's ok anytime we aren't aching over fine distinctions with our academic hats on, anytime we are acting as poets we relish the rich tradition of many styles and forms.

    So when we acculturate this notion of haiku to a new century or a new language or continent what needs to remain the same? The 17 on? the cut? the seasonality reference? the link between man and nature? The ideological struggles between Zen Buddhism and Pureland Buddhism? Maybe we should build in Shiki' contempt for earlier Japanese poetry in the style, after all he's the one that popularized the term "Haiku" in Japan... Poetry always adapts to the needs of the time and the society, while trying also to remain rooted in its own tradition. So what are the parts of the hokku-rengu-haibum-haiku-etc. tradition that can still meaningfully speak to Americans on the edge of the 21t century? The "recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature"? SURE! Lots of that kind of haiku is still written and still read and still has power and meaning, and still seems to draw from its roots in Japanese poetry. If anything, there is enough of that for it to seem overdone, it has plenty of venues.

    So the bigger question is does silly, flippant stuff with minimal emphasis on season or man-nature themes genuinely draw from the Japanese poetry tradition of the Renge-Hokku-Haibun-Haiku line? YES! There is a tradition called Haikai-no-renga (unorthodox or comic renga), staunchly defended by Bassho as being part of the poetic spirit (fuga).

    From Wikipedia "For Bashō, haikai involved a combination of comic playfulness and spiritual depth, ascetic practice and involvement in human society. Bashō’s haikai treated of the ordinary, everyday lives of commoners. In contrast to traditional Japanese poetry, he portrayed figures from popular culture such as the beggar, the traveller and the farmer. In crystallising the newly popular haikai he played a significant role in giving birth to modern haiku, which reflected the common culture."

    We have classics in the tradition, like Bassho

    now then, let's go out
    to enjoy the snow... until
    I slip and fall! [1688]


    even while chopping
    the dried herbs
    she’s day-dreaming

    That last one is from Yaba, one of Bassho's students in a round of Renku from 1693 on Street Hawkers. It has no seasonal reference, no connection between man and nature, no Buddhism on display. Yet it records a precise moment via terse words, it explores the emotional depth of the moment, and does so partly via it's flippant humor.

    or again Bassho (1685)

    His go strategy
    comes to him
    two days later

    Good lord, this one could easily have come straight out of Highcoup!

  4. If you want to argue that Highcoup publishes "unorthodox" haiku, no one will disagree. If you want to argue that they aren't really haiku at all, properly speaking, I will point to Bassho who was actually DEIFIED by the Shinto bureaucracy, and let you battle with verse and fisticuffs against his shade.

    If you want to argue that comic rengu existed but that hokku or rengu are not real haiku, and haiku should not be primarily comic, then you cut off your tradition with your own sword and deserve your humorless fate. A common version of this argument is to argue that the comic stuff focusing on human foibles is "really" "senryu" not "haiku" as Boyer seems to in his footnote. This is a terrible misunderstanding. "Senryu" just means "poetry in the style of Senyru Karai" a particular 18th century Japanese poet. Just because something is in the style of Senyru does not mean it isn't ALSO haiku. Further, humorous poetry in the Japanese tradition is certainly going strong even before Senryu, a my Bassho examples show. This would be as dumb as arguing that any humorous poetry in sonnet form should be called a "Shakespeare" and not counted as a sonnet at all, and that we must make a rigourous distinction between "Shakespeares" and "Sonnets" although of course admitting that Shakespeare himself wrote in both styles. Rubbish! This is the spirit of overweening academia seeking to choke out what is living and vibrant in the traditions we have been handed by the multi-faceted humans that wrote before us.

    If you argue, that the English notion of Haiku refers to the orthodox haiku only, rather than drawing from the broader Japanese tradition, then you are simply misunderstanding the situation on the ground in American education, and who gets to decide the usage of terms in the US. We have no Academie Francaise to delineate normative meanings apart from usage, and you have already lost the battle on usage. Americans regularly use the American term Haiku to refer to both serious haiku and silly haiku,and frequently admire BOTH.

    Haiku in English today simply includes plenty of examples of both orthodox haiku focusing on exploring the poetic spirit through sketches of keenly perceived moments typically of human- nature interactions, and unorthodox haiku focusing on exploring the poetic spirit through wry wit typically commenting on common life and pop culture. Both of these American poetic forms are exploring the poetic spirit, and both are firmly rooted in the Japanese tradition of Renga-Hokku-Haibum-Haiga-Senryu-Haikai-Renku-Haiku. And in English we frequently use the ENGLISH term Haiku, as a short hand for the whole glorious multiplex tradition.

    Brian Morton

  5. After reflecting on David Boyer’s inviting article and learning a great deal from Brian Morton’s comprehensive comments (I enjoyed Vinnie’s and Annie’s entries as well), I almost didn’t post anything. What more could, or really needed to, be added? Okay, here goes:

    I respect Boyer for his purist position and lucid writing on haiku, along with those wonderful complementary examples. Besides the issues related to a lack of knowledge and understanding about definitions of terms and their evolving relationships -- so cogently pointed out by Morton -- I think that the English word “senryu” may have been generally avoided because it’s difficult to pronounce. Also, is it one, two, or three syllables? In addition, can you believe that “senryu” is not even in The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.)?! Furthermore, teachers and others in general may, unconsciously or consciously, still avoid using “senryu” because of its slant heterographic connection to “sin” and “you.” The word “haiku,” on the other hand, sounds and looks like what?

    And as an afterthot:

    we are com(fort)ed
    within (bound)aries, by form --
    inc(line)d to c(hang)e

    Geoff M. Pope