May 8, 2009

Poetry Friday--What Is Haiku? And Who Decides on the Definition?

Last Friday, on The Write Sisters' blog, I wrote "A Curmudgeon's Review" of Michael Rosen's new book The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems. I got an email from Michael. He told me he had tried to post a comment, but it did not work, so he sent the comment to me. Before reading it, you may want to read the original post. Michael's comment:
Dear Diane and friends of The Write Sisters,

I appreciate your care in reviewing my book, as well as your confidence to be "a dog with a bone" about your beliefs in haiku and children's books. I share your passion, while I suppose I have different bones. (It's true, as a dog person, I know about bones...and more haiku, in what you'll find as the same disappointing spirit, is forthcoming from Candlewick in 2011. Twenty-four breeds of dogs featured similarly in this form.)

As a poet who writes in a variety of forms for both adults and children, I use form, meter, rhyme, "sentence sounds" (the adhesive properties of repeating vowels and consonants within a given line that Frost utilized). Form, in particular provides the pressure. Provides the generative source of ideas and options, forces me to consider and reconsider each word and phrase.

Like many folks who practice haiku (indeed, practice is the right word), I opt for the 5/7/5 syllable convention. We all know the original Japanese form does not pertain to 17 syllables broken into three horizontal lines but rather, to 17 units of sound arranged in one vertical line. Furthermore, what sounds like two 'syllables' to an English speaker's ear, may not possess two units of sound. For instance, the Japanese word haibun is often used as an example. It possesses one elongated vowel, as well as an "n" at the end of syllable, which counts as another sound. It's pronounced ha-i-bu-n: four sound counts.

In other words, like any kind of translation, the job is to find an equivalency between languages, not making a precise match. And translation is a constantly renewable art because language dates, language exists in time and place.

In this book, I applied the idea of haiku to a range of commonly seen birds: THAT is hardly a traditional theme for haiku. Birds, yes, but not a suite of different species. So there began the adaptation. I did attempt to use a seasonal cue for each poem. I did use metaphors and similes, partly as a means of enlarging the scope of the observation, partly as a means of layering common phenomenon with nuance or novelty that would allow the reader to dwell on the page. Partly to appeal to younger readers as well.

The temptation, which we all have to resist, is to read quickly: I mean, you can zip through a hundred haiku in the time it might take to read a dozen pages of a novel. Haiku, as I appreciate it or use it, needs to possess a centripetal or centrifugal force rather than a forceful gust. It's a churning and a spinning into associations, and not a rolling out of a maxim or a homily.

Did I practice haiku in this book in a manner that's vetted by the HSA? Would the very nature of this book adhere to their guidelines? I wouldn't know; while I read volumes of haiku, I find them as varied as I find authors of picture books or composers of sonatas or choreographers of ballet. But, as most artists approach their canvas, camera, dancers, piano, I hoped to exploit the power of tradition and the potential of inspiration or innovation.

So, to me, the real questions are: is the book as a whole a success (the mix of field notes, paintings, and poems)? Are the poems enjoyable, insightful, evocative? I don't believe the reader—especially a kid—would ask are these really and truly haiku?

We are in complete agreement on your second point: the font that's used for the notes on the page is less than ideal. I tried...I have it changed.

Again, thank you for giving this book such serious attention, and for permitting me to raise my hackles as well. Wag, wag...

I want to thank Michael for taking the time to write such a considered response. Before I comment, I want to quote from Jane Reichhold's AHA Poetry site:
I am bothered by the several times it is asked, "Is this a haiku?" I think the better question is, "Do I want to accept this poem as an example of haiku for myself?" With this way of stating the question, perhaps one can avoid painful discourses. I am totally for discussion, but when anyone assumes the authority to say "what haiku is(or isn't)", I feel the discussion has ended and turned into something quite different.

So, to cut to the chase, I'm simply going to state that FOR ME, the poems in Michael's book are not haiku. FOR ME, what's important in haiku is the presentation of "the essence of a moment keenly perceived," not the form. (See NOTE below.)

Here's one of my favorite haiku from The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English edited by Cor van den Heuvel (W.W. Norton, 1999), if only because it is pure essence:


~ Raymond Roseliep

For those who are confused about haiku in English, I'd recommend spending some time with The Haiku Anthology. It doesn't provide instruction--it provides a wide range of examples. If you'd like instruction, check out Patricia Donegan's Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids (Tuttle, 2003), or Jane Reichhold's Writing and Enjoying Haiku (Kodansha, 2003).

I congratulate Michael on the success of The Cuckoo's Haiku and welcome all views on haiku! I'd love to have others weigh in on haiku, too, so please leave your comments and take part in a discussion.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is hosted by Anastasia Suen at Picture Book of the Day.

NOTE: The Haiku Society of America's definition of haiku:"An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature." The definition was updated in 2004 and now reads, "A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition." Unfortunately, I think the old definition is clearer than the new one, which sent me running to a dictionary of literary terms to understand what was meant by imagistic!


  1. Brava, Diane!
    May there be many ripples from the stones we've thrown into the pool.
    Two further thoughts from me. I suppose writing this book for younger readers (while welcoming older readers, to be sure), I felt the need to use the 5/7/5 format since that is what is familiar to teachers and children. There was enough information about birds and natural history, about the poems as images, that I forfeited the occasion to teach or explain the process of writing haiku (correctly or incorrectly!).
    I'm all for AHS. I'm also for any number of other collective groups who write haiku in Japanese, English, or any other language. I'm all for anthologies, masterful books by masterful authors or haiku. But to me, adopting or applying one definition is rather like using the American Kennel Club's "definition" of what a given dog breed should look like, even as we all understand that the concept of breeding is an evolving human enterprise. (Should dogs have cropped ears, bobbed tails? Some say absolutely; others violently oppose it.) As a dog person, I'm all for mutts and rescued animals and healthy animals that are afforded a richly integrated life with human companions. Perhaps my haiku are similarly bred...similarly enjoyed as a part of my seasons here on the farm.
    Anyway, one of the loveliest ideas I try to keep in mind is a quote by
    Ogiwara Seisensui, that suggests that a haiku is a circle: half of it is written by the poet, the other half is supplied by the reader.
    Of course, both halves should be free of worrying about whether or not the words are or aren't a haiku in order to enter or stay "in the moment." Which is, I know, our common pleasure in this form of imagination and observation.
    Thanks again, MJR

  2. I love what Michael said here: "Haiku, as I appreciate it or use it, needs to possess a centripetal or centrifugal force rather than a forceful gust. It's a churning and a spinning into associations,"

    Also the above quote from Seisensui, that haiku is "a circle: half of it is written by the poet, the other half is supplied by the reader."

    I think as I practice haiku over the years I have changed my understand and my style, or form. I hope I'm getting better... that is that the images are sharper, the response is stronger, the thought is deeper. I confess I get really annoyed when I read or see teachers giving kids instruction in haiku that is nothing but 17 syllables. I am a bit of a snob, which I don't think is a good thing.

    But it does seriously pain me to see kids publishing things like: I like summer when/summer is fun because it's/hot and it's so fun!" And the teacher is cheering about their haiku. I am on amission to get rid of that kind of thinking... without insulting the teacher or the students.

    I am using The Cuckoo's Haiku today with a class of 5 and 6 years olds right before we go for a bird walk in the field. I am sure they will enjoy it!

  3. Thank you,Diane and Michael, for taking the time to "argue" your cases. Here's to passion and unwavering beliefs and open minds.

  4. A wonderful discussion - thanks so much. I'll be forwarding a link to this to my writing students in the MFA program at Vermont College, where we often have similar back-forth conversations about the definition of haiku. It's always exciting to me to see what a slippery fish poetry is (just try defining "poetry" - !!)

  5. Thank you all for contributing to this discussion of haiku. We will all find a definition that works for us! Here's to a life filled with poetry! --Diane