Recently, I came across a poetry site touting the virtues of the winning work of a Haiku contest. The “Haiku” in question was an ode to the writer’s car. Something small but vitally important died within my soul.
In our fast-paced society brevity is king. Texting has replaced conversation, microwaves have replaced ovens, tweeting has replaced letters. It’s no surprise that modern-day aspiring writers would flock to a form of self-expression that could often be completed in less than 10 words. Haiku is a beautiful traditional form of poetry whose origins span hundreds of years into antiquity. It deserves better than to become the discarded fast-food wrapper of literature.
The mechanics of Haiku poetry are well known: Three lines comprised of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. Unfortunately, an increasingly large percent of writers believe the structure to be the only requirement to a Haiku. They cheat themselves and their writing by ignoring the classic imagery and content that made Haiku such an enduring art form.
Haiku has always been about nature and the changing of seasons. The association is so strong that many traditional Japanese writers do not consider a work to be a Haiku if it lacks either a direct reference or a very strong inference to a season. This word or inference is called a Kigo. In the following example by Natsume Soseki (1275-1351) the Kigo clearly refers to winter.
Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
The use of a Kigo is a definable concrete aspect of traditional Haiku. Its counterpart, the Kireji (cutting word) is slightly more abstract. It is simply a word or punctuation that disrupts the flow of the poem for dramatic effect. Its presence makes the work more than simply a definition or a descriptive sentence.
There are two typical placements for Kireji, each placement has a separate purpose. The first position is mid-verse. In this case, the Kireji is placed within the body of the work and is used to indicate a separation in thoughts.
The winds of autumn
Blow: yet still green
The chestnut husks
In the above example from “Four Haiku” by Matsuo Basho, the Kireji is in the form of a colon. The use of punctuation as a Kireji common in English-Language Haiku, as many of Japanese cutting words have no English translation.
The use of a Kireji as a terminal word has a different purpose. Often it both reiterates the most powerful image of the poem, and brings the reader back to the start of the poem. This is perfectly illustrated by the following:
Haiku by Raymond A. Foss
Water reflects sky
Summer of my soul open
Under the spell still
“Still” is a clever word choice here, both implying an ongoing spell and leading back to the original image of still water reflecting the sky. Kireji in the terminal position often have double meanings.
Haiku has nuances that go far beyond syllable count. History, tradition, and internal elements are all vital to all well-written verse. Poets would do well to treat Haiku as more than a challenging word puzzle.