In this post, I’d like to share my thoughts on modern haiku and how it differs from traditional haiku.
Traditional haiku consist of 17 onji/syllables (one vertical line in Japanese and three lines of “5-7-5” romanized/English language), contain a season word (kigo) or seasonal reference (kidai), and contain a kireji (cutting word) or the equivalent thereof (usually punctuation or a dash), with the kireji after the first 5 or 12 syllables (though, in English, kireji placement in this fashion is not a must). Another mainstay of traditional haiku is that it almost always has something to do with nature, will usually contain juxtaposing images, and have symbolic meaning. For more on the idiosyncrasies of traditional haiku, refer to my previous posts.
There are those that argue that for non-Japanese language haiku, the 17 syllable count should be reduced to approximately 12, as then it can properly match it’s Japanese counterpart in brevity. We translate the Japanese on as syllable, but an onji is actually a character or pictograph, therefore Japanese haiku do not always contain 17 syllables as we know them. While reducing the 17 syllable count to 12 or so makes sense to better match, and to be more true to, the Japanese haiku, the 17 syllable count in ‘5-7-5’ format is what is most commonly accepted as the traditional non-Japanese language standard. In time, perhaps, this may change.
The modern haiku form does not pay attention to the strict laws governing it’s predecessor. There is generally no set syllable count, the ‘5-7-5’ three line format is optional, there does not have to be a kigo, kidai,or kireji, and the subject matter is not restricted to observances of the natural world. Both traditional and modern haiku can be either subjective or objective. To me, the majority of modern form haiku in the West seems to be more of a free-form poem inspired by format of traditional haiku. Of course, there are a many talented poets who keep within the traditional structure and, yet, write wholly modern haiku. Some would argue that, in this case, all that changes is subject matter, language used in the poem, and/or a break in traditional rhythm. Here is an example of modern haiku by Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), it breaks traditional rhythm:
“The first sweepings
Broom…begins to get
Used to the soil”
The argument for updated subject matter:
The argument for an updated subject matter is a good one: times have changed. To the traditionalist, breaking form seemingly breaks the spirit and long tradition of Basho/Buson/Issa-era hokku/haiku. To the modernist, holding onto a strict form (and a rigid set of kigo) for tradition’s sake alone just doesn’t seem sensible. They believe it limits creativity and restricts free language. There are no medieval courts and such in our day to hold poets to such a conservative standard. Trying to remain true to the poems of, say, Matsuo Basho is one thing, but restricting oneself to outdated cultural poetic guidelines is another. We must remember that Basho was an innovator within his craft. It is still possible to write purist haiku by replacing set seasonal words (kigo that come from an authorized book) with seasonal references (kidai) using free language.
. As a modern people, we generally live most of our lives indoors and the majority of modern people live in or near urban centers. In the ancient days of Matsuo Basho, being outdoors for most of the day and seeing a lot of the natural world was common. This is still true for those modern people who have outside occupations, such as farmers or park rangers, but the majority of us are accustomed to being indoors or generally within something. We generally work indoors, when we drive a vehicle, we’re out of the elements, etc. It’s not just a matter of being indoors more often, but what we view both indoors and outdoors, as well. Even in rural areas, we see modernization to the once rustic. Country roads are paved, small towns have sidewalks, urbanites view concrete more than trees and so on. Modernization happens, things move forward, and we observe these things in our daily lives. Basho, Buson, and Issa were all professionally trained poets in specific traditions of poetry. There were set ways of doing things. They were trained to use the words from a saijiki. The times and culture in which they lived differs vastly from our own. Still, the poetic spirit remains, with or without those specific rules.
There technically are still rules, if you strive to be a purist:
For a haiku to truly be considered a haiku by most scholars and organizations, it generally has to follow the traditionally outlined format, whether in Japanese (17 onji) or English (5-7-5). Otherwise, it is considered to be a senryu or a zappai. Many people will write senryu or zappai and still call it haiku, though they generally do so unknowingly or mistakenly. This happens mostly in the West and is, in part, due to ignorance or misinformation. Ultimately, the thought or the feeling of the poem is what’s most important, not the technicalities (unless you are disciplining yourself to be a traditional haiku poet, even then, take criticism with a grain of salt, do heavy research and keep improving).
Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts.