by Mike Rehling
I have been asked to provide my definition of haiku. Here it is:
1. Short poem 2-17 syllables, with 8 to 12 syllables quite often optimal.
2. There must be a contrast created for the reader by the poem.
3. Besides being short, they are wildly concise and leave the reader to imagine the details.
Ok that is that. You have my definition. Anything more is debatable and extraneous. So, how did I get to this, and how can you deepen your understanding of the form? Well you could read all the books purporting to explain the haiku form. I have over thirty of them and some are very good indeed, but if you start there you just get confused. The fact that I have so many of them is proof positive that there were none that ‘nailed it’ for me. Get to them later, after you have been published once or twice, and then they can give you ‘clues’ to improve your work.
One of my favorite quotes is from The Wordless Poem, by Eric W. Amann:
“The problem for the Western reader, therefore, is not to find the hidden meaning, the ‘symbolic significance’ of a haiku, for there is none, but to re-convert the images of a haiku into his own intuitions. And the answer to that lies of the art of reading haiku. A haiku is not meant to be read like a longer poem. It is more of an object for contemplation.”
The very best thing you can do for yourself is READ good haiku. So where to go?
You have made it here to this page, so you have the entire Internet at your disposal, but let me hone down your information sources to those who practice and promote ‘literary haiku’ as opposed to 5/7/5 ‘jingles’ that you tend to get in high school, and sadly, many colleges. Here is a short list that I read often every year, over and over:
Harold G. Henderson Memorial Award Collection This award has been going on since the 70’s, and is judged by two different judges every year. It is sponsored by The Haiku Society of America, and the fact that you have hundreds of haiku, written by hundreds of different poets in this collection makes it one of the most valuable resources you will find. It is FREE, so bookmark it and visit it often. You will see multiple line structures, topics, and winners from around the world. Nothing is better for building your discernment of the form than reading this fine collection.
Gerald Brady Memorial Award Collection Another award by The Haiku Society of America, but this one focuses on senryu, a close cousin of haiku that matches the definition above, but has a slightly different focus. Don’t dwell on the differences in the beginning, many haiku journals don’t make the distinction in their selections for publication, so just soak it in and make your own observations. Senryu allow you to broaden the topics you can tackle within the basic form. That is enough of an incentive to add this to your reading list.
What, in my opinion, is a GREAT haiku? What do they look like? Here are a couple of my favorites:
all day long
i feel its weight
the unworn necklace
This poem has too many meanings for me to even begin to explore here. As you read this poem you have too much to wonder over. Why is the necklace missing from her neck? The contrast here is that the necklace is missing, and yet the poet feels the ‘weight’ of it ‘all day long’. You can write a novel about the reasons behind the absence of this necklace, and the emotions it has generated in the the poet, and every version you write ‘could’ be true. There is a ‘time and place’ to this poem that only the poet knows, but somehow every reader can find their own moment with a preciseness that only the reader knows. So in one small poem you have a collusion between the poet and the reader, and both get to keep their secrets. Roberta Beary has shown herself, over and over, to be able to find her moment, and the reader's moment, and make them seamless. This poem can be found in her book, the title of which is taken from the poem, and is now in its fourth printing: The Unworn Necklace.
off the moon
Nicholas A. Virgillio
Sadly, Nicholas is no longer with us, but this poem, and many others he wrote, are still resonating through readers today. Such a simple and direct image in this poem, but one that touches nerves on so many levels. It is simple genius to view the moon and the bugs on the water from the eyes of the bass. But, and stay with me now, Nick lost his brother in Vietnam. What, you might think, does that have to do with this poem? You know, the poet might not see it this way, but having lost so many of my friends in that war, when I read this poem I found a way to survive the pain of those losses. I became a bass, in a quiet inland lake, finding the shadows of bugs, courtesy of that beautiful moon, and this thought sustains me much as those bugs sustained the bass. Perspective can save your life, and for me anyway, this poem calmed my soul during that troubled time, and continues to provide me peace to this day. Maybe I am here today because this fine haiku moved me to a view of the moon, and let me feed on it rather than the demons of war, maybe. You can find out more about Nicholas A. Virgillio by clicking the link.
Ok, maybe I defined nothing for you, and for that I refuse to apologize. You need to find your own definition, we all do, but when you get there, don’t hang on too tightly either. Imagine yourself as a haiku poet and you can become one. Will you be any good at it? Who knows? But you won’t have a better time or tap into a more creative corner of your spirit than trying to wrap the emotions and moments of your life into a short poem, that draws on a contrast, and then sharing that poem with your readers.
Michael's Bio: I am a quiet vegan haiku poet living in the north woods of Michigan, who also lives on the Internet and on most social media platforms. If you are really curious you can Google me.