Thursday, October 24, 2013

Five Types of Haiku at "Under the Basho"

Five Types of Haiku

One of the views I have about Haiku in English, a view I have touched on repeatedly at this blog, is that English Language Haiku (ELH) has split into a number of different poetic forms.  Further, I believe that these forms are now so different from each other that they have little in common; that they are as different from each other as, say, the Sonnet is from the Villanelle.

This is a fringe view among ELH haijin.  And I can understand why that is the case.  For a long time these different approaches to ELH have lived in the same journals, met at the same conferences, and intimately interacted with each other and so it makes sense that participants in ELH would view the different approaches as in some obscure way the same form.

Yet, I do see signs of a growing understanding of just how different these forms have become.  I first noticed this at the Haiku Foundation.  The Foundation held a Haiku contest and they divided the contest into three separate categories of Haiku; a free verse, 3 line approach with a minimalist esthetic; a 5-7-5 approach, and a more consciously avant-garde approach.  This seemed to me a tacit admission that the different approaches to Haiku have become distinct enough that they need to be evaluated on their own terms as opposed to one approach as the standard by which all ELH is judged.

A new website further supports the view that these forms have matured and become distinct forms.  The new website is called “Under the Basho” and it can be found here:

I believe it was started by Don Baird who is a longterm ELH Haijin and has familiarity with many individuals in the ELH community.  When you go to the home page, notice that at the top there is a tab called “Haiku Styles”.  Click on that tab.  What you will find is a list of five styles of modern ELH Haiku: Traditional, Stand-Alone Hokku, Modern Haiku, One-Line Haiku, Concrete Haiku.  The first category, ‘Traditional Haiku’, is what I mean when I say ‘Syllabic Haiku’; that is to say a three-line poem of 5-7-5.  The site also contains descriptions of each form, so that the reader can discern both what the various approaches have in common, and also what distinguishes each type from the others.  I think it is very well done.

At the site the author of the page (Baird?) writes:

“Into the 21st century the descendants of Basho's hokku multiply daily into various styles of poetic expression but all bearing still a scent of the Basho hokku dna. While the family resemblances may sometimes seem tenuous, those examples of high seriousness and individual accomplishments of poetic expression deserve to be appreciated.”

I like the way this is put forward.  I often think of the various approaches to ELH as the children, or descendants, of Japanese Haiku; I think of them as siblings and view many of the arguments between them as kind of like sibling rivalries.  Each descendant wants to claim the inheritance of the Japanese original, but the truth is they all have the requisite ‘hokku dna’ to make such a claim.

One of the consequences of viewing the various approaches as distinct forms is that it allows one to appreciate the forms on their own terms instead of evaluating the other approaches based on one’s own specific approach to Haiku.  For example, recently I wrote a very enthusiastic review for Amazon of a Haiku collection that was all done in what I think of as ‘free verse Haiku’; what “Under the Basho” refers to as ‘Modern Haiku’.  I did this even though I, myself, take a syllabic approach to Haiku.  I had no problem doing this because I see free verse Haiku as a distinct form; that is to say it has its own standards, techniques, and esthetic ideals.  Just as I would not evaluate a Villanelle based on the formal requirements of a Sonnet, so too I do not evaluate free verse Haiku based on the standards of a syllabic approach.  Comprehending the different approaches to Haiku as distinct forms has the effect of opening one’s self to these other approaches and allowing for the appreciation of each of them.  That is why I find “Under the Basho” such a worthy project; it is allowing space for these different approaches to breathe without imposing the standards of one approach on the others. 

So take a look at the website and, if you are so inclined, you might want to submit some of your own Haiku for the next edition of “Under the Basho”.


Jinksy said...

Thank for your thoughts on the subject. I must admit to being a 5-7-5 kind of person, as I like the rhythm this produces, but now I shall follow your link to discover something new, perhaps. :)

Jim714 said...

I have become a 5-7-5 person. I didn't start out that way. I started out writing free verse haiku; some of them are in my collection 'Poems of Place'. It was the rhythm you mentioned that slowly pulled me towards a syllabic approach. There is a musical quality, and a pleasing symmetry, about the 5-7-5 form, that spoke to me. It is this rhythmic aspect of 5-7-5 that I find most compelling.

Thanks for your comments,


Anonymous said...

The site looks interesting. I don't go along with his def. of "Traditional Haiku". The only traditional haiku are written in Japanese. The 5/7/5 pattern was/is (so I've read) based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language. Additionally, haiku were not originally (in English) written in this pattern. That is to say, the form isn't "traditional" to English. That (sort of) fake-y equivalence came later (& messed up a whole lot of translations). Not sure why he'd call it "traditional", except that it gives him a reason to call the other "haiku" something else.

To me, at any rate, the only way to really write haiku in English is by acknowledging the spirit of the form (the "traditional" content starting with Basho and afterward), rather than its structure. Fussing over Haiku's form in English is a bit like fussing over the most poodle-like way to coif an aardvark's fur.

Jim714 said...

We have different views on this. See my series 'Unexceptional', which is separated out and has its own category on the side of the blog. It goes into detail regarding the linguistic issue. But the short of it is that I don't think the adoption of 5-7-5 by some ELH Haijin was based on a misunderstanding. I think it is a reasonable way of basing ELH. It is not the only way; there are other successful approaches, but I do think it is legitimate.

What 'Under the Basho' calls 'traditional haiku' I refer to as 'syllabic haiku'. Lately I've been thinking of referring to this as the 'Japanese Tercet'. However, one looks at it, or what label one uses, it is now an established form in English Language poetry, making its appearance from Richard Wilbur to Mary Jo Salter to the local village poet writing about his or her life. It is a surprising development, but the form seems to have taken root and taken on a life of its own.

Apropros 'early' ELH, the oldest anthology of ELH that I know of is 'Borrowed Water'. The contents are in 5-7-5 and the 'Introduction' makes a very good case for the adoption of such an approach. Again, other approaches are also valid, but the syllabic approach has proven efficacious for a large number of poets.

Wishing you well,


Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,

I'd answer that the proof is in the pudding. When Japanese haiku are translated into English, they rarely (if ever) add up to a 5/7/5 syllable pattern, simply because the pattern requires too many syllables and forces translators to add words (padding) that don't exist in the original. This is because Japanese syllables aren't the same as English syllables.

That's the science.

Beyond that, far be it for me to insist on how English speaking poets should imitate haiku. I do, however, reserve the right to scoff at any EL poets who presume to know which ELH are "traditional" or how they "should" be written.

The earliest ELH appeared long before 'Borrowed Water' (in the 19th century) and rhymed. R.H. Blythe was the first scholar to exhaustively examine haiku in English and hardly a single one of his translations follow the 5/7/5 pattern. The 5/7/5 pattern is by no means "traditional". It's a concoction that occurred well after haiku were first introduced, mainly gaining currency in the 50's and 60's.


I agree (even it its not faithful) the 5/7/5 pattern isn't unreasonable. Is it legitimate? Depends on what you mean by legitimate. If it's faithful to the spirit of the form, then *any* way of writing EL Haiku is legitimate.

Jim714 said...

Thanks for the post. Translation throws ambiguous light on this topic. In the early 60's four volumes of translations by Beilenson and Behn were issued using the 5-7-5; with the second line indented and divided into two parts. Some contemporary Haijin have followed suit.

More significantly, I think, is are the two translations of the Waka Kokinshu, and anthology of Tanka/Waka. It contains about 1100 Tanka and both translations carry over teh syllabic count into their English versions. The McCullough translation is, I think, amazingly good. So it can be done; it just isn't done very often. That's because, I think, translation is more of an art than a science.

I agree with you that labeling the 5-7-5 as 'traditional' is likely not the best. That's why I refer to this type as 'syllabic'; because I think that is how the form is comprehended by most who use it. It is descriptive. But I'm not involved in the project and they get to make the decisions.

I share some of your frustration at those who seem to know how ELH 'should' be written. The variation among recommendations is very great and often contradictory. That is one reason why I think it is useful to think of these varied approaches as, in fact, altogether different forms. It is also why I am leaning to thinking of the 5-7-5 as a type of tercet. Looked at in this way it fits more smoothly into the heritage of English poetry in general.

A closing comment on Blyth: it is fascinating to me that two of the most significant ELH poets, Richard Wright and James Hackett, both turned to Haiku under the influence of Blyth, and both of these poets chose to use 5-7-5 even though Blyth did not recommend it, nor did he mimic that structure in his translations. Yet both of these poets adopted that structure anyway. To my mind this indicates that the 5-7-5 structure is in some way attractive on its own, as it seems to have drawn a significant number of poets to its structure.

Thanks again for your insights,