Thursday, November 12, 2009


I’m an amateur historian of the history of poetry. I am particularly intrigued by the transmission of poetic forms from one culture to another. The most famous example in the west of a transmission of a poetic form is the Sonnet, which started out in Italy and spread to other countries, notably England and France, becoming a major form in both of these regions. Changes usually occur when a form moves from one culture to another; and that is what interests me, how one culture will morph the form of another culture based on history, esthetic preference, and other factors. I refer to the descendants of the original form as “siblings”, meaning that they are all, in a sense, the children of the original form. Using this metaphor, the French Sonnet and the English Sonnet would be siblings, descendants of the original Italian Sonnet.

A recent example of a transmission of a poetic form across cultures took place in post World War II America; it was the transmission of the Haiku, a Japanese form, to the United States. (Haiku was also transmitted to other cultures and countries; but I lack information of specifics outside of the U.S., so I’ll confine my observations to this one specific case.)

What I have observed is that when a form moves from one culture to another certain aspects of the original form pass, while other aspects of the original form are blocked. The receiving culture does this by defining what the receiving culture values in such a way that those elements the receiving culture values are highlighted (often termed the “essence” of what they are interested in), while other aspects are allowed to fall away (because they are “non-essential”).

What I have observed in the specific case of Haiku is that this process has happened three times, generating three different Haiku traditions in the U.S. I refer to the three traditions as the “Duration Tradition”, the “Nature Tradition”, and the “Syllabic Tradition”.

The Duration Tradition

The Duration Tradition is impressed by the brevity of Haiku and takes that brevity as the essence of Haiku. It is understandable that brevity would be focused on; Haiku are very brief and this brevity serves to distinguish Haiku from other poetic forms such as the Sonnet or Villanelle or Ballad, etc. It was partly this brevity which attracted the Imagist poets to Haiku. I think the most influential proponent of the Duration Tradition was the late William Higginson. Quoting from Higginson's “The Haiku Handbook”:

“For haiku in English an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve [syllables], would yield a rhythmical structure native to English and at the same time approximate the duration of traditional Japanese haiku.”

(The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson, page 105, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1985)

Notice the emphasis here on matching the duration, the literal duration, of the Japanese Haiku. Japanese Haiku consist of seventeen syllables, but because Japanese syllables are, for the most part, shorter than English syllables, Higginson suggests an English model that uses approximately twelve English syllables so that the English Haiku will match the duration of the Japanese Haiku. The reason for wanting to match the duration is that brevity is considered to be the essence of the form. If you capture the brevity, then you have captured the form.

Another quote from Higginson:

“Grammar should be stripped to the minimum that seems reasonably natural. Complete sentences may or may not occur; articles (‘a, an, and the’) and prepositions should be used sparingly, but not unnaturally omitted.”

(Ibid, page 106)

The overall emphasis in the Duration Tradition is to be as brief as possible, even to the extent of altering English syntax.

Higginson was a very articulate spokesman for this point of view. Through his work at the Haiku Society of America (I believe he was President of the H.S.A. for about forty years), through his connections with Japanese Haiku Poets and Societies, and through his dedication and the high level of his own writing, he exerted a widespread and lasting influence on Haiku in the United States. Of the three Haiku Traditions I have observed, the Duration Tradition is by far the dominant one.

It is instructive to observe what is left behind, that is to say what the Duration Tradition does not emphasize that is emphasized in the Japanese tradition. First is syllable count. Higginson’s focus on duration ignores a specific syllable count. Though he recommends “about twelve syllables”, in practice syllable count is not taken as a criterion for whether or not a poem is a Haiku; brevity is. It is characteristic of the Duration Tradition of English Haiku that they will criticize a full count Haiku (meaning a Haiku of seventeen English syllables) as too long, too wordy, or padded (a deadly criticism from this tradition’s perspective).

Also left behind is adherence to seasonal reference and a natural setting. In traditional Japanese Haiku a seasonal reference is considered to be necessary; if there is no seasonal reference it is not considered to be a Haiku. By defining Haiku in terms of brevity, the Duration Tradition opens up Haiku to non-traditional topics, to Haiku focused on cityscapes for example, or Haiku focused on work, personal relationships, or other non-seasonal aspects of daily life. This shift to brevity as the essence of Haiku has greatly increased the range of subject matter available to Haiku.

The Duration Tradition, by emphasizing brevity, and by minimizing common English usage, has opened itself to the influence of modern free verse norms, which have extensively penetrated the Duration Tradition of Haiku. The lack of capitals, lack of punctuation, the often eccentric layout, and other aspects show a strong allegiance to modern free verse on the part of the Duration Tradition. The conformity of the Duration Tradition to modern free verse norms is, I believe, one of the reasons why the Duration Tradition is the largest of the three; because it is relatively easier to move from standard free verse to the Haiku of the Duration Tradition than it is to move from standard free verse to either the Nature Tradition or the Syllabic tradition.

The Duration Tradition advocates for lean, minimalist, expression. For the Duration Tradition this is the essence of Haiku.

The Nature Tradition

The next example of transmission of Haiku to the United States focuses on Haiku as Nature Poetry. For this group the defining characteristic of Haiku is that it is poetry about Nature. For this reason this tradition has adopted seasonal reference as essential, and beyond that the Nature Tradition de-emphasizes human centered topics. Thus for this tradition Haiku about work, politics, the erotic, or cityscapes would run counter to their understanding.

The Nature Tradition of Haiku transmission is rooted in the work of R. H. Blythe, whose monumental translations of four volumes of Japanese Haiku into English remains a pivotal work for this tradition (in contrast, the Duration Tradition acknowledges Blythe’s contributions, but considers them somewhat dated). The four Blythe volumes are each devoted to a particular season; so one can see how central the seasonal element, and nature, are from this perspective. As David Coomler, a prominent spokesman for the Nature Tradition says,

“One cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reflect the seasons in hokku.”

(Hokku – Writing Traditional Haiku in English, David Coomler, Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois, page 45, 2001)

The Nature Tradition also considers brevity important, but it is secondary to Haiku as Nature Poetry. Like the Duration Tradition, the Nature Tradition ignores the syllable count of traditional Haiku and for similar reasons.

The Syllabic Tradition

The third Tradition of Haiku in the United States focuses on the syllabics of Haiku. In Japan, Haiku has a strict syllabic structure consisting of three lines, or phrases (ku), distributed as follows: 5-7-5. This gives an overall syllable count of 17 syllables.

Observing this, the Syllabic Tradition of Haiku in English mimics the syllabic structure of Japanese Haiku by using the same syllabic count and distribution of phrasing in English. For the Syllabic Tradition a Haiku should mimic this syllable count in order for it to be a genuine Haiku.

The great example of the Syllabic Tradition in English is the Haiku of Richard Wright. Late in his life, this famous author published 800+ Haiku. I think it is the finest example of Haiku in the English language. The Haiku in Wright’s book, titled “Haiku: This Other World” are syllabic, that is to say they mimic the syllabic structure of Japanese Haiku.

A recent example of the Syllabic Tradition of Haiku is “The Calligraphy of Clouds” by Yeshaya Rotbard. I think this is a very fine collection of Haiku and other syllabic forms of poetry.

The Syllabic Tradition is represented in the U.S. by the Yukei Teikei Haiku Association. The advocacy of Syllabic Haiku by Yukei Teikei is muted; they allow for it and the founders thought highly of it, but they are open to other approaches as well.


There is a lot of sibling rivalry among these different approaches. This is natural, if at times stressful. Negative reviews of publications by one of these traditions on the part of another tradition are fairly common. Again, this is to be expected just as disagreements among siblings are to be expected.

These disputes are, however, not necessary. As soon as one realizes that there are three different traditions, writing three different kinds of poetry, any need for these kinds of disputes falls away. Such disputes would be like arguing if the Sonnet or the Villanelle is the better form of poetry. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

I am suggesting that the three traditions of Haiku have become three different forms of poetry. They all have a common ancestor, but as the decades have passed they have grown and matured into their own traditions, with their own esthetic criteria, their own precedents. May they all flourish.


Dan Gurney said...

Very interesting post.

Perhaps the sibling rivalry you describe would subside if we would be so kind as to give each transmission its own name.

I imagine it would be difficult more difficult if we named each of our children "kid."

What if we called brief haiku, well Haiku.

We called nature haiku "Hokku"

And 5-7-5 haiku "Saiku" the "S" standing for syllables.

And 5-7-5 nature poems "Shokku" the "s" for syllabic and the hokku for the nature aspect.

Then, with each form having its own name, the names we use to identify our work would signify what it was we were intending to create.

Jim714 said...

I think you are on the right track. The nature oriented already call what they are doing "hokku" and are adamant that they are not writing "haiku". And the free versers already think of themselves as "haiku" poets.

So what do we call the syllabic approach? "Saiku"? Hmmm -- I can think of several jokes, but that's OK. I'm going to give it some thought.


Dan Gurney said...

Well, don't you have to be a little saiko to be interested in poetry in the first place?

Jim714 said...

Don't you mean "sicko"!!!

This is getting a little giddy.

Anyway, I've thought about this off and on over a number of years and I've correpsonded with some other poets who share the same feeling that something needs to be done to distinguish the different approaches. (This also applies to Tanka.) My tentative feeling, based on the sibling analogy, is to use names which acknowledge the ancestral connection; in other words a shared family name. So it would be something like: minimalist haiku, nature haiku (aka hokku), and syllabic haiku. I think this is a bit wordy; I'd like something simpler than "minimalist" and "syllabic", but right now that's the best I can think of.