Haiku 101

And so, finally the time has come to introduce the haiku part of Haikucomics! If you haven’t read The Beloved Wife, a Bow, a White Bird or the last two blog entries, I recommend going ahead and taking a quick look here, you will enjoy this entry that much more!

*Here’s an example of Japanese master artist Hokusai‘s attempt at illustrating a haiku.

Haiku Philosophy

Haiku is an art form arguably most representative of the Japanese culture. Like many other Japanese art forms, haiku poems are characterized by a minimalist approach and Zen influences.

Konomichiya ikuhitonashini akinokure

—–

None is traveling

Here along this way but I

This autumn evening[i]

                                                           – Matsu Basho

Eastern philosophy studier Alan Watts puts it as well as anybody could have: “…a good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory.”[ii] While the lack of adjectives and subjectivity open the poem up for the reader’s interpretation, the simplicity and short length of haiku have greatly helped its popularity by making itself accessible to the lesser educated.

Haiku Form

The topic of haiku has been studied and detailed in in-depth writings by both Japanese and foreign scholars. From my crash course research I gathered that the art form has had a long history and many previous iterations. Haiku as we know it today, thus, is a result of a series of effort by many poets to modify, tweak, develop, and perfect it. Even since then haiku has withstood and endured waves of effort to further alter it, and managed to come out the other end unchanged. Here are some of the elements that constitute a standard, orthodox haiku poem.

leaf

Seasonal theme – The inclusion of a seasonal theme is arguably the most definitive qualities of traditional haiku poetry. In the example above, the season was autumn as it was bluntly stated in the poem. However, in some haiku poems the seasonal themes are not as obvious. For example, the cicada is a symbol for summer, since their singing is audible during the summer. These terms that signify the season in a haiku poem are called “kigo”. Scholars and researchers have collected and organized all of the kigo into a list, and such list is called “saijiki”.

Length and Rhythm – After hundreds of years of efforts to perfect the art form, considering elements such as dynamics, symmetry / asymmetry, rhythm, and harmony, Japanese poets eventually arrived at their golden ratio. Most haiku poems are composed of seventeen syllables, broken down into a 5-7-5 rhythm. In fact, the magic numbers 5 and 7 (syllables) have been used heavily in many previous iterations of Japanese poetry. Just like any rule, there are always exceptions. Some haiku poems have one or two less syllables, and some have one or two more. Note that in the example given above, even though the English translation had 18 syllables, the original Japanese version is an orthodox 17-syllable haiku.

Cut

Dynamic – In traditional haiku poems, there comes a “cut”, usually at the fifth or twelfth syllable, that breaks the poem into two parts, creating a dynamic, a relationship, a juxtaposition between two elements. To a comic artist this is GOLD because this means that haiku, like comics, is a medium of juxtaposition! In the example given, the cut happens at the twelfth syllable, separating the first two lines from the last. The way haiku poets construct their poems reminds me of a little something by a guy named Mark Rothko:

Well, now that we’ve learned the essential elements of haiku, it’s time to go out and practice! The next blog entry will document my first attempts at creating a haiku and translating it into comics. Stay tuned!


[i] Watts, Alan W., The Way of Zen, Pantheon, New York, 1957

[ii] Translated by Kenneth Yasuda, who is notoriously know for his efforts to maintain elements of the form (number of syllables, rhythm, etc.) in his haiku translations.