What is haiku?

Or, why it’s difficult to explain in a soundbite,

A haiku is a moment in time. An experience. An emotion. A minimalist word-picture. A fleeting impression: a strong conviction: the Zen moment.

One example is Shiki’s haiku:

the sparrow hops
along the verandah,
with wet feet.

A small forest has been lost to scholars, students and other academics about this haiku. Especially, the use of sparrow and verandah in translation. Academia aside, what I like about this haiku is how it provides a clear image of the sparrow as well as the image of rain before.

Someone — whose name I’ve forgotten — said that to properly understand haiku one had to write it. To be frank, I don’t know how true this is. Certainly, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for it as a writer. But I don’t feel every reader of haiku needs to start writing and studying it to properly understand haiku.

Writing haiku: sitting inside a tradition means taking a position

A quick glance through various books and articles on haiku will show that since Basho invented haiku, the art form has gone through many changes.

What’s also important, is that haiku has never had just one defining feature. Writing three lines of 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables does not — necessarily — a haiku make. After all, this is a form of poetry: it needs to show something or some-when.

You can also have one line haiku, they read very much like a three-line haiku just (obviously) formatted differently.

Personally, I prefer a haiku to sit over three lines, but it’s purely for aesthetics. What’s more important is that the haiku shows a moment, or an impression of a moment.

Beautiful young girls running 
 up the library steps
with shorts on
 — Jack Kerouac

From a writing point of view, it’s about choosing your approach to haiku and sticking to it. And once you do, it makes sense — writing haiku is obvious when you do it long enough. Especially, the more haiku you read and the more you read about the history and progression of haiku.

But again, while I think this is important for the writer of haiku, I don’t think it’s necessary for the casual reader.

Reading Haiku: why a writer should approach haiku like a reader

Presenting a moment or an impression can be quite hard. Especially when these are quite personal things. The impression I take away from a day at the beach will differ from someone else, especially if that person doesn’t like the beach, or had an accident, or got sun burnt.

As with any sort of writing intended for publication, it’s necessary to remember the reader. I post a haiku everyday on my Instagram account, and before I pick one to post, I think about how my writing would sound to someone who’s introduction to me is the haiku I’m about to post.

By thinking about the reader, and keeping in mind plenty of people have no idea what haiku is, this is a practical and sensible thing to think about.

Writing for publication

For me, it’s about entertaining an audience. Which is a wonderfully vague sentiment. And being vague, it’s surprisingly easily to achieve. Entertaining an audience, even when lots of people in that audience don’t quite understand what they’re reading, is enjoyable. And it’s the point of publishing.

90% of the haiku I write never leaves my notebook, because I know not everything I write is worth reading.

So with that, I’d like to leave you with one last thought:

Poetry is art. Publishing is business.

Thank you for reading.

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