Regarding haiku and haikuness

and the impossibility of rapidly mass-producing branded haiku

by Jose Rizal M. Reyes / May 18, 2017 updated May 20

Friends, I regard all your micro poems as haiku because I believe that the word “haiku” in English has evolved into at least two meanings, namely:

(1) Branded haiku — By this, we mean a kind of haiku that tries to follow the Japanese rules as much as possible.

However, complete faithfulness to the Japanese rules is IMPOSSIBLE due to the question of on or onji (the Japanese system of counting 5–7–5) and kireji (cutting words that have no English equivalents), not to mention the fact that the Japanese write their haiku in just one line, not three. There are other reasons why Japanese haiku as an art cannot be faithfully transplanted to other languages but we can discuss that some other times in some other places.

(2) Generic haiku — By this, we mean that by popular usage, the word haiku has evolved to cover all Japan-descended 3-line poems written in 17 syllables or less.

By taking cognizant of this development, we are in effect upholding the honor of so many micro poets; and protecting the dignity and merit of their artistic production, of their poetic labors of love. For there is this sinister attempt by self-appointed and mutual back-scratching haiku potentates — particularly those connected with the Haiku Society of America — to denigrate micro poems which do not meet their own confused and questionable definition of haikuness. This would have the effect of unfairly, scornfully and barbarously disenfranchising so many micro poets.

(Photo via Google)

Now, I would just like to point out that haiku (which was formerly called hokku) was never meant to be mass produced. Rather, it’s original function was to serve as the opening verse during an exchange of verses among people gathered for that purpose in ancient Japan. Being the first verse, it set the time or season for the exchange — and that is why it has the kigo (season word).

And when we speak of seasons, it naturally pertains to Nature. Hence, because of the kigo or season word that indicated the season (or time of the year) when the ritualized poetic exchange took place, hokku/haiku became closely associated and identified with Nature. That’s the long and short of it. Everything else was unintended consequences … unless we factor in Divine Providence.

So there’s really nothing fanciful or mysterious or sacred about the kigo and haiku’s Nature theme. It was just a time marker, no big deal, period. That haiku enthusiasts of later time gave such features so much fuss and reverence my be likened to cultural and historical artifacts hallowed by time whose great value do not lie on the artifacts themselves but on their age or ancientness as well as on their cultural and historical significance.

This reminds me of the early trade contacts between Japan and Europe. If my memory serves me right, Japanese exporters wrapped their products with wrappers printed with Japanese drawings which they cut into proper sizes to fit the boxes. Some European painters saw the cut drawings and we can only surmise what went on in their mind. Soon they started painting in the same manner which resulted to horses at the edge of the canvass being cut into half, for instance. And this kind of painting became a fad of sort for some time.

Okay, we can grant that the changing of seasons is important to man, more so in olden days when people were heavily dependent on agriculture and partly on hunting, fishing and gathering. During the pre-Industrial Age, Mother Nature was practically all they had. So we may say it’s really providential that by marking the time when the poetic exchange took place, hokku/haiku evolved into a poetic form wherein we can devote attention to the changing seasons and Mother Nature which is not a bad thing to do at all.

Of course, we are aware that the focus on Mother Nature is perfectly conducive to Zen meditation, which is a distinctly Japanese offshoot of Buddhism and well-regarded even among non-Buddhists. That is what I mean when I mentioned “unintended consequences” and “Divine Providence”.

The poetic exchange in old Japan that we are discussing here was known as haikai no renga (or “comic linked verse”, a game of humor and wit). Haikai for short. As we indicated earlier, the first verse or stanza of haikai was called hokku. After hokku developed into a stand-alone poem, it was renamed haiku during the Meiji period by the great Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki. The term haiku is an abbreviation of the phrase “haikai no ku” meaning “a verse of haikai”.

After the opening verse, there was no more need for kigo — except that the rules and procedures of the poetic exchange might require that the season or seasons (even the moon!) should be mentioned a certain number of times more during the proceeding. And that is why zappai has no kigo because it traces its ancestry not from the opening verse (hokku/haiku) but from the kigo-less succeeding verses.

If we want to write 3-line micro poems to our heart’s content, I guess it would be very, very hard — or practically impossible — to write so many branded haiku so fast in a short period of time because it would tie our hands on what things we can write about, thus severely limiting our productivity as well as our freedom of expression.

Hence my advice or proposal is this. We should try to write haiku and senryu from time to time. But most of the time, we should just enjoy writing micro poetry to our heart’s content by writing any which way we please under the inclusive umbrella of generic haiku or within the equally wonderful and spacious accommodation of the zappai genre.

Post Script:
I have another proposal to make, an invitation actually. One time, we will gather in a Facebook thread together with other haiku composers among our circle of friends. Then I will write the first verse and others may reply with verses of their own. As closely as possible, we shall conduct the poetic exchange in the manner it was done in Japan long, long ago.

(The original version of this essay was originally addressed to my fellow poets Felix Fojas​, Carolyn Gutierrez- Abanggan,​ Danny Gallardo​ and Ligaw Makata — JRMR)

Recommended readings:

The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: and the Need to Reconsider its HSA Definition
by Richard Gilbert and Shinjuku Rollingstone

Hakai No Renga and the 4 Great Haiku Poets

Forms in English Haiku
Keiko Imaoka