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I know I said I’d write about Chinese Love Poems today; however, the arc from that thought to this was due to trying to explain to myself and then to you how to get from pictographs to English words. So I changed my focus. As some of you know, I used the 5/7/5 form to write a sestina, last time, and it had me reviewing haiku, renga, waka, tanka, and senryū. So instead of discussing the VERY old Chinese forms, I decided to revisit Japanese poetry.

You are only acquainted with me because of my love for haiku. I had no clue about Twitter when I first signed on for it, but I read somewhere that Twitter had become a popular place for poets and they dominated the site a little over a year ago. I had been registered for about three or four months before I had an idea to tweet a “haiku”. It must have resonated because it was re-tweeted and overnight my followers quadruped to about 16. I was dazed. It wasn’t long after that Pete Marshall tweeted me and invited me to One Stop Poetry. Well, as they say, the rest is history.

It was one of Pete’s comments that spurred me to write today about Japanese forms written in English. He declared he didn’t like haiku, that it didn’t seem like poetry to him; they were just “statements”. As we who know his work understand, Pete is a balladeer, a story teller in rhythm and rhyme. It is not surprising that the “stripped to bare bones” haiku might not be his cup of tea. Yet a lot of what is passing for haiku is not quite in the spirit of waka (Japanese poetry) nor does it have the required elements. It quite simply doesn’t behave poetically.

I must confess that I thought if it adhered to the five, seven, five syllable, three line count it was considered a haiku. Matt Quinn was the first to let me know that my hashtag haiku wasn’t accurate on many of my offerings. They were indeed senryu. I also like to use the 5/7/5 construction as stanzas exploring a topic with them as one might with a ghazal.  But upon close examination I find I haven’t mastered haiku at all and that most of what I have read in English has strayed quite a distance from the haiku of the late 1700s and early 1800s Japanese. In fairness, the haiku being written today in Japan, have left those austere rules too. The current Japanese poets refer to these new poems ironically as “free verse”.

It’s difficult to know where to begin in this discussion but I believe Renga is a good place. Renga is collaborative poetry writing. It was this idea that was first introduced to me in my first book of haiku. It said Buddhist monks began by writing one haiku often with an illustration, sending it to another monk who then used an image from it and expanded it, and sending it back to the original writer or perhaps other monks as well. This was carried on for 100 “verses”, each different and changing as it progressed. There were rules about repeated seasonal words.

The count in Japanese is not in syllables but rather in vowel sounds. The units are called on (also known as morae). The initial three line 5.7.5 on was the beginning (hokku) and the last two lines were 7.7. This two-verse style is called tan-renga (短連歌, “short renga”). There are other types of renga as well, and collaborative renga writing has been done in English, too,  with other forms for example Sonnets. Since on differ from syllables sticking hard and fast to 5.7.5 isn’t necessary if the other elements are met. Often they are even more spare and effective in 3.5.3.

The two absolute essentials for haiku as it was developed by masters such as Issa Basho and Buson were (1)  kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words. The majority of kigo, but not all, are drawn from the natural world. This, combined with the origins of haiku in pre-industrial Japan, has led to the inaccurate impression that haiku are necessarily nature poems. They are nearly always metaphors for life. Since becoming an international form written in nearly all languages William J. Higginson‘s Haiku World (1996),  is the first international saijiki. It contains more than 1,000 poems, by over 600 poets from 50 countries writing in 25 languages.

The other element (2) is kiru  the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji  (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colours the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related. The closest thing we have in English to this is a caesura, but kireji can manifest itself in many different ways: by use of a question, or exclamation, or expression of wonder. These forms are placed at the end of lines in Japanese but can be expressed in the usual way in English. The use of emphasis or verb choice to indicate time also works as kireji. More importantly in English, it seems to me, is the juxtaposition of the two images that make it poetic.  The haiku form became intrinsic to the Imagist poets and most notably made an impression on them by Ezra Pound’s poem:

The apparition of these 
faces in the crowd; 
petals on a wet, black bough.

As you see here the semicolon acts as a kireji in this piece giving a pause between the image of the crowded platform of the Paris Metro where it is said he saw three beautiful young women on the opposite platform and they looked as lovely as plum blossoms. This is the juxtaposition that makes it not just a statement but a powerful imagist poem. The petals on a wet bough obviously the kigo evoking Springtime.

Senryū is named after Edo period haikai poet Senryū KaraiIt tends to be about human foibles. They are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryū do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or season word. Many of the 5/7/5 forms we read in English fall into this category. But even here two abutted images magnify the images and make the poem more than “just a statement”.

For more on English speaking poets writing in the haiku form, I recommend this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku_in_English

I hope all of you will honor us today by linking a haiku or senryu to Mr. Linky. It takes a little effort to find that revealing poem through juxtaposition, but I hope you will try!