I had the chance to sit in on a middle school English class one day while substitute teaching. Another teacher was using the classroom after I was done. Instead of going to the staff room, I stayed and observed a lesson on haiku.
Someone in the classroom—maybe this particular teacher—clearly loved haiku: there were books of “cat haiku” and other collections, and a poster with a haiku by Jack Prelutsky on the classroom door. Yet this teacher gave the same definition of haiku that I remembered from when I was in school: it is a poem of five, seven and five syllables, usually about nature. In fact, this is exactly how most Americans would define a haiku.
A friend of mine, Dejah Leger, is deeply into haiku, and through her I have learned how inadequate and even inaccurate this definition is. Traditional Japanese haiku are indeed three lines of five, seven and five syllables, and are technically always about nature (a poem identical in format that instead considers the human condition is a “senryu”). But Japanese not only counts syllables differently than English does, but the words tend to have different numbers of syllables. A poem in English that adheres the five-seven-five syllable might well be too crowded.
Adherence to syllable count, though, is not the central issue. Haiku is about an image—it is not a vehicle for explicit opinion, musing, rhetoric or emotion. All those things must be implicit, and be accessed only through the image.
an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water
Often, the beauty of a haiku is the tension between two images in the poem. Two of the lines of a haiku (often) form a phrase, and the remaining line a fragment. It is this juxtaposition that gives a haiku its significance. Senryu, too, though focused instead on human concerns, are essentially imagist.
A fantastic book for further study on this is Jane Reichhold’s Writing and Enjoying Haiku.
Reichhold argues that the essence of a haiku lies in the connection between two parts of a haiku, the fragment and the phrase, which may come in either order. The significance of a haiku comes from the juxtaposition of these images. Senryu, too, though focused instead on human concerns, follow this same imagist fragment-phrase pattern. As for length, Reichhold recommends about two “beats” in the first and third lines, and three “beats” in the middle, as a rough equivalent to five, seven, and five “on”.
I remember two haiku lessons from my youth, and one by a teacher when I was doing my student teaching, and all missed the mark. In the latter example, the teacher even shared his own “haiku” with the class, which were essentially seventeen syllables of stream-of-consciousness free-association.
The result of classes such as these is that haiku are misunderstood by most Americans. But why would teachers teach haiku this way? Of course, many teachers simply teach what they were taught, often neglecting any research on the assumption that their teachers were correct. But more than that, haiku, taught the way it is taught, fits the requirements of a freshman English class perfectly—it’s easy to read, easy to write, and it teaches about syllables.
It is hard to get students to pay close attention to language, and because the current concept of poetry is so influenced by the modernists, there is very little sense of form in any contemporary poetry that students are exposed to. After reading only free verse, there is little sense among students that a poet crafts and forms a poem rather than simply writing down the first words that come to mind. Haiku of the classroom variety provides the teacher with a simple, accessible way to get students to write a poem in a form (which also aids the student somewhat—imposing limits can dispel the indecision that results from too much freedom). Moreover, it teaches about syllables, which must be taught, but which would be boring and pointless to teach outside of a poetry lesson. Haiku (classroom variety) is the simplest form of syllabic poetry, and it doesn’t require the discussion of meter or prosody. The result is that haiku provides an entry-level exercise in paying attention to language (a noble goal, to be sure).
To alter classroom haiku to more accurately reflect the original tradition would make it more difficult for students because they would have to follow much subtler conventions. The requirements of the poem would be harder to define, and the quality harder to judge. From personal experience, I can tell you that no English teacher wants to call a student’s poem incorrect or inadequate. The bar for haiku is therefore lowered to the point that any student can jump over it, so teachers can say, “Yes, that’s a haiku,” without complicated questions of image, connotation and juxtaposition.
The result is a massive cultural misunderstanding of this form of poetry. Examples include the following. The second of these, through the use of enjambment, escapes the strictures of natural line breaks, and so the 5-7-5 structure morphs into simply a requirement for seventeen syllables. The third of these abandons syllable count altogether; lacking any kind of concrete imagery, it is truly no more than a platitude arranged into three lines.
Peel brown bundle, mash, pile high.
Salt and pepper clouds.
Pat Mora, from Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué rico!
Oh good, you’re home. I
Celebrate joyously with
A rousing ear-twitch.
Deborah Coates, from Cat Haiku
Not the limitation of ego
But the omnipresence of life.
Lily Wang, from Garden Haiku
Consider also the use of haiku in this comic strip (Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley).
The internet is full of “haiku” on all subjects by many enthusiasts, all of which share the same misunderstanding. The popularity of this form in mass culture is likely the same as for teachers. It is quick and easy, and allows the author to compose a poem on a subject with ease. The author can then access some of the cultural cachet that comes with having written a poem, and the observations therein are validated more than if they were rendered in prose. This last comic strip pokes fun at the resulting pretension and vapidity of haiku, but that is only applicable, of course, by the current popular definition.