Feature Articles


(Poetry Ireland News, July/August 2003)

When is a haiku not a haiku? Like the koans, or riddles, that also stem from the Zen Buddhist tradition, it’s a hard question to answer. In Japan, where the form originated,Maeve O'Sullivan things are clear enough: it takes 17 Japanese word sections, or onji, to write a haiku. This produces the much beloved and much-followed 5-7-5 format.

Ideally you should be able to read a haiku in one breath, and a season word is frequently included. Haiku do not have titles, and generally speaking, they eschew other “poetic” contrivances such as rhyme and figures of speech. Basho, known as the Shakespeare of haiku, penned these two in the seventeenth century: Village of no bells - / springs evenings / what’s to listen for? and Winter downpour - / even the monkey / needs a raincoat (translated by Lucien Stryk).

In the English-speaking world, however, those who write haiku may be faced with a crisis. How many syllables do I use? How many of them do I need to put into each line? Does it have to have a season word in it? Does it need any punctuation and where do I put those funny dashes?

One of the problems facing English-language haiku is that the form is seen as merely a ditty, or a technical exercise in syllable count. Many poets approach the form with the same creative mindset as starting to write a conventional poem, if I can call it that. Whether that approach is imagistic or conceptual, the product is often witty and clever, but frequently contrived. Among the culprits are two of our own greats – dare I whisper their names? – Paul Muldoon and the late Michael Hartnett.

This practice, however, goes against the very essence of the form, which, ideally, should originate with a “haiku moment” or epiphany, experienced though the senses, and end with a short three-line poem which aims to capture that experience and to balance depth of feeling with a lightness of touch. Sound simple? Try writing a few!

Many people get hung up on syllable count at the expense of capturing the moment, but the claim that the 5-7-5 structure must be adhered to in English can be disputed. According to linguists, an English-language syllable packs more punch than a Japanese onji, and so many experts claim that a haiku in English of 10-14 syllables is actually closer to a Japanese 5-7-5. Roll out the 3-5-3s and the 4-5-4s. Another myth banished!

The practice of “haiku-lite”, mostly in North America, which contain dollops of humour (although little irony) and truckloads of contrivance, has done the form few favours. The selection of whimsical themes adds to the “I can’t believe it’s not haiku!” sensation. A few years ago, over a period of three months or so, about twenty people forwarded me an e-mail which contained a sequence of “haiku” about computers. My delete button almost wore out.

So where does that leave the committed English-language haiku writer? One who would like to be considered seriously for mainstream competitions, publications and readings? Somewhere between Mount Fuji and Croagh Patrick, I’m afraid. The haiku form and its practitioners have been relegated to the footslopes of haiku-only publications and competitions. These fringes are agreeable enough and they serve most of the needs of their members much of the time.

Personally, however, I’d like to see more dialogue between the practitioners of different forms of poetry and more appreciation of the true nature of haiku by “conventional” poets; plus more recognition of the haiku as a serious poetic form by publishers and by the organisers of festivals and competitions.

Maeve O’Sullivan is a lecturer in media, a journalist and poet. Her poetry and haiku have been widely published in Ireland and the UK, and she is working on a first collection.

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