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A word about haiku - by Michael James

I believe there are a few basic precepts about haiku that are largely overlooked, or just flat out just not taught in most basic literary (poetic) courses. Everyone seems to know that a haiku is supposed to be written in the structure of 5-7-5 syllables per line respectively, but there is much more going on than just a simple syllable constraint. I shall attempt to give a brief overview of the main points about haiku.

First off, the 5-7-5 syllable structure most often cited as being the sole ‘structural rule’ of haiku is based on the original Japanese constraint. However, the Japanese language and more specifically their word structure differ from English in a critical way when it comes to the definition of this structure. In the Japanese language, each sound unit is called an onji as opposed to our syllable. This unit of measure for a word is considerable more concise than what we use to define a syllable (typically only one or two letters make up an onji), thus the 5-7-5 structure will end up being less words that what English would allow. In addition, the Japanese language usually adds their particles onto the word itself, thus further restricting the syllable and ultimately the words used in a haiku.

The common accepted principle behind writing haiku in English is to restrict the syllable usage below the 5-7-5 mark, to preserve the conciseness that a haiku represents.

Observe the difference in the original Japanese and the translation of this haiku by Issa.

.梅の月牛の尻迄見ゆる也

ume no tsuki ushi no shiri made miyuru nari

plum blossom moon
and the rump
of a cow

Notice how in the Japanese version there are essentially 9 words, and in the English translation there are nine words, but the onji count in Japanese totals 17 and the syllable count in English totals only 10. So, as you can see brevity and clarity are more important than a simple rule that wasn’t even designed for our language.

Now I shall address content and image, the real crux of haiku. In the past, haiku have been viewed as nature based poems and that still holds true today, however, the definition of ‘nature’ has been expanded to include practically all of the world we live in. Now the haiku poet is not limited to peony blossoms, cherry blossoms, bamboo and pine. Everything that we come in contact with can be the subject of haiku, from pollution, to condoms, to tin cans to airliners, all of these things permeate our natural world and are thus fair game for haiku.

a yellow bag
over the gas nozzle—
dog-day cicadas


— Peggy Willis Lyles

This still has a nature-based theme to it, but the subject matter is a gas pump, not what one would typically call a natural element.

Additionally, this haiku also says a lot about image. Usually, its good to stick to either one or two solid images in a haiku, the form just isn’t long enough to support more than two. Notice her word choice, every word is simple and clear, seemingly unpoetic, however, the harmony of the images presented, paints a clear picture of a scene. A haiku, unlike other poems, should not be vague or abstract in its use of language, the more concrete terms you use, the better you poem will be. Haiku should take the reader to that instant in time you captured and nothing more, the reader will decide the images he or she sees.

This leads me to the last thing I’ll say about haiku (for now). A haiku is like a snapshot of an instant in time, brief and full of images that are clear and at the same time, new and refreshing based on the comparison made in the poem. Usually when two images are used in a haiku, they are represented in such a way that you wouldn’t normally find when you thought about those images separately. In the earlier haiku by Issa, the moon is compared to the plum blossom and the rump of a cow, not something you would normally associate with one another. In the haiku by Lyles, the gas pump and the cicadas are set together to make a rich scene, where the time of year is know and also the current situation with regards to fuel are set in conjunction, not really a comparison per se, but a rich diverse image none the less.

Haiku is such a rich poetic form that has been evolving for well over ten centuries and its longevity gives testament to the power of this form, so please, before you write a haiku and start counting syllables, take some time and read the old masters and the new ones as well and let the world you live in come alive not only in your mind, but with your words.
A short essay by =MSJames
Too good to leave in the notes tray. To him my sincere gratitude.
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Daily Deviation

Given 2007-07-09
A word about haiku - This accessible essay about haiku is both educational and inspiring; it clears up some preconceptions about the haiku and urges readers to try their hand at the poetic form. Originally written by ~MSJames for the Haiku Resource, ~Wudang-mountain. ( Suggested by bananaprincess and Featured by GunShyMartyr )
:iconwaffles-of-gondolyn:
Waffles-Of-Gondolyn Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
some ideas RueTris :D 
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:iconsusurrus-tacet:
Susurrus-tacet Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2011
Very precise and to the point. Sadly the haiku is a form that is often misrepresented and not quite understood.
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:iconwrheath:
wrheath Featured By Owner Mar 16, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Very succinct and insightful. Most poignant was, "take the reader to that instant in time. The reader will decide what images he or she sees" Thnak you.
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:iconoritpetra:
OritPetra Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2011   Writer
Thank you so much for this. This is what I link people to now, if and when I get questions about my syllables. :D
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:iconmird5892:
Mird5892 Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2009
I'm saving this. Yould you mind if I printed it off and showed it to my class when we learn about haikus this year? (Every year, without fail, we have a lesson on haikus. It gets somewhat annoying after a while, but it's the truth.)
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:iconpinky500280:
pinky500280 Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2009
This is a wonderful find for me, because this is almost EXACTLY how I think when writing haikus. Just as written here, I start off with a unique concept and relate it to something very different, bordered by good vocabulary. This kind of thing is also very interesting, simply because it go to show that people can think similarly even when expressing themselves freely without any limitations. Thank you very much for posting this, as it was a joy to read.
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:iconarcharad:
ArchArad Featured By Owner Jul 19, 2009
A well-written, concise introduction to this poetry form. As a beginner I found it both interesting and motivational.

Thank you.
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:icontsukimiyajun:
TsukimiyaJun Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2009   Writer
Never dared to try Haiku >____< But after looking at this, I might give it a try~~ Arigatou ne~~^^
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:iconjadefyres-freedom:
jadefyres-freedom Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2009  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Ah, simply fantastic.
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:iconsynconi:
synconi Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2009   Artisan Crafter
:love:
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:iconarirish2:
ARIrish2 Featured By Owner Oct 23, 2008
Very good stuff. I have quoted and cited parts of this essay in my own haiku essay, which I will be submitting to dA. Please let me know if there is a problem with this.
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2009
No there is no problem with that, as long as I was cited. I'd like to see this, so please link me in a note or whatever.

Thanks
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:iconarirish2:
ARIrish2 Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2009
Here's the piece, with quotes cited and a link back to this piece: [link]

Thanks very much.
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2009
Thanks!

That was a good read and you have a great grasp of what haiku truly is!

Have you heard of this?
[link]

If not please give it a try, and anyone else you know can join as well!
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:iconarirish2:
ARIrish2 Featured By Owner Feb 2, 2009
Unfortunately I'm too busy this month to participate, but I'll definitely give it a bash next time round! Good luck to you and everyone taking part!
Reply
:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Feb 2, 2009
Yeah, that is unfortunate, but hopefully you can follow a long and see how we're doing. :) Hope to see for the next one!
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:iconfrozenpandaman:
frozenpandaman Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2008  Student General Artist
Great. <3
Reply
:iconkatiewings:
KatieWings Featured By Owner May 5, 2008   Writer
How could I have possibly passed this up? Thank you for not leaving this in notes, indeed! This is extremely helpful for me!
Reply
:iconmightybearrr:
mightybearrr Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2008  Hobbyist General Artist
i suppose the same would work with latin as well
Reply
:iconchugglepuff:
chugglepuff Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2008
Thank you for this, it was really helpful. It's really cleared up the ideas behind the form for me. :)
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2008
Glad it could shed some light on this misunderstood form. :)
Reply
:iconnataliekelsey:
NatalieKelsey Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2007  Hobbyist General Artist
Haiku is my favorite form. Thank you for sharing this.
Reply
:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Dec 17, 2007
You're welcome, sry it took me so long to see this, but I am glad you enjoyed it though and found it informative. :)
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:iconabsenceofmortality:
absenceofmortality Featured By Owner Oct 2, 2007  Student Writer
I've never really put that much thought into Haiku writing before, just what they told me to do in school. This was really helpful.
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:iconimmortalecstasydream:
ImmortalEcstasyDream Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2007  Student Writer
This is quite helpful! I'm still a beginner to haikus, so I'm still basically regarding them as "about nature/life/the world, a quick observation, and 5-7-5 syllables." This clears up a few questions. Congrats on the DD!
Reply
:icontime-warrior:
time-warrior Featured By Owner Sep 28, 2007
Inspires me to move. Thanks. :)
Reply
:iconkagitsune:
Kagitsune Featured By Owner Sep 24, 2007  Professional Interface Designer
This is really wonderful. It's informative, enlightening, and well-written. Thank you so much for writing posting this...congrats on the DD!
Reply
:iconmiko14:
miko14 Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007   Writer
fantastic.........two thumbs up...........MSJames, u should wrote ur thesis bout this......
Reply
:icononigumo:
Onigumo Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Here's a good haiku I found searching for quotations via Google:

"An old pond; / A frog jumps in -- / The sound of water."
-- Matsuo Basho

You're right. I had much imagery in my head just over those few words.
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:icononigumo:
Onigumo Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Oops. I quoted the wrong version. I can't find the one that's in form.
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:iconkildgeek:
KildGeek Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
This is useful, easy-to-follow and got me in the mood to write haiku. ;)
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:iconmelodysilver:
melodysilver Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
I'm thankful for this piece - though it left me with a couple of doubts.

(For example: if I write something like this:

No one knows your plight
but I see it in your eyes
when you're in my arms.

Is it still a Haiku? And if instead of leaving it as is I add a few more verses with the same structure is it still a Haiku?)

I have MUCH to learn. Can anyone guide me to a place where I can quench my thirst for knowledge? :)

Thank you for posting this, ~Wudang-mountain, and thank you for writing it, =MSJames. It is quite informative.
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Well, besides the form being a little heavy with syllables, the content is not that of haiku. However, it is very close to what I consider a good tanka, just add two more lines of 7-7 and shift the focus in a related way.
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:iconmelodysilver:
melodysilver Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me - though I am not familiar with what a tanka is... any idea of a website where I can learn more about it?

Thanks again! :heart:
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:iconmelodysilver:
melodysilver Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
What a wonderful resource!!!! Thank you :)
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Oh you're most welcome :) Here's a good link: [link]
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:iconcunningcoyote:
cunningcoyote Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007   Writer
Clear, concise, and fine tuned
You have opened many a door
Poets inspired


(Worst haiku ever, that was)
Reply
:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
It's damn close if it's not :P
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:iconherrsehnsucht:
HerrSehnsucht Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Is there something like this about the tanka?
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Well, I did have something up in my scraps, but it's gone now. :/ I do plan on doing one on this form though, so keep a watch on ~Wudang-mountain
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:iconlilithlairpoetry:
LilithLairPoetry Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Congrats bro! Another DD and a well deserved one. Perhaps it'll clear up any inconsistencies within the haiku world..:)
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:iconhell-is-a-56:
Hell-is-a-56 Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
I feel glad to have learned something about haiku. Poetry of any kind was never my thing, but I still think this information needed to be spread. Thank you!
Reply
:iconretrozombie:
RetroZombie Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
This is an essay that needed to exist! Like ~Esin said, this will be perfect to link people to when they slam us for not following the 5-7-5 "rule". Nice, succinct style. Very well done, Mike! :aww:
Reply
:icondutchshun:
dutchshun Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Thank you very much for sharing Mike !

A most informative and interesting essay on this beautiful form of poetry.
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:iconnieman:
nieman Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Wow, quite an eye opener, and very interesting.

I think this'd probably change what 98% of people think haiku really is. Most people don't look at the big picture, because haiku is introduced to us as (usually) a forcible middle-to-high school English lesson of pain and torture.

Quite a lesson!
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:iconmsjames:
MSJames Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2008
lol that is so true! I myself was introduced to it much the same way, so 'm glad I could set the record straight, even as others have set me straight about the true intention of the form.
Reply
:iconmaskedpianist:
maskedpianist Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007   Photographer
This was very helpful for me. Thanks! :)
Reply
:iconmbcudmore:
mbcudmore Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Helpful and inspiring in deed!
It would be nice if everyone could read an essay like this one, about everything, Haiku and life included, just to clear up those ambiguous ambiguities. Thanks for wording the truth.
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:iconsukkigoh:
sukkiGoh Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
my regards :worship:+:bow:
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:icongeneratinghype:
GeneratingHype Featured By Owner Jul 9, 2007
Congrats, Mike! Well-deserved. :D
Reply
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