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Haiku Follow-up

Book cover

I’ve finished The Haiku Handbook, which I wrote about earlier this month. So, for all that reading, what have I learnt?

Firstly, that slavish adherence to seventeen syllables, in a pattern of 5 / 7 / 5, fails to capture the essence of what the form is about. Traditional Japanese haiku are made of seventeen sounds but these units are much shorter than most English syllables. Higginson recommends working in terms of stressed syllables instead, with 2 / 3 / 2 being a reasonable approximation although not a rigid rule.

Secondly, that traditional haiku include some reference to one of the seasons of the year. In Japanese, there are a set of code words to signify spring, summer, etc, and there are references that give Western equivalents.

Thirdly, that my original summing up of the form as “impressionistic” wasn’t too far off the mark; haiku generally focus on painting an image of a particular instance in time observed by the poet. The reader is expected to grasp this image and, hence, grasp a related set of emotions. Frequently, a haiku will set up one image and then, after a punctuating character, take a sudden twist that opens an unexpected perspective. They avoid metaphor and simile, instead observing an evocative scene.

Fourthly, it’s clear from the wide range of examples in the book that people have played fast and wide with all of the rules! The little 5 / 7 / 5 blocks that I’ve sometimes come out with in the past might be disdained by a haiku snob but they are not invalid as a poetic form, even when they disregard all of the above. However, the book has given me plenty to think about:

Spring rain:
washing, soaking, revealing,
green shoots

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