Friday, 7 December 2007


Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry which follows a strict structure but is intended to prompt an emotional response from the reader. Each haiku follows a 5-7-5 syllable structure. In the original Japanese it would usually be written as one line, but when translated into English it tends to be rendered into three.

The best definition of the motivation behind writing haiku can be found in The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson:
‘It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the event that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own’
Traditional haiku would normally take nature as its subject, often with the poet observing a natural phenomenon of some kind. It would also feature a prominent grammatical break at the end of the first or second line. A good example is this haiku:
Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto
This was written by Basho, one of the most famous and revered haiku poets. He lived from 1644-1694 and began writing haiku at the age of 18. His work contains some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking poetry of any culture and the haiku above is one of the most famous in Japanese literature. It has been translated many times by a variety of translators but this version, by R.H. Blyth:
The old pond.
A frog jumps in –
the sound of the water.
Haiku is no longer exclusive to Japanese and has been embraced worldwide. In the process it has shed some of its formalities so that nowadays most English language haiku simply follows the 5-7-5 structure but does not stick to the theme of nature or include the grammatical break.
I have to tell you –
everything is not shit,
so, it is just you.


Sarah said...

Chinese chips taste best/
shared on a long walk back home/
two cold hands dipping.

poppy said...

The translation by Stryk captures better its fleeting sense and the surprise, i think

The old pond.
It jumps in -plop-
a frog.

Alan Summers said...

I enjoyed the food haiku! ;-)

I agree with poppy that Lucian Stryk does good spare versions of classic haiku.

Lucian Stryk co-edited a haiku anthology with a good friend of mine:

I'm not sure if that book is still available, but Lucian Styrk's On Love and Barley can be found at Amazons U.K. and U.S.A.

His versions of Basho are very stark, but then they do capture the fact that many haiku are often spoken in six seconds or less! ;-)

Another of Basho's famous haiku is:

these summer grasses:
the remains of warriors
with their dreams

(version by Alan Summers)

natsu-gusa ya / tsuwamono-domo-ga / yume no ato
summer grasses (:!) / strong ones’ / dreams’ site
(romanised version with literal English-language translation)


With Words

The Poetic Image: Haiku and Photography

all my best,


Alan Summers said...

Hi again,

Apologies for the terrible spacing of links.

Also I can't recommend Bill Higginson's Haiku Handbook enough, as mentioned in the blog.

If you are curious about haiku then this book is worth getting!

Bill's book can be found at Amazon, and it's been in the top ten ever since Amazon has existed.

Or better still, order it from Clifton Bookshops on Whiteladies Road, one of Bristol's coolest independent bookshops!

Clifton Bookshop website: Link to Clifton Bookshoip

The Haiku Handbook with Amazon's Look Inside feature: The Haiku Handbook weblink