About Haiku

Lee Gurga

(from Fresh Scent, Brooks Books, 1998)

Haiku occupies a unique position in American culture. Except for a few childhood favorites, the average person today would rather have a tooth pulled than read a contemporary poem. But, while Americans in general have little interest in contemporary poetry, most have at least heard of haiku and often have a surprising affection for it. They will usually know that it is a somewhat exotic short poem, and that it has somthing to do with nature. Familiarity with haiku is so widespread, it was recently suggested that when Phil Jackson, the contemplative coach of the Chicago Bulls basketball team was ready to retire, he would withdrawl to the mountains of Montana and compose haiku! This mention of haiku in Sports Illustrated assumes a familiarity with haiku even among the sports audience, generally not known for its devotion to literature. It also suggests that haiku is not merely a "form" of poetry, but that the haiku tradition also contains some elements of philosophy.

What is Haiku?

Haiku, as almost everyone knows, is a short poem that originated in Japan. Japanese haiku began as the opening verse of a long linked poem. These haiku had several defining characteristics including their brevity and a seasonal reference. Poets writing haiku in English over the past 40 years have distilled several characteristics out of these Japanese haiku which they consider to be the essence of haiku. An understanding of these characteristics allows poets today to write a special kind of haiku, one that uses "images that reflect institutions" to present the essence of a single moment of time.

These essential haiku characteristics include brevity, a seasonal or nature reference, the "haiku moment," juxtaposition, and what is referred to as “haiku mind.”

Originally haiku was not an isolated form of Japanese poetry, but it was a part of a larger tradition called haikai which included the linked verse from which haiku developed as well as another short poetic form called senryu. Senryu is similar to haiku in form, but different in that it relies less on imagistic presentation of natural scenes and more on the poet's wit.

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Brooks Books © 2001 Lee Gurga & Gretchen Batz