How I write haiku

First, some background-

Representation of and reference to the seasons has always been important in Japanese culture and poetry. The first anthology of Japanese poetry, the mid 8th century Man’yōshū, had several sections devoted to the seasons. By the time of the first imperial Japanese anthology, the Kokinshū in AD 905 the season sections had become a much larger part of that anthology.

The writing of the linked verses of renga started in the middle of Heian period (roughly 1000) and developed through the medieval era. By the 13th century there were very set rules for the writing of renga, and the formal structure of renga specified that about half of the stanzas were supposed to include a reference to a specific season depending upon their place in the renga. These rules also said that the hokku (the opening stanza of the renga) must include a reference to the season (kigo) in which the renga was being written. Kigo are words or phrases that can be strongly associated with a particular season, or sometimes the association can be more subtle.

Near the end of the 19th century, the hokku, the opening verse, was completely separated from the context of haikai no renga by Masaoka Shiki and revised and written as an entirely independent verse form, though retaining the kigo. In the Taishō Era (1912-1925) a movement began to drop the kigo entirely. Today, however, most Japanese haiku still contain a kigo, although some may omit it. Many haiku written in languages other than Japanese may omit kigo. However, for the haiku traditionalist, anything that doesn’t have a kigo is something else, either senryu (comic haikai) or zappai (miscellaneous haikai)*.

In the famous hokku by Matsuo Bashō, “frog” is an all spring kigo.

An old pond
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.

So, in a nutshell, haiku originated as an ‘introduction’ to a longer poem – renga, but now stands alone as a form of verse.

Guidelines

I start with a “haiku moment” – something based in my personal experience or imagination that provides the motive for writing a haiku.

Since Nature is my main inspiration for all of my artwork I normally include kigo though not always.

Being a bit of a traditionalist and loving a challenge I usually use three (or fewer) lines of no more than 17 syllables in total

Method

Although haiku are relatively short they are not simple to write. To me, a good haiku like a perfect moment contains the essence of the larger context.

An example – in the Springtime in rural Devon where I live, the migrating songbirds and wildflowers start to reappear in February and reach a crescendo in their flowering and singing sometime in May. Everywhere I look I see different flowers nestled at the base of the hedgerows and amongst the moss-covered tree roots along the stream. As I walk down the lanes and across the fields it is as though I am moving through a series of rooms whose walls are made of birdsong.

So I’ve had the experiences of listening to the birds and seeing the flowers dwelling deep inside of me for several weeks.

Where do they dwell? There is a space inside of me that opens to certain of my experiences. Could be something I have read, an encounter with a person or a piece of art, a place that I have been. I take these things inside of me and in the course of my day, in a quiet moment, I can reach into this place and bring up a memory just to hold and look at, then I may gently place it back into that space. As though I am reaching into the quiet place where the stream flows over smooth stones, so still that there are no ripples and I cup a perfect oval in the palm of my hand. Hold it until it dries and warms and then place it back into the water.

Or other times, I decide to place this experience/memory out into the world through the medium of words, fibre, blog post or whatever. I carry the experience and invite the feelings that I have associated with it into my studio, to the computer, to my pencil and paper and I try to infuse my artwork with my subjective experience.

One day in mid-morning, when I was walking down to the bus stop through the flower-filled Long Field this line came to me:

‘like a scattering of birdsong’

When I boarded the bus, I found a piece of paper about the University Superannuation Scheme in my bag and tore a 3 inch strip off of it. (I compose my haiku on long vertical strips of paper) I repeated the words and counted the syllables up on my fingers ( 8 ) and wrote them down. Then I set to work on the words about the flowers, knowing I could use no more than nine syllables. After some more trial and error, crossing out and recounting I came up with:

‘Flowers strewn across the fields
like a scattering of birdsong’

*from Wikipedia

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One thought on “How I write haiku

  1. Evocative !!
    As much in Haiku meaning lies as much in mind of the reader , as in the haiku.. It’s also like how a poem contains its own commentary..

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