Haiku – Why the prejudice?

Regular readers of this blog will note that I recently read at SpeedPoets, performing That Summer and The New Development.  The former a pantoum and written in iambic pentameter, the later free verse.  On the whole they seemed to be well received ( one audience member, who I didn’t know, took the time to thank me for the first and a partner of a friend who had inadvertently been dragged to a poetry reading said he liked my poems as well – he may well have been just being polite but I’ll take it at face value).

I also heard Haiku/Senryu performed at this event ( and they were actually good  ie technically good and interesting). Indeed there was a wide range of poetry presented that made me feel comfortable performing.

One thing niggled though. A comment from one of the compères which I put down to “on their feet” mc’ing but which I thought revealed some latent prejudice.  He announced that the next SpeedPoets event which was going to be on short form poetry ie Haiku and Tanka.  The compare made a Haiku on the spot which was a sentence of 17 syllables and encouraged the audience to get cracking.  I was left with the impression that the compare compère didn’t have a high regard an understanding of the form.  Having just heard some great Haiku from a first timer which demonstrated that Haiku is a wee bit more than just a sentence of 17 syllables I though it was the wrong direction to take. 

I know most people probably wrote Haiku in grade 3; mine was about a Koala if I remember correctly.  The thing is, most people seem to leave their understanding at that level and that’s fine. A poet though of any mettle should respect a form, enough at least to know what it is they a talking about.  This comment, which perhaps no one else even noticed had me in mind of some comments made by Peter Sansom in his otherwise good book  Writing Poems.

I can laugh at Sansom’s comments because even though I think he’s wrong (ignorantly so) his snark is delightful.  But it does make me wonder what is the general perception in the Australian community of poets (that nebulous Venn diagram of a community)

Check Sansom’s comments below (mine in red) from page 209 (ebook) in Writing Poems:

Haiku. The ultimate beginner’s classroom poem: haikus help you to talk about imagery, concision and mood; and they have a fixed form which on the one hand gives the writer something to work within, but on the other is purely syllabic and so threatens no tantrums over metre.(not much to disagree with here, very easy to learn the ropes, on meter though I’d check out some of Kenneth Yasuda’s work.  They are used for the ease of which they can demonstrate some poetic techniques,but this is grazing the surface)

Only if you are Japanese or bananas should you call them either ‘haikai’ or ‘hokku’.( have not observed anyone doing this, for sure those terms relate to earlier forms ie Hokku was/is the first link in a Renga and the Haiku was developed from them)

Haikus (the plural is Haiku) are lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.(this is one older form owing to a strict interpretation or porting over of rules from Japanese to English)

Strictly, their imagery should be drawn from nature and you are meant to at least allude to one of the seasons; but since these measure gale force on the tedium scale, don’t bother. Nobody does that anymore.( Few people, indeed, write haikus. Few people, that is, except the coach-loads who turn up at writing weekends with folders full of the things. (this was written in 1994, currently thousands still writing them in English, Japanese and other languages and the nature focus is as strong as ever. This aversion to coach-loads turning up to writing weekends is weird though)

Try not to be one of these people, but if that’s impossible, claim to be continuing the imagist tradition.(reading Kenneth Yasuda, even the imagists failed to understand what Haiku were all about) Apparently, haikus are extremely demanding in Japanese, because putting words together in that language changes the meaning of both the words, and indeed of other words in their proximity. English of course doesn’t work like that, which is perhaps why most English haikus stay what they are, very short, rather thin poems. My favourite is by John Cooper Clarke and goes something like:

Getting everything

in seventeen syllables

is very diffic

(Yeah not a Haiku, and a cheap shot…funny if its not the 10th time you have heard something like this trotted out.  Look writing Haiku isn’t rocket science but it’s taken me longer to write a good Haiku than it has to write some of my published free verse work.  In some ways I find them more like puzzles).

All the worse for being rarer at poetry events are the Tanka crew: these are usually smug,(I am detecting a certain amount of smugness in this paragraph :)  ) prematurely middle-aged men who consider themselves true craftspersons. (we all know poets like this, pretentious w*nkers are not exclusive to Haiku)

The tanka is also called ‘waka’ and ‘uta’, names which I believe derive from the sound made by the legs of thick corduroy jeans as the poet struts up and down counting. Tankas are five lines of 5,7,5,7,7 syllables(ok, that was funny).

Their theme is supposed to centre on love, nature, loss, that sort of thing. There is no double form called the supertanka. Until, that is, you invent it. Or any equivalent, e.g:The Torrey Canyon. A tanka manqué: syllables as 5,7,5,7,1,1. Less formal in diction than the traditional tanka, but considerably more slick.(Christ, lets not experiment with poetry huh)


The excerpt above is taken from a work published in 1994 but I do currently sense a subtle prejudice, similar perhaps to that directed against folks who say they enjoy bush balladeers. I wonder if it’s a hold over from a time when Haiku may have been a bit of a fad owing to the ease with which the form can be picked up. 

But to criticise a form for its worst exponents is picking some very low fruit. No ?

So do you roll your eye’s when someone says they write Haiku ?  Do you find writing Haiku easy, child’s play? Is the form unjustly maligned?


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