Saturday, September 25, 2004

Playing the Haiku Game

Here are some rushed notes on haiku I wrote for a local magazine, Word-Thirst (from KSP Writer's Centre's Thursday group, ed. B.J.Thomasen). A friend of mine just asked me for notes on renga, and I came across these. Hope it is useful to somebody ... I'll post some renga notes up tomorrow.

All literature is a game. And as with PlayStation games and great sporting contests, a game wouldn’t be anything without The Rules. Some games are light on rules – like draughts; some games are laden with rules and traditions – like chess. Some games are competitive, like footy; some are simply there for their process – solitaire. In literature, we have a mixture of this – some of it is partly a team effort with the reader and some of it is the satisfaction of ‘winning’ the game yourself. Literature is not a contact sport – well, not often!
So, haiku is an esoteric slice of literature. It is a game which is short to the eye but may be long for the hand. There are thousands of rules, and most of them don’t translate well into English from the Japanese. So we shall have but a few rules.

Way back in Japan, the rule was first line, five syllables; second, seven; third, five. In modern times, haiku has relaxed this rule. But from the outset, Japanese onji – the equivalent of our syllable – was never as long as a lot of our syllables – eg, bough, slow, discrete. It was more like the syllables in ‘po-ta-to’. Five seven five English syllables could be half a novel to a Japanese person! Modern haiku in English attempts three five three – and sometimes in one line.
Another time-honoured Japanese rule was a season word in the first line – like cherry blossom or the snow on Mt Fuji, a heron flying over, or a still lake. They have dictionaries of season words in Japan – but a simple nature reference is now equally acceptable in modern haiku in English. And a local Australian nature reference is NOT a cherry blossom – more like a wattle in bloom or a redrock breakaway.

The essence of haiku is more important than its hat size. It is more important to get a couple of images working against each other to create a moment of 'illumination' for the reader. (Sometimes one of the images is only implied and not stated.) Be specific. Don’t tell things – Show them.

Not-a-haiku would be –

I am sad
Because my cat
Died …

Haiku would be –

Dead cat –
Open mouthed to
The pouring rain …

So the reader feels sad – it is transference of emotion in as little amount of words as possible. Now – don’t look haiku up on the Internet. Mainly they are horrible. Look up these addresses first: , and this one with lots of links in it

References: I must acknowledge that most of what I have said is said much better in The Haiku Handbook, by William Higgenson (Kodansha International (JPN); Reissue edition (February 1, 1992) ).

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