What is a Haiku?

by Alan Summers
Recipient, Japan Times Award-winning writer for haiku.

Haiku poems are like the Tardis! These tiny poems can contain an amazing amount in just three short lines. So what is haiku?

A haiku certainly isn’t about counting syllables. And we know that in English haiku are often written in three short lines, but you might not know they are often six seconds long. They are written in the present tense, in plain and very ordinary language, and work well as just two different images that spark off each other in surprising ways.

If you want to write a haiku, it's good to include one or more senses such as sound, smell, taste or touch, and not just what you can see.

Haiku don't tell, or force people to only get one meaning: they allow the reader their own time and space to work out their way into the poem. That’s nice isn’t it? Very unselfish of the writer.

Haiku can exercise both the right and the left side of the brain: so you get a mental workout when you write them!

Traditionally haiku are rooted in the seasons, and natural history, so they make us conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we've even put pen to paper.

Haiku have a seasonal clue called kigo in Japanese. Obvious season words are snow for winter; and heatwave for summer; but you could use less obvious kigo like moorhen for summer, and Orion or Orion's Belt (stars) for winter.

At the beginning of the 20th Century Japanese writers began to adapt Western techniques when Japan was opened up to the West. Journalist, writer, and poet Masaoka Shiki took full advantage of the enthusiasm towards Western art and officially made an earlier type of verse, called hokku, into a new type of poem in the 1890s called haiku (singular and plural spelling). So although haiku has ancient roots going back more than a thousand years, it is as modern, if not more modern, than the novel, or even the music you listen to today.

©Alan Summers 2011

Here are my thoughts about the winners of the haiku competition.

to the brook's riddles
a moorhen and I

by Amy Claire Rose Smith

As you know, moorhens have two lots of offspring, and the first offspring, when they become juveniles, will often try to help with the next intake. ;-)
Amy Claire Rose Smith uses the kigo ‘moorhen’ and I'd place the haiku in mid to late summer when the first offspring are still puzzled about life, done their bit with their younger siblings, and go off to sun themselves, and do what teenagers do.

The lone stallion
Grazes in the muddy field
scavenging for shrubs

by Jonathan Colaço Carr

Jonathan Colaço Carr uses very down to earth language which is perfect for haiku! We instantly feel that not only is the horse lonely, but perhaps the writer is as well. What is good is that the writer does not force a meaning onto us, we can be right whatever meaning we get from the poem, it’s open to everyone. That’s how a haiku should be: to allow the reader to be on equal terms with the writer.

Icy eyes lie still
The colossal full moon stares
Dreams won't let me sleep.

Insomniac by Sneha Chatterjee

Titles are not used in haiku so that Insomniac isn’t needed, the verse stands well on its own.Sneha Chatterjee uses a strong winter reference alongside a full moon. Full moon is usually an autumn moon, but because of the winter reference, we know we are in winter, not autumn. I love the way the fascination and power of the moon is displayed in this poem; and the waking dreams, not sleep dreams are mentioned. Very original.

Poetry - my blood
Music - my layers of skin
My soul is complete.

Who has awakened my soul? by Sneha Chatterjee

I’d like to give a special mention to this poem. Unfortunately this one isn’t a haiku but I really liked the passion behind this short poem. I’m sure that Sneha Chatterjee is a poet to look out for in the future, and there are longer poetry forms like the five line Japanese tanka that I feel she would excell in, and further explore her themes.