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Submitted on
March 9, 2012
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WordSmith's 'Contributors' are often presented with brief verses that are submitted under the category of ‘Haiku and Eastern’.  Differing understandings of what constitutes a Haiku and the broad scope of what falls under ‘Eastern’ poetry present significant problems for those considering whether to feature these pieces; there is much diversity of thought on the matter. 

Exploring the roots of Haiku and related forms reveal various ‘schools’ of thinking with differing emphasis' from its earliest history.  The native difficulties were vastly compounded as the form (based on the Japanese language and steeped with its culture) was transported to English speaking (and other) countries.

The few perceptions that follow must be considered merely a primer, the very basics, of the matter. [For those not content to splash about in the shallow end of the pool, there are many voices of deeply studied students of Eastern forms readily available on the internet - I will provide a link to one of DAs own haijin who is deeply studied in the matter.]


Haiku, Senryu and Tanka are all Japanese poetry (waka) that fall under the class best described as ‘short form’ poetry.  These forms saw a surge of interest bloom in the late 19th and into the 20th century. They have as their (very basic) elements the characteristics listed below. Again, several other elements are identified and utilized by serious students of the form such as; purposeful ambiguity, a sense of space ‘ma’, depth ‘yougen’ and the like.

Haiku was originally the opening phrases (hokku) of a longer collaborative form such as Renga and later Renku.  It later came into use as a ‘stand-alone’ form.  Most early Japanese adherents utilized these three elements as a minimum.

a.)    A kigo – seasonal reference

b.)    A ‘cutting’ word or phrase – the transition between a juxtaposition of two (seldom more) images or ideas.

c.)    17 sound units (‘on’ or ‘morae’) generally presented in three ‘phrases’ of 5, 7 and 5 'on' (not necessarily three 'lines').

Senyru developed as an offshoot that spoke more to the human condition than seasons and thus does not generally offer a kigo and some do not clearly involve a specific cutting word or phrase yet it retains the ‘look’ of a haiku by a similar phrasing pattern and sound units.

Tanka also evolved from waka (short poem) similar to the roots of haiku, but contain five lines or phrases – the two additional lines with seven ‘on’ thus a phrase pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 'on'.

An understanding of these basics are necessary in order to comprehend that English language Haiku and its related forms present problems for those who wish to translate or emulate them.


The sound units of the Japanese (‘on’) are fundamentally different from English Syllables; a problem not easily reconciled. This issue has directly contributed to the following divergent schools of thought in ‘English Language’ Haiku; and there are various voices to consider that will fall somewhere between these extremes.

a.)     Some feel it best to make the visible form reflect a consistent shape by placing our three ‘phrases’ into three lines and using syllables as though they were ‘on’, resulting in a structure consisting of three lines of poetry with a syllable count of 5-7-5.

b.)    The second school of thought involves translating Haiku (and constructing modern haiku) to keep what is seen as the philosophical and emotional impact of the originals.  This school works to incorporate the more subtle techniques necessary and involve the reader in making their own connections with and in the poem; using a few, still brief - but unconstrained, syllable counts to achieve the ‘sense’ or ‘focus’ of the original or to produce a meaningful contemporary piece.

Most modern authorities agree that the first option makes rendering an accurate ‘translation’ of a Japanese Haiku and Tanka extremely difficult if not impossible, forcing it into a stilted characterization of the original.  And while few will deny that writing original English language Haiku using the 5-7-5 syllable constraints, accompanied by a kigo and a ‘cutting’ element, can be a suitable way to express this form in a contemporary setting, most deem the syllable count unnecessary.

Additionally we need to consider that because a contemporary English language Senryu could use an identical 'visible' structure as a Haiku (a three line and 5-7-5 syllable count for example), they are often misidentified as Haiku. This becomes especially troublesome as many contemporary poets have developed the habit of minimizing seasonal references and have jettisoned the ‘cutting’ word or phrase and still 'intentionally' present them as ‘haiku'.   This has blurred the lines between the two forms considerably.

Sadly, the more subtle elements of these forms are so lacking that if many were to write the words of their three ‘juxtaposed phrases’ (lines) in one straight line, they would read and appear as a (very un-poetic) sentence or statement.

In conclusion, if submitters were to identify the type of Eastern poetry that their work represented, and there are many more than what we have discussed here, it would help the group's staff to evaluate its suitability for inclusion in our collections.

[As promised, a DA link to a deeper exploration of the more subtle elements of Haiku and its related forms. "A Lot of Words About A Little Poem: An Introduction to Haiku Structures."… by SOLARTS

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EclecticQuill Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012  Student Writer
Damn... I guess my education is even less complete than I had realised.
rlkirkland Featured By Owner Aug 6, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
It's a diverse and sometime hotly contested field.
Aside from ~SOLARTS Laurence Stacy `Laurence55 has studied and written in depth on the matter; he has numerous journal entries on the subject.
indiana-w Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2012  Student Writer
I've noticed in the Haiku club that all Eastern forms are identified when submitted (eg gogyoka/haiku/senryu), and I was thinking that perhaps other literature (particularly poetry) groups could request that Eastern forms be specifically and clearly categorized.
rlkirkland Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
That is indeed what I suggested at the end of my blog for those seeking consideration on WordSmiths. Though it is suggested, it is not mandated.
YouInventedMe Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2012   Writer
YouInventedMe Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2012   Writer
thetaoofchaos Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012   Writer
Thanks Ron! This helps a lot.
rlkirkland Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks,I appreciate the attention you have given to this endeavor. :sun:
wildmandrake Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Professional Writer
this was great... I don't write Haiku as such though I love them... it is interesting to hear about the roots and the different types... My interest in and my attempt as a young man to write in the style seeking to capture the essence of Japnese forms including Zen/Chan, because I learnt early on from the linguistics studies why the syllable structure is not appropriate to English, has helped me in using "cutting phases" and concrete images of nature and seasons to point to human passion and intensity of experience... justaposing, colliding together omages to point beyond words is also something I picked up from it...

well written and clear... thanx
rlkirkland Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you. :heart:
Sounds like you've gotten a pretty good handle on understanding the form. :)
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