03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do You Haiku?

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Do You Haiku?

I don't know why Americans have such a fascination with haiku, but our bookstores are positively rife with them. At your local Barnes and Noble, you can find gay haiku, baseball haiku, hipster haiku, Episcopal haiku, erotic haiku, cat haiku (or "catku"), haikus for Jews, and even a haiku collection by rocker Steve Earle. It's possible that haiku appeal to our ever shortening attention span. They are literary snacks--the mini quiches of the poetry world. This week's column is a (fittingly) short lesson on this tiny but powerful poetic form.

Haiku first flourished in 17th Century Japan with the writings of the poet Matsuo Basho. People so revered Basho that the imperial government, gulp, deified him. That's right, they actually made him a god. His tombstone reads:

Stop writing poems,

you said, be an accountant.

The joke's on you, Dad

(Ok, not really.)

Basho's work helped cement the haiku rules and traditions. You probably know that a haiku's first line must be exactly five syllables long, the second line must be seven, and the third five. Haiku also traditionally include a word that notes the season (called a "kagi") and strive to present a sense of loneliness (or "wabi") and a valuing of undervalued things ("sabi"). These traditions are meant to help a haiku overcome its small size. Because while filling out the form's syllable count is pretty easy, writing a strong poem in such a short span is not. A good haiku is like a bell strike: quick but deeply resonant.

To give you a sense of traditional haiku, here are three examples by Japanese masters translated by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in his anthology The Essential Haiku from Ecco Press. As you'll see, a haiku can be strikingly beautiful (Buson), resonant (Basho) and even kind of funny (Issa). Since they're translated, these poems don't hold to the required syllable count.

A field of mustard,

no whale in sight,

the sea, darkening.


Even in Kyoto--

hearing the cuckoo's cry--

I long for Kyoto.


New Year's Day--

everything is in Blossom!

I feel about average.


The haiku form became popular in the U.S. in the early 20th Century when it caught the eye of the Imagist movement: a group of poets interested in clear, sharp imagery and language. Ezra Pound, the best-known of the group, wrote this brief, haiku-like poem you've probably come across before:

Apparition of those faces in a crowd

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Jack Kerouac and the Beat Poets, with their interest in Eastern philosophies, also took to writing haiku. Never one for tradition, Kerouac developed his own American version of the form that he called "haiku pop." In writing his haiku pop, Kerouac didn't see the need to stick to the 5-7-5 syllable scheme--he felt our speech "popped" enough on its own. His haiku range from the beautiful:

In the sun

the butterfly wings

Like a church window

to the...err...drug-induced?:

All day long

wearing a hat

that wasn't on my head.

Since the advent of the Internet, haiku has also flourished online. MIT researcher John Cho's website SPAM ku has been thriving since June of 1995, when spam came from cans, not from Nigeria, and when there were fewer than 18,000 websites in the world. At SPAM ku, spam poets can share their contemplations of America's least favorite processed food. The site has even spawned a book called Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf. Here's a sample:

If SPAM was purple

It would look a lot cooler
But still taste like sh*t

With almost 20,000 nuggets like that on the site, all printed on a gross pink wallpaper, reading SPAM ku is a little bit like water torture. The site has won numerous honors including "Worst of the web" and "Wurst of the web" (complete with sausage). But it sure garners a lot of attention. It's rival site,, as far as I could tell, hasn't won anything. Computers (!) have even gotten in on the act. The web now offers a "genuine haiku generator."

So what's behind all this haiku madness? It certainly helps that they're easy to write. I once made the mistake of assigning a haiku to my poetry students. I encouraged them to take their time--to get out into nature and work on lines that, as the poet David Gurga puts it, "link the experience of a single moment to the universal forces of change and renewal." They were good kids. I had faith. One of them turned in this:

Writing a haiku

as I'm on my way to class

looking at the grass


I guess I was asking for it.