Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Breaking Haiku Rules

When I set out to write 14 haiku about hiking with my dog in the woods I aimed to practice the classical form of "three lines containing 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively". It was fun, word-puzzle-like fun, but taking too much time. So I threw formalism away; my task was done in no time. A few weeks later I came across wonderful justification for what I'd done in Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr, who is a poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review. 

     ... here is former poet laureate Robert
     Hass translating one of Kohayashi Issa's
               Don't worry, spiders,
          I keep house

          It's not even close to 5-7-5! But it's
     lovely, and it sure seems like a haiku, 
     doesn't it?  The question, then, is if we
     should reject what is probably our initial
     notion -- This is a haiku -- because of the
     failure of the poem to adhere to the syllable
     count we've been told is necessary. On one 
     hand, 5-7-5 seems like a clear standard that
     plainly hasn't been met. On the other hand,
     again, Hass's poem certainly looks like a
     haiku -- and since an English syllable isn't
     actually the equivalent of the sound unit
     used to compose Japanese haiku, the 5-7-5
     count can be no better than an approximation
     of the original version (on top of that, the
     haiku is one vertical line in Japanese, not
     three horizontal lines).  So because the
     haiku is a relatively young form taken from
     another culture, it seems reasonable to 
     assume its "rules," if that's what they are,
     can still be contested.

So, yes, in composing my haiku I threw away formalism thinking that since the haiku is a relatively young form taken from another culture, it was a reasonable thing to do.

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