What is Haiku? – personal reflections on the exercise ~ John Bird

Between October, 2008 and March, 2009 HaikuOz published 74 responses by 71 poets (57 Australian) to the question, What is haiku?. These numbers reflect our enduring fascination with the nature of this haiku thing. Rich pickings are there to be had. Perhaps our scholars will be encouraged to persevere with discovering the aesthetic(s) of English-language haiku?

Responses ranged from formal, descriptive definitions to abstract expressions. I found the latter at least equally interesting and instructive. I won’t try to paraphrase them – it’s best they be (re)read in the authors’ own words.

But looking to the definitive answers, some analysis is possible. The near-universal view was that a haiku is a poem whose most distinguishing feature is brevity.

It seems we insist that our haiku is poetry despite daily-published ‘haiku’ that might persuade others to a contrary view. Is it that we don’t wish to be known as writers of anything less than poetry? I wonder if this mind-set encourages a striving for ‘depth’ or ‘intellectual significance’ or ‘semantic complexity’ that might make an older Bashõ uncomfortable. What happens to haiku when stressed to measure up to its bigger cousins?

Brevity. We are agreed the haiku is: small, short, concise, a snapshot, brief as a synaptic flash, a molecule of poetry, an atom! Nobody suggested that it should, like its Japanese parent, have a minimum length.

The next most common tenets were that haiku addressed a ‘moment’, produced an insight and were usually about nature. In these and other respects our responses were broadly in step with those identified in serious studies such as the excellent one by Max Verhart. (1)

Again there is disparity between responses and what one sees routinely published as haiku. A kind reading of this is that respondents chose to answer the quite different question: what could or should haiku be? If so then the answers might better be taken as ‘aspirational statements’ rather than as definitions or descriptions of what haiku is.

The best surprise for me was that ‘how to write haiku’ dictums did not overwhelm statements about ‘what haiku is.’ How encouraging that haiku is seen as something more than the current fashion for writing it.

As a summary, we could say we think of haiku as: ‘a brief poem that conjures an insight from a moment that involves nature.’ But let’s not.

The objective was not to arrive at a consensus definition but to better appreciate how our peers see haiku. In this respect I have gained a much better understanding of, and hopefully more tolerance to, others’ viewpoints. I hope everybody had as much fun as I did. Thanks to all who took part.
John Bird, for 6th April, 2009
AHS Definitions Project.

Note (1) . “The Essence of Haiku as Perceived by Western Haijin” by Max Verhart, reproduced from Modern Haiku, Volume 38.2, Summer 2007, at:

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