Defining (?) Haiku – a Study in Progress

Defining (?) Haiku – Thoughts from a Study in Progress

….. John Bird, May 2009

Dear Members,

In August 2007 the President of AHS asked me to advise the Society on definition(s) of English-language haiku (ELH). I’m still bumbling along on that task. The recent, ‘What is haiku?’ exercise was an offshoot of my study and prompted discussion on points I’ve been thinking about. At President Beverley’s invitation I here share some of my thoughts and tentative conclusions. I’d really like to get your reactions. Please send them to me at

[ Now, this is my bus and nobody else is allowed to drive it!]

1. Attempts to define haiku can be vexatious, can do harm, and should not be casually undertaken or arise out of vanity. A genuine need to (re)define should exist.

2. Most experienced haiku poets do not need or want a definition; they are already comfortable with the genre. Any contemplated definition(s) should focus on answering general enquiries from the public and on helping haiku newcomers to get a ‘handle’ on the genre. These are our target groups.

3. Discussions of whether we can or we should define haiku are moot. Definitions already exist in authorative references such as dictionaries, the very sources our groups are most likely to consult and trust. Will anything less than another definition displace the misconceptions set in the minds of many creative writing teachers, U3A lecturers, ‘proper poets’, etc?

4. A major impediment to haiku discourse, including that on definitions, is careless or mischievous muddling of ‘Japanese haiku’ and ELH. Unless we are clear that ELH is a separate, albeit related, phenomenon then we will waste our time (or worse) trying to define it.

5. A similar problem is the range of material being written and published as haiku. No useful definition could span it. The best filter I can offer to shrink that range to something definable, is: haiku that are (or aspire to be) poetry.

6. By my rough sampling perhaps 30% to 40% of poems in Australian haiku publications are senryu; none of our publications differentiate between haiku and senryu in their presentations. Are we ready to take the position: ‘ELH incorporates our equivalent of both Japanese haiku and senryu.’ and then devise an ‘ELH definition’ sufficiently broad to reflect that? Not easy.

7. [The semantics of ‘definition’— now how do I summarise this?]
Most of us use the word ‘definition’ to mean lexical or reportive definitions (sometimes called dictionary or true definitions), those formal statements of the meaning or signification of a word. Such definitions are usually held to be a matter of fact. But many haiku definitions on offer are some kind of stipulative or prescriptive definition, the kind that are not open to challenge and which usually lead to opinions as to what haiku could or should be. These are, at best, mere ‘aspirational statements.’

8. This becomes Alice-in-Haikuland when somebody (typically an editor) uses a stipulative definition to derive guidelines for writing haiku which, if followed faithfully, will produce haiku which meet the original ‘definition’, thereby validating it. [Really? Wow!] Such self-referencing is twaddle. One sad outcome is haiku gets judged according to its degree of compliance with those guidelines (now ‘rules’). Thence we find haiku being defined as what one gets by obeying those same Rules!
[ I now detour from the academic to the pragmatic route.
Anybody hell-bent for the theoretical highway should change buses here. ]

9. Who wants a definition?
The President of AHS – she and her Committee said so.

10. Why? To what end? Well, I paraphrase their expressed needs as:
(a) to answer ‘What is haiku?’ enquiries from media and the public,
(b) to dispel misconceptions, such as the necessity for a 5-7-5
syllabic structure, in the face of dictionary advocacy of just that,
(c) to meet the need, expressed by haiku-newcomers, for definitive
guidance, at least until they became familiar with the genre.

11. I believe the AHS President/Committee needs a set(s) of words for these purposes. I can’t imagine she/he/them discharging their duty without that facility. Of course reasonable consensus should be sought before adopting any of2 them.

[Anybody who disagrees with this need should get off the bus now.]
[The rest of you – keep singing.]
12. I am undecided as to how this need should be met. Possibilities include:
(a) a definition, either coined by AHS or adopted (eg the HSA definition)
(b) a brief description of haiku’s main characteristics,
(c) a list of broadly agreed ELH aesthetics,
(d) an essay and/or book that includes exemplar haiku,
(e) a collection of topical haiku such as Haiku Dreaming Australia,
(f) instruction on how to write ELH,
or some combination of these. A few notes on these options follow.

13. Definition
It bears repeating: Can anything short of a new definition dislodge an old one?
How much influence would an ‘AHS Definition’ have?
To be effective, does a definition have to be taken up by a dictionary? If so, what are our chances of getting Macquarie to include AHS’s, or should we throw our weight behind the HSA definition (less the notes)?

Definitions do not have to be long-lasting, have broad application, or even be correct. (At school I learnt the definition of an atom as ‘the smallest part of matter, indivisible.’ Only six years later I was studying sub-atomic physics at Sydney Uni under Harry Messel, and the atom definition seemed laughable. But at the time it was invaluable in introducing me to the building blocks of the natural world.)

One of my few firm conclusions is that AHS should have nothing to do with prescriptive definitions or normative studies based on them. Any AHS definition should not go beyond what haiku is now, without prediction or prescription. This prompts the question as to whether we should describe haiku or simply show it. (see para 17)

14. Description
Flexible, consensus easier; it is weaker than a definition but an honest alternative when used in a response like: ‘No, I can’t define haiku, but I describe it as … ‘

15. Aesthetics
If only we knew what they are. [Any scholars on this bus? Hmm.]

16. Essay and/or Book
AHS might commission or endorse an existing on-line essay (something like George Marsh’s In the moonlight a worm… and recommend one book, perhaps Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide [In 2000 I produced Getting Started with Haiku for AHS; some newcomers found it useful but it’s now dead and I don’t wish to revive it.] Endorsing a single primer is awkward but surely better than letting newcomers stumble through a plethora of dodgy material.

17. Haiku Dreaming Australia
or a similar collection of topical haiku, selected by varied editors and culled by poets, continuously updated to reflect what poets are writing and editors are accepting as ELH . Who was it that said, ‘only haiku can define haiku?’ Again, why talk about haiku when we can show it? If, as has been said, editions of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology effectively (re)defined haiku at publication intervals, would a continuous, on-line equivalent serve as a useful explication of what haiku is for AHS purposes? For the English-speaking world’s?

18. Instruction on how to write haiku
Those who see haiku primarily as a language ‘game’― yes, there are precedents ― might wish for a haiku definition that includes guidance/rules on how to write it.
But the way ELH is written has varied so greatly over the last 100 years that it would take a massive ego to think we have reached the acme of its expression. Haiku will, must change. In this, AHS has no direct influence, it’s in the hands of territorial editors, but AHS might encourage those editors who admit diversity and experimentation in haiku expression.
[This is your driver speaking: Anybody still on the bus is invited up front to help me navigate. I might be lost.]