Most people think of Haiku as a poem which has three lines with a limited number of syllables. And, if you knew that, give yourself a pat on the back! Asking yourself how many syllables is the first of three questions which define a Haiku.
- How many syllables are in each line? (5,7,5)
- What do I see in my mind’s eye as I read? (Imagery)
- What part of nature do I feel more connected to, if any?
Old Pond is a Haiku written by the iconic Basho. It is the exemplification of everything that is Haiku. I will use it to answer the three questions one could ask of a Haiku.
How many syllables does each line have?
The number of syllables is a defining characteristic of a Haiku that most people remember.
(5) An old silent pond
(7) A frog jumps into the pond –
(5) Splash! Silence again.
And, this is, indeed, important because the limitation is a way to invite the mind to slow down and really spend time with each word. This slowing to creates space for the reader to consider each word and, as they come, each image.
What do I see in my mind’s eye?
An important question to ask is, “What do I see in my mind’s eye?” Fancy writers call this the image. Imagery in haiku is another defining characteristic. Remember that imagery is more than just what you see, it’s a combination of the other senses along with the sense of movement.
An old silent pond
I see green algae. I smell musty air. I feel it must be warm enough that I want to go walking. Usually I don’t visit old ponds as a journey if it’s cold. I hear silence. If it is silent, I picture the surface undisturbed. I’ve read this many times, and I find it odd that the words “silent pond” conjure the image still water for me. Maybe that’s because silence is a hard thing to “hear,” and my visual cortex takes over. But I imagine that the fish are sleeping and the water is dark.
A frog jumps into the pond
I remember that Frogs are smooth and green. They’re pretty small. I’m imagining a frog that I held when I was driving across the country. I stopped at a hotel instead of sleeping in my car. The hotel had a pool, and this frog had his tiny legs attached with atrociously long frog fingers to a white pole inside of the fence. I that frog, and the frog in my minds eye has a white belly.
I have a sense of movement. I picture his little legs trembling at the apex of his jump, spreading as wide as he can. I put myself inside of the frog and feel my chest rising and my arms spreading out. (I will note that I am not actually moving here, but my brain is responding as if I were.)
Splash! Silence again.
I hear how little that splash was, how fast it happened. I wonder how much bigger the splash was for him than it was for me, the observer. Then I start to wonder more…
Haiku is an invitation into the exploration of image and mood (the fancy word for how the poem makes a reader feel).
How do I feel connected to nature?
Connection to nature can come in many forms. Some examples would be that you feel yourself being connected as a steward of nature, as a part of nature, as an silent observer, but the connection is important.
The Haiku can be commentary on life and our place in it. It can critique us, praise us, and often remind us of our humanity, the fleeting nature of it. When that happens, remember that in any pilgrimage, the pilgrim returns home.
I feel connected to this piece in many ways, but the most important way to me was the break in silence that the frog made. Since the frog broke the silence, he matters. He rippled the water. I ripple the water.
There are many places to go on this pilgrimage. None of them are wrong, but none of them, in my opinion, is a place to stay. The “mysterium tremendum fascinans,”*1 is a frightening place to be, and, to be quite frank, Basho was not telling me that I matter, but that I am going to die. He was talking about the a frog and a moment in time. This is the part where I begin to return to the present moment and end my pilgrimage by asking myself a few more questions.
What do I hear now?
When I’m ready, in order to enter the world safely. I tap into the imagery of the present moment, my own poem, without words. I do this using a strategy called “5, 4, 3, 2, 1”.
Congratulations, now you have all of the questions and tools that I have when reading and writing Haiku!
No real requirements
There are no real requirement to ask any of these questions in order to read or write a Haiku. As a matter of fact, if you think about it, Haiku was written in Japanese. Why would a defining characteristic of a Japanese poem be…
Three lines must be translated to have a specific number of syllables… in English… after being translated.
Haiku is “traditionally” (I use this term loosely) an exploration of limitation, imagery, and nature.
Count syllables, ask questions, take a mental pilgrimage, return home. Or don’t. Either way, Haikus are cool, and sometimes limitations help us discover more about ourselves.
*1 Rudolf Otto was a religious scholar. Actually, to call him a scholar is understating his influence in the study of religion. He defined the religious experience as “mysterium tremendum fascinans”.
- Thea Voutiritsas’s “10 Vivid Haikus to Leave you Breathless”
Tags: #haiku #poem #imagery