HAIKU: AN INTRODUCTION by Taofeek Ayeyemi

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There is a popular divine saying that informs the Sufi quest to seek the knowledge and presence of God, it reads: “Know me before you worship me. If you do not know me, how would you worship me (rightly)?” This statement is true to haiku as the art is more than just a poetry form, but a discipline. Today, many do not seek the knowledge of the pristine haiku aesthetics, but are attempting it, thereby churning out mediocre works and parade them as haiku. This article briefly explains the often-misconstrued terminologies of haiku.

To begin with, defining haiku is important, and I will like to examine two definitions for the purpose of clarity.

The first definition is from Wikipedia. In today’s world, the first place we get residual knowledge of things is Google and the leading page and source of reference that almost always comes top is Wikipedia. Wikipedia must have therefore rightly influenced the haiku attempt of many and, in the same vein, what they perceive to be a haiku. Wikipedia defines haiku as follows:

“Haiku is a type of short form poetry originally from Japan. Traditional Japanese haiku consist of three phrases that contain a kireji, or “cutting word”, 17 on in a 5, 7, 5 pattern, and a kigo, or seasonal reference.”

I will now critically analyze this definition and use it as the skeleton for this article.

“Haiku is a Type of Short Form Poetry Originally from Japan”

Haiku originates from Japan and there, it is their oral form and usually in a sequence or linked verse form (called renga, renku or haikai no renga) up to 100 verses and more. The introductory verse to the sequence is the hokku which is now called haiku. It was Matsuo Bashō who began it as a stand-alone individual verse and it was Masaoka Shikki who renamed it as haiku.

“Traditional Japanese Haiku Consist of Three Phrases”

The three phrases in Japanese haiku use to be on a straight vertical line and not the three lines it is now being written in the English haiku. This is a matter of structure and it doesn’t go to the root of the aesthetic as some Modern Japanese Haiku (gendai) writers now present it in 3 lines.

“….That Contain a Kireji, or “Cutting Word””

A kireji is a Japanese term that is translated as “cutting word” or, best put “cut marker.” In any haiku, there must be a cut (kiru) indicating the point between the two images painted in a haiku.

This cut or pause or caesura is indicated by a marker which in English are the ellipsis (. . .) and the em dash (—).

It is called “cutting word” because in Japanese, it is represented with words such as  “ya” (や) and “kana” (かな), but the close equivalent in English are the ellipsis and em dash or an implied cut.



It must be noted that a lot of haiku writers do not use the marker to indicate their cut – thus adopting the implied cut, but it is highly encouraged for precision. The ellipsis is for superposition as it shows the continuity from the first image into the second image, or to show their relationship. While the em dash is for juxtaposition as it put side by side two unrelated images to establish truth.

According to Wikipedia, “Depending on which cutting word is chosen, and its position within the verse, it may briefly CUT THE STREAM OF THOUGHT, suggesting a PARALLEL between the preceding and following phrases (THAT IS EM DASH), or it may PROVIDE A DIGNIFIED ENDING, CONCLUDING THE VERSE with a heightened sense of closure (THAT IS ELLIPSIS).”

Emphasis mine. Words in brackets also mine.

Quickly, below are two verses where the cut markers are used.

meteor shower . . .
a gentle wave
wets our sandals
—Michael Dylan Welch, Sammamish, Washington

In this verse, the two images are both in the event being recreated. That is, the wetting of sandals is happening the same moment or immediately after the meteor shower.

Mother’s scarf
slides from my shoulder—
wild violets
—Peggy Willis Lyles, Tucker, Georgia

Here, the mother’s scarf is juxtaposed with wild violet. The persona is comparing the beauty of the scarf or the flower design on it to wild violets.

“17 On in a 5, 7, 5 Pattern”

This is the most misconceived and unnecessarily controversial aspect of haiku. Many haiku beginners would just shun up some words, break them into 17 syllables of 5-7-5 pattern and call it haiku, unfortunately it is not. It could only be a haiku if other rules and the essential qualities are observed. These aside, writing English Haiku in the 5-7-5 Syllable is unnecessary. The pattern is called “on” and as opposed to syllablic counts, it deals with sound units and not stress. As such, what makes 17 syllables in English, could be 25 on in Japanese. In standard haiku materials, “on” is not called syllable but ‘morae.’ As such, it is only important to put haiku in the 5-7-5 on when writing in Japanese.

See below the popular English translation of Basho’s haiku, it never complies with the 5-7-5 syllable because it is so pointless doing that:

old pond
frog leaps in
water's sound

“…And a Kigo, or Seasonal Reference.”

Kigo is a very important part of haiku and it is translated as seasonal reference. It is called seasonal reference because the verse is only expected to refer to a particular season and not importantly to mention the verse itself. Instead of mentioning autumn, you can use dry leaf, yellowed leaf, scarecrow, Milky way, moon, scarecrows, many flowers and wind. For Spring; frog, flowers, cherry blossoms, butterfly will pass. Summer can be referred to with hot days, cool night, mosquito, fireflies, cicadas, fleas and others. For Winter, use falling snow, white out, tangled twigs, empty field, owls, eagles, water birds and others.

It is kigo that makes many call haiku a nature poem, but it could rightly be called a seasonal poem because season is more important to haiku than nature. Christmas is seasonal, Sallah is seasonal, Election Day is seasonal and with them, you can have a successful haiku. Find an example below:

the politician
shaking hands with a queue . . .
Election Day

So far so good and so beautifully put, I have painstakingly examined the definition of haiku as put forward by Wikipedia and I will like to present Michael Dylan Welch’s definition of haiku, a more technical and precise approach, as the second definition. He succinctly put it as follows:

“Haiku (俳句) is a brief genre of poetry that typically captures a moment of perception, often with a seasonal reference (kigo, or season word) and a two-part juxtapositional structure (equivalent to using a kireji, or cutting word) that conveys or implies an emotion through primarily objective sensory imagery.”

This definition is in tandem with my discourse and it is observed that the 5-7-5 syllable is not even mentioned. In the end, it is noteworthy that while some rules are flexible (such as kireji) and some are being bent, broken or disregarded (the on) due to language and semantic differences, some are inevitably retained (such as the kigo) due to their importance in the formation of haiku.

Some other technicalities and aesthetics, which are basic qualities and beauty of haiku, are written on stone and any verse lacking these qualities cannot be considered haiku. They are what differentiate a haiku from senryu and tercet. Some of these aesthetics are the recreation of events in a fleeting moment, the position of two images, the quality of being read in a breath or with just a single pause, the significance of aha or surprise moment, the rules of objectivity, simplicity and sincerity, among others.

I will like to close up this article with two haiku for your reflection.

blood moon —
the artist dips a brush
into the coffee
—Taofeek Ayeyemi, Stardust Haiku, Issue 41, 2020
closed borders . . .
dishes of unpolished rice
this Christmas
—Barnabas Adeleke, Modern Haiku, Issue 51:2, 2020


Taofeek Ayeyemi is a Nigerian lawyer and writer with a number of poems, haiku and creative nonfictions to his name. As a haijin, his works have appeared in Acorn, Hedgerow, The Mamba, the QuillS, Akitsu Quarterly, Haibun Today, contemporary haibun online, Modern Haiku, Human/Kind Journal, Prune Juice, Frogpond, Failed Haiku, Cattails, Eucalypt, Seashores and elsewhere. He won the Outstanding Haiku Prize in 2019 Soka Matsubara International Haiku Contest and Honorable Mention Prize in the 2019 Morioka International Haiku Contest, 2020 Autumn Moon Haiku Journal Best of Issue and The Mainichi Best of 2019.

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