I find myself wanting to write about haiku today, so let’s roll with that.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a book of haiku from a charity shop purely on impulse, one of those didn’t-even-know-the-book-existed-ten-seconds-ago-but-now-I-want-it kind of things.
If, like me, your only encounter with haiku was when they made you write some in school, you’ll remember it as that minimalist form of Japanese poetry with only three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second has seven, and the third just five, for a total of seventeen syllables.
Reading this book I discover that there are, in fact, even more rules to haiku!
For example, a good haiku must be rooted in one of the five seasons (in Japan, new year was once considered a season in its own right). Read a traditional haiku and you’ll find a direct seasonal reference, like this:
or a more subtle reference, a word that evokes a season:
Serious haiku poets would carry around a book called a saijiki, a sort of dictionary which would tell them that the moon means autumn.
Another rule was the inclusion of kireji or a ‘cutting word’. This could be placed at the end of any of the lines and indicates to the reader a moment of reflection. In both of the poems above, the dash and the colon above indicate the kireji (in the transliteration of the Japanese originals, it’s a strong single-syllable word: ni and ya respectively).
Reading this collection of haiku there are some things I really appreciate about the form.
First, essentiality (oof, can’t believe that’s a word, but I’m glad it is): the rules dictate that every word must serve a purpose and when you have only seven or eight of them you really want to make sure each one counts. This is a trait I always try to pursue in my own films and writing but it’s hard to do with many words and pictures! But I aspire to this discipline.
Second, quiet observation: most of the haiku I read are rooted in nature and in the quiet, close inspection of a single moment. They don’t deal with human or societal problems. For example, take this one:
This calm, quiet observation feels somehow Japanese. It reminds me of what Scott McCloud calls the aspect-to-aspect nature common to Japanese comics: a series of still images, capturing a one quiet moment from different angles, with little or no action. It slows down time and invites contemplation and reflection.
Compare that to western films and comics which are focused on characters and direct action.
Third, the building of images: there’s another connection with visual storytelling in the haiku. Often, each line contains an image or a fragment of one, which build to create a picture:
In the mind of a filmmaker you can see a sequence of images here: a shot of the sun rising; a shot of wild ducks quacking; a wide shot of a castle.
And their combination, their juxtaposition, creates an idea greater than the sum of their parts: perhaps the idea of a community at peace, waking to a new day; or, in the right context, an approaching menace.
Ah! It is our friend, The Third Something at play - in words not images!
It makes me wonder, what would a visual haiku look like? Would it be 17 seconds long with three shots? Could that be a thing?
I set myself a project this week to try and write some haiku of my own. I found it harder than I anticipated. It demands focus (therefore it is impossible with your phone or computer in the same room) to narrow in on a single moment, a single feeling. On top of that, you’re constantly counting out syllables on your fingers.
I kept writing lists - in my poems each line was a new idea, instead of building to a single one through one or two aspects.
Most of them are terrible, but here’s one of the less awful ones, trying to capture that end of winter feeling I have right now:
Thank you to everyone who replied hot off the press last week for my spare copy of The Sleep Consultant.
Lara was the quickest at 12 minutes after delivery - Robin’s story is currently making its way to Turkey!
For everyone else who emailed, sorry you didn’t get it - and just a heads up that I have now deleted your emails, so you can rest assured your postal address isn’t sitting idly in my inbox forever and ever!
Until next Sunday,