An Invitation to Spring Haiku

Kwanzan cherry blossoms.  Photo by Bill Pusztai.

Kwanzan cherry blossoms. Photo by Bill Pusztai.

Anyone interested in Japanese gardens is more than likely also interested in other Japanese arts. One of those arts, which is sometimes misunderstood, is haiku. This poetry has a tradition of many hundreds of years in Japan, and more than a hundred years in English. Haiku evolved as an independent poem out of haikai no renga, or a linked verse form where poets alternated verses in 5-7-5 and 7-7 patterns (counting sounds in Japanese, not syllables—usually seventeen syllables in English is too long compared with seventeen sounds in Japanese). The starting verse, called a hokku, traditionally had a seasonal reference and a two-part structure, and these characteristics are still essential in haiku today. In Japanese these verses were written in a single vertical line, but in English a three-line appearance is most common, and one of the poem’s two parts is spread over two lines. Haiku usually don’t rhyme and don’t have titles, and tend to focus on implying an emotion through the objective description of things we experience through our five senses. Haiku are ordinary and everyday, focusing on simple observations rather than presenting philosophical judgments. As Jack Kerouac has said, “haiku should be as simple as porridge.”

Here is a famous haiku by Issa, one of Japan’s four great haiku masters:

雪とけて村一ぱいの子ども哉 yuki tokete mura ippai no kodomo kana

snow melting . . . the village is flooded with children!

The surprise of the last line works equally well in Japanese as well as English, and we feel the vibrancy of spring through this poem. The joy of the season is conveyed through the concrete image of melting snow and the slightly more general action of children going out to enjoy the warming weather.

If you’d like to try writing haiku, focus on your five senses—what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Don’t write about your emotions, though. Instead, write about what caused your emotions. This way, when a friend reads your poem, he or she will see what affected you and have the same emotion that you had, without your needing to name the emotion.

Take a notebook with you, or use your smartphone to record impressions of the season. In spring, you might notice the greening tips of pine trees on your morning walk, or see plum and cherry blossoms as they reach their peak and begin to flutter to the ground. Look for other more subtle signs of spring, too, like the first bulge of maple buds in your neighborhood or in a nearby park—or perhaps in the Seattle Japanese Garden.

Write down impressions and observations, and be aware of the feelings of wonder and curiosity you feel. See if you might turn some of these haiku seeds into poems. And then share these poems by reading or emailing them to friends, or by posting them on Facebook or Twitter. As William J. Higginson said in the first paragraph of his book The Haiku Handbook, the purpose of haiku is to share them.

The spring season has much to share with us, if we slow down and notice. By writing haiku, you can share in a close experience of everything the season of beginnings has to offer, and then share these experiences with your friends and family.

Michael Dylan Welch is a contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog. For more information about haiku, please visit his website, www.graceguts.com, devoted mostly to haiku (start on the Essays or Further Reading pages), and visit the website for Haiku Northwest, www.haikunorthwest.org, a friendly group that meets monthly in the Seattle area.