Exercise Three: Haiku and Sijo

There are many forms of what are generally known as syllabic poems - that is, poems built with the count of syllables in each line.

The haiku is perhaps the most recognizable. Ever since our third grade teachers made us write these lines for our "Japanese Culture" week, we've been able to spot a haiku by the familiar 5/7/5 construction, which is:

X stands for a syllable


This is the construction of what was once known as a hokku, or the introduction of a longer poem.

There's no rhyme scheme to this, nor are we particularly concerned with the accents of the lines. We are counting syllables and, more importantly, we are looking for just the right image to reveal itself in as economical a space as possible.

Here are some examples from Basho's extensive collections of haiku:

Petals of the mountain rose
Fall now and then,
To the sound of the waterfall?
The dragonfly
can't quite land
on that blade of grass.
Morning and evening
Someone waits at Matsushima!
One-sided love

The Exercise - Haikai (short for "haikai no renga")
Rather than return to third grade and start writing renditions of haiku about butterflies and grasshoppers (and all other multisyllabic beings), I'd like for us to try to construct a string of haiku (known as haikai) that convey a single image.

The Exercise - Haibun
Now we can take a lesson from Basho's famous road journals and write the haibun. This is a series of short paragraphs that explain a situation (think of a travel journal) and, when the writer comes upon a work or phrase that simply cannot be explained in prose, he moves to a haiku. The haiku is used to accent the prose and, in so doing, transforms the prose into a prose poem.

Here's an example from Basho's A Visit to Kashima Shrine:

For nine springs and autumns, I lived austerely in the city. Now I have moved to the bank of the Fukagawa River. Someone once said, "Since of old, Chang-an has been a place for fame and fortune, so hard for a wayfarer empty-handed and penniless." Is it because I'm impoverished myself that I can understand this feeling?
against the brushwood gate
   it sweeps the tea leaves:

The Exercise - Sijo
The sijo is another syllabic form that originates in Korean writing, but is clearly linked to the haiku. Here you can practice taking the haiku two steps further - literally. Where the longest line of the haiku is seven syllables, a sijo line may be twice that length, fourteen to sixteen syllables.

Here's the pattern:






Challenge yourself by working with the syllables in lines to poems you've already written. Using syllabics is a great way to make a subtle link between lines and add musicality to a poem that is heavily image or story based.

Example: Jack Kerouac's  Desolation Angels

Thunder in the mountains -
   the iron
Of my mother's love

There are hundreds on online resources about haiku, so be sure to look them up on Google, Bing, Ask or other sites. Here's a nice little bit on Poets.org: Haiku Essay.