tickling the shogun’s tongue

[estimated reading time 6 minutes]

when you think of japanese poetry, i suspect the first thing that comes to mind is the haiku — a surprisingly-modern invention in a country with more than a thousand years of formal poetic history. that being said, the haiku and its extended version, the renga, are probably the most inherently-japanese of poetic forms. they are, however, extremely poorly-understood in the west. let’s take a look at some of the common misconceptions and how to actually write them in english in a way that’s useful in a modern context.

a haiku is not a poem with seventeen syllables. even in japanese, that’s not the case. historically, it was typically a relatively-fixed number of characters per line but those characters weren’t necessarily words or syllables and counting them is far less important. the obsession and fixation with syllable-counts and rhyming that has destroyed western poetry, especially english poetry, has overflowed into the interpretation of japanese forms in the original language and english. it is simply not true.

this variation is not simply an exception to a rule. there is no rule. here is, most-likely, the most famous haiku — a poem by basho.

古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音

as you can see, there is no three-line division with five, seven and five syllables. and counting the characters also doesn’t result in anything close to that. an english version of this poem could read…

ripples shatter the surface of her face
as love shocks her awake
the sound of nature

or perhaps

diving through the pond’s surface
the frog seeks its mate
stunned by impact

as you can see, there is no particular need for pattern in terms of sound or anything to count. here’s a simple way of thinking about poetry. if you are thinking about how many syllables or lines something has, you’re doing it wrong. it never works that way. if you care how many words, syllables, characters or lines a poem has, you’ve missed the point and have ended up in a lost and degenerate past before modern language swept away the garbage of history.

the other thing to remember about haiku is that it’s not always three lines (or three statements). there are two modern forms — the short haiku and the long renga. these are usually written in english as two or three statements (in the case of haiku) with the possibility of a two-statement response (renga). the difference isn’t that they’re separate styles as much as the renga being a haiku with a built-in response.

the other thing that tends to be overlooked in these poems is the assumption that they were composed as western poems were — by master poets secluded in candle-lit rooms and isolated forest clearings after serious contemplation. that’s not even close to the truth. while there were certainly poetry masters, poetry was an inherent part of traditional life in japan. people composed poetry (yes, even common people, though the poetry was less-refined) for all occasions. feeling lonely? write a poem. visiting a mountain? write a poem. meet someone for a date? write a poem. they were memory devices and reflections on culture. if you were an educated person, poetry was part of your life. if you weren’t, you probably wanted to be an poetry was part of your aspiration.

this isn’t even the most significant part of the history, though. these poems were typically written as parts of conversation. there wasn’t a sharp division between poetry and speech and writing in the prose sense. if you ever get a chance to read “the tale of genji”, for example, you will discover almost every new event is commemorated with poetry. and the author inserts literally hundreds in the story to communicate a moment or emotional shift. but this conversational nature of poetry is even more inherent in the more formal haiku/renga style. these are meant to be cyclic or at least paired.

we meet. i write you a poem. you write a response. now you write a poem and i write a response. we have composed poetry together. mine is inherently linked with yours. there are certainly poems that were written independently — and many where groups of poems were written by the same person rather than as part of a real conversation. but the important thing to remember is that these are meant to be interactive, not solitary works. they’re often not intended to stand alone. they participate in a cultural conversation even if they’re not explicitly part of direct interpersonal speech. every poem has the implication built-in that there are deeper meanings in certain words and concepts and that they will evoke memories of other poems and even other literary forms.

for example, in the poem we just saw, the frog is a symbol of love. anyone hearing basho’s original would understand he meant this. the pond is a symbol of purity. and waves are a traditional symbol of talking. these allusions would not have gone unnoticed by even the simplest and youngest of listeners. without them, the poem is a relatively-meaningless statement about an everyday event. with them, it is a commentary on the shocking nature of love and expectation and how deeply someone can be shifted but show only small ripples on the surface of daily life.

with that being said, how do you write a haiku?

well, the first thing you likely want to do is stop thinking of writing a haiku. what you want to do is write two. they are far easier to write as pairs. i suggest starting with the short version because it’s surprisingly difficult to write the longer ones until you get the hang of the images. but we’ll begin there — with images.

the haiku is not a story. it’s a single snapshot of a moment. we’ll write a few examples together. and work through them. let’s imagine i walk into the forest on the first day of spring and hear a bird singing. i am struck by how beautiful it is but how sad it sounds and wonder if they have lost their partner during the cold winter, either to the danger of the seasons or a hunter. i want to capture that in a poem…

snow disappears in song
yet sadness echoes against the leaves
this first day of spring

now i have a simple haiku but i haven’t said everything i want to say. but i have a whole second verse to write that will give my reaction to the first.

the frost of fallen wings
drips tears into each note
remembered with love

i have now completed the thought and expressed what i want to say about the birdsong and the bird’s lost partner.

perhaps i can go deeper than this in a few short lines, though. let’s take another example and see the images. i am sitting by a lake watching the leaves fall and realize it is echoing my mood. i feel like i am in the fall of my life, summer already ended and the winter of old-age coming all too quickly on the air. perhaps i can share this through a pair of poems. remember, it’s far easier once you have a clear idea of the image rather than diving in.

leaves lose their grip on reality
and drop intoxicated by a desire for depth
through the surface of the lake

water still soft with fall
i find myself on my knees
begging winter to wait

of course, these are purely for demonstrative purposes and you are welcome to take your own examples. let’s look at a way to plan for success writing haiku — the plan also works for renga.

first, think of a single snapshot of a moment. you’re not trying to tell a story, just describe a scene. this is traditionally a scene of seasonal beauty or love but you can realistically pick anything you like. a beautiful sunset, shocking storm, sudden sensation of loneliness, single word that made you feel angry. it all works but write what you are experiencing as an image.

second, think about what that snapshot means in a more objective, generalized way. write this, too. what will it mean when you look back on it tomorrow. is it still beautiful? shocking? meaningless?

third, write the description. begin with a statement (one or two lines) then react to it.

fourth, write a response. this is intended to be from a greater distance. what does it mean from the outside. you can think of the first poem being extremely subjective — your reaction in the moment. the second is an external perspective. not necessarily someone else’s but a more considered, less-emotional place. this doesn’t have to be how it’s written but it will give you a good starting place.

if you want to reach higher and write renga, this process gets a little longer but it’s the same idea. after you write your first statement and reaction, think more deeply. the next two statements should be reflections — one immediate response in a few words then a few words with more significance.

let’s take a look at an example.

a face shimmering in the distance
consumed by the beauty of a candle
yet unaware of the rain
water dancing between lines of smoke
incapable of breaking her concentration

this is in some ways a story but it happens in a moment, only a snapshot. you can imagine the rest of the story but it’s not actually happening in the poem, only implied. the writer sees a girl in the distance whose face is completely engaged looking into a candle and the rain having started is simply not something she has noticed. even splashing around the flame doesn’t seem to bother either the candle or her.

the reactions don’t have to be emotionally-deep or have significant meaning. the beauty of this poetry often comes from simple depictions of daily life using beautiful phrases and words. as you write haiku/renga, try to use words that sound good together. say your lines into the room and listen to how they echo, how they feel on your tongue. they shouldn’t feel forced or cumbersome. try to make each line feel like you can say it effortlessly while sighing.

this is only a very simple introduction, of course. but i think even now you will be prepared to write your own haiku. there is only one way to get better at this — as with all other things in life. do it many times. practice. write one then its pair. do it again. try the same theme a dozen times. or a hundred. you will perfect it if you keep at it.

i hope that’s been useful. may the muse within you tempt your tongue to speak beautiful verse. thanks for reading.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.