When most Americans think haiku, they think of the sort of verse that goes like this: three lines of 5/7/5 syllables, perhaps with a bit of humor to it. And since that's what people expect, it's probably what I should write.
The 5/7/5 syllables idea is based on a misunderstanding of how Japanese verse really works. The phonetic units in Japanese — they're not syllables — don't have an equivalence in English. Syllables are an apples to oranges approximation, since the English language's syllables can be many different lengths.
The net effect is that 5/7/5 syllables in English yields a considerably more expansive verse than Japanese haiku, which is remarkable in its economy of thought and imagery.
Most Western poetry compares concrete things to abstract things. When we say "poetic language," we mean flowery, adjective-laden literature, rich in simile and metaphor. These properties are absent in Japanese haiku, which is spartan and objective.
It leaves the "poetry" in the mind of the reader or hearer, focusing instead on concrete imagery. The idea is to convey the moment — experience and sensation. It's an extension of Zen. Zen means both attaining wisdom through action, and doing the right thing.
Japanese haiku also has a structure absent in its popular American version. A haiku has two parts — setting and some sort of action. We use punctuation to differentiate these two parts; the Japanese use something called a "cutting word."
Classical Japanese haiku is closely related to season. It will contain a "season" word to place it within context, and there are enormous collections of appropriate these words.
Finally, Japanese haiku isn't usually funny. That's reserved for another form, senryu.
This post is part of a group's initiative. Twenty of us, starting with Aaron Strout and in an alphabetical chain that has me linking to Greg Matthews, are writing about a recent brand experience using haiku as our form. I wanted the haiku itself to make sense to you within the context of its form. Hence this post that wraps it.
In the composition of my verse you will see at the end, I discarded the 5/7/5 rule, opting instead for a metric verse, 3/5/3. Which would be horribly restrictive in English, if it wasn't for a fair compromise — what we call "significant words."
These are everything other than articles and prepositions. An English haiku might be 2/3/2 significant words. The two halves will be split by strong punctuation, such as a double dash or semicolon.
To illustrate, here's my brand haiku dedicated to a company that by its way of looking at the world, shows it's listening up:
"Random leaf" is the setting, and also the reference to the season. There is no explicit poetry in this verse, which happens to satisfy the 2/3/2 essential word form. There is a leaf in the design, and there is a design experience with the brand which is a closed system. Everything is concrete.
The setting is always related in some way to the action. The system is closed, and that is the experience you get. You know it. Yet, within it, there is a voice, a surprise. Steve Jobs has now become known for responding to random emails about Apple. Absolute objectivity.
And yet … I am saying much more than is written. How many CEOs do you know who answer customer emails personally?
It's possible to draw more from this haiku, but I'm sure you get the general idea. Haiku is very deliberate, in contrast to its apparent simplicity. It is designed to evoke rich sensations, which — in turn — summon emotion. It's a way of looking at the world.
[haiku education, hat tip Chris Baskind]