Joan Giroux's The Haiku Form


Joan Giroux introduces the haiku poetic form that developed in Japan through cultural influences, particularly the poetry of China and the philosophy of Zen. and the Zen Culture that influenced it. The book's descriptions are well-illustrated by sample haiku from Japanese leaders. Some weaker Western haiku serve as teaching moments. readers may find helpful.


1. The Meaning of Haiku
2. Introduction to Zen and Japanese Culture
3. The Haiku Moment
4. The Three-Line Form
5. The Season Word
6. Haiku Technique

The book closes with Notes, an Annotated Bibliography, and an Index.

1. The Meaning of Haiku

The history of haiku includes the forebear Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) and his shofu style of haikai, whose "fundamental tenet" is the "belief that nature is the realm par excellence of poetry". Taniguchi (or Yosano) Buson (1715-1783) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) are also introduced with illustrative examples of their poems. More modern poets include Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Ogiwara Seisensui (b. 1884), the latter using a "freer verse style".

The great appeal of haiku poems seems to result mainly from two qualities: their dependence on the reader's power of awareness, bringing him closer to simple, elemental truths; and their capacity to grow in meaning as they are read and reread. [p.15]

Karai Senryu (1718-1790) introduced the senryu, a poem with the same tradition of 5-7-5 Japanese sound pattern, but which is a:

mock haiku ... allows greater liberty of diction including the use of vulgarisms; it also permits more obvious humour, moralizing, and philosophical comment ... it expresses the incongruity of things. [p.22]

For the haiku:

The season word adds a whole atmosphere to the poem, thus permitting brevity without loss of significance. The reason d'être, the whole purpose of the poem, is to express the poet's union with nature, his flash of intuition concerning the objects which his senses perceive. [p.23]

2. Introduction to Zen and Japanese Culture

This section traces:

Behind the deceptively simple haiku lies the long history of an important line of Zen thought. Zen illuminates the thought of Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and others and provides the essential key to the meaning of many haiku. [p.44]

3. The Haiku Moment

The satori of Zen is analogous to what Kenneth Yasuda calls the haiku moment ... [which] is the heart of haiku and its source ... directness is linked with paradox, austerity with joy, love of nature with love of the ordinary. The avoidance of comment and clutter is common to all these qualities. [p.45]

However, while "the very words of the haiku are found during the instant of the haiku moment", yet "a certain amount of polishing is done afterwards", but carefully to avoid loss of "freshness and sincerity" [p.47].

Regarding directness:

The things of nature are not symbols of something else. ... They may become symbols in their resonance but only mediately, not immediately. Similarly, simile and metaphor are frowned upon in haiku as being efforts at cleverness. Directness, it cannot be repeated often enough, tends to prohibit cleverness and false intuition. [p.51]

4. The Three-Line Form

The three-line form ... will be investigated here under three headings: the 17 syllables, the 5-7-5 arrangement and the methods of achieving brevity and concision. ... In this study of technique, the criterion of judgment will be the suitability of form to expression. [p.75]

The 17 syllables:

Japanese is spoken much more quickly than English, averaging 310 syllables a minute to the English 220 [p.78, citing Mario Pei].
Whereas the average Japanese haiku contains only 5 or 6 words, the average English haiku runs to 12 or 13, omitting articles. [p.79]
Writers of English haiku would do well to keep in mind the extreme brevity of the Japanese form. In view of this, it is suggested that at least English consonant clusters and long accented vowels be counted as 2 syllables. Punctuation, if any, should also be included in the syllable count. If the English long vowels and slowing consonants, such as pl and ow in 'plow,' were counted as 2 syllables each, as they are in Japanese, there could be little doubt that 17 syllables is the best length for English haiku. [p.80-81]

The 5-7-5 arrangement:

The arrangement of the 17 syllables into three lines in the 5-7-5 pattern gives proportion and symmetry ... usually three elements in any haiku, ... telling the where, the when and the what of the haiku moment. [p.81].

Regarding brevity:

Brevity in haiku depends upon three things: the structure of the language, the poem's confinement to a moment and the place of haiku in a continuing poetic tradition. [p.83].

5. The Season Word

A brief reference, direct or indirect, to one of the seasons is an old tradition in Japanese poetry ... the poems collected in the Manyoshu (eighth century) are not classified according to season. The seasonal division of poems was made in 905 for the first time in the Kokinshu anthology. [p.94-95].

Meaning and use of the season word:

The season word provides a brief reference to the time of the year and suggests a whole background of imagery which greatly broadens the scope of the poem. .. The season word may be one of two important elements in a good haiku, which usually requires the juxtapostion of two concepts. [p.97].

This section also discusses:

It concludes with examples of death poems.

6. Haiku Technique

This section discusses:


This section summarizes conclusions from the book and then warns against three areas of failure in many English-language haiku:

Other Books on Haiku.

Buy Essential Haiku The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa edited by Robert Hass: The past-poet laureate of the U.S.A presents the lives, the prose, and 300 of the poems of three masters and inventors of the haiku tradition in Japan.
Buy Haiku Seasons The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World by William J. Higginson.
Buy Haiku World Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson, Meagan Calogeras (Editor)
Buy Japanese Haiku The Japanese Haiku, by Kenneth Yasuda.
Buy Haiku Handbook Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson, William S. Higginson.

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