melodies. I will listen
and sing harmony.
When I was writing on the Simpsonian staff, my good friend and mentor wrote a daily haiku. I remember wishing I could do that. A year later, he became my classmate in my first college level poetry writing class. We exchanged poems outside of class and gave each other feedback over the course of the semester. For a while, I challenged myself to write a daily haiku as well. It seemed like a meaningful exercise, and I was excited at the thought of looking back after several months and recalling days based on the poetry I’d written to reflect them.
Haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poetic form. The entirety of the poem is contained by a total of 17 syllables, arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five, respectively. You probably know that. What you probably don’t know is that haiku is actually a segment of a Japanese form already in use. The term “haiku” is derived from the first part of “haikai” (a humorous form of renga, a linked-verse poem) and the second part of the word “hokku” (the first stanza of a renga).
The reason the haiku you may have written in school was about trees or flowers is not because your teacher was a romantic; the romantic theme is consistent with Japanese tradition. In a renga, the hokku served as exposition to the longer poem, often including details regarding setting. Haiku was not referred to as such until the 19th century, when it no longer served a purpose at the beginning of a poem but was recognized as its own form. Now, even the earlier form is referred to as haiku, giving it one of the longest histories of poetic forms.
This semester, my roommate is taking a course in Japanese culture and language, focused on gaining understanding of Japanese culture and how it relates to modern industry. We began discussing one of his assigned texts, The Japanese Mind, Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. He’d just read a chapter titled, “Aimai,” the Japanese word for ambiguity. The book cited haiku as one way in which ambiguity is embodied in Japanese culture. I borrowed the book for a weekend and was fascinated by what I found.
Aimai can be defined broadly as a situation in which there is more than one intended meaning. While the Japanese may not be conscious of its prominence in their culture, aimai is foundational to their verbal and physical communication. In fact, to express oneself ambiguously and indirectly is an expectation of Japanese culture. Some communication occurs without any verbal communication and, as a result, their words come to hold broader meaning.
The Japanese think that it is impolite to speak openly on the assumption that their partner knows nothing. They like and value aimai because they think that it is unnecessary to speak clearly as long as their partner is knowledgeable. To express oneself distinctly carries the assumption that one’s partner knows nothing, so clear expression can be considered impolite. (Morimoto quoted in The Japanese Mind, 22)
This aspect of Japanese culture is reflected in haiku. By limiting the syllables, poets are challenged to include as much detail as possible in a very small space, increasing the necessity for more versatile word choice and, ultimately, leaving much to the reader’s imagination.
I still write haiku from time to time. My girlfriend embarked on a photography project at the beginning of the year in which she illustrates one of my haiku every week using her Instax camera, thus reconnecting haiku with its introductory roots: using modern technology to create a multimedia experience of setting.
*Read The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Edited by Roger J. Davies, Osamu Ikeno. Tuttle Publishing: Singapore, 2002. See also, Morimoto, T. Nihongo omote to ura. [pretense and truth in the Japanese language]. Tokyo: Iwatanimishinsho.