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Feature: Jim Kacian: A Haiku Primer


freshly fallen snow–
opening a new package
of typing paper
                ~ nick avis

It has happened to all of us: in the course of our ordinary day, doing something we have done a hundred times before, we are arrested by something we see, or smell, or feel. For whatever reason, this time it strikes us in a way that it has never done before, and yet it seems as if we have always known it to be this way. It may be deep, it may be transitory, but regardless, we are changed: we can never feel the same about this experience again. We have had a moment of insight, a seeing deeper into the workings of the world.

Sometimes these moments are private in nature, springing from deep within us, and so might resist our attempts to verbalize them. But often they are so persuasive, so attractive, that we want to share them, and so we do our utmost to find a way to make them communicable. When we make this attempt, we enter the realm of poetry; and the poetic form we most often find meets our needs in such a situation is haiku.

Haiku have been around for hundreds of years, and, like other poetic forms, have been written for contests and greeting cards, parties and recreation, therapy and instruction; they have been floated down streams, hung from trees, and sung. From the beginning, however, the primary reasons for writing haiku have been to record our insights about the world, and to communicate them to others.

These reasons suggest that haiku take for granted a common ground, a tacit agreement between poet and reader that there is a real world out there, and that we share it. Haiku generally are not about exotic locales and unusual circumstances: haiku are the records of revelations we have about our ordinary lives. All poems, like prose, record information about our universe and ourselves. But poems are concerned with more than just information: they contain ways of linking this information together within the poem, and also to other poems, other stories, other ways of knowing which help us to understand more deeply, more broadly, and with more integration.

The more a poem compels us to imagine its reality, the more we may fill in gaps our personal experiences have not brought us directly. A poem can be as full and evocative as the direct experience, and often is the only kind of experience we might have concerning persons, places or things outside our normal lives.

Haiku have long exploited this truth. Typically, a poet who chooses haiku to express his moment strives to place his reader directly at the scene, not so that he may tell of the experience, but so that the reader may experience it directly for himself. The attentive reader will find all the input to recreate the moment–a setting, the conditions of the moment, the senses fired, the action, the entire packet of information–so that, through the act of close imagining, the reader may actually relive the moment, and arrive at the realization himself. The poet’s reality is mapped onto the reader’s, like an overlay, and when there is a sufficient overlap, the experience is shared.

Haiku is a poetic form, and does hold some things in common with other poetry. However, it has developed, over its 400 and more years of practice, techniques specific to itself, a sense of how language best works within it, and several theories of poetics. We will examine these elements which make haiku unique among all the poetic forms of the world.

But haiku is changing, too, and what has characterized it in classical times in the country of its origins, Japan, is not necessarily what has been preserved or considered most valuable in its adoption by the west. So we will also want to acquire an understanding of what haiku has been, but also what it is becoming, and what it might look like in the future as it is shaped to meet the needs of people whose realities must be very different from agricultural, feudal Japan.

And it is this flexibility, this ability to be shaped to the needs of its practitioners which will determine how well haiku fares in the future, and for how long. Just now it appears to be thriving in its many adopted lands around the globe. It has adapted to a variety of languages, cultures and circumstances, and appears to have gained energy from these transformations. Haiku, it would appear, has not only a wonderful classical history, but an adventurous future before it.

So what is this form, practiced for hundreds of years, and giving promise of hundreds more, in dozens of lands and languages around the world? One of the greatest of haiku masters, Basho, the son of a samurai and a wandering poet, once said it this way: haiku is what is happening, right here, right now.

Go to Chapter 1: What is a Haiku?

© 2019, all rights to all sections of this essay are reserved by Jim Kacian.

Jim Kacian is founder and president of The Haiku Foundation; owner of Red Moon Press; and editor-in-chief of Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W.W.Norton, 2013). He is the founder and is the general editor of Contemporary Haibun. He's also the founder of Contemporary Haibun Online and was its general editor until Bob Lucky stepped into the role.

A Draft of "A Haiku Primer" was first published in f/k/a: archives real opinions & real haiku,