This article was originally supposed to be an opinion piece about the enforcement of the 5-7-5 syllable rule for haiku, but rather than creating drama, I decided to just publish this lovely interview with South Jersey poet, Michelle Tennison. Michelle is a friend of my father, who is also a published haiku poet.
The following interview occurred over email on April 14, 2017:
Below I have shared some answers to your questions. For the inquiry regarding how my poetry has changed over time I referenced my response to a similar question on The Haiku Foundation website.
Thank you for getting me thinking about haiku today. I enjoyed the exchange, and hope it was helpful to you and your project.
How long have you been writing haiku?
I began the study and practice of haiku in the year 2000.
How has your poetry changed with time?
The writing itself has changed, as modern and contemporary Japanese haiku in translation and experimental haiku in English have broadened my scope of what haiku can be. In terms of technique, I am, as are many, experimenting with variations of the traditional form and language of haiku, including one-line and/or one image haiku. I am also increasingly comfortable with ambiguity, (even to the point of surrealism), and I have a greater appreciation of the role of symbolism in haiku. Perhaps most significantly, I have shifted away from the early haiku ideal of objective realism and many of my haiku are no longer written out-in-the field, so to speak. I have directed renewed attention toward inner landscapes of experience. Many of my more recent haiku have developed directly or indirectly through heart-centered / consciousness-shifting avenues such as meditation and breath work and other practices that encourage non-ordinary, non-egoic (transpersonal) perception. Due in part to the work of Richard Gilbert, I now recognize haiku as poems of consciousness.
(With reference to Richard Gilbert’s recent books of haiku criticism and commentary, Poems of Consciousness, 2009, and The Disjunctive Dragonfly, 2013, both with Red Moon Press).
What’s your opinion about the “5-7-5” rule?
Interestingly, haiku in Japan are written in one vertical line.
Haiku in English have essentially done away with syllable counting. Brevity is the point here. 5/7/5 is an inaccurate representation of the Japanese form when it is being translated into English. The Japanese syllable is not actually a syllable as we think of it, but rather more of a “sound,” and English syllables can be measurably longer. In addition, the Japanese 5/7/5 tradition includes counting of linguistic devices that we do not have in English, such as kireji or “cutting words” and words that function in place of punctuation. So, although it was helpful and perhaps necessary for those in the West to conceive of haiku in the 5/7/5 format when it was originally brought to us about 100 years ago, we now understand that this is at best a starting point for our introduction to what was at the time a very foreign and somewhat mysterious art form. Haiku in English, were we to compare stylistically to the Japanese, should be shorter than this. If there is need for a measuring stick, seventeen syllables or less as a rule, and more like 13 syllables or 9 English words. I have found a helpful measure to be that of the length of single breath. This gives more of a sense of the spirit of haiku, which for me is primary and transcends any need to focus on syllables.
Should institutions enforce this format? (referring to 5-7-5)
Although this form plays an important role within a historical perspective, haiku in 5/7/5 style in English are rare today due the reasons stated above, as well as the fact that they tend to call attention to themselves in their verbosity. They often feel contrived or padded to fit the form. Haiku need to read naturally. This is a primary feature of the genre, and the early 5/7/5 conception tends to get in the way of that.
In the West, we often to need something to hold onto, and in that sense this form served a purpose in allowing us an entry point into an otherwise very esoteric and foreign style of poetry. Haiku now tend to be very organic to their subject matter, eschewing line or syllable rules in favor of authenticity and imagistic effect. Haiku in one line are quite common, and we see haiku in two lines, four, five, and more, all while adhering to the sense of brevity that is integral to the genre.
So, I would say that any enforcement of this 5/7/5 rule for haiku in English would be both incorrect and very limiting in respect to the multitude of styles and forms we now recognize as authentic haiku in English. Even a brief review of contemporary journals or anthologies will quickly illustrate this fact.
Finally, what does haiku mean to you personally?
I have come to believe, based on experience, that there are hidden dimensions of experience within this one and that haiku illuminate an animating spirit within the phenomenal world. We can experience glimpses of this potential when we shift perspective through modes such as meditation, sound work, breath work, anything that raises our frequency and shifts our intention and stance to heart-centeredness. It is possible to know a bit of this “Heaven” right here and now.
I believe haiku is a both a path and a destination regarding this other potential and that it allows us to reclaim some of the mystery and magic that was natural to us as children, and to reorient ourselves in the larger sphere of our existence, our home within the communicating, intelligent multiverse that exists just outside of ordinary consciousness.
What happens when we join the space of mind with the heart space, where love is primary, communion is possible and natural, where everything is communicating all the time? It is a space of joy. It is coming home. The attitudes of mind that encourage authentic haiku are the same that open the heart – love, empathy, compassion, non-judgment, grateful acceptance, humor.
When the heart is fully online it produces an electromagnetic field 5,000 times stronger than the brain’s and can be detected by sensitive scientific instruments up to 10 feet away.
The heart entrains with other electromagnetic fields it encounters, and there is a rapid exchange of information.
What people perceive when they live from the heart is quite different from what they perceive when they live in the head. In coherence, a whole new world opens, and things not normally perceived become commonplace . . . a rapid download of information between organisms happens naturally.
This is the doorway to who we are within a much larger context than we are normally accustomed to, and to who we likely have always been but have simply forgotten.
And it became clear to me over time that, along with those listed above, the singular attitude of heart that is most essential to haiku, and the one that is perhaps most difficult for individuals in the West to attain, is simply, and beautifully this: Humility.
Haiku, if done well, teaches humility. I don’t believe you can be a successful haiku poet without it, and you certainly can’t access the realms of the heart without it. Haiku requires a non-egoic perception of the ‘ordinary world’ to perceive its depth. The how of haiku, remembering our oneness, remembering our hearts, requires a stance of humility, and this is the stance that changes everything. There is a “breakthrough threshold” in haiku that occurs when we see the world as it is – not as we are – when suddenly we’re are not experiencing our preconceptions or projections but are becoming informed by the inherent wisdom of what we are observing. Nature is making this offering always. The first step is recognizing that there is something there worth seeing, worth listening to. We must adjust our stance to that of at least an equal with our subject, and most ideally to that of student. A student of the pine tree. A student of the marshes, or the valleys, or the blackberry bush. Haiku that are deeply resonant and successful begin with humility, the open stance of receptivity and all it teaches. It seems to me that this is one of the most essential gifts that we as a species can aspire to – and the one that holds most promise for healing the rift between ourselves and the environment. In this sense, haiku is a source of great hope.
(Note: The above passages in italics are taken from the magazine article The Heart as an Organ of Perception, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, in the March/April 2006 issue of Spirituality and Health