Characteristics of English Haiku Poll Results

It’s high time we reviewed some of the lessons to be gleaned from our Essential Characteristics of English Haiku poll (see btm. rt. margin of top page, still open). Thank you very much to those of you who took the time to think and vote. In the spirit of discussion, I will try to pull together a few threads here, and then invite you all to add your own insights and conclusions.
Firstly, then, let me summarize the aggregated scores from the Hailstone Icebox site (260 votes ÷ 3 = 87 people) and those from the British Haiku Society Members’ Forum site (62 votes ÷ 3 = 21 people). 108 people (but I voted at both sites to start the ball rolling) = 107, mainly, one presumes, writers and readers of haiku in English. The second site and its polls are ‘members only’, but nonetheless I estimate that up to three other people probably voted at both sites. Shall we say a pool of 104 people, then, and a probable margin of error of 2 to 3 votes? The Icebox site has quite a number of bilingual Japanese contributors, but I know for sure that Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and poets from several other European countries (not just Britain and Ireland) have taken part. The BHS forum is mainly frequented by British poets; not exclusively, though. In sum, a good cross-section.
Each voter could only choose three characteristics (a couple of people only chose two). There were 23 (plus ‘Other’) essential characteristics (some technical, others spiritual) to choose from, although a few were fairly close to each other. To a certain extent the result was affected by which word the voter felt happiest with. Juxtaposition or Cut? (Not the same, but related.) But you wouldn’t choose both, surely! Moment or Present Tense? (Ditto.) Originality or Poetic Voice? Resonance or Open-endedness? Brevity or Omission? Later, I will clump a few of these together, but for now those individual characteristics coming in with the most votes were:
Brevity (30 votes), Originality (29), Resonance, Juxtaposition, and Real Experience (each 26), Seasonal Reference (24), Moment (23), Cut (21), and Open-endedness (18). 30/104=28.8% of people voted for Brevity, and 18/104=17.3% of people voted for Open-endedness. The other seven top characteristics each attracted between 20 and 28% of voters. There is a gap of a full seven votes to the next characteristic (Transience 11 votes). Sound, and Present Tense (both 10), and Omission, and Three Lines (both 9) were the next most popular. 5-7-5 garnered only 7 votes, the same as Intersection; Sensation got 6; Poetic Voice, 5; Lack of Poetic Voice, Lightness, Animism, and Humour, each just 3. Keyword got 2 votes, and, least popular of all as an essential characteristic, Zen, only 1. It was interesting, however, that all of the 23 characteristics got at least one vote! The fact that Other (unspecified characteristic) received 10 votes indicates, however, that my list of 23 was by no means exhaustive. It may have been a pretty good attempt, though.
The Japanese haiku has been traditionally defined in terms of its length (17 Japanese phonemes), its seasonal reference (kigo or kidai), and its cut (kire, out of which juxtaposition is often, but not always, born). Modern Japanese masters often have their own little sheaves of sacred characteristics they push. Kaneko Tota, for example, is beholden to a ‘trinity’, if I may call it that, of light-heartedness, fiction, and musicality.
OK, now let’s put some kindred characteristics together. It is first perhaps worth noting that form did not seem to be of special importance (Three lines and 5-7-5 together totalled only 16 votes). Much more popular were Juxtaposition and Cut (J&C total 47 votes), Resonance and Open-endedness (R&O 44), Brevity and Omission (B&O 39), Originality and Poetic Voice (O&P 34), and Moment and Present Tense (M&P 33). Between one-in-two and one-in-three people chose one of these popular aspects as ‘essential’. Only Real Experience (26 votes) and Seasonal Reference (24) come close to the importance we seem to feel for the above five broad criteria. J&C represents a Leap for the imagination; R&O, Space for our savouring; B&O, Concision; O&P means we reject the Formulaic approach; and M&P, that we value Immediacy. If we couple this Immediacy with the desire for Real (rather than imagined) Experience, one might even conclude that in English haiku in the early years of the 21st century, it is the authenticity of a real shared ‘moment’, and not just seasonal feeling, that we most want our contemporary haiku poets to offer. Anyway, 57% of our pollsters would agree!
Well, this is only a beginning. What do you conclude? Comments would be appreciated.

27 responses to “Characteristics of English Haiku Poll Results

  1. Fascinating stuff, and the conclusion of an authentic moment is worth pondering. I also found it striking how much haiku has become disassociated from Zen, to which at one time it was closely tied. Since there is a consensus that brevity is of the essence, I shall refrain from further comment but would like to finish with a vote of thanks for organising such an interesting exercise.

    • Your comment much appreciated, John. Yes, in the 50s and 60s, through the eyes of Blyth, Aitken, etc., haiku seemed like the very essence of Zen. I still have great respect for Blyth and his ‘attitude’, but haiku, for better or for worse, has become quite Westernized since then – and not just abroad, as one might expect, but here in Japan, too! Perhaps ‘Westernized’ is not the best word, but the influence of international travel, pop culture, the internet, surrealism, land art, global news coverage, etc. has influenced not only subject matter, but style of expression, too.

  2. Very nice contest, very interesting results. I am so glad so many readers participated. This shows, to me, that this site is well worth all the time and energy its organizers have put into it. Somehow, reading the results gave me inspiration, renewed energy. The natural love we all have for haiku shows thru when reading what Tito has given us. Many sincere thanks for that.

    frogs, sakura, moon
    what more do we need?
    haiku-love confirmation

  3. Innovative language usage that incorporates environmental changes in our landscapes whether they be animal, vegetable, or mineral. Raffael de Gruttola e.g.

    evening rush hour
    the moon
    just another headlight


    with broken teeth
    blues harmonica player


    no letter from you
    watching a mockingbird
    chase a butterfly

  4. In my view three characteristics of English haiku are
    freedom from kigo, more logos than pathos, and variety.

    • Thanks for this, Itsuyo. I presume these three are all ‘Other’ in the poll, i.e. these are categories that were not included. It makes me think that someone else should perhaps initiate a poll in which the characteristics are not stated at all, allowing people to define exactly as they please. That sort of poll would be more difficult to administer and its conclusions would be more debatable, but it would be interesting indeed.

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  6. I note that though Kaneko Tota, for instance, includes ‘musicality’ in his ‘trinity’ no such option was offered to respondants to the main poll.

    Good to see ‘Zen’ where it belongs. But perhaps I am not alone in hearing a sussuration of ‘haiku’ before that voiced ‘moment’.

    Good work. J

    • Thanks for this, John. ‘Sound’ was the category which included ‘musicality’ and got 10 votes.

  7. The poll confuses “essential” with “definitive” (not the same thing) and “desired” (which is not asked for but which in fact seems to be what the poll is about). The only characteristic on this list which could be seriously said to be “essential” is Brevity, and this only because once something stretches much beyond 3 lines we would look for a label other than “haiku” to put on it. Haiku is defined in practice as each new poem is written, it cannot be defined by any list of abstract qualities. And while it might be interesting to ask about “desired” characteristics, these will vary with each individual writer/reader and however much overlap there may be they cannot be elevated to “definitive” in any meaningful way. Can we not be open to new poems that cut across or even overturn our pre-defined lists of poetic desiderata? Isn’t surprise what it’s all about? And if we like it, how much does it matter whether we or anyone else would define it as haiku??

    • Well that’s a pretty Jesuitical distinction Martin – between ‘essential’ and ‘definitive’. You seem to be advancing the ‘its all relative’ argument mixed in with the ‘it’s haiku because I say it is’ position. To me this boils down to the proposition that words have no meaning.

      I would suggest rather than the meaning of a word is held in the net of shared associations that people ascribe to that word. Which is why this exercise is so valuable: it identifies at least some of the characteristics of that net.

      You ask: ‘if we like it, how much does it matter whether we or anyone else would define it as haiku’. It doesn’t matter a fig, unless the poem is advanced as a haiku in the first place.

      A last thought: I hope that ‘we’ includes the audience. Back in the day I was taught that a communication required both sender and receiver. I mention this because one loop in that net seems to be the belief that haiku is more about personal exegesis than the poet/reader relationship.

  8. Thanks for this view, Martin (salvaged from spam!). Semantic point taken about the use of the word ‘essential’ (OK, what to each seems essential – of the essence). We are certainly not trying to define haiku for others here, nor to arrive at a consensus. Over the decades, experience has taught… both are near impossible! Perhaps I should not have included Brevity and Originality, which are too obvious.
    The aim was only to highlight that English haiku at this juncture, for better or for worse, has developed somewhat different emphases from those traditional Japanese essentials led by season and form. Nobuyuki Yuasa, for one, is always saying that we might have veered too far away. Hailstone is based in Japan, and although I am a proponent of it, English haiku is often looked at as some almost mythical beast (it usually appears with three eyes, a trunk and wings). Basho said that “newness is the flower of haikai”. Is newness perhaps the essence of English haiku today?
    If you know what you like, it may not matter what others think, but I personally am finding it interesting. And your comments, too.

    • Reading Tito’s comment, a Chinese phrase 温故知新has come to my mind. It means adopting new ideas while preserving old ones. Perhaps this attitude may be a healthy one for English haiku, if it remains as haiku and not just the shortest form of English poetry. Looking at a hazy Mount Hiei from Iwakura,
      Itsuyo Higashinaka

      • Well said, Itsuyo! Yes, if we think of it as ‘haiku’ we do need to be aware of how we relate to the tradition and what we value in it; or, at least, of what we can successfully transpose of that tradition. How do you ‘say’ the Chinese phrase in Japanese, I wonder? Supply, if you can, the romaji, too.

  9. 温故知新 is read in Japanese ‘onko chishin’, and is a
    well-known four letter(character) phrase, which, however,
    is quite clean unlike some English four letter words.

  10. Thank you very much, Tito, for staging this interesting poll about English haiku. There is nothing startling about its result, but the poll was worth staging, and we must all learn from the discussion that follow. I am so glad that Martin Lucas and John Carley joined.
    There is one thing I should like to point out at the biginning, that is, if you put all the ‘essential’ characteristics together, you still do not have haiku. This is because haiku or indeed any other form poetry should not be dedfined by abstract qualities. In my view, haiku should be defined by tradition. The problem with English haiku is that its history is not long enough to form a tradtion. So you have differnt kind of spieces. Besides, modern age changes too quickly for a tradition to be formulated, which I regard as unfortunate. I think criticism always lags behind artistic creation. As Shelley said, poets should be regarded as the legislators, not critics. Will English haiku hearken back to the long-established tradition of Japanese haiku? I rather doubt it. I admit that there is a language barrier, but in adtion to that, English haiku poets seem to have a hidden desire to get away from the Japanese tradtion.
    Now I should like to comment on some of the characteristics. First, brevity. I think no one objects to this, but perhaps no one can agree how short an Englsih haiku should be. One line, three ines, or four lines? When I translated Bsho’s travel sketches, I used four lines as an expedience. Seamus Heany expressed his approval of my four lines on one occasion, but in writing my own haiku in English I use three lines and try to be as faithful as possilbe to the syllable scheme. Originality, real epxerience, and several other key words seem to be common to all poetry. Resonance and juxtaposition perhaps require some comment. In my view haiku rests on a subtle balance of these characteristics. If you put too much emphasis on resonance, your haiku might be too emotional. On the 0ther hand, if you put too much empoahsis on juxtaposition, your haiku might be too witty. On the whole, Englsih haiku tends to favour juxtaposition. Seasonal reference is alomst inevitalbe in Japanese haiku. This is because many Japanese haiku poets regard haiku as poetic description of nature. Again, it seems to me English haiku tend to focus on human affairs. Zen failed to get a large number of votes in the poll. With due repect to Blythe and others, I have aways thought that Zen is a periphery. Admittedly, many haiku poets (including Basho and Shiko) studied Zen. But the important point is that they did not become a preist. Read Basho’s ‘Record of Genjuan’, in which he says he wished for promotion in his service and wanted to become a Zen priest, but failing in these, he became a poet.
    I should like to comment on other characteristics, but I have run over both space and time. If I get a question or further comment, I shall do my best to explain. (Nobuyuki Yuasa)

  11. I’ve been reading these comments, and more or less biting my tongue for awhile. In all this, the question that begs to be answered is, if haiku doesn’t have kigo, or kireji what differentiates it from senryū? They are two similar, but distinct, forms. I feel that because haiku is rooted in Zen, there should be a Zen feel (whatever that might mean). It doesn’t imply that one must be a Buddhist to write haiku, I’m not, but that Zen is the essence and beauty of the form (to me at least.) Senryū is not inferior to haiku, and as such, they do not suffer by being called what they are.

    I think most agree writing poetry is a craft, like pottery making, etc. In haiku, lines need to be pinched, pulled, and shaped like clay. The finished product might be a piece of art, but the process is craft. The beauty of haiku is in the discipline; random length tercets should not automatically be assumed to be haiku regardless of what the author claims. If someone were to show you a poem that they call an English sonnet, but you found had random line lengths and rhyme patterns, would you agree it was a sonnet? Why should poems that ignore the “rules” still be called haiku?

    I think the utter “randomness” in contemporary English haiku is because most westerners are only familiar with haiku through translations, and the sad fact is that many of the translators don’t even speak Japanese, let alone read or write it (or at least type it.) I understand the argument that 音 (on) and syllables are not the same, but what I don’t understand is the giant leap in logic that says, because they are not the same, English language haiku length is a free-for-all. To paraphrase Robert Frost, writing free form haiku is like playing tennis without a net.

    • “because haiku is rooted in Zen”- I think Shiki would have been dismayed to discover that he had originated a Buddhist art form, David. And in so far as many trace the origins of haiku to the hokku of Basho: he died a broken man convinced that his personal vanity in obsessing about poetry had prevented him from achieving his metaphysical goals.

      It is certainly the case that a combination of imagism, evocation, incompleteness and brevity can cause a haiku to have a particular type of ‘moment’ but I believe to attribute this to a Zen is misdirected.

      I’m with you entirely on questions of form though. Whist it is written in a deliberately sardonic and contrarian way you might find the piece ‘supple stanzas’, which I posted the other day, interesting. You’ll find it on under the ‘aspects of prosody’ button.

      Best wishes, John

      • I don’t care to quibble, but it’s interesting to learn that haiku only “originated” some 120 years ago, when the great Shiki coined the term. You know full well that it has grown to include hokku.

        As far as, as many tracing “the origins of haiku to the hokku of Basho…” goes, the magazine Simply Haiku, which I believe you edit, wrote, “All of this was, of course, orchestrated by the spirit of poet-monk Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)” perhaps you might want to add your comment, “he died a broken man convinced that his personal vanity in obsessing about poetry had prevented him from achieving his metaphysical goals” to enlighten your readers.

        It’s sad to have an interesting discussion turn into a nitpicking game of semantics.

  12. Robert Wilson was, and remains, the editor of Simply Haiku, David – in both its earlier and present manifestations. I was renku editor between 2002 and 2005, or thereabouts.

    Best wishes, John

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  14. The last word has not yet been written… “core”… – John Stevenson from Live Again… Who knows where this will lead?

  15. It was interesting to follow the discussion between cdsinex and John Carley. I think they are both right and both wrong. It is true that the word haiku was invented by Shiki, but he did not really invent haiku itself. The word hokku means ‘the starting verse’. So it implies the existence of other verses to follow, but actually, long before the time of Shiki, hokku was treated half independently. There were many collections of hokku verses, quite similar to collections of haiku. Hokku is the only verse in in a chain of liked verses that is expected to have kireji (cutting word) and a seasonal reference. The rest of the verses in the chain are all hiraku (plain verses) which are expected to have no kireji and depeniding on thier positions, they are expected to be with or without a seasonal reference. Hokku and hiraku should be treated as belonging to separate categories. Some schalars say that haiku grew out of hokku, and senryu grew out of hiraku, but I am not quite sure about this. If you read pre-Basho renga, a lot of hokku verses sound like senryu, provoking laughter and iconoclstic pleasures. What is important, I think, is to remember that the haiku tradition was started as a revolt against the genteel tradition of waka (courtly verse) and that it was supported by merchants and famers till Basho tried to save it from vulgarity. Zen comes into the scene at this point, I think, but Basho, Buson, Issa were aware that they did not belong entirely to the Zen tradition. They were dressed like monks, but they were really monks manque. One final comment about John Carley’s statement that Basho died a boken man. It is true in a way. His last verse about his dreams revolving in the moor does not suggest a happy end. But who does not really die a broken man? His last poem is not an expression of unhappiness. I think we can take it as an honest statement, almost Zen-like in its starkness. (Nobuyuki Yuasa)

  16. fascinating reading.. but when all is said and done, the Haiku is about simplicity and the moment….. (though the simplicity may be complicated!!)
    Cutting words/season and a few other rules are taken, but then the rest comes from silence.
    Whether a Haiku comes out as a ‘Satori moment ‘ for the writer and then the reader can’t be planned, or depend on one’s knowledge of the history of Japan, or even of the masters.
    Jann Wirtz

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