Finding peace and pleasure in ‘Haiku Moments’

By David Shumway

He thought this may be just another season of discontent with continuing world problems. But he found something that may interest some of us during our long unsettling seasons, something that may make the bleakness a little brighter. But with all the turmoil in the world and problems in our lives, why would anyone be interested in … wait for it … poetry?

It’s because of the stress of our lives that he thought a particular form of very short poetry, haiku, bears at least a bit of attention. The intent of haiku is to capture those fleeting moments when ironic, pleasing, sometimes humorous observations jump into our otherwise-preoccupied consciousness … what are sometimes called “haiku moments.”

All poetry depends on the conveyance of feelings and impressions. The more he studied poetry the more he realized that less is more, that impressions are best stated by a removal of superfluous words, leaving, well, the impression. The Japanese poets knew this centuries ago … indeed, the beauty of Japanese art is in its simplicity. And pure haiku is a beautiful sensory Japanese poetical form.

On investigating, he learned that with haiku the feeling is conveyed not by describing it, but by suggesting what gave rise to it, a recognition of the beauty and significance of simple common everyday things amid whatever turmoil we may be experiencing.

It’s even thought that haiku is merely the result of something greater; the experience is profound and the haiku merely an expressed manifestation. “But that’s getting a bit esoteric,” he thought, “Maybe let’s just leap to the haiku and maybe later we can experience the epiphany.”

He realized a haiku moment could certainly be expressed as a lengthier poem or as prose, but by expanding a haiku we would lose the beauty as well as the effectiveness of the haiku form, which is an essential part of what is being related. That is, the special moment that the author is trying to instill would certainly be lost among all those words. The reader might understand, but certainly not feel.

When he started he thought that haiku had to be in the traditional three-line 5-7-5-syllable form, and that any three-line 5-7-5-syllable poem was a haiku. He was wrong on both counts. There’s a lot more to them than just the 5-7-5-syllable format. In fact, since the 5-7-5 format refers to Japanese “syllables” (or really onji, or character-sounds), haiku in English usually is less than 17 syllables.

Haiku, of course, work best in Japanese. Unfortunately most of us don’t know Japanese, so “haiku-in-English” has become an acceptable genre (at least to him). Most of us can only read the great Japanese haiku in translations, which do not do them justice.

He quickly discovered that there are several characteristics of haiku, at least haiku-in-English, that are much more important than the syllabic count. Most important to him came to be juxtaposition. All haiku must contain a “cut” or cutting word (in Japanese: kireji). It causes the reader to pause, envisage what’s been said so far, and anticipate the ending. In Japanese it’s done with characters which are included in the 5-7-5 onji count. English has no equivalent, so translations of Japanese and haiku-in-English use punctuation for such cuts, like a dash or dots. A couple examples by a not-at-all famous writer:

my glasses

on the windowsill —

looking out


rusty mailbox

hanging open …

credit card applications

By whatever means, the cut introduces the juxtaposition of two parts of the observation which inspired the haiku. This sometimes results in (frequently amusing) irony, comparing the natural world to the human condition or ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects (like glasses on the windowsill), separated by a cut.

Another important characteristic (at least to him) is best expressed as what haiku is not. Philosophy, generalizations, and opinions are not haiku. Similes, usually using the word “like,” just add extra words and weaken the juxtaposition. And of course, as mentioned, haiku can’t be past tense by definition, because they are the epitome of present tense … that very short enjoyable present, unadulterated by any past concerns or worries about the future. A haiku is abrupt, almost startling, allowing us to re-live the haiku moment. He began to think of it as a single breath, a few seconds, the elusive “now” as opposed to the near past or near future. Just as the observation is usually a flash of insight, the reading should also take only that single breath.

There are other characteristics of pure Japanese haiku, like the use of “season words.” Not necessarily “spring” or “winter,” but words connoting something seasonal. But never forced; they find themselves inserted almost naturally as we experience the natural world cycling through its seasons.

As mentioned, the English version is also usually shorter and much more flexible. Leaving alone the beauty and purity of the Japanese form, he happily discovered that this flexibility in English allows more of us to participate. Unless we are a Japanese master, struggling to fit the form would only inhibit the impression and damage the expression.

Because haiku usually invoke nature, relating the natural world to the human condition, we might expect that urban or city dwellers would be more challenged to write it. However, perhaps the relative lack of “nature” is fertile ground for observations, juxtaposition, and irony. (Think “A tree grows in Brooklyn,” or a vacant lot vegetable garden in a blighted neighborhood, or the trees of Central Park against high-rises, or even a dandelion forcing its way trough a sidewalk crack.)

Though small and fleeting, these images are not trivial, and there is satisfaction and contentment in recognizing and recording them. He isn’t a psychologist; he’s not even a poet … but it works for him.

A few examples by an anonymous writer following the Japanese haiku 5-7-5 syllable format:

“A hot tea morning

and an iced tea afternoon …

season is changing”

“Its petals fallen;

no longer begs attention …

now its work begins.”

“Cruise ship, huge at dock,

small in the ocean vastness …

a child’s bathtub toy.”

So let’s try some, or at least be receptive to them. If our concerns can be laid aside for awhile we may find ourselves in a “haiku moment,” and inevitably smile at the irony of the insight.

By David Shumway

David Shumway is a local resident and columnist.

David Shumway is a local resident and columnist.