HAIKU SOCIETY OF AMERICA, Inc.
Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms
Background. In January 1973, a Haiku Society of America Definitions Committee consisting of Harold G. Henderson, William J. Higginson, and Anita Virgil completed its work. The results, approved by the Society, were the Society's official definitions of haiku, hokku, senryu, and haikai intended to provide the publishers of dictionaries and other reference works with definitions that the Society felt better reflected actual, informed usage of these terms at that time.
In March 1993, because the knowledge of Japanese haiku and related writings and their practice in English had grown substantially, HSA President Francine Porad formed a Definitions Committee consisting of Naomi Y. Brown, Lee Gurga, William J. Higginson (chair), and Paul O. Williams, with the active participation of President Porad. In addition, Anita Virgil was consulted [she declined to participate, stating that she saw no need to revise the 1973 definitions]. Renku and haibun were added to the list. The committee produced a draft that was circulated to the members by mail in December of 1993, but no further action was taken at that time, the Society and committee members being caught up in other business.
In 2003, HSA president Stanford M. Forrester reactivated the committee, consisting of Brown, Gurga, and Higginson. In November 2003, a web page accessible only to members was made available, and a notice in the printed Newsletter of the Society invited members to send for a printed copy of the draft definitions. Several members corresponded with the committee, and their information was included in committee deliberations. The committee further revised the 1993 draft, giving particular attention to separating definitions from additional information in notes and refining both. This final report concludes the work of the new definitions committee.
Preliminary Notes: All of these words originate in the Japanese language, where they refer to types of Japanese literature. These definitions, however, are intended for people reading and writing in English. Like the members of the earlier definitions committee, we hope the results of our efforts are faithful to the spirit of these words' Japanese origins and provide insight into contemporary English-language usage and practice. As in Japanese, the defined word is its own plural. We considered adding "tanka" in 1993, but have decided to leave that in the hands of the Tanka Society of America, which can be found on the Web at <http://tankasocietyofamerica.org/>.
In 1973 the Haiku Society of America was the only substantial non-Japanese haiku organization, and virtually all public statements about haiku in English were made in the pages of a few books and low-circulation magazines. Now many local, national, and international haiku organizations, as well as individuals, have taken up such definitional matters, often posting the results of their deliberations on the Internet or in more widely circulated magazines, providing poets with a new, globally collaborative enterprise. We have taken much of this recent international discussion into account in our own deliberations, and we salute all who struggle with us in similar efforts. Accordingly, we see the Society now in the position of joining a chorus of efforts to understand and define "haiku" and related terms for a much wider audience than existed for such efforts 30 years ago.
The committee also notes that a definition is neither a lesson nor instruction for writing. Rather, it seeks to clarify the differences between the meaning of one word and the meanings of others. Those who wish to learn more of haiku must read the best haiku they can find, not merely definitions of haiku. The same for the other types of poems defined here. The numerous "Haiku Collections" on the HSA Web site, at https://www.hsa-haiku.org/haikucollections.htm, are a good place to start.
We have attempted to provide a succinct, yet accurate definition for the core meaning of each of these terms, followed by notes that contribute to a more rounded understanding of each. To complete the record, an appendix with the earlier definitions of 1973 follows the body of our report.
Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.
Notes: Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen "sounds" (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) Traditional Japanese haiku include a "season word" (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a "cutting word" (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called "deep metaphor" or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition. Various kinds of "pseudohaiku" have also arisen in recent years; see the Notes to "senryu", below, for a brief discussion.)
Definition: A hokku is the first stanza of a linked-verse poem.
Definition: A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.
Notes: A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break. Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also "borderline haiku/senryu", which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them.
Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all. See "haiku."
Pronunciation Note: In Japanese, the word "senryu" sounds like the English phrase "send you" with a Spanish flipped-r in place of the d. For those unfamiliar with this sound, a three-syllable word, "sen-ri-you" may be substituted in English, with the medial "i" sound as diminished as possible.
Definition: "Haikai" is short for haikai no renga, the popular style of Japanese linked verse originating in the sixteenth century, as opposed to the earlier aristocratic renga. In both Japanese and English, the word haikai can also refer to all haiku-related literature (haiku, renku, senryu, haibun, the diaries and travel writings of haiku poets).
Notes: In the first half of the twentieth century the word "haikai" was used in French and Spanish for what is now usually called "haiku" worldwide. But note the use of the similarly pronounced jaicai in Portuguese to refer to both haiku and all the elements of the definition of "haikai" above. See "renku."
Definition: A renku is a linked-verse poem in the popular haikai style, particularly as practiced by Bashô and later poets writing in his style.
Notes: In Japanese, "renku" is a modern equivalent for haikai no renga. Usually written by two or more people, a renku's most important features are linking and shifting. "The best English approximation of the verse-rhythm of Japanese renku seems to be a poem . . . beginning with a three-line stanza, followed by a two-line stanza, and alternating three- and two-line stanzas thereafter. This parallels the gentle longer/shorter/longer rhythms basic to renku in Japanese . . . ." Typical renku consist of eighteen, twenty, thirty-six, or more of these alternating stanzas, though even shorter forms have been popular in recent decades. "Note that the starting verse of a renku is what evolved into the 'haiku' as we know it, with its emphasis on the here and now. The remaining stanzas . . . should connect well with their preceding stanzas and provide opportunity for movement in a new direction for those following. . . . A major point of renku writing is to move forward, from stanza to stanza, through a great variety of time, weather, environment, activity, fauna, and flora. . . . Stanzas focused on human activities and concerns should be balanced throughout with stanzas concentrating on landscapes, animal and plant life, and other subject matter." (Quoted material from the "Report of the HSA Renku Contest Committee", published in Frogpond XIII:2, May 1990, which contains more detailed guidelines for traditional-style renku and a bibliography of materials on the subject.)
Definition: A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.
Notes: Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse. Japanese haibun apparently developed from brief prefatory notes occasionally written to introduce individual haiku, but soon grew into a distinct genre. The word "haibun" is sometimes applied to longer works, such as the memoirs, diaries, or travel writings of haiku poets, though technically they are parts of the separate and much older genres of journal and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun). See "haiku."
By submitting this report, we request that the foregoing definitions be adopted by the Haiku Society of American, Inc., and be widely disseminated as the official definitions of the Society.
Naomi Y. Brown
Notice: The foregoing report was submitted to the membership of the Haiku Society of America at its Annual Meeting of 18 September 2004 in New York City and accepted on a show of hands of the members attending.
Karen Klein, Secretary