Haiku Society of America Definitions

Haiku Society of America

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Definitions of Haiku & Related Terms

Report of the Definitions Committee
September 18, 2004

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. (See the 1973 definitions.) 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.

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HAIKU 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.

Discussion 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.)

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HOKKU definition

A hokku is the first stanza of a linked-verse poem.

Discussion notes:  Formerly, "hokku" in both Japanese and English referred to what we now call "haiku", but this usage is now generally obsolete in both languages. See "haiku." See "haikai" and "renku."

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Senryu definition

A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.

Discussion 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.

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HAIKAI 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).

Discussion 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."

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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.

Discussion 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.)

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HAIBUN 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.

Discussion 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."

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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.

Respectfully submitted,

Naomi Y. Brown
Lee Gurga
William J. Higginson (chair)

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
Haiku Society of America, Inc.

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Previous 1973 definitions


Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms
[January 1973, incorporating changes adopted in 1976]

[As sent to the publishers of dictionary and reference works, excerpted]:

In those unabridged English dictionaries where the words haiku, haikai, and hokku have been listed, not one of the definitions given has been wholly accurate or even passably satisfactory. . .

The definition of haiku has been made more difficult by the fact that many uninformed persons have considered it to be a "form" like a sonnet or triolet (17 syllables divided 5, 7, and 5). That it is not simply a "form" is amply demonstrated by the fact that the Japanese differentiate haiku from senryu──a type of verse (or poem) that has exactly the same "form" as haiku but differs in content from it. Actually, there is no rigid "form" for Japanese haiku. Seventeen Japanese onji (sound-symbols)* is the norm, but some 5% of "classical" haiku depart from it, and so do a still greater percentage of "modern" Japanese haiku. To the Japanese and to American haiku poets, it is the content and not the form alone that makes a haiku.

Hence, we present for your consideration the following proposed definitions for haiku and related words: haikai, hokku, and senryu. (The latter, though its use is as yet less widespread than that of haiku, is rapidly coming into the English language.)


Harold G. Henderson
Honorary President
William J. Higginson
Anita Virgil
Committee on  Definitions

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1. Though it was our original intention to confine ourselves to the discussion of haiku, we found it impossible to do this adequately without also covering the terms haikai, hokku, and senryu. By use of cross-referencing, we hope that we have been able to present a clear picture of the meaning of haiku in the briefest manner possible.

2. The Japanese word onji (sound-symbol) has been mistranslated into English as "syllable" for many years. However, in most Japanese poetry the onji does not correspond to the Western notion of syllable. For example, while each of the entry words is reckoned as two syllables in English, "hokku" and "haiku" are each counted as three onji, while "haikai" and "senryu" each have four onji. On the other hand, where each Japanese onji is equal and brief as "do, re, mi, etc.," English single syllables can vary greatly in time duration. (For a further discussion of the Japanese sound system see Roy Andrew Miller, The Japanese Language.) (Also, see A Brief History of "Onji.")

3. Each of the four entry words is its own plural.

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HAIKU  [1973/1976]

(1) An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji (Japanese sound-symbols).

(2) A foreign adaptation of (1). It is usually written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. (See also HAIKAI, HOKKU.)

Discussion notes: That part of the definition which begins "It is usually written" places a heavy weight on the word "usually." We depend on that word to provide latitude for variations in syllable count and in number of lines or other external aspects of "form" providing they meet the primary stringent requirements expressed in the first part of the definition. Though 17 syllables is still [in 1973] the norm in English language haiku, it is more and more common for a haiku to consist of fewer syllables. Rarely is a haiku [in English] longer than 17 syllables.

While all Japanese classical haiku, as well as most modern ones, contain a kigo (season-word: a word or phrase indicating one of the four seasons of their year), extreme variations of climate in the USA make it impossible to put a recognizable "season-word" into every America haiku. Therefore, American adaptations are not so concerned with season-words as are most Japanese haiku. (See revised "haiku" def.)

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HOKKU [1973]

(1) The first stanza of a Japanese linked-verse poem (see HAIKAI).

(2) (Obsolete) A haiku.

Discussion notes: Hokku was used as a synonym for haiku by the Imagist poets, but is obsolete in modern American usage. It is definitely obsolete today in Japan. (See revised "hokku" def.)

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SENRYU [1973]

(1) A Japanese poem structurally similar to the Japanese haiku (which see), but primarily concerned with human nature. It is usually humorous or satiric.

(2) A foreign adaptation of (1).

(3) Loosely, a poem similar to haiku which does not meet the criteria for haiku. (See revised "senryu" def.)

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HAIKAI [1973/1976]

(1) A type of Japanese linked-verse poem, popular from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Such a poem normally consists of thirty-six, fifty, or one hundred stanzas, alternating seventeen and fourteen onji (Japanese sound-symbols). Usually a small group of poets took turns composing the poem's stanzas, whose content and grammar were governed by fairly complex rules.

Discussion notes: In Japanese the word haikai is often used as an abbreviation for the phrase haikai no renga, usually translated as "comic linked-verse." Under the influence of Bashô (1644-1694) the tone of haikai no renga became more serious, but the name was retained.

The word haikai is also used in Japanese as a general term for all haiku-related literature (haiku, haikai no renga, the diaries of haiku poets, etc.).

In Spanish and French the word haikai is often used to refer to either the Japanese haiku or Western adaptations of the Japanese haiku. However, in modern Japanese usage, reference to a single haikai is to a haikai no renga. (See revised "haikai" def.)

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Footnote (2004): A Brief History of "Onji"

Some readers may have noticed the word "onji" in the old definitions, or seen some of the debate about it on the Web. When Harold Henderson gave the original definitions committee a working draft, he used the word jion (pronounced something like "gee-own") to refer to the things Japanese haiku poets count. In 1976, Tadashi Kondô (then HSA treasurer and a Japanese haiku and renku poet with deep background in the tradition, also a graduate student in linguistics) pointed out that this was not the correct term. In Japanese, the word jion is a technical term for the sound of a specific written character. Kondô proposed that we change the definitions to read onji in place of jion. Onji means "sound-symbols," and is also a technical term used in the study of linguistics. This seemed like the right word, and the HSA changed the definitions accordingly.

However, typical Japanese haiku poets do not use either the word jion or the word onji when they talk about the "sounds" they count when writing haiku (5-7-5 or otherwise). Rather, they use the word moji (meaning, roughly, "character") or the word on (meaning simply "sound" and pronounced with an English long O sound, a bit like the English word "own" but without the effect of the letter "w"). For simplicity's sake, and to agree with Japanese poets' practice, we use "sound" and on here, and drop the pedantic-sounding onji. (Note that the relationship between what Japanese haiku poets count and what they write is too complex to go into here. It has to do with the differences between spoken and written Japanese.)

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The Haiku Society of America definitions:







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previous 1973 definitions

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