Tuesday, November 11, 2008

PD Haiku Contest Perpetuates 5-7-5 Myth

media perpetuates many poetics stereotypes against poetry, be it through their lack of book reviews and reading promotions to the idea that Billy Collins is the only person writing poetry in United States today. Monday's pdQ should be no suprise: the Plain Dealer posted the winners of their "haiku" contest. The complete article is here.

No commenting on the poetry (just yet), what is most troubling to me is the fact that the Plain Dealer did not take the time to research their article beyond the dictionary:

haiku. noun [Japan] A Japanese verse form, rendered in English as three unrhymed lines of five, seven, five syllables respectively, often on some subject in nature.

While this is vaguely true, the dictionary should not, can not, be the ultimate deciding factor in defining a poetic form, as dictionaries are reputedly descriptive as opposed to prescriptive. In other words, dictionaries explain how a word is commonly used, and rarely give a complete or absolute definition of a word. What makes this even worse is that, since 1973, the Haiku Society of America Definitions Committee has been working on and revising the definition of words like "haiku," "senryu," and related terms, all of which are much more detailed and accurate than a dictionary. From the HSA website:

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.)

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".

Some basic points:

  • Imagistic Language
  • the essence of an experience
  • nature linked to human condition
  • juxtaposing two images

Apply these basic criteria to the pieces presented in the PD article, and many come up short, yet the 5-7-5 myth continues, and poetry and poets suffer.

What can be done? I propose a radical haiku revolution for Cleveland, an intense two year project, the sole purpose of which is to awaken the citizens of the city not only to haiku, but to the contemplative energy which haiku, in one form, represents.

Step One: A small group of poets (no more than 12) gets together on a monthly basis to study and critique haiku. These poets have the task of writing one haiku a day for an entire year. Obviously, many of these haiku will be rough, and need to be reworked and revised, which is the purpose of the meetings. In addition, the group would make a conscious effort to learn what is happening currently with the form through readings and study, developing their own personal craft in the process. The members of the group would also make a conscious effort to publish their haiku, both locally, nationally and internationally, building a base of support and recognition for themselves and the city at large.

By the end of the year, each poet should have a body of published haiku, as well as a larger collection of solid unpublished work, all of which could be considered a "manuscript" of haiku.

Step Two: Funds are raised to publish twelve professional (perfect bound, ISBN numbers, etc.) books over a year--one a month? two every other month? three a quarter? and promote the books, both locally and nationally. This would include not only bookstore readings, but lectures, classroom readings, an educational campaign including free or low-cost classes to special interest groups (prisons, nursing homes, colleges, churchs, yoga studios, nature groups, etc.), billboards or public haiku displays, television commercials, etc. Essentially, a total saturation of Cleveland with haiku, spreading it's tako-like tentacles across the nation and the world, drawing the attention of the haiku community at large.

The end results would be not only be conferences, national recognition, increased tourism, but public awareness and openness, not only to haiku, but the potential of poetry to change one's life, if only for a moment.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Haiku is defined
As it is because men de-
Fine it as they do.

Anonymous said...

I hope you sent a letter to the editor

Pressin On said...

i second the letter to the editor thing---maybe spirit it as constructive criticism, and maybe you might want to offer help in next year's competition? who was in charge of this/and who wrote it up? (i dont get the paper...)

Greg said...

I don't live in Cleveland but I think it's a great idea. I'm constantly annoyed by the number of poetry contests that define haiku as 5-7-5, especially when the poems themselves aren't very good. Public awareness definitely needs to be raised.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

As somebody who actually had one of my haiku in the PD contest... I'll say that I absolutely agree with Joshua here. A haiku is not just 5/7/5!

(to be fair, though, the PD did tell you upfront what they would consider-- so what I sent were mostly Senryu, not haiku).

pottygok said...

I have sent a letter to the editor, though it's a bit longer than their 200 word limit. Also, from the lack of comments the article has received online, I'm not sure this is an article they'll spend too much time worrying about.

Karen Sandstrom said...

Actually, you're all wrong. The Plain Dealer did in fact address the 5-7-5 myth. I know, because I wrote the article that inspired the little contest. I interviewed Marcus about the haiku contest held as part of a celebration of text in Cleveland Heights, and we REALLY DID TALK ABOUT THAT MYTH. AND WE REALLY DID PUT THAT IN THE PAPER. But Geoffrey Landis is also correct that for the newspaper's contest, which was aimed to be fun, the paper simplified things by defining haiku in the way it's taught in grade school. I know it's fun to bash the local paper, but it just makes you look silly when you haven't researched the facts.

pottygok said...


My original post was in relationship to the haiku contest results from November 10th, not the Haiku Death Match article from Oct. 22. The fact that the paper "simplified things by defining haiku in the way it's taught in grade school" is exactly my point. Perpetuating that myth, even encouraging it by publishing the resulting work, detracts from poetry and the poetry scene in Cleveland in general.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau