Haiku – the Neo Classical Commandments

Vol 4-1, 2004

WHChaikuneoclassical Review and A New Way Forward


We conducted a review at WHChaikuneoclassical (WHChnc) as part of WHC’s initiative for ‘Higher Standards & Quality’. The purpose was to establish a broad framework, or ground rule, in terms of how best WHChnc should be run.

WHChnc is the most traditional, formal and conservative end of the haiku spectrum at WHC. As such it will be as narrowly, strictly and clearly defined as practicable. Thus we will have one such extreme end which will contrast with WHCvanguard, forming the opposite extreme. Between these two sits the wide band of WHCshintaihaiku (or ‘new-form haiku’) which is ‘freer’ than WHChnc but not as radical or revolutionary as WHCvanguard. All these three are WHC’s ‘specialist’ fora as opposed to ‘general’ fora such as WHCworkshop (which is a ‘workshop’ as well) or WHCgeneral.

Within the confines of such narrow, strict and clear definition, WHChnc will endeavour to become an eminent centre of excellence in the world in that end of the haiku literature. Once this framework is established, members should make double efforts to create haiku poems and develop this category of haiku by example rather than by theory. To write good haiku under these restrictions would be far more difficult than writing free haiku. It is also a great and worthwhile challenge.

WHChnc and WHCshintaihaiku will function as a package (i.e. they are two parts of the same thing), sharing identical membership, which is by invitation only. The majority of haiku which are practiced outside Japan roughly fall into these two categories. WHCvanguard is a separate and independent forum altogether.

As I have said elsewhere, I will be trying to avoid certain words and phrases intentionally in the hope of pre-empting possible and unnecessary misunderstandings, controversies or outright rejection, including ‘rules’, ‘definitions’ or ‘guidelines’. Instead, I will try to find new words or old words in new meanings. ‘The Ten Commandments’ is of course used tongue-in-cheek, after watching a British TV show, asking the viewers to vote for the ten commandments of the 21st century. It could be ‘signposts’, or ‘road signs’. The word ‘protocol’ is more in the sense used in the Internet or computer world than diplomatic or royal protocol. ‘Framework’ is another good word. It’s all in the spirit of fun.

These reflect the school of thought of the core group of the Hototogisu School in Japan, which is the most conservative and stringent line, even compared with the actual classical period (pre-Meiji 1868).


‘The Ten Neo-classical Haiku Commandments’
of the Post-Review WHChnc ‘Protocol’

(1)  The First Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: Kigo

Kigo words are obligatory but flexibly applied.

The flexibility includes the use of non-Japanese kigo, the use of Japanese kigo in different or new ways, new kigo, universal kigo, local kigo of geographical, climatic, cultural or otherwise specificity. ‘Muki’ (or haiku without kigo) therefore is not allowed. Simple nature words or references are not allowed in place of kigo unless they are presented as kigo by the author. ‘Ki-gasanari’ (double kigo) will be tolerated. The concept of kigo will be developed and expanded on the Japanese model and also in association with the ‘world kigo’ being developed in theWHCworldkigo Project directed by Gabi Greve.

[Additional Explanation]

I have made this first commandment stricter than the original in line with what has since become more certain: The clearer, narrower and stricter the commandments of WHChnc (within reason), the better.

(2)   The Second Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: Fixed Form (“tei-kei”)

Certain fixed forms are obligatory.

They can include 5-7-5. Quite what fixed forms should be taken will be left to the author and/or to further study and debate (No particular form or forms are determined or recommended at this stage). Care should be taken to such factors as sense of brevity, English equivalence to the true implications of the Japanese 5-7-5 rather than the uncritical copying of it, and the beauty of the poem’s shape when printed.

[Additional Explanation]
The 5-7-5 syllabic form as adopted strictly to haiku in English will cease to be a rule adhered to without fail, though not abolished (i.e. It will be reduced to merely one of the possible forms allowed). In fixing the form(s), the law of equivalence, or equivalence test, should be used. This means that in English haiku, what can be identified in the English language as equivalent to the Japanese 5-7-5 beat form should be used as a fixed form, or forms. Such fixed form(s) will be discussed and determined as we go along, taking into consideration not only English syllable considerations but also any other relevant factors of the English language and poetry , in addition to studying in depth how the Japanese 5-7-5 has come about and what is involved in it such as a feeling of brevity, rhythm and poetic sensibility. So, the number of lines, the total length, the shape of lines (short-long-short etc.) and any other relevant prosodic and metric factors will all be discussed in detail.
All that’s brief is not gold. Minimalists probably have on the whole caused English haiku to be too brief as an over-reaction to the (discredited) English 5-7-5, making anything even slightly longer look too long (‘Twelve Angry Minimalist Men’ against the one who wants the ‘right’ or optimal length(s)). They may have caused an irreparable damage to English haiku (one hopes not) by throwing out the baby (indispensable elements, feelings or words, in other words haiku itself) with the bath water. The result are mountains of skeleton haiku with only occasional instances of success. English is a much more wordy, lengthy and convoluted language than Japanese (German, even more so???), needing correspondingly longer and more complicated structure and length in order to remain correct and natural. Apart from haiku, the Japanese tend to shorten, chop, truncate, abbreviate, cut, omit or pare down in their ordinary conversation or writing, and often
just fall silent. Making short thus is the nature of the Japanese people and language. ‘Be-a’ is basic salary up. ‘Karaoke’ is kara (empty) orchestra. Minimalists have made English haiku unnecessarily too short. The discredited English 5-7-5 should also be reviewed and given a proper place of honour as there have been too many instances of success in this form to foolishly dismiss it or abandon it altogether.

As an advance level of English haiku, it is desired that native-speakers of English are encouraged to review the whole question of form in English haiku and to explore all the possible fixed forms making the most of advantages and tradition of the English language and poetry, with a help or working together with Japanese and other poets. This is a difficult and arduous task. But if someone (native-speaker of English) takes an initiative, he or she could do an enormous service to the further and richer development of haiku in English. The popularity of English haiku is truly commendable but it can still go far. If that happens in WHChnc, it would really be wonderful.

Many different experiments are recommended in terms of the number of lines (1, 2, 3 or 4), shape (box, triangle, reverse triangle, pear, tumbled mountain, river etc.), counters (not just syllable count but other prosodic elements)

(3)   The Third Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: Kireji

Effective use of English equivalent of kireji is recommended, but not obligatory, as and whennecessary.

[Additional Explanation]

The English equivalent of kireji includes punctuation, line break, spacingas well as natural pauses or other caesurae. However, the primary aim of kireji is either simply not known, understood or forgotten: to make a hokku (the first stanza of haikai-no-renga) stand alone in its own right as by definition it has no preceding stanza (‘mae-ku’) to link itself with. This is presumably because of the unfortunate term itself, especially its translation, ‘cutting’ words.

We must ask ourselves, ‘Cut what from what?’ It is my theory that originally it could have meant to cut the hokku itself from the rest, namely, kireji meant those words which were believed to help cut (separate) a hokku from the rest of the stanzas in haikai-no-renga, i.e. to help it to stand alone.

Further enquiry is necessary: 5-7-5 of hokku was of course MERELY one part of the waka form (5-7-5-7-7), which begat renga, which begat haikai-no-renga, which begat hokku, which finally begat haiku as we know it. Take any waka and remove the first 5-7-5 (or kami-no-ku, upper stanza), you have something which in most cases cannot stand alone because it is only a part of the whole, i.e. ‘does not cut’. Give it kireji and, hey presto, it
is standing alone in its own right, i.e. a fully-fledged, proper and respectable form of poetry. This presumably became more and more important as hokku began to be written and enjoyed independently of the rest of the haikai-no-renga.

All this is less conspicuous in English haiku partly because it is an adaptation of already well-established independent Japanese haiku and partly because such a lack of independence or incompleteness simply does not show up clearly in the English language. Also, English tends to make its user write things in a complete way even when some grammar or parts of speech may be missing as is often the case in the English haiku writing. One could say that English itself is kireji! In short, kireji is not really needed for English haiku on this particular point.

It could therefore be argued that such things as punctuation which are always brought up in association with kireji can be a different matter altogether with different purposes (such as emphasis, exclamation, separation/relation/definition of phrases or clauses, poetic effects etc.) However, since these functions are normally associated with kireji both in Japan and the rest of the world, they are also included in WHChnc’s kireji capabilities. If they can sometimes enhance and refine English haiku, there is no reason why it should be abolished. Excessive, unnecessary or automatic (uncritical) use of kireji or for the sake of doing it, however, must be avoided.

(4)   The Fourth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: Zen Connection


Efforts should be made firstly to rectify the mistake of equating haiku to Zen and all its multitude of ramifications and consequences. At the same time, efforts should also be made to conduct objective and higher-level studies in order to understand the true relationship between haiku and Zen in terms of the influence of the latter on the former, which in itself is an important aspect of haiku. All these efforts should be made the most of for haiku writers by being pitted against the rules and conventions which have emanated from this mistake.


[Additional Explanation]


More and more people are recognizing the folly of connecting Zen and haiku uncritically and excessively and realizing that this is a mistake to be redressed. However, it still remains the undercurrent of most haiku poets. Many of them are even oblivious to the Zen-haiku equation but nonetheless observe unknowingly the rules and conventions which have been developed out of this equation. Such canons as the haiku moment, aha, present tense, here and now, suchness of things, the horror of the pronoun ‘I’ are but some typical examples. The uninitiated and beginners almost always fall into this trap. What is required, therefore, is a series of unbiased and deeper studies of the relation between Zen and haiku. Pioneers can and do make mistakes but they could be excused and pardoned if their other contributions are enormous (R. H. Blyth, H. G. Henderson etc.) We have no such excuse or luxury.

(5)   The Fifth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: HAIKU THEMES


We follow the Hototogisu School’s practice of avoiding explicit expressions of certain themes such as war, violence, vices, wickedness, calamities, ugliness, sex, abstract notions or philosophy. These themes, in exceptional cases, should be dealt with in a mild, indirect or tangential way, and/or in refined style and good taste. [They could in the future be excluded from WHChnc if necessary, leaving them to WHCshintaihaiku (WHCsth), basically in order to make the distinction between the two fora clearer.]  More positively, we rather try to concentrate on themes which are favoured and celebrated by the School and traditional Japanese haiku. Otherwise, virtually anything, ranging from nature to man as part of her, can be dealt with.


[Additional Explanation]

Themes and the way they are expressed are one of the most important criteria to distinguish three different categories of haiku: WHChnc, WHCsth and most distinctly WHCvanguard.
(6)  The sixth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: SENSE OF HUMOR

A sense of humour or a humorous way of looking at things has always been an important part of Japanese haiku and we must restore it back to haiku in English in which it has largely been ignored or even disowned.


[Additional Explanation]

‘Hai’ in haiku (and in any haiku-related terms such as haikai-no-renga, hai-i, hai-mi etc.) is a Chinese character adapted to be used for haikai-no-renga as it was developed from waka-based renga, and means ‘comic’. Thus, simply put, haikai-no-renga was a comic version of renga. As haiku is a distant descendant of haikai-no-renga, it has in its blood a sense of humour as an intrinsic character. Such comic version was also enjoyed and loved as a relief from serious sessions of renga, rather like a comedy between scenes of serious plays. This trend has developed into the two contrasting streams of Japanese literature: aristocratic beauty, elegance and seriousness on the one hand, and plebeian modesty, vulgarity and humour on the other. Waka and renga belonged to the former and haikai-no-renga and hokku (haiku) belonged to the latter. If haikai-no-renga or hokku went too low it risked losing all its literary merit. If, conversely, it went too high it risked losing its own identity, as it became too much like renga or waka. The history of haikai-no-renga or hokku is a history of its oscillation between these two extremes. By elevating haikai-no-renga and hokku to a high point in literature, Basho also pushed them towards the ‘serious’ end. However, it was a special kind of seriousness of haikai. Even if a sense of humour may not be blatant or visible in Basho’s haikai in some cases it is there as part of his whole being. And it was a special kind of sense of humour of haikai.

What with the overemphasis of Zen for haiku and Oriental mysticism in general, and what with the expulsion of sense of humour to senryu, haiku in English has been pushed into a little corner of excessive seriousness. By restoring the haikai sense of humour, English haiku can come down from its pedestal of seriousness and become so much broader and richer in its healthier course of development. ‘Hai’, or comic, could be a haiku’s liberator.

(7)  The Seventh Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: OTHER HAIKU VALUES

All other values, Japanese or non-Japanese, which have not yet been mentioned in the previous Commandments but which have been established as contributing to good haiku writing must individually be re-examined and studied, especially from the WHChaikuneoclassical point of view. They should not be followed blindly or uncritically as a gospel but be used sensibly and effectively with care and diligence. They are merely tools and tools are not haiku itself.


[Additional Explanation]

The examples of such values are many: rhythm, musicality, metaphor, allusion, anthropomorphism, pictorial quality, human senses, tori-awase (combining different objects, normally two in number, in a single haiku), aisatsu or zonmon (greetings or literary conversation), fuga (poetic sentiment), Japanese haiku aesthetic values (wabi, sabi, shiori, hosomi, karumi, yugen etc.), detached views and sensibilities of Japanese haijin, hineri (a twist).

Needless to say, not all WHChnc haiku, or all good haiku, has all these values. Also, these values happen to be found there after a haiku is conceived or written. In other words, poets must not put the cart (these values) before the horse (haiku itself).

(8)  The Eighth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment:NON-JAPANESE LANGUAAGES  (in our case, English):

Anything and everything which the strength and beauty of the English language can offer to haiku should be exploited, including and most importantly English poetry.


[Additional Explanation]

It is self-evident that once haiku is written in non-Japanese languages it is no longer a Japanese haiku. It ought to be also self-evident that haiku written in a non-Japanese language should be developed by making the most of the (good) characteristics of that language. This would allow the language and the poets who use it a chance to make an added contribution to the general development of world haiku. Because of the use of non-Japanese languages, it becomes all the more important for these poets to understand intangible elements of Japanese haiku, most notably haiku spirit. To adapt a Basho teaching, ‘Seek not the Japanese haiku, seek what it seeks’. Otherwise, these haiku would become not only not Japanese haiku but no haiku at all. Poems that have haiku spirit are better than poems with some haiku-like form but no haiku spirit. The reality, to take English haiku for example, seems to be largely to the contrary. Many good things about the English language and poetry have all too often been disowned or inhibited, in favour of an unnatural and distorted use of English. The worst case is pastiche haiku having neither haiku spirit nor good English. Beware of the old Japanese sayings: ‘Rongo-yomi no rongo shirazu’ (An avid reader of Confucius, not understanding it), or ‘Hotoke tsukutte tamashii irezu’ (Making a Buddhist statue without putting soul in it). This type of haiku method, used by the majority of English-speaking haiku poets, can and does produce excellent results from time to time (more by coincidence than by design) and therefore there is absolutely no need to jettison it. On the contrary, by the sheer weight of number it has established itself as a respectable form. However, it should be ONE of the methods or possibilities of which the richness of English and English poetry is capable.

Equally important is a contribution which can be made from time to time by non-native speakers of English whose English can contain new style and _expression which is by definition unavailable to native-speakers (They can be compared to poets who invent new words/expressions or give new meanings to existing words/expressions.)

(9)   The Ninth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: DIFFERENT CULTURES

The development of world haiku should be a celebration and mutual understanding of different cultures, with Japanese culture where haiku originated as a reference point.

[Additional Explanation]

There is a tendency whereby some people feel now that the Western/English haiku has been so firmly established and has become a genre in its own right that there is no longer any need or point to look upon Japan as a source of learning or inspiration. Apart from the emotive question of cultural imperialism or counter-imperialism which we can do without, such tendency is not productive and can lead to the impoverishment of haiku in English. To separate haiku from the culture where it originated is a folly. The more developed English haiku becomes, the more its poets should study and understand Japanese culture. This is especially so at WHChaikuneoclassical, in fact, it is crucial.

(10)   The Tenth Neo-classical Haiku Commandment: OTHER DO’S, DON’tS, ETC.

Any other do’s and don’ts, or any other points to be covered (This section is a ‘safety net’ to catch any missing points.)

Do’s and don’ts which have been formulated outside Japan, especially in the
West and most notably in America, will be re-examined and used with care and
effect. Any other points will be discussed as and when necessary.

[Additional Explanation]

The examples of such do’s and don’ts are too numerous to mention. They can be useful so long as we use them and are not used by them (namely, uncritical or dogmatic use of them). Some of them can even be harmful. All need reviewing and careful handling, especially those which include: forbidding metaphors, gerund or progressive forms, inhibiting allusions or use of verbs, insisting on present tense, abuse of ‘tori-awase’ (often referred to not entirely accurately as ‘juxtaposition’).


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