the haiku

So the other day, I saw a guy walking down the street in a shirt that said:
Haikus are easy.
But sometimes they don’t make sense.
Refrigerator.
(Here’s the shirt.)

This admittedly amazing shirt has made me think of the role of the haiku in our culture. Theoretically, the haiku is a form of poetry native to Japan, used to juxtapose two different ideas in seventeen morae. The haiku has been appropriated by American culture (and possibly others), the morae requirement changed to syllables, and the subjects veer toward the silly. Among my acquaintances, haikus are frequently used to demonstrate a type of linguistic cleverness made by saying something ridiculous in a limited number of syllables. (Hm, that sounds something like Twitter…)

One of the haikus I will always remember is the one my former roommate JT came up with one day while we were in his car on the way somewhere.

Cold, sterile pickles
Do taste like shit in your mouth.
Please don’t eat them, man.

A Google search for “silly haiku” nets thousands of results, including the Haiku-o-Matic, which is great fun, and includes such treasures as:
Mario running
Jumps upon the flower pipe
watch him fall and die!

It seems to me that the haiku is one of the most well-known forms of poetry. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t rely on rhyming (which is a tired subject to many would-be poets), or stress structure which can be difficult for some people to hear. All you have to do for a haiku is count.

As a linguist, I find the haiku a useful illustration for my students in figuring out what a “syllable” is, and what the variation in perceptions of syllable structure are. One question I’ve asked my students in the past is — if you make a haiku, and it has the word “squirrel” in it, or “fire”, how many syllables do those words count for? Arguments usually ensue, but their answer eventually is, invariably, “however many syllables I need it to fill”.

I wonder – is my perception of the haiku common to everybody, or just to those in my area (the eastern midwest)? Is this as productive of a form as I think it is?

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One thought on “the haiku

  1. foreverhome says:

    I like to use haikus to express sorrow and to remember a loved one by repeating it occasionally. I think a haiku is also supposed to be one image tied to one emotion, right? I wrote a few and remember them occasionally…”Faith is like a leaf, promising the unseen blossom of true belief”…corny maybe, but I like it.

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