Middle-aged dog, new tricks

I’ve been writing haiku for something in the range of two decades. Probably more, but without hard evidence of a beginning, trying to pin down the chronology of such a thing has been futile and will almost certainly lead to frustration and potentially madness, so generalizations will need to suffice. And I should clarify that my writing them has been far from constant, but instead has shared/suffered the same ebb and flow of interest (and effort) as any other number of writing formats I’ve dabbled in over my lifetime.

In any case, I had thought that I knew the rules of writing traditional haiku, which were essentially the 5-7-5 syllable count, and that it was to be in three separate, but connected focuses, typically on observations about nature. I would see haiku written by others, and when they would have one focus–one phrase–broken up over two lines in order to accomplish the 5-7-5 syllable criteria, I’d think they’d made a fundamental error; that yes, they’d managed the right syllable counts, but they’d taken the easy way out with their approach and missed the target of true haiku as a result.

Well, I’m back into haiku again–in no small part a result of the challenge I posed to myself to do something creative when I’d normally just pull a video game up on my phone, since haiku are intended to be done quickly, so it’s a nice, fast response and distraction to the video game itch–and this morning (rather than playing a go-to video game I’m often on daily) I wanted a referesher on how haiku worked. Specifically, if there was a particular expectation for the first line to be an atmospheric set-up for the second, which should hone in on a main subject, tied together and wrapped up with the third line, etc. I knew I had the basics down, just wanted to brush up on the details.

What I found, however, was in among a number of websites which all gave slightly differing advice on how to write haiku, a couple of examples of haiku written by experts in the field. It was the second example by Basho (considered the greatest haiku writer in history) that caught me by surprise. The syllable count isn’t exactly right for the traditional style because of the difference in Japanese and English syllables, but check this out:

On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autum

What struck me even more than the poem itself, which I like, was the format. Or more specifically, the fact that he’s broken up one line into the first two. Which is to say, the granddaddy of haiku writers himself didn’t strictly keep the one-line-per-focus-and-three-distinct-lines format I had thought all this time was the way to write haiku.

One can write haiku the way I had thought, but one doesn’t have to.

So that’s not only expanded the wiggle room I’m allowing myself for writing in this style from now on, but is also been somewhat humbling: I’d long thought I knew what I was talking about. I’d quietly told myself over the years that people who’d run one focus over two lines in haiku either didn’t really know what they were doing, or knew it but were opting for getting away with an easier solution. But it turns out that the whole time–knowingly or not–they were the ones who were right and I was wrong with my (evidently needlessly) strict guidelines.

Just goes to show, everyone: Learning is a lifetime experience, and just because you think you may know what you’re talking about doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right. It’s good to revisit long-held beliefs now and again to see if you’re still (or were ever) correct.

Having said that, the few haiku I’ve written over the last few days do still adhere to the way I’ve always written them. I haven’t yet tried out the approach of breaking one focus into two lines, but I’m sure I’ll get there. Old habits die hard.