National Nightmare Alert: Why Haiku Fails in America

Still thinking about yesterday’s Terrible Poem Breakdown entry, which I compared to haiku, which led me to think about the role of haiku in America. Haiku in America is terrible and I think I know why.

I don’t mean there aren’t (a small number of) Americans who truly get haiku. There is some good haiku out there, to be sure. Robert Hass should probably be given a Japanese passport for his efforts.

What I mean is that every time I see some kind of contest in America for writing haiku I cringe. Because inevitably someone writes something like this in the comments:

Line two has eight syllables. Haiku form is 5-7-5.

Thank you, Captain Good-at-Counting! So glad you pointed that out! And completely understand why you had nothing at all to say about the poem itself. Eight syllables! Holy smokes. What a disaster.

Sometimes the commenters are falsely modest and apologetic – Sorry, I thought haiku was supposed to be 5-7-5, but the first line maybe has six? Maybe I’m wrong about that, who knows, I’m not an expert…

Even worse! You know what the number is, Suzie Number-Game – you’ve known it since third grade. And your idea of haiku hasn’t changed since then.

And this idea carries over into the poems themselves, which are so agonizingly about the number of syllables, and the words crammed into it, and the cleverness of the poet, and the self-congratulations of fitting the words into the poems, and (often) some little self-nod to the endeavor of getting the right number of syllables in the poem in the poem itself.

Ugh, ugh, ugh. Look, if you want to play a word game and count syllables, fine. If you view it as a kind of alternative to a Sudoko, great. I’m not such a killjoy that I want to deny anyone’s pleasure.

But… that wrings the life out of haiku.

Here’s what I want from a haiku: An image. An emotion. An idea. Something human – terrifying, beautiful, inspiring. A flash of recognition. A glimpse of truth. I don’t want puns. I don’t want cleverness. I don’t want to read a haiku that is about counting syllables!

When I finish a poem, whether it’s haiku or anything else, I want to FEEL something. I don’t want to hold up my fingers and COUNT.

For God’s sake, people. Let’s stop trying so hard! Let’s let go!

14 thoughts on “National Nightmare Alert: Why Haiku Fails in America

  1. As a modest composer of haiku ( I find the syllable discipline useful for honing but I hope never dominating the theme, emotion or image. With a photo as focus I sometimes let the season or nature be the inspiration, but really anything can be the trigger. If the skeleton of the poem shows, I’ve failed. I suspect many failures are in evidence…

    Sirry I missed this post first time round, but great idea tolet us have a second bite of the cherry.


  2. I write Haiku because it’s fun. What comes out on the page is what I’m thinking when I see a picture on screen or in my mind. Some people love it, some don’t. No excuses, it simply ‘is.’ After a while, the words just seem to flow into the 5-7-5 with little effort.

    I’m not a fan of the 3-5-3 Haiku, yet there are people who write it and have a fan base. But is it bad? It reminds me of the times when my dad tried to get me to eat something I didn’t like. Like the time he handed me a slice of cantaloupe, I refused it, and he said,, “You don’t know what’s good.” To me, cantaloupe smells and tastes like vomit. To him it was the best thing this side of nirvana. It’s hard to say what’s good or what’s bad when there’s such a diversity of taste.


  3. A nightmare? Yes. Most haiku in English suck like a fruit bat on a persimmon. Very few haiku spewers in this country grasp that fundamental concept of a moment of wonder. They write down any old thing, count off the syllables, lop off anything over 17, then pat themselves on the back for having written a haiku. That’s okay, but other people ooh and aah over the incredibly lame result.
    the result looks like
    this, without much more art than
    counting seventeen.
    Part of the problem is that poetry is no longer taught. Something poetry-like is occasionally studied, but rarely anything deep. At most, children are put to work counting off haiku for a few hours, and that’s it.
    I am shocked, shocked, I tell you. This must cease. I am so incensed about this issue that I wrote a series of posts titled, “Why You Can’t Write Haiku.”

    Liked by 1 person

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