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What is a Haiku? 4 Definitions and 4 Theories

Updated on July 17, 2017
Lord of Poetry profile image

Haiku honchos declared most haikus lack literary value. A Lawgiver is needed to uphold the honor of Poetry and Poets. Jose steps forward.

Four Definitions of Haiku

For the education of beginners as well as a sort of refresher for old timers, let us first present four definitions of the word "haiku" from four reputable online sources.

-- a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.
-- an English imitation of this.

-- an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively; also: a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference

English Oxford Living Dictionaries
-- A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.
-- A poem in English written in the form of a haiku.

The Free Dictionary
-- Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five morae, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons.
-- A verse form in another language modeled on the Japanese haiku, typically counting syllables instead of morae.
-- A poem written in this form.

My Two Expeditions to the Bamboo Groves of Japanese Poetry and the Four Theories About Haiku

To help solve the many issues concerning English haiku, I deemed it best to address the matter from a historical and theoretical perspective. As a result, I decided in recent days to come out with the four theories about haiku as soon as possible so as to put everything in its proper perspective.

The ideas about these theories have been percolating in my mind since the second half of April when I embarked on what I call the second expedition to the bamboo groves of Japanese poetry. The first expedition happened several years ago when my father was hospitalized and I spent my free time watching over him by crafting 5-7-5 verses.

As quickly as I went into a haiku writing binge, as quickly did I stop. By the time I embarked on my second expedition, I had forgotten the results of my earlier musing about the haiku poetic art. Someday, I shall have the pleasure of comparing what I wrote during the first and second expeditions.

Meantime, let's tackle the work we have at hand. So as the saying goes, without further much ado, let me present to you one by one the One-Haiku Theory, the Two-Haiku Theory, the Three-Haiku Theory and the Four-Haiku Theory.

First Theory of Haiku, also known as the One-Haiku Theory

There is only one haiku. It originated from the first verse of haikai renga called "hokku". For several centuries, hokku was developed as a stand-alone verse. Eventually, about a hundred years ago, the stand-alone hokku was renamed "haiku". It was under the new name -- that is, haiku -- that this poetic art was introduced to the West.

Second Theory of Haiku, also known as the Two-Haiku Theory

There are two haikus -- what we may call the branded and the generic, for lack of better terms. Branded haiku refers to the stand-alone hokku that was later renamed haiku. In the West, haiku developed into a generic term, applied to kindred verses that don't strictly follow the rules of traditional haiku. It's just like the brand name Xerox which was later adopted as a term to refer to a photocopier of any brand.

Before my meditations led to ideas that belong to the more advanced Three-Haiku Theory and Four-Haiku Theory, I crafted several verses that may be classified under the Two-Haiku Theory, including the following:

Regarding haiku,
it's both a generic term
and a poem type.
© jrmrB19 / April 21, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

5-7-5 types,
be senryu or zappai,
are also haiku.
© jrmrB20 / April 21, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

By common usage,
the word "haiku" has become
a generic term.
© jrmrB21 / April 21, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

But never forget
that "haiku" is both genre
and generic term.
© jrmrB55 / April 27, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

Xerox is a brand.
It's a generic term too.
Haiku is like that.
© jrmrB59 / April 27, 2017
¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

Generic haiku
is more relaxing to craft.
Less rules, less worries.
© jrmrB72 / April 27, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

Generic, branded.
That’s how Bilshan lately called
two types of haiku.
© jrmrB77 / April 28, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

They are all haiku
be branded or generic.
An inclusive view.
© jrmrB336 / May 17, 2017

Third Theory of Haiku, also known as the Three-Haiku Theory

The Three-Haiku Theory is best defined by the first four articles of The Fivefold Edict on 5–7–5 Verses, to wit:

Article 1

Basho wrote hokku;
he never called them haiku ~
follow the leader!

Article 2

“haiku” is a term
that long predated Shiki ~
it means “haikai verse”

Article 3

senryu, zappai ~
they are both haikai verses
as much as hokku

Article 4

all haikai verses:
hokku, senryu, zappai ~
thus, they’re all haiku

The Fivefold Edict was crafted on June 10, 2017. But prior to that, I had already crafted several verses that clearly fall under the Three-Haiku Theory or are at least leading towards it. Below are three examples:

hokku has kigo.
haiku means "a haikai verse":
a generic term!
© jrmrB378 / May 20, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

Basho wrote hokku.
haiku is "a haikai verse".
that includes zappai!
© jrmrB454 / May 24, 2017

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

each a haikai verse:
hokku, senryu, zappai.
all three are haiku.
© jrmrB456 / May 24, 2017

Fourth Theory of Haiku, also known as the Four-Haiku Theory

The Fourth Theory of Haiku is similar in perspective to the Third Theory of Haiku. The only difference is that in the fourth theory, stand-alone biku (7-7 onji or else syllables) is added to hokku, senryu and zappai. It should always be remembered that haikai renga did not only employ the triku (5-7-5) but also the biku (7-7). Thus, the stand-alone biku, being a "haikai verse" itself, has every right to be called a haiku. The triku and the biku are the two natural rhythms not only of Japanese poetry but of the Japanese language and culture as a whole.

On July 10, 2017 -- crafting my first ever stand-alone 7-7 verse -- I made the following declaration in my notes:

the latest word is "biku"
the other Japanese verse

Then after observing that there was no Japanese term for 5-7-5 nor for 7-7, I issued a broader fiat that they shall be called "triku" and "biku" from thereon. And this was couched in the tanka form:

it's simply astonishing
that there's no Japanese term
for 5-7-5
nor word for 7-7
they're now "triku" and "biku"

Finally, erupting into a merry poeticization, I sang and danced to the universe, celebrating The Return of the Magnificent Seven-Seven:

let me try this two-line thing
stand-alone and fit for king

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

I am busy with my blogs
but I'll pair up 14 logs

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

ah, Maestro strikes again
giving verse a magic spin!

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

topics may be whimsical
but let's make it musical

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

come my friends and fellow bards
try the biku, earn rewards

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

I have gifts for company
I AM Lord of Poesy

¨*•♪.¸¸✿ ¸¸.•*♫¨♪*•♫☆☆ .。.•*

Seven-Seven has returned
Heaven's Law can't be upturned


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