On Not Defining Haiku

Hemsteges’ questioning of two aspects of the HSA definition of haiku1 reminds us that this definition is probably less than satisfactory for most writers of haiku. Two further aspects continue to bother me:

1. poem... in which nature is linked to human nature implies that nature and human nature are separate entities. Have we not evolved from the first simple life forms of the planet just like any other species? Are we not part of the whole system, part of nature, part of its successes and failures? Although dictionary definitions of nature often include the sense other than man, is that a distinction that can naturally be made? Are we not more attuned to the haiku mind when we regard ourselves as part of the whole?

2. unrhymed poem rules out those haiku where the rhyming is unintended and natural - or, at least, seems so. Should we rule out poems as haiku just because the best choice of words happens to produce rhyming? I hope not.

In a broader frame we might ask, How much can we expect of a definition? The HSA version resulted from a lengthy and informed collaboration aimed at producing a sound dictionary definition2. Dictionary definitions of specialist terms, however, often appear unsatisfactory and trivial to practising specialists. Ask a scientist about the dictionary definition of an atom, a physician about the definition of a virus. Most such definitions revertto basic general description and often relate to perceptions that are out of date. They may be adequate at a superficial level but inadequate beyond. With haiku, how can we define (i.e. objectively set precise boundaries to) a poetic form that has developed and evolved over many centuries and continues to evolve across national boundaries and language barriers? How can we define inclusively each and every example of such a tradition and exclude others? I suggest the only answer to both questions is, We can’t. The best we can do is merely describe haiku, i.e. subjectively and incompletely outline aspects of its history, development and typical, often ephemeral, characteristics. The boundaries of haiku have always been diffuse and grey and, I expect, always will be. However, the word haiku is now part of everyday language in many countries and needs to be included in dictionaries. It may be time for more inclusive, more descriptive definitions to have their day.

Perhaps the most insightful and significant recent statement on defining haiku was made by Hiroaki Sato:

“Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it. This is indicated by the haiku dictionary Gendai Haiku Dai-jiten (Meiji Shoin, 1980). Its entry on haiku describes the history of the term, but makes no attempt to say what a haiku is. Both in form and content, all you can say is that a haiku, be it composed in Japanese, English or any other language, is what the person who has written it presents as a haiku.”

Sato reaches this conclusion in an article, ‘The HSA Definitions Reconsidered’3. Harold Henderson expressed a similar view in 1971 in the correspondence that led to the HSA definition:

... a definitive definition of haiku is probably impossible... [haiku] must be what the poets make them, not verses that follow rules set down by some authority... a strict definition... is neither possible nor desirable.4


Cyril Childs - published in Presence #22

1 translated with comment by David Cobb, Presence #21, p23.
2 see A Haiku Path, HSA, pp. 43-85.
3 Frogpond XXII:3, 1999, pp. 73-75.
4 A Haiku Path, pp. 46-47.


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