Haiku is an ancient Japanese poetic form, yet through its characteristics it continues to be suited to contemporary poetry. There are several reasons for this lasting relevance. One, the haiku is grounded in compression, and an economy of the language used. Every word is made to carry weight, and must subsequently add to the piece as a whole, avoiding the superfluous. This provides a structure and guidance for the writer to focus-in on and crystallise an idea or image. Through this process, every unnecessary element is stripped back to leave a clear observation.
With this in mind, the form has high compatibility with observation in general. Its style is tied to every-day events and the perception of these, and, as a result, haiku often provide sharp snap-shots of the ordinary. Arguably, this snap-shot like quality is most comparable to the techniques of photography and film, in that the poem is able to take a single moment and hold it still, letting it echo, preserving it to be viewed and experienced again at a later time. In our fast-paced society, we feel it compulsory to record our experiences through the technology immediately at our fingertips, our phones and digital cameras. The haiku, then, could be seen to form part of a linguistic equivalent to capturing events visually, able to embody not only what was observed, but also give a sense of its importance to and effect on us, further communicating this to the reader. The importance of this interaction is explained by scholar David Cobb, who notes:
‘The appreciation of haiku is a matter of collaboration between poet and reader, the one (to use a metaphor from photography) exposing something to the light, and the other developing it. As well as being half-stated, it is also under-stated, with sparing resort to the eye-catching metaphor or the subjective attribute, which might be said to be typical of much Western poetry. Haiku aims to be plain and simple, but at the same time subtle.’
Through this simplicity, haiku is particularly attuned to nature, especially the progress of the seasons. In traditionally formal haiku, one key word, called a kigo, acts as a general evocation of nature or of human activities at that time of year. This reminder to maintain a greater awareness of nature has been an underlying catalyst for poetry throughout history, and in our own time the haiku serves to help us tune back in to the world we inhabit. This attitude is perhaps best exemplified in the words of Chigetsu:
the song bird’s song-
it stops what I am doing
at the sink