BOOK REVIEW: The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson

The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate HaikuThe Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku by William J. Higginson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Many people think that a haiku is any poem of three lines consisting of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. Those who’ve gotten beyond a high school literature class introduction to the form may also know that these poems are usually observations of the nature world, and, specifically, the seasons. If the preceding sentences sum up haiku for you, but you’re interested in learning more, Higginson’s book will revolutionize your understanding of the art.

As it happens, the most fundamental notions about what makes up a haiku are actually more contentious than one might believe. Take the 17-syllable format. Japanese syllables are—on average—much shorter than English syllables. (e.g. Consider that “squirreled” is one syllable, whereas a long Japanese syllable would be “shi.”) For this reason, many have argued that to have the same sparse sound quality of Japanese haiku, English language haiku should follow a format that is less than 17 syllables. Also, while many people know that haiku are poems about nature, they might not make the connection to the purely descriptive (non-analytical / non-judgmental) approach or the art form. There’s a definite connection between haiku and the Zen mode of thought. The fact that the poems are sensate descriptions doesn’t mean they shouldn’t evoke emotion; on the contrary, they should be evocative on a primal level.

Be the preceding paragraph as it may, Higginson sketches out the evolution of haiku from the traditional greats (e.g. Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki) to modern haiku poets both from Japan and from the rest of the world. The many examples provided offer the reader insight into how various poets have bent and broken the rules of haiku to achieve their own ends. There are, of course, some who wish to keep the form as true to the tradition as possible. Such individuals would like those who want to get unconventional to avoid using the term haiku (or terms for related traditional forms, e.g. “tanka.”) Others, want the freedom to take the art in new and unconventional directions.

The book consists of 16 chapters divided into four parts. The first part charts the evolution of haiku from the early masters to the modern age. The second part gets into the nitty-gritty of composing haiku, and it’s where one will learn about the various thoughts on the form and content of these poems. (Those wanting to learn the craft of writing haiku are directed specifically to chapters 8 and 9, which address the key elements nicely.) The third part is about teaching haiku, and specifically how to introduce it to children in a way that is much more effective than the usual teaching method (i.e. “Hey, kids, a haiku is a poem with 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables.”) The fourth and final part puts haiku into a context of lesser known, but related, forms of Japanese poetry such at renga, tanka, and senryu. In other words, it reflects on the forms that predated or sprung from haiku. The book also has front and post matter that readers may find useful, including explanations of Japanese pronunciation (the Japanese poems usually feature the Romanized spelling out of the Japanese words as well as an English translation), a list of season words, a glossary, and bibliographic references.

I’d recommend this book for readers and / or writers of haiku who want to learn more about the craft and its progression as an art form. There’s scarcely a page in the book that doesn’t offer example haiku to help make the author’s points more clearly. One needn’t worry that this will be dull exposition that can only help to kill one’s love of haiku. I found the book to be readable and the examples to be well-chosen.

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