Roger Stevens: Haiku, A Love Affair

My first ever published poem was a haiku:

When I write haiku

I always seem to have one

Syllable left o

This was back in 1998. Which makes that poem 24 years old. The only problem is, of course, it’s not actually a haiku.

My love of Japanese poetry began at art college in the late 1960s. I became fascinated with a book I found in the college library – Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. This ‘collection of Japanese poems and stories’ immediately became a great influence on my writing, as well as on my art and music.

Back then it didn’t occur to me that the haiku in that book didn’t each have 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5,7,5. Later, I realised this was because they had been translated into English from the Japanese. But they maintained the essence of haiku by saying so much, so sparingly. One of the great haiku masters is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

The old pond

A frog leaps in.

Sound of the water

When I became a fully-fledged children’s poet, I would include what I thought were haiku in my own collections and anthologies I edited and found the 5,7,5 format great fun to share with children in workshops when I visited schools.

It’s a great discipline and children enjoy trying to fit their ideas to the form. I remember the teacher who couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of two boys in her class, who had hardly written anything creative before, writing verse after verse… because it involved counting.

I often still write poems in the 5,7,5 format. But I now like to, more accurately, describe them as ‘written in the haiku style’.

Because, in 2012, I attended an online haiku writing course, along with Liz Brownlee and several other well-known children’s poets, given by Alan Summers, a haiku specialist who has won awards in Japan for his poems and is the president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society.

And it turns out that haiku are much more complicated than I first thought. I haven’t the space to list all the rules and subtleties of writing haiku here. But to begin with, a haiku must have three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images and a kireji, or ‘cutting word,’ which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together. An individual image must occupy lines 1 and 2, with the third line containing the kireji. During the course, I only managed to write one haiku that passed muster:

sky before rain

a Rackham tree

catches a hat

I also discovered senryu – and found these were what I had been writing all along. Because while senryu obeys many haiku rules, they can be about people, or society and are often satirical or funny. I know now that my first published poem was, in fact, a senryu.

I like to think that, along with the mesostic, I’ve done my bit as a poet, anthologist and educator to popularise senryu. I devote some time to discussing these Japanese forms in my book Is This a Poem (Bloomsbury, 2016.)

Is This a Poem?, Roger Stevens, Illustrated by Spike Gerrell, Bloomsbury

I do enjoy the challenge of writing true haiku; so few words say something that exactly catches a moment, an idea or a feeling. A good haiku brings out the sun, just for a moment, on a grey, rainy day.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.