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#NPRPoetry Month: What Makes A Haiku A Haiku?


It's April 1, a day of celebrations - April Fools' Day, Easter Sunday and the first day of Poetry Month. Twitter is now officially open to your submissions to hashtag #nprpoetry. Every year, we get many creative original poems sent to us in under 140 characters. And yes, we know Twitter now allows more characters, but we're still asking you to keep it to 140, if you would, please. Because of that particular requirement, many of the poems we get are haiku. That is a traditional Japanese form of poetry that's based on a five-seven-five syllable structure - or is it?

We should say this is not an April Fools' joke. This is a real discussion about poetry. I hit the streets of Washington, D.C., this week to find out more about what makes a haiku a haiku. I was joined by Abigail Friedman, a former American diplomat to Japan and one of the judges of the Golden Haiku competition. For the past five years, the Golden Triangle neighborhood in Washington, D.C., has asked for haiku submissions. And the winners are printed on yard signs and scattered around the neighborhood.

You want to read this first one?

ABIGAIL FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I do. The haiku is by Garry Eaton. It won second place. And the haiku reads - (reading) a basketball spins on the edge of the hoop, spring equinox.

MCCAMMON: Nice one, Garry, but a basketball spins on the edge - that's not five syllables.

FRIEDMAN: I will never say to someone that's not a haiku because if people are so wrapped up in pinning down definitions, they're not wrapped up in the desire to write poetry.

MATT LEVITAS: You know, if you ask anybody on the street, you'll be told it's five-seven-five. And certainly, that's true. But that's one of probably a dozen tools in the haiku writer's kit.

MCCAMMON: That's Matt Levitas from the Japan Information and Cultural Center.

LEVITAS: Just say that the syllable count is the only defining feature, and to say that something is not a haiku based on the number of syllables is really missing the forest for the trees.

MCCAMMON: Which is not to say that five-seven-five comes out of nowhere, it's just a bit lost in translation.

FRIEDMAN: Five-seven-five, in Japan, they're sounds. It's a natural rhythm. It's not a natural rhythm in English, so I can see how people would have taken that and come to the U.S. and said, oh, well, those five-seven-five sounds, they're like our syllables. So let's do that. I also think that, in schools, it was a useful vehicle for teachers in elementary school to teach people how to count syllables. I think a lot of teachers today are starting to see that there is a far more important thing to teach children, which is how to get comfortable writing poetry.

MCCAMMON: And Friedman says there are other equally important haiku rules in Japan that haven't made it into the books over here. like the cut word.

FRIEDMAN: It's a cut. It's a break in the flow. And then the third piece is a season word.

MCCAMMON: You're talking seasons like summer, spring, fall?

FRIEDMAN: And the new year. There are five seasons. In Japan, a season word is a very specific thing. It has to be part of the season encyclopedia, to kind of (unintelligible). If your word is not in there, then it's not a season word. But that whole concept of it having to be in the encyclopedia to make it a season word is also alien to the Western culture because we don't have these encyclopedia. So the idea of picking that five-seven-five piece and saying that's what defines it is not apt.

MCCAMMON: If thinking about those rules for haiku helps you get your ideas flowing, Friedman says that's great. But she says the most-important rule for haiku poets is just to go for it, which is what Matt Levitas did when a couple of helicopters flew over D.C. and interrupted our taping.

You're writing a haiku about the helicopters?

LEVITAS: Yeah, I was just thinking how one would treat that. Two choppers pass, we wait for a third.

MCCAMMON: And you really can write a haiku about pretty much anything.

LEVITAS: What do you think of writing a haiku about a cement mixer?

FRIEDMAN: There are haiku about cement mixers (laughter).

MCCAMMON: If you'd like to send us a haiku or any other form of poem, tweet us @npratc using the hashtag #nprpoetry, and you just might hear your poem on the air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.