Haiku, a poetic form adapted to the present world.
by Serge Tomé

Abstract : Some reflexions about the characteristics of haiku and their consequences on its evolution in the present world. A technical, sometimes iconoclastic, review of the reasons explaining the growing importance of the form.

Haiku is short. It is read quickly. It is quickly remembered, sometimes quickly forgotten. It is the most adapted poetic form to a society flooded with information. Our way of reading written information (newspapers, magazines), visual information (T.V., advertising), or musical (CD-ROM) is moving to a ever shorter perception of units. People have no time or patience anymore to read or listen long texts. Even our e-mail shrinks (e-mail limited to the purely necessary information). The layout of magazines and newspapers is more and more made with short information blocks to be read quickly. Our behaviour, is moving to 'zapping' to avoid being drowned in the flood of information. In this environnement, who does read long poems ? On can point to an advantage for short, or very short forms, discovered in one glance, like haiku or tanka.

Haiku is quickly remembered. One of the models of human memorization is based on three kind of memories, a very fast one with a very short lifetime (<1 minute) used by perception, an intermediate memory, slower, with a lifetime of several minutes containing all what is need to understand and the storage level. The fast memory contains only 5 to 7 units (information chunks). Haiku with its short size, even read in difficult circumstances will pass in one piece in the fast memory where it will be quickly analyzed, (because in the fast memory) without reference to the slower intermediate memory. It will be easier to be remembered.

Haiku can also be quickly forgotten. It does not clutter mind because it is made of but one information block. It will be more quickly erased if we don't decide to remember it. It might be stored with lesser information blocks in the intermediate and storage memories. Its form can avoid the cluttering of mind. When reading haiku, we have the possibility of keeping in memory only what we decide, the remaining is thrown away without leaving any traces. This kind of reading is less tiring to the mind. A very useful characteristic in a world flooded with information.

Haiku catches the instant. Our way of live and work take an important part of our time. Nevertheless, this time is not completely used. There remain more and more short instants of waiting (< 1 minute), where mind is empty and where dreaming and observation have their full place. A poetic form that can be quickly written, will have an advantage for the writer.

Haiku catches image. Our culture becomes more and more visual, iconic. Effective messages use these techniques. Haiku is the only form of writing which is able to effectively note an image because it keeps only the main thing. It produces its effect at the same speed as the image. It begins to be used in advertising, to create titles, image captions, slogans...

Haiku uses some techniques of publicity messages (advertising, propanganda, slogans...) It is mainly through the use of images like in parallelism, opposition, reinforcement, use of detail for the whole, reference to the five senses...

Haiku is allusive. It is adapted to the kind of truncated - veiled - speechs (slogans, news, propanganda), but also to the more personal or private ones. It allows to tell more with less words, to show images without describing all the details. It can also transfert feelings and emotions in the background under an objective appearance.

Haiku can be also mocking. Then it is effective to illustrate funny situations, without giving rise to an argumentation.

Haiku contains only the main thing, it leaves the reader to reconstruct the image. It is particulary adapted to the multicultural world because it leaves the readers use their background to add what is not explicitly said. There is no need for any preliminary knowledge, everybody, with his own culture and experience completes it before use.
There are as many readings as readers. Image only has a similar effect but less effective because containing more information. Theoritically, the image must be clear and without ambiguity but as clear as it may be, the reader must complete it to view it.

Haiku spreads quickly. It is a small object that can be written on quite everything and that can be transmitted quickly by e-mail. It is quickly exchanged. As it is, the stake of the copy rights is often small. That question is often given up and then haiku exchanged for free. It is the best adapted form to the electronic poetry. Very small, quickly remembered, it is easily identified. There is sometimes no need of signature to identify its author. It is easily stollen but its further public use is difficult. It shares the same problematic as web pages on Internet, given, copiable, sometimes free, but that must circulate to acquire worth.

It is easy to read haiku. It uses simple words and constructions. It doesn't need very great linguistic knowledge to be written and read even in another language. It can be easily translated, making its spreading easier. This characteristic is the very base of the emerging of an international community of writers and readers.

Its writing rules are fuzzy. Everybody can interpret them as he wants to. There is no clear limit between a good and and a bad haiku. This is important in a society having a 'zapping' culture, refusing any constraints and making do with very little, just like a varnish of knowledge. As it is quite unknown, the audience doesn't have enough knowledge to judge it and but three lines are enough to make a haiku for many people.

As it is quickly written and published, it allows its authors to be quickly visible. Everybody writes to be read and appreciated. This phenomenon is strongly enhanced by the free of charges publication on Internet web sites or lists. A high visible presence gratifies the author's ego and is a major function of its use. Haiku is the absolute poetry on Internet.

Fuzzy rules make interpretations more easy and favour creation of writing schools where everybody can find its place. They give a more flexible form, more pleasant to use, requiring less time for the writing than does sonnet, for example.

Haiku is written in a while. Theoritically, the work of composition, hard with another form, is yet made at the moment you write it on the sheet because haiku is ensued from an observation. One see, something that give birth to an haiku is seen, without the author's paying attention and then he only has to write it. All the creative work is made by the subconscious who reports only the things to be noted.

Rules are fuzzy, but in great numbers, various and even opposite. Writing a haiku remains difficult. It is a technicaly complex form, perhaps the most complex. Haiku then has the attraction of the technological object, at the top end of the range, of the well-constructed object.

Haiku has a long tradition. Writing it, it is a little like inserting oneself into it. A very important characteristic in a society searching its roots, and having a strong unconscious need of traditions.

Another fundamental point is its integration in the world, in the environment. It links us to the 'Cosmos', to the soul of the world. It is the ecological poetry above anything else, the one where man retrieves its place in the world. For me, one of the major reasons of its success.

Haiku is an exotic object. Its name, yet, indicates that we enter in another world. Then it has the aura of an object coming from afar. In a society having a strong need of exoticism and searching its inspiration in oriental cultures or cultures integrated in nature (amerindians), it is the poetic form that will make the bridge with other ways of perception and thinking.

Haiku is written in a while. It encloses an energy from the subconscious. Its rereading allows, if it is well written without reflexion and polishing, to recreate the internal author's state of mind. It allows a private contact, beyond the censorship of the conscious. It is an effective way of communication. It also allows despite an objective appearance to tell things it would be difficult to say differently. It is a tool to express inhibited things. It has a therapeutic power in situations of emotional shock, distress, frustration. It allows to express without saying.

Haiku is a very small object. Therefore its space of reading, that we can define as the maxumim number of texts of one genre one can read before saturation, is greater than for other forms. The smaller the text, the greater is this number, because we can read many more and because bad texts don't leave traces in mind. It allows to discover a greater number of different experiences. In a society in search of experiences to share, it is a useful form.

For the same reason, an author can write more haiku than other poetic forms. With the same rate of success (number of good texts divided by the total number), he will produce more successful items than with another form. It is the most effective form for publication.

I haven't written about the magic, and perhaps unique, characteristic of haiku, widely discussed everywhere and that makes its very worth and power. I limitate my argumentation to some technical points, rarely published, perhaps not clearly perceived or confessed. However, I think they have an important function in its present expansion. I believe that the form has a bright future, perhaps through new variants. For many people, it is a virgin field. I also consider thatt great didactic efforts and explanations will have to be done in order to avoid this form to be denatured by an uninformed public.

First publication : World Haiku Association inaugural meeting, Tolmin (Slovenia) 1-3 September 2000