The Magnificent Seventeen

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Certain things in life have to be hard to be good. No, no, this is not going to be another paean to Viagra. We're talking here about degree of difficulty, that ingredient which adds value to, for example, the leap and spin of a figure skater or the twirl and tuck of an Olympic diver. The harder the choice of dive, the greater the reward for executing it well. It is right that many tasks should continue to become less inanely difficult; who'd give up a good potato-peeler for a knife, or go back to a clunky Remington after using a smooth word processor? But struggle is intrinsic to some things. If steps were cut into the north face of the Eiger, who'd want to climb the thing? It's the same with haiku.

The haiku is a 500-year-old form of poetry that has become such a successful Japanese export over the past 50 years that today there are haiku poets, or haijin, writing in nearly 70 languages around the world. As raised to a high art by the 17th-century master Matsuo Basho, a haiku is meant to carry a truthful moment into heads and hearts with the speed of an arrow in flight. Ideally it is tipped with wit, and requires a kigo a reference, even if oblique, to the seasons. As if these were not constraints enough, a haiku has 17 syllables, not one fewer or more, divided into lines of five/seven/five. No wonder the British poet John Cooper Clarke punched out the haiku:

Writing a poem
In seventeen syllables
Is very diffic

There is a movement afoot, however, to make it a lot easier. By abandoning the 17 syllables rule and freeing up the form, the argument goes, haiku will become less daunting for the world's schoolchildren. In Japan last September, what's become known as the Matsuyama Declaration for the city that is one of haiku's meccas raised this possibility, and the subject will be on the agenda again next month when the World Haiku Festival 2000 is held in London and Oxford. Britain's Guardian newspaper greeted the prospect with as much alarm as if someone were about to alter the rules of cricket. "Don't hack the haiku," cried an editorial which argued that the "exquisite challenge" of the five/seven/five syllable arrangement "is the test of fixing a momentary insight or perception in the amber of a (fairly) rigorous but mercifully short form. Without a few rules, it would cease to be fun or art."

A man who should know whether the rules need revising is Susumu Takiguchi, a Japanese who has lived three decades in England, and fashions haiku in his own and adopted languages. Takiguchi is chairman of the World Haiku Club and the man behind next month's international festival. He says part of the problem is that the 17-syllable rule is based on a false premise. The haiku's 17 Japanese "beats," as he prefers to call them, don't translate into 17 English syllables, so there's nothing sacred about the number. He says disarmingly that sometimes English versions can seem verbose.

It's true that Robert Browning's dictum "Less is more" applies to this above all other poetic forms. So why shouldn't the Magnificent Seventeen be the Magnificent Seven, or some other number? A haiku in English by Takiguchi, who lives in rural Oxfordshire, is, like all good ones, potently thought-provoking in 13: "Spade splits the Earth/ into two worlds/ earthworm in between." He doesn't, however, argue for no rules at all, just that they should be debated. Maybe it should be three/four/three?

Sadly, many do think anything goes, that they can bash out a dozen or so words, and, Basho!, it's haiku. Doggerel will do just the case in the U.S., where there are now "dog haiku" circles, folk who write in their pets' voices. An example: "Today I have sniffed/ Twelve dog butts I celebrate/ By licking your face." There are also film reviews. This one, on American Beauty, is from a U.S. website: "Sometimes there is so/ much beauty in the world we/ forget our popcorn."

Like the dog voice one, this at least meets the magnificent 17 rule, and it betters some of that film's more florid full-length reviews. But these demotic spinoffs distract from the need to balance what the Japanese call fueki, or permanent values, and ryuko, or change, in true haiku writing. If that balance swings too far away from fueki, if so-called freedom is successful in the attempted coup against form, then haiku may become little more than doodle, and a lot less than distillation of what practitioners call "haiku spirit," the moment held in amber.

It's put up/shut up time, so here's a five/seven/five wrought one recent night under the spell of a haunting song by a man currently very popular in Spain, Manolo Garcia: "Spanish singer's deep/ song plumbs the dumb heart's well; it/ lifts flighty water." Old Basho would no doubt have done it better, and more simply. But that's the pain and pleasure of writing haiku. Some things are meant to be diffic.