My 20-Year Ginko at Basho's Pond #2

Part 2: Dipping a Toe into Basho’s Pond

An early attempt at haiku I felt quite satisfied with was:

at day’s end
even a pebble casts
a long shadow

Two key questions: 1. Do you think it’s a haiku? 2. Whether it is or isn’t a haiku, do you like it? e.g., clever, witty, interesting, poetic, worth reading, provocative?

Those are two different questions.

Some 3-line, 17- or fewer syllable texts are haiku and some are not. The nots include ditties, witticisms, aphorisms, quips, sayings, puns, gibes, bon mots, etc.

Whether it’s a haiku or not, tastes and ideas vary about what makes for a worthy haiku, a good aphorism, an appealing witticism, a punchy ditty, etc.

In the early part of my excursion around Basho’s haiku pond (hereafter “The Pond”), I sought assistance from various haiku poets (also called “haijin”). One, an award winner, answered the “Is it a haiku?” query by pointing out that my 3-line creation is “an aphorism, not a haiku.” And, as for, “Do you like it,” he added, “It’s not a particularly good aphorism.” Ouch!

But why take his word for it? I said to myself. I had already learned that ideas and tastes differ about what a haiku is and certainly they differ about whether they like passage. It was Margaret Bull who famously said: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Yes, we all know what we like. But I’d also like to feel more certain about the essence of haiku.

So, I circulated my 3-liner (hereafter I’ll refer to 3-line poems that may or may not be haiku as “3-liners”) on a haiku forum. Alas, a number of haijin pointed out that, while they liked it, it’s simply a sentence broken into three lines. Others added third important issue. Did you spot it? “It’s a tell,” they said. Thus, not a haiku. Ouch!!


In order to avoid receiving more unflattering comments, I realized that on my “What is haiku?” journey, I already knew what a sentence is, and thus, how to avoid writing 3-line sentences, so it would serve me well to understand the nature of aphorisms. And as for tells, I didn’t have a clue.

What exactly is an aphorism, this interloper that interfered with my dream of becoming a renowned haijin?

Aphorism: An original thought, written in a concise and memorable form.

In short, like haiku, aphorisms are short and memorable, but they also tell us about a writer’s thoughts, what the writer thinks about something. In short, they are “tells.” Ah hah!

And Gads! Those haijin were right. My 3-liner tells you what I think about pebbles. It’s an aphorism disguised as a 3-line haiku. I also could understand that my 3-liner is a sentence. Here it is even though I didn’t know why a sentence is not a haiku:

At day’s end, even a pebble casts a long shadow.

So, while any aphorism can be viewed as thought-provoking and clever (or not very clever or thought-provoking), if you’re not quite sure why it’s an aphorism and not a haiku, we’ll have to go further.

Instead of relying solely on definitions, which, I assert, are often useless to put into practice, I searched for examples.

 Aphorisms were being written as early as 400 BC by the Greek physician, Hippocrates. I felt uplifted! If not yet a competent haijin, at least I could be proud that I had joined a long line of aphorists – and that’s almost as good as being a haijin, isn’t it?

An oft-cited aphorism by Hippocrates is:  

Life is short,
art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experience deceptive,
judgment difficult.

Most (not all) published haiku are expressed in three lines, so for purpose of comparison with haiku, I’ll eliminate two of those lines to turn it into a 3-liner, haiku lookalike:

life is short
opportunity fleeting
judgment difficult

Now that it resembles a haiku in its 3-line structure and its 15-syllable conciseness, why is it an aphorism and not a haiku? And what about my wonderful 3-liner? Isn’t it different somehow than the Hippocrates 3-liner? Before you read on, any ideas?

Here’s a handy “is it a haiku” starting checklist. (keep in mind that the majority of CEL haibun have this form, there’s a good deal of variation. It’s a good starting point.

  • Is it short, e.g., 17- or fewer syllables
  • Is it presented in 3 lines?
  • Is it a sentence?
  • Is it a “tell?”

Ray’s answers about my Hippocrates derived 3-liner:

  • Short: 15 syllables
  • Presentation: 3-lines
  • Is it a sentence? Yes. It has a subject, verb and object. One could say it has three short sentences since the verb “is” is implied in lines 2 and 3.
  • Is it a “tell?” Yes. It tells us what Hippocrates thinks about life. But if you’re unsure, not to worry, we’ll get further into “show vs tell” soon. Just to say you’ll have little success getting either haiku or haibun prose published unless you can distinguish between a “show” and a “tell.” But perhaps, dear reader, you could care less about publication. If so, how I envy you!

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