Haiku on the Web/continued ubiquity/plenty of chuckles

Monday, December 16, 2002

Remember haiku from school? Three unrhymed lines. Set syllable counts. Subjects that included bright moons and chilly autumns.

Read any haiku on the Web? Three unrhymed lines. Set syllable counts. Subjects that include powdered doughnuts, lousy neighbors, halitosis, telemarketers, Frida Kahlo, missing socks and that most venerable of Internet haiku subjects, Spam luncheon meat.

If the Internet had an official form of poetry, it would probably be that latter style of haiku. The ironic and gimmicky verse has metastasized across the Web and clogged e-mail inboxes since the 1990s. Anyone can write about anything.

Consider the verse "Boss" recently submitted to the USA Today site by J. Farthing of Banner Elk, N.C.: "Laugh, play, cruise the Net./Two-hour lunch, then leave early/when the boss is gone."

It's an odd metamorphosis for a respected Japanese verse form known for its subtlety and beauty. Haiku is widely understood in this country to consist of three lines of five, seven and five syllables, although that is not essential. Traditional haiku typically portrays a scene from nature keenly observed. Its beauty is its brevity.

The Web variety adopts the 5-7-5 structure of haiku, but little else. Sticklers will sometimes refer to it as pseudo-haiku or senryu, a haiku-like verse that can deal humorously with human nature. Goofy haiku may well have existed before the rise of the Internet, but the Web's worldwide platform has given it escape velocity.

John Cho launched a Web site in 1995 that soon became loaded with haiku describing the taste, smell, texture and existential meaning of Spam luncheon meat.

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, more and more haiku sites popped up over the years devoted to the likes of Olestra, suburban life and reviews of movies like "Citizen Kane."

Then there's badhaiku.com -- the Web address speaks for itself -- which claims to have posted more than 23,000 haiku in almost six years.

"Haiku, as far as I can tell, is some sort of Japanese poetry," Janis Mussat writes on her site. "I know that there are many rules to take into consideration when writing formal haiku, but the advantage of bad haiku is that you don't really have to follow any of them."

The popularity of Web haiku could be because, with no need to rhyme, it's easier than sonnets or limericks. David Lanoue, an English professor at Xavier University who translates haiku by the Japanese master Issa, theorizes that people find it a fun language game.

"I giggle and laugh at them myself, though I realize it's not serious haiku," said Lanoue.

Like a lot of haiku aficionados, Lanoue seems unfazed by the proliferation of nontraditional haiku. Keepers of traditional haiku sites often include links to their less reverent brethren. Lanoue notes that even Issa wrote the occasional verse on flatulence.

"The beginners come up with kind of cutesy stuff and at the initial stage, they think that's kind of clever," said Jerry Ball, president of the Haiku Society of America. "Most of the people I know get out of that pretty quick. It's like a stage."

Then consider the Web haiku in a state of arrested development. Bela Selendy, operator of a suite of sites heavy on haiku and poetry, reports around 120,000 hits a day. Mussat's site gets haiku at a clip of 20 to 30 a day. Easterbrook estimates a couple of hundred a week show up in his inbox among the thousands of missives he receives each week.

Easterbrook notes he has at least tried to work in other poetic forms, challenging readers to write a football epic poem, "The Iliad and the Offsides."

"Until such a time that someone rises to that challenge," he said, "I think haiku is going to be it."

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