Return of the Bluegrass Haiku

The following column was originally written during National Haiku Writing Month, which this month isn’t, but this month happens to be “National Declare a National Month For Something Month,” so let’s just go ahead and consider this National Haiku Writing Month anyway, shall we?

To properly celebrate this month, we’re encouraged to write a haiku a day, so once again it’s time to revive the art of the bluegrass haiku.

I have written previously here about the origin of haiku, as well as the origin of the bluegrass haiku, so I won’t delve into that here. Besides, a lot of it was made up, and I can’t remember any of what I wrote. However, I do recall explaining that the traditional form of this Japanese poetry adheres to a form of 17 syllables, broken into lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

This is what I thought, anyway, based on the extensive research I did (10 minutes with Wikipedia, and a brief conversation with a guy at the bar who seemed pretty knowledgable about both haiku and Mac Wiseman’s Dot period). It turns out, though, that I may have been mistaken about this “5-7-5” business.

In fact, the web site devoted to promoting National Haiku Writing Month, which is seriously called has a whole section on why we shouldn’t adhere to the 5-7-5 form. Apparently, 5-7-5 is all well and good in Japanese, but in English it doesn’t apply. To quote the site: “Is haiku 5-7-5 or not? Well, yes and no. In Japanese, yes, haiku is indeed traditionally 5-7-5. But 5-7-5 what?” 

This suddenly had me questioning everything. If the 5-7-5 form really refers to five, seven, and five thoughts, or perhaps five, seven, and five turnips, my whole understanding of this poetry has been turned on its head (it had begun in a comfortable lying-down position).

In a Facebook discussion of haiku, a poet suggested that using the 5-7-5 form in English is merely “a cage built by people who didn’t know better.” Suddenly I felt more at ease about sticking with the 5-7-5 method, because I’ve spent a lot of time in my life in cages built by people who didn’t know better. It actually feels kind of homey to me, so that was all the affirmation I needed to not mess with the syllable patterns of my own haiku.

Plus, in bluegrass music, we know how to adhere to form, and toying with the syllable count is a little like eliminating the bar of music where the G-run goes (see Bill Monroe’s Wheel Hoss), or putting in two G-runs (see Larry Cordle’s Black Diamond Strings). It leads to confusion (see Wheel Hoss again).

Another aspect of haiku that’s important, and which tends to be overlooked while we’re busy counting syllables, is the inclusion of a word or phrase referring to the season of the year. An example of seasonal words might be “snow” for winter, “leaf” for spring, or “festival” or “sweat” for summer.

Here’s an example from a haiku about a bluegrass jam session:

instruments blending
a robin quickly takes flight
fearing the banjo

The beauty of haiku is in its brevity, its connection to nature, and the fact that you can dispense with capitals and punctuation, making it like a much more poetic text message (note that “LOL” uses up three valuable syllables, so I’d avoid it).

Personally, I just love the idea that by rewriting bluegrass songs as haiku, we can save so much time. The Hills of Roane County is quickly reduced from six or seven minutes to about 15 seconds, and that includes the mandolin break. I realize The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t originally a bluegrass song, but Tony Rice covered this Gordon Lightfoot classic, and it does contain lots of death and destruction. Imagine if it were reduced to 17 syllables, or at least 17 things:

November gale pounds
good ship and crew in peril
who agreed to this?

If “November” isn’t a seasonal reference, I don’t know what is.

Below are several newly-condensed bluegrass classics, that you might think about using at a bluegrass festival when you get the two-song signal but you really wanted to play six more. The MC and the band coming on after you will thank you for this, trust me. 

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

just laying around
when does that mail train get back?
rolling beats working

When You Say Nothing At All

you sure don’t talk much
the silence drowns out the noise
I’m okay with that

Fox on the Run

why am I a fox?
I don’t understand this song
now the banjo break

Hot Corn Cold Corn (this is what comes of drinking corn prior to writing poetry)

hot corn cold corn, yeah
you’re not Uncle Bill are you?
hot corn LOL