This was written by Paul H. Henry. His web site is no longer on-line. I feel this is important enough to preserve for future aspiring jokesters. I have preserved all links and tried to reproduce the formatting in the style of my pages. I could not stomach the all-caps headings, and capitalized them more or less by whimsy.
Sunday, May 27, 2001
Since the Internet first extended its reach into the popular consciousness—and, truth be told, for quite a while before that—a plague has spread throughout the Internet community, propagating itself viruslike through the Web and into our e-mail boxes. Like the worst infections, it started out innocuously and became malignant so gradually that most of us have yet to realize how detrimental it truly is.
I refer, of course, to the joke haiku.
Like a hideous genetic mutation in a 1950s-era grade-B science fiction film, these seventeen-syllable poems have been borrowed from classical Japanese culture by well-meaning would-be humorists and distorted so completely from their original intended use that they threaten to permanently warp our capacity for humorous expression, if they are not stopped.
I therefore make this proposal to you, my fellow Internet enthusiasts: that as of right now, we agree to completely eliminate the production and propagation of joke haiku on the Internet. Don't write them, don't forward them to your friends, don't even acknowledge their existence. Only through concerted effort can we stamp out this menace completely.
I list my reasons for this drastic step below.
It is not my intention to hold any individual people up for ridicule, so all of the joke haiku below, with a few exceptions noted in the text, are my own invention (it wasn't exactly hard to do, which as I'll explain below is part of the problem). Those who wish to see real-world examples of the qualities I describe have no shortage of places to go
I've long lamented the way rhyme and meter have largely fallen into disuse in modern poetry, not because free verse is inherently inferior to the sonnet or other forms of rhymed, metered poetry—it isn't—but because it's convinced a lot of extremely untalented people that they can write poetry too. After all, how hard can it be to write 20 short lines that don't even have to rhyme?
Such is the sad fate of the haiku, that quiet, moving Japanese literary device that's become abused beyond recognition by two-bit Internet comedians and hacks. We all learned in second grade that a haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged into three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. Because that's all most of us remember about the haiku, it's used by many, many people as a device for coming up with pithy nuggets of humorous wisdom.
The problem is that it doesn't take a genius to come up with seventeen syllables about anything. For example:
Lame flying saucers
You can see the fishing line
What a bad movie.
It took me all of about ten seconds to write that. Here, I'll do another one:
Where's my other sock?
It disappeared in the wash
How did that happen?
I hardly feel that these two stupid poems mark me as being clever or witty in any way, yet I defy anyone to show that they're any less interesting or worthy of praise and/or laughter than any other joke haiku—the point being that if I can crank out two serviceable joke haiku in less than a minute, they're fairly useless as a measure of humor ability.
What gets me is that by and large the people who create and appreciate joke haiku seem to be the same kind of people who would sneer at the sub-Ogden Nash doggerel that newspaper readers send in to be published next to the Junior Jumble, yet their own well-loved poems aren't appreciably different in any material way, besides not including pitiful stabs at creating a workable rhyme.
Like a tattoo of Japanese kanji characters on the ankle of a pierced hipster who has no idea what they mean, haiku is a sad example of the conversion of important aspects of Eastern culture into status symbols for those in the know. Basho and Issa didn't devote their lives to the perfection of an art form so you could use it to crack wise about how your cat box smells when you don't clean it enough. Think about it.
It may come as a surprise to the vast majority of would-be comedians on the Net, most of whom don't know haiku from Hai Karate, that there's much more to haiku than simply stringing seventeen syllables together.
For starters, the vast majority of joke haiku writers aren't writing haiku at all, they're writing senryu, whether they know it or not. One of the most important aspects of classical haiku is the kigo, or season word, which indicates the season in which the poem is set. Kigo can express the season directly or through implication. For example, many Japanese haiku refer to cherry blossoms, which are a sign of spring. Kigo in English-language American haiku might include the start of Daylight Saving Time (for spring), school letting out (summer), football season (fall), and Christmas (winter). The concept of kigo is vitally important to haiku poets, many of whom compile lists of appropriate words. Senryu, by comparison, generally follow the conventions of haiku but don't require kigo.
Haiku are about nature and seasons. Without the kigo, it's a senryu. Really.
The second concept universally ignored by joke haiku writers is the cutting. More prevalent in Japanese haiku than in other languages, the cutting is a word or other construction that serves to conceptually separate the first or second segment of the haiku from the remainder of the poem. Jennifer Jensen points to a fine example of cutting, from the 17th century haiku master Basho:
yado karu koro ya
fuji no hana
which in English is translated:
When worn out
And seeking an inn:
The cutting word above is the Japanese ya, which doesn't translate to English well; it more or less signals a break in thought, transitioning the reader from Basho's fatigue during his journey to the implied joy he feels when spotting the beautiful wisteria. In Robert Aitken's translation, the cutting word is expressed as a colon.
The cutting is a vital part of haiku, transforming one poem into two, which reflect each other while retaining their independence from one another. By comparison, joke haiku writers typically bull through to the end at maximum speed as though they're trying to get home before WWF Thursday Night Smackdown starts:
Cutting my toenails
I cut too deep and I bleed
all over the rug.
Ironically, the one rule to which every joke haiku does conform—seventeen syllables in three metrical units of five, seven, and five—isn't even a hard and fast rule in English-language haiku. Because of significant differences in the ways syllables are treated in Japanese and Western languages, many non-Japanese haiku poets choose to vary the number of syllables and even the number of lines, in order to more accurately convey the spirit of the haiku.
I hasten to point out that not all joke haiku writers are pseudo-intellectual poseurs. Indeed, if you write joke haiku, the fact that you've read this far indicates an open-mindedness of which you should be proud. Yet it can hardly be denied that many, many people use the haiku form to dress up the most mundane, unfunny ruminations imaginable in pseudo-profound wordplay to make them appear to be timeless observations on society and humankind spawned by a truly talented wordsmith.
For proof we need look no further than the bizarre proliferation of Web pages devoted to haiku about Spam, the processed luncheon meat. There are thousands upon thousands of Spam haiku on pages all over the Web, some of which have even been collected into a book, and all of which say essentially the same thing: Spam is bad food. We need nearly two thousand Web pages to convey this idea?
Of course, the fact that this idea is conveyed through mock-profound poetry helps conceal the subtle contempt that the authors feel towards the kind of people who eat Spam, which they probably bought at Wal-Mart along with their Velveeta, Wonder Bread, and Garth Brooks CDs. In some lame-ass flyover state like Arkansas or Nebraska. Not Our People, in other words. Why, they've probably never even heard of haiku.
Which is not to suggest that all joke haiku are about making fun of the yokels. Far from it. People write joke haiku about art, music, current events, and many other different subjects. But at the heart of all of them is the fact that the author wrote seventeen syllables of unrhymed doggerel and borrows the cachet of a traditional Japanese art form to pass it off as inspired quirkiness.
Consider this example:
Milk after five months
in my refrigerator
tastes just horrible.
The point being made here is that sour milk tastes bad. Yet if I were to post it to a joke haiku bulletin board, or scribble it on a napkin at Denny's at 2:30 am and pass it around to my very-pleased-with-their-own-wit friends, this singularly uninteresting observation would garner laughs and praise and make me look like a very droll person indeed.
The insidious danger of the joke haiku, therefore, is that the distinction between the insightful and the banal becomes blurred by the unearned credibility that accrues to it.
So far we've explored the ways in which joke haiku are an affront to, respectively, cleverness, classical Japanese poets, the haiku form itself, and genuine observational humor. All of these might be forgivable to some degree if not for the final and most important point of all:
"Never" might be an exaggeration, but the vast majority of joke haiku posted to the Internet just aren't funny. Short enough to take the form of a simple sentence, the typical joke haiku is just that: a brief observational sentence about some random aspect of life. When shorn of its haiku form, its true banality emerges.
Consider the example I posted above:
Milk after five months
in my refrigerator
tastes just horrible.
This poem is easily the equal of any number of joke haiku posted or e-mailed anywhere on the Internet. Yet look at what happens when I remove the line breaks:
Milk after five months in my refrigerator tastes just horrible.
What once might have elicited satisfied chuckles from joke haiku aficionados becomes an excruciatingly average observation that illuminates nothing other than the author's slovenly approach to foodstuff maintenance. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it; try it on any joke haiku you encounter and see if it retains even a fraction of its whimsy.
Haiku writers, don't despair. I do not seek to tear down without building up in its place. I propose that joke haiku writers and aficionados shift their allegiance to a form that I consider to be far superior for its purposes: the limerick.
Where once limericks were unimaginably popular in the mass media, they have of late fallen upon hard times, replaced by joke haiku and other inferior vehicles. I propose nothing less than the wholesale resurrection of the limerick as the poetic form of choice for humorous musings on the Internet and elsewhere. Our task will not be easy, but through will and determination we can make it a reality.
There are several reasons why limericks are superior to haiku for the purposes of humor transmission:
As Carl Kasell and the rest of the folks at the NPR quiz show Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me know, nothing says "serious" less than a limerick. Nobody ever wrote a love poem in limerick form. There's a reason why If and The Charge of the Light Brigade were not written as limericks.
Haiku, on the other hand, is a universally recognized art form and gains nothing from being trivialized. Whereas once there might have been some humor value in taking something as serious as haiku and transforming it into a vehicle for goofy doggerel, that value was surely lost long ago through endless repetition.
Even the staid Encyclopaedia Britannica observes that limericks are "frequently ribald." The low reputation of the limerick is such that even the most G-rated limerick suggests a dirty joke through its form and rhythm alone. And of course if telling a dirty joke is your intention, there's no shortage of possibilities regarding the genitalia of the girl from Regina, or the sexual proclivities of men who drive trucks. The jokes practically suggest themselves.
Real haiku can prompt a transcendental experience, as their spare form and rigid structure transport you to a florid Japanese garden in the 17th century, or a snow-blasted forest miles from civilization. Limericks just conjure up some ne'er-do-well in a Dublin pub, his breath marinating you in cheap alcohol as he regales you with made-up tales of the latest fair lassie to grace his stinking bed. Limericks have never pretended to be anything but a wink and a nod and are therefore an ideal medium for such inspired foolishness.
Any moderately intelligent person could easily toss off several joke haiku a minute, and they'd all be neither better nor worse than the average specimens on the Internet. Limericks, however, require that attention be paid to meter and that acceptable rhyming words be found. Whereas the ability to write a "good" joke haiku only marks one as not being in a coma, the ability to write a good limerick sets one apart as a creative force.
Consider this haiku about commuting:
Sitting in my car
I watch the time tick away
This traffic sure sucks.
Pedestrian and boring, it took all of ten seconds to write. To write a limerick on the same subject, one must work much harder:
Nothing's worse, there can be no dispute,
Than my everyday average commute.
In my car long I sit.
I just might throw a fit
If I can't find an alternate route.
Okay, so it's not the best limerick that's ever been written, but in a way that's exactly my point. This stuff's not easy to do. Do it well and you'll be recognized as a witty person.
(Now, if you really want to impress people, try writing a few double dactyls.)
The best haiku boil down to their barest essence a multitude of feelings, perceptions, and truths about the world and the things and people that live on it. Joke haiku, on the other hand, are all about rustling up a cheap laugh or two. Now, I do not mean to denigrate the cheap laugh; indeed, much of my success in social circles depends on it. But I would suggest that the restrictive form of the haiku, while ideally suited to the minimalist observations of classical poets, may not be the best vehicle for conveying humor. The seventeen-syllable limit, which is further restricted by the two line breaks, just doesn't provide the writer with enough room to convey anything but the most basic of ideas.
By comparison, the poetic possibilities available just within the strictures of the "There once was a _____ from _____" form are nearly limitless. Why, one could fill a book with verse about the residents of Nantucket alone.
The time has come to take drastic measures. I therefore call upon every member of the Internet community to take this solemn pledge:
"I PLEDGE NEVER TO WRITE ANOTHER JOKE HAIKU, AND NEVER TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PROMOTION OR PROPAGATION OF JOKE HAIKU ON THE INTERNET."
Take the pledge and liberate yourself from the self-imposed strictures that limit your creative freedom. Join others who have pledged to improve themselves and the Internet sites and e-mail boxes they love.
If we are to be successful, dear readers, it will be through your efforts and determination. Tell your friends about this proposal and urge them to pitch in. With your help, we can look forward to a joke haiku-free Internet.Neale Pickett