The Strange Humor of Haiku- Clark Strand

The Japanese word haiku is composed of two characters: HAI (俳), meaning “light or comical,” and KU (句), meaning “verse.” Thus, haiku means literally “humorous verse.” But humor of what kind exactly? The more examples we find of haiku humor, the more puzzling it becomes. It’s an amorphous term that seems to mean wildly different things in different contexts. There is a good reason for that.

Although humor was an essential part of haiku from the earliest days, it was only in the 20th century that an attempt was made to address its meaning in terms of literary theory. Prior to that, it was simply something that haiku poets did. They found witty or clever ways of describing things—ways that were sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but always memorable. 

In the 20th century, the Japanese critic Kenkichi Yamamoto advanced the opinion that (1) haiku was a classical form of literature written in 5-7-5 syllables, respectively, with a word indicating the season, and (2) kokkei (humor) was its essence.

Kokkei is sometimes translated as “unconventional humor” or even “strange humor.” But neither of these quite hits the mark. Lately, I have been wondering if maybe “queer humor” isn’t the better term. Queer in the sense that it breaks down binaries and boundaries, challenges norms, and is willing “to walk backwards” in the Lakota sense of the heyoka—“a person who speaks, moves, and reacts in an opposite fashion to the people around them.”

We will probably never reach a satisfactory definition of kokkei. How could we? Haiku poets are always reinventing it. Here is a poem by modern Japanese haiku master Sumio Mori, who accompanied Yamamoto to New York City in 1978 to offer lectures at Japan Society.

Wakened from a nap—

all that remains of my dream

is a carp’s whiskers

Yamamoto’s comment:

In this poem, “carp’s whiskers” probably is the central element, and to me the essence of comic nature or something that causes mirth is living and alive here in this phrase. During his nap I am sure a much wider scenery appeared in his dream, but all other things disappeared into the background—into the dark—and only the whiskers remained on his eyelids as he awoke. For something funnier than carp’s whiskers we could think of eel’s whiskers for example. But if he talked about eel’s whiskers in this poem I would start laughing without reservation. However, this poem does not cause you to laugh out loud. It causes you to smile quietly and this is the essence of this poem.

Think of kokkei as “laughter that vectors off in elusive or unexpected directions” and you wouldn’t be off the mark. But then, kokkei sometimes isn’t laughter at all. Or, if it is, it is a silent laughter of the dark and knowing kind. Kokkei can even be sad.

Last summer, crossing a bridge over the Hudson River, I remembered a local news story from a few weeks earlier about a woman who had drowned herself just downriver.


She found the lover

who could take her breath away:

a summer river


I wasn’t going for humor in the conventional sense. I was going for kokkei. It was the only way I could take in the tragedy of a life that had met its end in the river.

In haiku, we learn to say terrible things simply, even lightly, using only 17 syllables and a seasonal word. How else are we to open ourselves to the troubles and travails of others—troubles that have now overflowed the human realm to overwhelm the natural world?

Not all haiku are sad. And not all are funny in a laugh-out-loud kind of way. Some lie right at the border that separates the joy of the life we are living from the inevitable sadness of that life. In haiku, heartbreak is often hidden behind a smile.



Whatever You Can Get Away With In 17 Syllables: An Introduction to Haiku



A former Vice President of the Haiku Society of America, Clark is the author of books on poetry, spirituality, and ecology, including Seeds From A Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and The Way Of The Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, co-authored with his wife Perdita Finn. He teaches the popular group Weekly Haiku Challenges with Clark Strand on Facebook and writes the column “On Haiku” for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

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