Haiku finds niche on Web

Clever verses toast Spam, dead celebs

Jonathan Sidener
The Arizona Republic
Sep. 4, 2001

No more Web Twinkies.

Must leave basement to get more.

My world is ending.

When dot-com company Webvan went belly up earlier this summer, the Net community marked the billion-dollar bust of the grocery delivery site in a noteworthy way: a massive outpouring of 17-syllable verse known as haiku.

Perhaps better described as "Web-ku," the variation on the Japanese poetic style has become the hip, trendy way to say something on the Net.

Web pages everywhere sport celebrity haiku obituaries, haiku movie reviews and haiku about dogs. Practitioners range from presidential historians to fans of the violent first-person shooter game Quake to lovers of the canned meat Spam.

    Where is the Webvan?
    Where is my Count Chocula?
    Empty street mocks me.

The demise of Webvan unleashed an unprecedented explosion of nearly 600 haiku. The jaded, anarchist and sometimes-clever voices of the Web spoke in the self-imposed constraints of three unrhymed lines of poetry consisting of five, seven and five syllables.

    Two in the morning,
    I have ordered some cheese puffs.
    They will not arrive.

Hour after hour, succinct prose appeared on the leading site monitoring the dot-com meltdown, a site often known by its initials, "FC," because its name is too profane for a family newspaper.

This raging popularity of Internet haiku was perhaps inevitable. Ever since beat writer Jack Kerouac embraced it, the Japanese verse has held a certain right-brained, countercultural je ne sais quoi. It's a natural for the clever, creative hipsters of the Internet.

There are few places on the Web with seeming less potential to spawn haiku than the game Quake.com. The typical young, male visitor might be expected to shoot first and write verse later. But several pages of macho haiku defy the stereotype:

    • Once, they walked proudly.
    Only faint shadows remain
    of fallen comrades.

    • Rancid stench of death,
    stacks of corpses, I trudge on, promised land beyond.

Another Web site, plinko.net , features a haiku page spoofing Yahoo! called "Haikoo!" The site's resident haikuist, Heather Ward, started writing haiku a few years back during a dull night at a previous job. She and a friend exchanged 17-syllable e-mail for the entire evening.

"We were bored," Ward said. "Haiku made it more complicated."

By the end of the night, she was hooked. Before long, she was publishing her haiku online and via an e-mail newsletter.

In addition to the Yahoo spoof, Ward also published haiku celebrity obits:

    •  Jimmy Hoffa:
    Feet stuck in cement.
    You should have kept your mouth shut.
    Sleep with the fishes.

    • Jeffrey Dahmer:
    Your baloney had
    a first name and family,
    or did you forget?

Much of the Web-ku, like much of the rest of the Web, is cleverly tongue-in-cheek. It's sophisticated satire.

The Louisville Courier-Journal's pop culture columnist, Thomas Nord, created such a site and then was surprised by its fame.

He wrote haiku about George Washington and a couple of other presidents. He cobbled together a Web site and e-mailed samples of his first works.

The rest is history. Friends contributed verse on other presidents. Word circulated. The list grew.

    • George Washington:
    Our first president,
    your soul tempered in battle,
    no one else could serve.

    • Theodore Roosevelt:
    Ocean to ocean,
    Teddy Bear dug a big ditch
    across Panama.

    • Abraham Lincoln:
    Stand on principle
    but never sit with your back
    exposed to the door.

Nord has appeared on National Public Radio and in foreign newspapers.

"People were taking this seriously," he writes on his site. "Well, not seriously seriously, but they were certainly treating this like something more than the gag I had intended."

By some accounts, the roots of Internet haiku trace back a couple of decades to the days before there was a World Wide Web.

A collection of haiku translations of computer error messages and help desk refrains formed what is possibly the earliest online example of the genre.

The error messages, some of the most popular and oft-quoted haiku on the Net, started out targeting computer manufacturer IBM. They evolved to take on Microsoft and Sony in later incarnations:

    • Windows NT has crashed.
    I am the Blue Screen of Death.
    No one hears your screams.

    • Chaos reigns within.
    Reflect, repent and reboot.
    Order shall return.

    • A file that big?
    It might be very useful.
    But now it is gone.

Another noteworthy site was neither compiled in a single day, nor was it first. But John Cho's Spam-ku site is apparent the largest single repository of Web-ku.

Cho, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, has collected haiku about the infamous canned-meat product since 1995, generating a book on the topic, as well as an archive of more than 17,000 Spam-ku.

Cho, in an e-mail interview partially conducted in haiku, stopped short of picking a single favorite. But he offered a ditty written by John Mitchell that was the first entry in his book:

    Perfection uncanned,
    like a beautiful redhead
    fresh from her trailer.

Cho says haiku's popularity on the Web is probably the result of several forces.

MTV and sound-bite television news have reduced attention spans into the neighborhood of 17-syllables. Most Americans were exposed to the 5-7-5 rule in elementary school. And, finally, haiku fits well into e-mail, physically and in terms of its immediacy.

Serious haiku practitioners deride, or at best debate, the poetic merit of the feral verse, such as the Webvan lament or the Jimmy Hoffa obit. There are several distinctions between Web-ku and serious haiku, they say.

One of the hallmarks of Web-ku is its cleverness. That sets it apart from the traditional verse, which is intentionally free of wit, said Jim Kacian, editor of Frogpond, the official magazine of the Haiku Society of America.

Haiku is more zenlike, using imagery to evoke insight.

"The essence of haiku is the juxtaposition of images in a way that provides a revelation," Kacian said. While Japanese haiku may or may not be 17 syllables of prose, that structure has no relevance in English, he said.

"No one who writes serious haiku in English follows the 17-syllable structure," he said.

The Japanese have a related form of poetry, senryu, which is clever. But the Web writings don't really qualify for senryu, because it is more serious than the Internet verse, Kacian said. Web-ku is more like something called zappai, a fun, disposable type of 17-syllable verse, he said.

"It's used for things like writing ads for cars or washing machines," he said.

Kacian said he has mixed feelings about Web-ku. It's fun and is not necessarily bad writing. And it may lead some to discover serious haiku. At the same time, the frivolous Web writings devalue the public perception of serious haiku, he said.

"They're fun," the haiku editor said. "There's nothing wrong with them. But would I publish them? No."

Reach the reporter at jon.sidener@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8169.

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