Haiku poetry collection documents corona blues

Haiflu: The 17th-Century Japanese art form updated for life in 2020 lockdown Britain.

Can a single haiku be great art? It is a simple poem in just 17 syllables – and has proved a surprisingly effective way of expressing intense feelings. But can something so slight be art?

When the world plunged into quarantine conditions three months ago, writers and artists rejoiced that they would finally have more time to create great art. After all, Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece King Lear during an outbreak of plague in 1606.

But poet Liv Torc noticed that the “madness and silence” of empty streets, pandemic news, and absent friends was making it very difficult for writers to concentrate. So, she suggested on her Facebook page that people send her a simple haiku about how they were feeling.

A haiku is three lines with five, seven, and five syllables respectively, expressing an image and a mood. Over 12 weeks, Liv Torc received an incredible 8,000 poems, which she called ‘haiflus’. Torc turned them into weekly videos that were watched by over 25,000 people.

Together they take an “emotional snapshot” of lockdown Britain, from the humour and boredom of: “It’s now 2:00 am / and I’m eating hula hoops / who cares anymore” to the sadness of: “Empty carriages / it’s been Sunday for weeks now / no commuters wave.”

Some think the haiku is ideally suited to our instant, impatient age, where anything longer than a 280 character tweet or a 15-second TikTok feels like a major commitment. But Liv Torc also believes they can help our mental health by helping us notice the small moments and enjoy the little pleasures, in a world that feels scary and out of control.

But can a haiku really be great art?

Small is (more) beautiful?

Some say, no, great art must be challenging and complex. It should be something substantial that takes a great amount of time and skill to create.

Others say, yes, there is power, truth, and beauty in the fewest of words. Learning what NOT to say – that is the real skill.

You Decide

  1. Is the ‘haiflu’ art?


  1. Write your own lockdown haiku and draw a picture to accompany it.

Some People Say...

“Haiku is not a shriek, a howl, a sigh, or a yawn: rather, it is the deep breath of life.”

Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), Japanese poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that poetry is one of the oldest forms of art. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem written in ancient Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC, is the oldest piece of literature. Throughout history, poets have held prestigious positions and been commissioned to document important and historic events. Although poems often appear simple, they use rhythm, rhyme, and metre to create an emotional impact and a lasting impression.
What do we not know?
How to tell the difference between bad, good, and great art. Philosophers and artists have debated this question for thousands of years, with no sign of coming to any agreement. Some argue that art embodies ideals of truth and beauty, which only raises more questions about what is truth and what is beauty. Others take a practical approach and argue that art is anything you can put in a museum. And great art is art people will pay good money to see and own.

Word Watch

King Lear
As William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was penning his great tragedy, the plague spread across London and reached his own house, killing his landlady, Marie Mountjoy.
Liv Torc
The British spoken word poet asked for a haiku and a photo to be included in her video compilations. Two contrasting artistic images is an important element of a traditional haiku.
The Japanese word derives from hokku which literally means “starting verse”. Although Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) is the most famous haiku poet, the form did not become known by that name until the 19th Century.
The 15-second video social media platform has surged in popularity during lockdown, gaining 800 million followers worldwide in search of some lighthearted instant entertainment.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.