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The term refrigerator haiku is based on one of the most famous English haiku: “Haikus are easy, / but sometimes they don’t make sense / refrigerator.” It is also a catch all term for haiku made using magnetic words on fridge doors. The term also applies to fridge magnets that contain haiku. Such magnets can be bought in shops or online or can be made at home for a more unique magnet.
Where the “haikus are easy” refrigerator haiku originated from is a mystery. Many Internet users will claim to have created it, but none can be verified. The haiku has since adorned t-shirts, websites and, in an ironic twist, fridge magnets. It fits the parameters of a normal English haiku, but is designed to make a joke of haiku in general.
Haiku evolved out of many longer forms of Japanese poetry. It grew out of the tanka and the choka. A traditional Japanese haiku consists of 17 syllables. In Japanese, a syllable and a letter are often the same thing, as Japanese is a syllabic language. A Japanese haiku must contain a seasonal word called a kigo and a juxtaposition called kireji.
One of the most well-known examples of a Japanese haiku is the Matsuo Basho “Frog” haiku: “furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto.” The meaning is more opaque than the refrigerator haiku because there is no definite link between the first, second and third lines. It translates to “An old pond / A frog jumps / Sound of water.” The assumption is that the sound of water is made by the frog jumping into the old pond, but there are no grammatical connections to confirm this.
In Japanese, there is a distinction between a haiku and a senryu. Both use the same pattern, but haiku use kigo and kireji, while senryu concern human foibles. The majority of humorous haiku such as the refrigerator haiku are more akin to senryu than haiku, however, the term haiku in English has become a catch-all term for all poems with a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.
Bearing the various rules and traditions in mind, refrigerator haiku can contain any topic. Like the eponymous example, they do not have to make sense and do not have to conform to the strict rules governing modern Japanese haiku. Their content is only determined by the writer’s imagination and the word-magnets available.
How Did Magnetic Letters Develop for Refrigerator Haiku?
To create haiku on your refrigerator, you need magnetic words. But magnetic words didn't just come out of thin air. Magnetic letters existed decades before the words, and they have a very fascinating backstory indeed.
The Origin of Fridge Magnets
Magnets on refrigerators weren't a thing until the 1960s. It all started when inventor Sam Hardcastle was asked by space industry execs to develop flexible, fully magnetic letters and numbers. He created his first versions from a combination of iron oxide, vinyl and iron dust.
Hardcastle's space industry clients loved his product and wanted more of them. He then realized he had a winning invention on his hands, so he began creating magnets that could be customized with advertising messages. After logo magnets came souvenir magnets for each of the 50 U.S. states.
Synesthesia and Colored Magnetic Letters
Did you know that some people can hear colors? It results from synesthesia, the ability to perceive one form of sensory data through another sense. With synesthesia, some people see musical notes as shapes or experience specific tastes when they hear certain words. But this perceptual condition was not known until the late 1800s.
In 1892, several psychology students at Wellesley College interviewed a woman who saw letters and words in color. They called her "Miss C." and asked her to describe these colors. The letter "C" appeared as a bright lemony yellow, while "N" looked like a rich nutty brown. After gathering more data from her, the students thought that maybe she'd seen these colors on letter blocks as a child.
Not every synesthete who experiences letters as colors see the same set of shades. Others may see the letter C as a flaming orange-red or a vivid cobalt blue, for example. But several American synesthetes who grew up in the 1970s reported a few color associations that matched the letter-color scheme from Fisher-Price's School Days Desk Set. But these associations aren't universal.
The Spread of Colored Magnetic Letters
Fisher-Price's School Days magnetic letters would eventually make their way onto refrigerator doors across America. The concept of spelling words with colored letters gained some additional popularity during the 1970s and 1980s thanks to children's educational TV programming. There was also Soul Train's Scramble Board. During each episode, host Don Cornelius would invite two of the show's guests to spell out a predetermined phrase.
How Did Magnetic Poetry Lead to Refrigerator Haiku?
The origins of Magnetic Poetry go back to the 1990s. At that time, Minneapolis songwriter Dave Kapell was suffering from a bad case of writer's block. Anyone who's struggled with it knows how frustrating it can be. But one of history's most accomplished musicians inspired Kapell to find his way out — and create one of the most popular products on the market today.
The Cut-Up Method in Poetry and Songwriting
Poets and lyricists have battled writer's block since time immemorial. Sometimes, however, writer's block isn't the core issue. For the Dadaists of the early 20th century, their art and literature were reactions to the capitalism and war dominating their societies at that time. To create, they embraced irrationality, nonsense and the abstract. It's believed that they originated the cut-up method of composing poems, where pieces of a source text are cut out and rearranged to form a new text.
Many poets and lyricists have used the cut-up method for inspiration and composition. William S. Burroughs revived its popularity in the 1950s. Later artists like David Bowie, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Radiohead's Thom Yorke sometimes composed songs this way, too.
The Birth of Magnetic Poetry
As Kapell wrangled with writer's block, he remembered how Bowie used the cut-up method. He would cut and paste words from photocopied pages of his journals, then rearrange the words until he saw something that sparked his imagination. Kapell did something similar, except he glued his words to magnets and stuck them to a cookie sheet. When he had to clear off the cookie sheets, he moved his magnetic words to the refrigerator door.
Kapell's friends were fascinated by the magnetic words. They asked to play with the words at first, but then they began asking him to make custom magnetic words kits. To keep up with the demand, Kapell and some of his friends stayed up all night and constructed several kits at once. From there, his enterprise grew into a major company earning $7 million in revenues each year. Within its more than 20-year history, Magnetic Poetry has helped songwriters like Tom Petty and Madonna find inspiration — and generated probably millions of haiku poems on refrigerators across America.