A Very Brief Art of the Haiku

I’m happy with this last year of haiku.

And I’m grateful to all who have chosen to follow the blog, and perhaps because of the haiku. So as long as you enjoy them, I’ll continue writing them, twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.

As of this year, I’ve written just over sixteen hundred haiku and senryu, and it’s only in this last year that I feel as though I’ve internalized the art, possibly producing some beautiful examples. If the year is taken as I whole, as a single poem, then I think it’s the best that I’ve produced.

Anyway, what follows is a personal and incomplete Art of the Haiku:

Avoid abstract adjectives like “beautiful” or “profound” or, more simply, any adjective that does not evoke one of the five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing. Beauty speaks for itself.

Winter garden,
the moon thinned to a thread
insects singing

Basho ~ translated Robert Hass

Any adjective that evokes one of the five (or seven depending) senses is a concrete adjective. The brevity of the haiku lives or dies in its ability to vividly evoke the world we live in.

White dew
one drop
on each thorn

Buson ~ translated Robert Hass

Avoid the idea of haiku as simile. They can be successful, but that’s not what a haiku is.

Brevity is the soul of haiku. If a haiku can be made shorter, then the haiku is too long. If one is counting syllables, then every syllable should count.

open the window
a whole windowful
of spring

Santoka ~ translated Burton Watson

The haiku is at its best, as with all poetry, when the abstract is expressed through the concrete.

Summer grass
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams

Basho ~ translated Robert Hass

Do not tell the reader how you feel. Describe what made you feel the feelings.

In spring rain
a pretty girl

Issa ~ translated Robert Hass

Describe what you see, feel, hear, taste and touch and that will be enough. Haiku is the poetry of the startled body.

on a naked horse
in pouring rain!

Buson ~ translated Robert Hass

Second Angel - BlockPrint

Happy New Year! | Jan. 1st 2020

What are English Language Haiku?

One of the reasons I wanted to write my post on Representational Poetry was as a prelude to this post, asking the question: What are English Language Haiku? I originally toyed with the idea that English language haiku are like Representational Poems, in that appreciating them depends on a familiarity with the precepts and aesthetics of Japanese poetic tradition. I changed my mind and both posts changed as a result. The ideas are also influenced by a conversation I’ve been having with Michael Dylan Welch.

Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

To use the term Hakuist is fraught. When I first started writing haiku I briefly corresponded with the late William J. Higginson, an influential writer and editor of English Language Haiku. He didn’t like the term Hakuist, saw no reason to use it, and preferred (as do other poets) the sobriquet: Haiku Poet. But this has always struck me as awkward and begs the question,  then why not Sonnet Poet, Free Verse Poet or Blank Verse Poet? Or just Poet?

Part of the reason is the perhaps unstated feeling that writing haiku is a different undertaking than just writing poetry. And along with that, there are rules that apply to the writing of haiku that don’t apply to ‘western’ poetry. What are those rules? You’ll have to consult a millennia of Japanese poetic tradition and culture. You might want to know the difference between yugen, wabi, sabi, shasei, karumi, mono no aware, and iki for example. And why is that important? Because there’s a sort of split in the way English language haiku are appraised.

Is an English haiku-like poem to be appraised the way any other western poem is appraised?—or is every English language haiku, in a sense, a translation? I lean toward the former, that poems written in the English language may be haiku-like but they aren’t haiku and cannot be appraised like Japanese haiku. Which is to say, for instance, that I’ve never read a convincing defense of English language haiku within the context of the Japanese literary tradition.

Japanese haiku aren’t just a kind of empty “three line form” that can be imported. They’re intimately bound to the way the Japanese language is spoken and written, their literary tradition and philosophical culture; these facets cannot be imported and cannot be superimposed on an English speaking public. For western poets or critics to appeal to Japanese tradition in defense of their poems is an admission that their poetry has, in one way or another, failed.

But, you say, times change and new aesthetics arise. Every great artist builds on the aesthetics of the past while traditions introduced from other cultures renew and define the history of art and literature. The sonnet wasn’t originally English, after all, but an Italian import. In fact, apart from the limerick or Anglo Saxon alliterative poems, almost every English poetic form is, at some level, imported. But what we seldom did, and never with success as far as I know, is to import the literary and philosophical valuations of another culture (like those out of which the haiku developed). Ben Jonson, perhaps, tried when he attempted to import the classical unities into Elizabethan drama. Dryden followed suit but their efforts were largely ignored and didn’t produce compelling literature on that basis.

But if applying Japanese precepts like wabi, sabi, or karumi to western poems is a dead end, then it’s fair to ask: what is a successful English language haiku?

Aesthetic relativism being alive and well, one answer might be that if a poem has value to you, then it’s a valuable poem. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean a poem has literary value. You may just have poor judgment. The more interesting question is this: What makes a poem valuable to a preponderance of readers? Why do we value the haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson above others?

So, by the end of the year, I’ll have written around fifteen hundred haiku. Individually, I think a handful of haiku might be collectible—maybe—but if they have any literary value, then it will probably be as year long cycles—each a sort of seasonal narrative. Having written so many, I have developed a sense from what might constitute an effective and powerful haiku. Inasmuch as the best Japanese haiku survive translation, they do so because they transcend their own literary and cultural points of reference. Likewise, the most memorable English language haiku will have merit for the same reasons. Among the finest Japanese examples, the following by Issa comes to mind:

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers

Or this by Buson:

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel.

(The poem was written while Buson’s wife was alive and well, and that tells you that Buson saw haiku as poetic craft rather than a daily transcript of zen-like experiences.)

Or Basho’s final haiku:

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

A western reader needs no understanding of Japanese literary culture or tradition to appreciate the effectiveness and beauty of these poems. It’s the reason that I reject the assertion that haiku are somehow “extra-literary”; that they require a specialized knowledge to make them work. Or, inasmuch as this is true for any poetic form, it’s not more true for haiku. Haiku work for the same reason any poem works. But the Japanese are naturally going to value some haiku that we won’t if only because of the literary allusions and cultural references unavailable to us. Basho’s famous haiku of the frog jumping into the pond is an example.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

You wouldn’t think a frog could be a turning point for Japanese literature, but you might if you were knowledgeable of the way poets treated frogs prior to Basho. The effectiveness of Basho’s most famous haiku is also bound up with what might strike a westerner as fussy and arcane discussions of Zen. Take the following from here:

Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. ¶ In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!

None of that is going to register with the vast majority of Western readers.

But there are English language haiku that accomplish the same within the context of our own culture. The following haiku-like poems by Richard Wright are better, and have more depth, in our own literary tradition, than Basho’s haiku.

In a drizzling rain
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

The first haiku is a masterpiece. I think of an Edouard Léon Cortès painting, grey streets slicked with rain, and a Parisian flower shop. I can’t say why except that I know that Wright had moved to Paris by this point in his life. The real power of the haiku is in its association of the girl with the flowers being sold in the shop—herself like a flower. The rain that nourishes the flowers paradoxically adds pathos to the girl’s condition. Neither the girl nor the flowers were ever really meant to be sold or to even be there.

The second poem is apt to have less meaning to a Japanese reader. The astute Western reader, knowing that Wright was black, will immediately grasp the allusion to race (and our history of racial tensions and Wright’s own struggles) when the laughing boy’s hands turn white. The observation would be far less striking were the boy’s hands white or were the poet white. In short, Wright’s haiku does what the greatest Japanese haiku do in their respective culture.

Attempts to overlay Japanese precepts on English language haiku include not only aesthetic precepts like Wabi, Sabi and Karumi, but also syllable count, the use of metaphor, seasons words (kigo), the absence or the inclusion of the poet within the haiku.  There is a school of poets, for example, who dismiss English language haiku because they don’t follow the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of Japanese haiku—despite the fact that counting syllables in Japanese is very different from the same in English. Other poems are dismissed for their use of metaphor despite Japanese poets clearly exploiting metaphorical ideas. Conversely, western haiku that otherwise fall short are defended for their adherence to a given Japanese precept. This is no way to critique or defend English language haiku.

When I first began writing haiku, the only thing I knew about them was from a handful of translations, foremost among them the series of books by R.H. Blythe. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I didn’t much care for Blythe’s opinions, but very much enjoyed his translations. To the extent that western writers of haiku ignore all the noise concerning what the Japanese would or wouldn’t do, I think that’s good and encourage it. And if one reads an anthology like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the impression is that  western poets are doing just that.


We have our own tradition now (a hundred years isn’t bad) and a thousand plus years of poetic tradition perfectly capable of sorting the good haiku from the bad without reference to the Japanese. Our haiku are our own and I like them like that.

upinVermont | April 20th 2019

About Haiku

  • June 29 2009 More tweaking & more updating.
  • June 12 2009 Tweaked and edited.
  • March 22 2013 Several sections expanded. Metaphor and simile discussed.
  • November 29 2015 Discussion of Hokku vs. Haiku expanded.
  • May 27 2016 Minor edits and more typos corrected

It’s tempting to start with the history of haiku, but there are better historians and a perfectly good article at Wikipedia (if you want to read some history online).

Another site I would strongly recommend offers a variety of online articles by Jane Reichhold – someone who has lived the haiku life. She recently published a complete translation of Basho’s haiku and I reviewed her book in an earlier post. She has graciously given me permission to repost her list of techniques here. She’s also starting her own blog and when I know the address, I will provide a link.

Another excellent site, Mushimegane,  provides samplings of haiku by ten Japanese poets – the site offers a smattering of haiku by the older Japanese poets the west is mostly familiar with – Basho, Buson – and the rest are 20th Century practitioners. The tradition of haiku is alive and well in Japan, and the site relates some of the heated aesthetic controversies that still swirl around the form- proving it’s still worth fighting over.

The best that I can do, I think, is to share how I read and enjoy haiku – and what I look for.

The Shape of Haiku

Many sites, including Wikipedia, will state that Japanese haiku are “traditionally” written in single vertical lines. Far be it for me to dispute this. However, in the two examples I am posting here, Basho & Issa have *not* written their haiku in single vertical lines but have written them in three lines. Both are written vertically. If only from this evidence, by two of Japan’s greatest practitioners, one can at least reason that the Japanese saw the haiku as being  a tripartite form. Cutting words (words that, roughly like English punctuation marks, designate a break in thought or verse) also typically reinforce the tripartite structure of the haiku.

I have tried to find examples online but couldn’t, so I copied these illustrations from one of R.H. Byth’s books on haiku – Haiku: Volume 4 Autumn-Winter.


I have “highlighted”, with rectangles, the haiku as written on the painting. Here is the same haiku written vertically so that, if you’re like me, you can try to match the Kanji to the actual words and translation.


And here is a haiku by Issa.


And here is the same haiku written horizontally:


Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can follow the Kanji and see the the haiku is written in three lines, vertically, right to left. The bottom line: the haiku’s presentation wasn’t written in stone, being as much art as science; but the tripartite form of the haiku is an established characteristic of the haiku.

The Shape of Haiku in English

English poets wishing to write haiku in English recognized the poem’s tripartite form and so, mirroring this, most English language poets write haiku in three lines. And that’s where most agreement ends. Up until the mid-seventies, the overwhelming opinion was that an English language haiku should be written as follows:

5 syllables/
7 syllables/
5 syllables

Why? The Japanese count what are called on. Five in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third – 5/7/5. The Japanese “on” has traditionally been considered a parallel to the syllable in the English language. But it’s not. Here is how Wikipedia explains the difference:

“The word ‘on’ is often translated as “syllable”, but there are subtle differences between an ‘on’ and an English-language “syllable”… One on is counted for a short syllable, an additional one for an elongated vowel, diphthong, or doubled consonant, and one for an “n” at the end of a syllable. Thus, the word “haibun”, though two syllables in English, is counted as four on in Japanese (ha-i-bu-n).”

This means that any given word in Japanese will have more Japanese “syllables” than an equivalent word in English.  The fact that writing 5/7/5 poems in English isn’t equivalent to the Japanese system is revealed, tellingly, by translators who try to retain the 5/7/5 syllable count in English. The haiku tend to feel wordy and the translator is nearly always forced to introduce “filler” words that are not in the Japanese. Here, for example, is Basho’s most famous haiku:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Notice the 5/7/5 “syllable” count. Now watch what happens when a translator tries to preserve this “count” in English (translated byEli Siegel):

Pond, there, still and old!
A frog has jumped from the shore.
The splash can be heard.

Another (Translated by Earl Miner & Hiroko Odagiri):

The old pond is still
a frog leaps right into it
splashing the water

Not only do the translators miss the sense switching that is essential to understanding the genius of the poem (the frog jumped into the sound of water, not the water), but they are forced to add all kinds of words and meanings that aren’t in the original. Here is a recent translation by Jane Reichhold:


old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

Reichhold’s translation comes closest to the original in my judgement. Here is the original with a literal translation (notice the cutting words ya & no – for which there is no equivalent in English:

furuike | ya | kawazu | tobikomu | mizo | no |oto
old-pond |: | frog | jump-in | water | sound

So, at least by these standards, writing 5/7/5 haiku in English can’t really be considered an equivalent to the Japanese 5/7/5 on. After all, notice that the Japanese treat cutting words, which in some cases are essentially punctuation marks, as syllables. When is the last time an exclamation point or colon was counted as a syllable in English? So… the 5/7/5 stricture is useful, inasmuch as it provides a form or scaffold on which to build a haiku, but it requires too many words in English to really capture the spirit of the Japanese haiku – at least  as the Japanese read it in their own language.

Note: The late William J Higginson, who has increasingly seemed, to me, to be the most informed and knowledgeable western scholar, had this to say of Riechhold’s term “sense switching”:  It would have been better had Reichhold identified logic, rather than the senses, as being scrambled here, and unfortunately she wrongly classifies this as an example of synesthesia (taking one sensation as if perceived by a different sensory mode, such as “colors of music” or “sweet pain”). Her version of Bashô’s poem, however, comes far closer to the original than most translations, and the “mind puzzle” certainly does exist in the original, though it fails to show up in most of those other translations.

A more equivalent form, in my view (and I don’t take credit for this), is to write English haiku on an accentual basis rather than a syllabic one. So, the form would look like this:

2 stresses/
3 stresses/
2 stresses

Reichhold’s translation, as it so happens, falls into this accentual 2/3/2 form. I don’t think it’s intentional since many of her other translations do not, but I think it indicates that this accentual method is a closer approximation to the spirit of the original.


A third alternative is to ignore any kind of form whatsoever, which is what I do. Since English language haiku will never truly be the equivalent of Japanese haiku (because the English language will never be the equivalent of the Japanese language) I’m content to strive for the spirit of the form – the ku. My impression is that this is what most modern English language poets do. It has also been my impression that most translators no longer bother with the older 5/7/5 syllable count. But there are exceptions: Donald Keene’s recent translation of Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku is a case in point. He retains the 5/7/5 syllable count and his translations are beautiful though not always “faithful”. He is forced to introduce words & meanings that are not in the original (and I can only judge this if kanji is provided) – though his additions might match the tenor and reinforce certain aspects of the haiku (allowing that the reader accepts his interpretations).

As for me, I have read Sato’s very faithful translation of the same work, Narrow Road. Sato translates Basho’s haiku as a single line in English but his translations lack a sense of poetry. So, I keep Keene’s translation right next to me reasoning that somewhere in between their translations, something of the original Japanese can  be felt.

Bottom line: You will come across forceful arguments for all three methods. None of them is right. It’s up to you to decide which form works for you. I personally prefer brevity and as little interpretation as possible. I like to get as close to the literal words of the original as possible. But that’s just me.

Hokku & Haiku: Forceful arguments are not limited to form. A very good site strongly argues that since haiku was a term initiated by the Japanese Poet Shiki (1867-1902), it should not be retroactively applied to poems written before him (as I have done). Note:The original link was apparently removed by the blogger at the Hokku site, and so I’ve linked to the site in general. These poems, the argument goes, should be called hokku – haiku and hokku representing two diverse principles and aesthetics. According to this argument: Hokku (traditional haiku) concern themselves with nature  and the cycle of nature as it reveals us to ourselves and our oneness with nature. “Haiku”, on the other hand, are primarily 20th Century diversions that can be altogether unrelated to nature, to hokku (traditional haiku), and to anything that would have been written or understood by Japanese poets prior to the 20th Century. If one accepts this assertion, then this post should be called “About Hokku”, and not “About Haiku”. And, if one accepts this assertion, many (if not most) of the three line poems written by modern poets and bloggers are not, in fact, haiku. Wikipedia also offers a brief entry on this subject.

November 29th 2015: I’ve recently been reading an excellent translation of Basho’s haiku by David Landis Barnhill — the best in my opinion. Haikai referred both to haikai no renga, a comic linked verse form (linked in the sense that it was comprised of alternating stanzas 5-7-5, 7-7, 5-7-5, 7-7, etc…) and the more general aesthetic aims of the form—cultivating both “earthy humor and spiritual depth”. Barnhill allows that we might more accurately refer to Basho as a master of haikai poetry.  Hokku historically referred to the first stanza (5-7-5) of the classical renga or its haikai form. As for the distinction between Haiku and Hokku, Barnhill sensibly writes:

“[Haiku] is a modern word. It was popularized by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the first great modern haiku poet, as a way to distinguish his type of verse from its antecedents, haikai and hokku. In partiular, Shiki emphasized that a haiku is a completely independent poem, not part of a linked-verse. During most of the twentieth century Western scholars and translators used the term haiku for both modern haiku and postmodern hokku, and haiku has thus come to be the generally accepted term in the West for both premodern and modern forms. In addition, Basho’s hokku now function in modern culture (both in Japan and the West) the same way Shiki’s haiku does, as independent verses.” [Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, p. 4]

As a final parting thought on form in English Haiku, consider this passage from The Haiku Handbook by the late William J. Higginson:

“As a result of this study [in which Higginson timed how long the Japanese took to read or perform Haiku) I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original.

A well known translator of Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato, has also concluded that his haiku translations “must come to about… 12 syllables in the case of those written in the orthodox 5-7-5”. Maeda Cana, a scholar who has made an extensive study of quantity in Japanese and English poems, has worked very hard at duplicating the durations and rhythmical patterns of Japanese haiku in her English translations. Her translations average just under twelve syllables each, I find it significant that two other translators agree with the finding which I independently arrived at: Approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji.

The simplistic notion of 17 syllable haiku has obscured another important feature of traditional haiku form in the west. Most traditional haiku have a kireji, or “cutting word”. The kireji usually divides the stanza into two rhythmical parts, one of 12 onji and the other of five. The kireji is a sort of sounded, rather than merely written, punctuation. It indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically. Some kireji also lend a particular emotional flavor to the five [roughly like an exclamation point]…

The starting verse of a renga also had to leave room for an additonal thought, to be added in the next verse [haiku partly originated as the starting verse of a renga]. Often the starting verse was grammatically incomplete. The tendency toward grammatical incompleteness carried over into haiku–as either incomplete sentences or very clipped, almost telegraphic speech. This allows haiku poets to concentrate on image-making words as they omit much of the complex grammar that occurs in everyday conversational Japanese.” [p. 102]

The Seasons of Haiku ~ Kigo

All haiku are traditionally written with one of the four seasons explicitly in mind. (The observation of nature and seasonal cycles is what separates traditional haiku (or Hokku), in the minds of many scholars, from modern haiku.) In many cases, the seasonal clues are explicit enough that even a western reader, with just a little experience, can recognize the Kigo (season word).

the snow on my hut
Melted away
In a clumsy manner.

~Issa [Snow melts in the spring.]

tilling the field;
my house also is seen
as evening falls

~ Buson [Fields are tilled in the spring – tilling would be the kigo.]

on the lotus leaf
the dew of this world
is distorted

~ Issa [The kigo would be lotus leaf – summer.]

the cool breeze
fills the emptiness of heaven
with the voice of pine trees

~ Onitsura [The kigo would be cool breeze – summer.]

the flying leaves
in the field at the front
entice the cat

yosa_buson~ Issa [The kigo would be flying leaves – autumn.]

the sparrows are flying
from scarecrow
to scarecrow

~ Sazanami [The kigo would be scarecrow – autumn.]

after killing the spider,
a lonely
cold night

~ Shiki [The kigo would be cold – winter.]

a camellia –
it falls into the dark
of an old well

~ Buson [The kigo would be camellia – winter.]

In large part, the poets will also simply state the season.

summer grasses
all that remain
of the warriors’ dreams

~ Basho

Although Kigo may seem mysterious at first, one does begin to recognize them (especially if the translator has been kind enough to organize the haiku by season). After a little experience, one even begins to enjoy ferreting out the haiku’s season and which word or image is meant to signify the season.

How to Read Haiku

First, although Basho is considered Japan’s greatest poets and although he wrote over a thousand haiku, even a devout partisan of haiku like R.H. Blyth stated that, really, only about a hundred of them were truly great. Shiki also famously made the same claim. The same could be said, more or less, for Buson, Issa, Shikki. Don’t read haiku expecting every haiku to be a masterpiece. Don’t blame yourself if you find yourself asking: Just what is so great about this little blip? It’s possible that, in fact, there isn’t anything great about it. haiku are like all the things we do. Some burn with a brilliant white light, others glow warmly and others, well, they sputter out in a little poof of ash & soot.  Then there’s taste. Even the Japanese cannot agree on which haiku are great and which are not. Some consider Basho’s “greatest” poem, Old Pond, to be nothing but a trite piece of fluff.

So it goes.

Second, although some critics seem to wrap haiku in a veil of mystery and Zen ineffability, the Japanese have ten toes like us, breath the same air, and did not evolve on a different planet. For the most part, they write, understand and read poetry just like we do. The techniques they use in haiku are, for the most part, identical to the techniques in our own poetry because they are, in fact, homo sapiens like us.  There are differences, obviously, but they are more reflective of poetic philosophy and emphasis. One does not have to master Zen to understand or appreciate haiku.( That whole line of thinking is overblown.)

However, like the game of GO, which is a game much older than Chess, originating in China and perfected in Japan, the rules of haiku are easy to learn but take a lifetime to master.

But the rules are simple.

Nearly every haiku is an attempt make us consider ordinary experiences in a poetic and extra-ordinary way (thus, the haiku’s resemblance to the experience of oneness, satori, the sudden and abrupt moment of enlightenment – the Ah-Ha! moment). Some two hundred years ago, on a warm spring day, a poet named Issa saw that as the snow was melting, the children came out to play in the warmer weather. This is an ordinary thing to see on an ordinary day in spring. The snow melts. There is nothing extraordinary about melting snow. In every part of the world where the snow comes and goes, men and women have seen the same thing. But one day, Issa, a self-deprecating Japanese poet, saw it  in an extraordinary way.  This is what poets do. He wrote:

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

We read the first line, then the second, thinking that he will tell us the snow has flooded the village. But this would be ordinary. The meaning of the second sentence is like a hinge that will be swung from the first line to the third. The village is not flooded by snow, but by children. The effect is to transform the melting snow into the colors and motion of playing children. The effect is magical. The reader experiences the ordinary in an extraordinary way. And this is what great haiku do. They use a variety of techniques to accomplish, but the best all have this in common – that Ah! moment.

I have already posted Basho’s famous haiku, but it bears reposting because, again, it exemplifies that unique capacity of the haiku to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

This haiku has been so frequently mistranslated that westerners wonder what is so profound about a frog jumping into an old pond. And there is nothing profound about that. It’s the last line, when the frog jumps into the sound of water, that the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. (It perfectly expresses the moment of oneness that is such a feature of Zen – and it is in this respect that the philosophy of the haiku finds its analogy in Zen.) In this case, the technique is different than that which Issa used. Reichhold, as I mentioned before, calls this technique Sense Switching, Higginson prefers to call it a scrambling of logic .

What if you were sitting with guests and something happened. Maybe it shocked all of you? You sit in stunned silence? Here is a rendition of what Oshima Ryota wrote:

the guest, the host, the white

This is my own rendition, based on the literal translation of the Kanji. This haiku has to be among my all time favorites. The first two lines are perfectly ordinary. And then the third! What should we imagine? Are they shocked? Are they meditating? Whatever has happened, the white chrysanthemum is suddenly, fully and wholly a part of the narrative. It is a brillant stroke and I can’t help detecting humor (though Patricia Donegan, in haiku mind, treats the poem with reverential seriousness).

And here’s another in a similar vein by Issa:

As if nothing had happened,
The crow
And the willow.

Not all haiku burn with the white hot brilliance of these last three. Sometimes the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is not so white hot, but more of warm glow. Issa was especially gifted with this sort of awareness & gentleness.  He could write:

visiting graves –
the old dog
leads the way

The oneness is warm and gentle in this haiku. It is as though Issa grants the dog an awareness of its own age and mortality, but does so without anthropomorphizing. There is simply the awareness that, in its own way, the dog is no different than ourselves, instinctively aware but serenely un-aware of its mortality; knowing its way home the way we all, ultimately, know our way home. Not ah-ha! But simply, ah…

Variations on Haiku

Haiga – A haiga is simply a haiku which is part of an illustration or painting – each art form, ideally, informing and enriching the other. The samples above, with which  I started this post, are haiga. Buson was especially famous for haiga, being considered  as talented a painter as he was a poet. Once one begins to become familiar with the different Japanese poets, a reader does begin to notice a certain painterly quality to Buson’s haiku.

Haibun – The combination of prose and haiku. Usually the prose is brief, highly descriptive and evocative. This is the genre in which Basho’s Narrow Road to the North is written, perhaps Japan’s most famous and most read piece of literature – in and out of Japan. Basho’s Narrow Road is a kind of travelogue. The haiku enrich and inform the prose tracts while the prose provides insight for better appreciating the haiku.

Senryu – Senryu are almost like haiku but for tone and subject matter. Senryu frequently dispense with kigo, are humorous, satirical, and wryly underscore the foibles of human nature.  The form is named after Edo period haiku poet Senryū Karai.

the robber,
when I catch him,
my own son

Higginson writes in The Haiku Handbook that “to some purists only the absence of season words and kireji divides senryu from haiku… Others note that senryu tend to focus on the humor in a situation, and do not always speak of the specific here and now, while haiku usually do. Human concerns, though not absent from haiku, dominate senryu.”

My own experience is that the majority of “haiku” written by Western bloggers and poets are really Senryu or Zappai. The term “Erotic Haiku”, for example, is very nearly a contradiction in terms. However, since many (if not most) western readers probably aren’t familiar with the distinction between haiku and senryu, there is some justification for the collocation “Erotic Haiku”.

A very general distinction:

  • Haiku: The predominant themes of haiku are seasonal and concerned with nature. Haiku relate nature to human beings.
  • Senryu: Senryu are no longer limited to humorous or satirical subjects. They do emphasize human concerns over the natural world and often do not reference nature at all.
  • In modern times, and especially in English, the distinction between a senryu and a haiku can be permeable.

In the book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, (in my opinion one of the best book on writing haiku) Lee Gurga argues that while the distinction remains strong in Japan, the difference between haiku and senryu is much less severe in English:

“While it is similar to haiku in form, senryu is different in effect. Senryu does not require a season word, and it relies on wit, irony, and satire  to comment on the human condition. Haiku, senryu and zappai are quite separate genres in Japan, but the distinctions in English-language circles are blurred. Many of the poems written in seventeen syllables and presented as haiku in the West would actually be senryu or zappai in Japan.”

  • Zappai – Gurga calls this “a term that encompasses more than twenty-five types of light verse in haiku form.”  Zappai means “miscellaneous haikai verse” [p. 58]. Gurga also uses the term pseudohaiku.

Simile and Metaphor in and Haiku

You will commonly be told that Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile in haiku. This is only partially true. Japanese poets do not use metaphor or simile like western poets but scholarship is increasingly revealing a different sort of metaphor associated with the “icononcity” of the language itself. This is a complex subject and an extract from the following essay should give you an idea of what’s involved:

“One of the most controversial criteria often stressed in haiku handbooks is that haiku should be an objective record of things experienced (Arkenberg, 2008). The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B. In other words, haiku is often defined as a poem which avoids poetic devices, even metaphor (Shirane, 2000: 53).

However, numerous legendary Japanese haiku masters (Basho, Issa, Busson) are known to have used metaphor in their poetry, for example:

About to bloom,
and exhale a rainbow,
The peony

(translated by R. Roseliep ) Busson ( On a Rhyming Planet, 20 )

The peony is pictured both literally and figuratively: every flower blooms at its proper time but the one in the haiku above is endowed with a kind of magical power, for it is capable of breathing out a rainbow when breaking into blossom. An unusual hyperbole based on the conceptual metaphor PLANTS ARE LIVING BEINGS implies rainbow flecks of sun rays – an optical effect emerging quite often in sunny weather.

Today more and more haiku researchers claim that metaphor is central to haiku as to any other kind of poetry ( see Carriello , 2010 ; Shirane, 2000; Swede, 2000). However, the fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent (Carriello, 2010 ). The metaphor in good haiku is often hidden or even deeply concealed within a poem. Even the seasonal word in Japanese haiku often tends to be inherently metaphorical, since it conveys very specific literary and cultural associations, but its dominant function remains to be descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied (Shirane, 2010: 56 ) .

Metaphor in Japanese haiku has been widely studied by Masaka Hiraga (see Hiraga 1998; 2002; 2005; 2006 ), who claims that metaphor is tightly linked to iconicity which is defined as a mapping between the structure of a text and the meaning or image it conveys. In poetic texts this interplay of metaphor and iconicity is particularly foregrounded (Hiraga 2005: 27). Still, while the Japanese language displays pure iconicity, for the system of its hieroglyphic writing visually signals the meaning, English haiku show iconicity and its interplay with metaphor more subtly, which is the focus of our research. ” [Metaphor in English Haiku: A Cognitive Approach Anna Shershnyova, Kyiv National Linguistic University]

My own opinion is that translators who studiously avoid, for example, verbal metaphors (see my post on The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss) because they think that Japanese poets didn’t use metaphor are potentially doing a considerable disservice to the poetry of the original Japanese haiku.
  • March 21rst 2016 · Being in the middle of my haiku year, writing a haiku a day, I’ve also been reading a wide variety of Japanese haiku from their origins through the 19th century. At this point I would say that the Japanese poets do use simile and metaphor (as we understand it). The difference is that they don’t preface their similes or metaphors the way western poets do. The brevity of the haiku, if nothing else, prevents that. Consider a recently discovered trove of haiku by Buson. One of the haiku reads as follows:


The umbrella
····changes form, a moon-lit night
········with eyes


This is essentially a simile. There are holes in the umbrella where the moon shines through. So: The umbrella is like a moon-lit night with eyes. Of course, because Buson doesn’t use like — which never would have occurred to him anyway — the simile is less direct and therefore more powerful. It’s not just the umbrella that is altered (becoming like something else) but the entire night now has eyes. The umbrella becomes (as opposed to being like) a moon-lit night with eyes. So, the takeaway in my opinion is not that Japanese poets didn’t use simile and metaphor, but that they used these poetic techniques in a different guise. At its simplest perhaps, they would never write that X is like Y but that X becomes and is Y. Some might call this the Zen influence in haiku.


The Techniques of Haiku

And now for the entomology. Read no further if you faint at the sight of these flitting little poems pinned through their hearts – examined under a magnifying glass. The following techniques are the result of Jane Reichhold’s work, not mine. They spring from Appendix 1 of her book: Basho: The Complete Haiku. I have her to thank for them. I have paraphrased and have not used the haiku she gives as examples (at her request). I have also condensed some for the sake of brevity and because some of the distinctions seemed slight to me. If you want to read a more thorough explanation of each technique with an example by Basho, check out her book. It’s worth it. Only one of the techniques is my own (and she may tell me that it’s not Japanese or a genuine technique).

Note: Higginson has this to say concerning this list: Reichhold’s list-making gets away from her, however, with twenty-four “techniques” for writing haiku, many of which seem minor variations on one another, or which ignore the time-honored vocabulary used to name and discuss such things. She does not seem to understand the meanings of such words as “metaphor” and “simile,” for example.

With this in mind, recognize that the Japanese may have more traditional Japanese terms for these poetic techniques. I still find this list useful; a good way to approach haiku through more familiar terms and concepts.

1.) Association – How different things may be associated.

A handle
On the moon –
And what a splendid fan.

2.) Comparison – How different things may be compared.

In traveling attire,
A stork in late autumn rain:
The old master Basho.

~ Chora

3.) Contrast

Into the distance,
The straight line of the canal,
And the willow trees

~ Shiki

4.) Close Linkage – Linking images – a kind of subcategory of Association.

A pear tree in bloom
In the moonlight,
A woman reading a letter.

~ Buson

5.) Leap Linkage– This operates the same as the previous technique, except that the linkage between the images may be much more difficult to discern. (Reichhold gives a better example in her book.) Sometimes the linkage is simply impossible for a western reader to discern without a knowledge of Japanese history, literature and culture.

autumn evening;
a crow
on a withered bough

~ Basho

6.) Metaphor – This is much less common in haiku, if only because of their brevity. The example Reichhold gives in her book seems more like a simile to me – the gay boy/a plumb and the willow/a woman ~ Basho. The following is the closest that I could find to something like metaphor in my particular selection of haiku.

a stream
rowing through the town,
and the willows

~ Shiki

[My thought, and I may be incorrect, is that the stream is itself a metaphor for Shiki.]

7.) Simile – The Japanese don’t spell it out the way western poets do. However, substitute like for what and viola! – you have a simile.

a handle
on the moon –
what a splendid fan

~ Sokan

8.) Rhyme This needs no explanation. However, rhymes in Japanese are much easier than rhymes in English since, as Reichhold points out, there are only five vowels – a bit like Italian. Rhyming is actually far more ubiquitous than English translations would lead you to believe but, unlike Sonnets, rhyming is not considered part and parcel of the haiku form. It happens when it happens. Nonetheless, for the sake of completion, I’ll give an example from one of my own haiku – master that I am. My self-appointed haiku name is bottlecap, (because of my glasses).

····running round and round as the leaves
········fall down

bottlecap · edited May 27th 2016

(This would be more of a slant rhyme and internal rhyme, I suppose.)

9.) The Sketch (or Shasei) – Shiki was considered the leading proponent of this sort of haiku. The depiction of a thing just as it is. Interspersed with other haiku, the effect can be refreshing, but too much and the effect begins to feel dull. Also, this technique is one that eschews the aesthetic of making the ordinary extraordinary. Many modern haiku, I notice, (and especially among newcomers) are really Shasei.

the lights are lit
on the islands far and near:
the spring sea.

~ Shiki

10.) Narrowing Focus – Start big, end small. According to Reichhold, this was a favored technique of Buson.

icy moonlight
small stones
crunch underfoot

~ Buson

11.) Riddle – Reichhold writes: “The trick in using this technique is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. The more intriguing the setup, and the closer the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work.”

····the birch?—or my daughter
········behind it?

~ bottlecap

you are the butterfly
and I the dreaming heart
of soshi?

~ Basho

12.) Paradox

In the eye of the dragonfly
the mountains

~ Issa

13.) Wordplay -This includes double-entendres and puns, difficult to reproduce in translation.

14.) Humor – Issa, in my experience, is easily the most gently humorous of all the Japanese haikuists.

The young girl
blows her nose
in the evening glory

~ Issa

One man
One fly
In one room.

~ Issa

(The latter haiku is my rendition. I find Blyth’s translation too wordy – ruining the understated humor of the haiku.)

15.) Pseudo-science – “A distorted view of science” Reichhold calls it. She writes that this method creates an “other reality” and that it is an old Japanese tool meant to make the poet “sound simple and childlike” while confounding the reader. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the difference between this and what Reichhold calls sense-switching or Higginson’s Logic Scrambling. I actually find that I prefer Reichhold’s term. It has the feeling of synesthesia which the terms sense switching, in my view, better captures.

the temple bell
still ringing in the scent
of evening flowers

~ Basho

(This is my rendition of Basho’s haiku. The version by R.H. Blythe seemed clumsy to me.)

16.) Sense Switching – This is considered a favorite of Japanese poets. Hearing what one sees. Seeing what one smells, etc… Basho’s famous haiku – Old Pond, is a prime example.

17.) Frame Rhyme – This is the term Reichhold uses for off-rhymes, slant rhymes, half rhymes, etc… My own haiku, Round and round, is an example.

18.) Coining new words – This is self-explanatory and very difficult to reproduce in translation. Shakespeare was a master of word coinage, but all his haiku are tragically lost…

19.) Twist Reichhold calls this the most common method in writing “waka” poetry. Quite simply, the poet creates a set of expectations then, in the middle of the verse, turns or twists those expectations. Issa’s haiku, transforming the melting snow into a flood of children is a prime example.

20.) Pivoting This is similar to the twist. The difference is that the middle line can be applied to both the first line, meaning one thing, and the last line, so that it means another. Again, Issa’s poem is a perfect example of this – possessing both a twist in meaning and a 2nd line pivot.

21.) Literary References (Reichhold adds Response to Another Poem as its own technique – but I mention it here as a variation on Literary References.) The Japanese (and Chinese) revered their elders and their poetic traditions. They, like Robert Frost, preferred the old way to do new things. They weren’t the least embarrassed by quoting or paraphrasing whole lines of poetry. They didn’t give credit where credit was due. They simply assumed that readers would immediately recognize the reference. There’s a story of a Japanese warlord who was caught in rain while hunting. He went to a farmer’s house and requested a raincoat. If memory serves, the girl returned with a cut vine of Clematis. The warlord was infuriated by the girl’s disrespect but when the Warlord’s retainer patiently explained that this was an allusion to a famous poem (dating back hundreds of years ago and about a similar situation), the warlord was so embarrassed by his ignorance (that a mere peasant girl knew more about great poem than he did) that he sheepishly hurried home and devoted his life to the study of literature. The Japanese took these matters seriously.

Anyway, Basho’s Narrow Road is chalk full of literary borrowings and references. He frequently mentioned uta-makuras for example. An uta-makura is a landmark (it could be a stone in a field or the north side of a river) that had usually been mentioned in an older poem. A whole tourist industry was built around uta-makuras and Basho saw as many as he could during his famous journey to the north. Unless your edition of haiku is annotated. Just forget it. You will never recognize all the references. Unfortunately for us, understanding the reference, in some cases, is the better part of understanding the poem. I prefer translations with annotations – whenever possible.

Here’s an example from the very first haiku from Basho’s Narrow Road to the north. I’ll reprint the haiku as it was translated so that you can get the feel of a single line translation (this is Sato’s translation, mentioned above).

Departing spring: birds cry and, in the eyes of fish, tears.

Sato writes: “Alludes to the third and fourth lines of “A Spring View”, a poem by Tu Fu: ‘Touched by the times, I shed tears on the flowers; / resenting separation, I am startled by the birds.'”

22.) Hiding the Author This can be difficult to spot. The haikuist talks about himself without explicitly mentioning himself – the idea being to make the poem more universal. This runs against the grain of American confessional poetry, which has taken navel gazing to irredeemable heights.

departing Spring
in the late cherry blossoms

~ Buson

In Buson’s haiku, I suspect that Buson is referring to himself when he writes “departing Spring”. In other words, he is no longer young but, like the cherry blossoms, chooses to linger a little while in fading beauty.

23.) Hidden Subject – Reichhold states that “Asian poets often praised a missing thing”.  The technique risks being maudlin and sentimental. Here is one by Issa.

Mountains seen also
By my father, like this,
In his winter confinement.

~ Issa

24.) Sabi – Reichhold makes the point that the Japanese themselves cannot agree on what exactly Sabi means, but seem doubly certain that it can’t be explained to westerners. It’s not so mysterious, though what sparks the experience differs for each person – which is why it may be so difficult to describe. For me, it’s a kind of beauty experienced with the sorrow of transcience.

grasses in mist
and the brook is quiet –
daylight fades

~ Buson

(This is my own rendition.)

25.) Wabi – This adds the element of simplicity to Sabi. Frost captures Sabi and Wabi in his great poem Directive.

“The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.”

It is in the last line of this passage that I, myself, have the feeling of Wabi. The little plastic cup, worn, with the marks of childhood, and thrown aside, has in it a simple, and perhaps heartbreaking beauty that no work of craft could ever match.

in the winter river,
pulled up and thrown away –
a red turnip.

~ Buson

26.) Yugen – This is best expressed, perhaps, as finding mystery in common things – a kind of unknowable meaning in an everyday observance.

autumn beginning:
lamplight from someone’s house –
not quite dark

~ Buson

27.) Divinity in the Commonplace

the blossoms fall
our minds
become tranquil

– Koyo-Ni

(This is my rendition.)

28.) Lightness – This was a technique which Basho developed and prized in his old age. The technique was not a hit with some of his disciples however, who (if one reads between the lines) apparently grew tired of the master’s harping on it. They parted company. Reichhold states: “Basho was trying to write poetry that was less emotional…” She notes that Basho’s favorite haiku using this technique “are the ones with few or no verbs” – as if it were the verbs that weighed the poems down. “In our times,” she notes, these haiku are “pejoratively called ‘grocery list’ haiku”. Seems that the technique never caught on. (Add grocery list haiku to desk haiku (desku) – haiku which are written from ones imagination rather than direct experience; a manner of writing treated with contempt by every self-respecting purist.)

plates and bowls
dimly in darkness
evening chill

~ Basho

[Reichhold seems to distinquish this technique from Shasei, but the difference is hard for me to discern.]

29.) Implied Narrative This is a technique I have noticed but that Reichhold doesn’t seem to mention, and that could be because it’s not a Japanese technique. I find it to be an especially powerful technique in an especially small poetic form. It is the trick of using details to imply a narrative larger than the poem. Here’s an example by Shiki.

an upright hoe
no one to be seen –
the heat!

And here is a modern haiku by an online poets I discussed in a previous post:

snowy prints
bird prints end
at my approach

~ Polona Oblak

In this last haiku, the narrative of the bird’s startled flight is omitted but implied. In Shiki’s haiku, the narrative of the overheated farmer is omitted, but implied. The reader fills in the narrative and so adds to the power of what is omitted.

Guides & Resources: The Haiku Society of America (HSA) has put together a top-notch list of haiku resources and guides. You can also find reviews of many of the books there. The reviews are well-worth reading. You will get a sense of some of the disagreements and controversies most of us are unaware of.

Questions? Suggestions? Corrections? Let me know.

Three Masterful Haiku by online Hakuists

[If you came to this post looking for more general information on Haiku, take a look my post on Haiku called What is: Haiku. If you’re looking for Haiku on certain themes, try the Categories Widget at right or use the search feature.]

I have a renewed interest in Haiku. Their brevity and compression helps me express ideas and observations that I don’tt have time to work out in longer poems – though I do continue to work on longer poems. As part of my renewed interest I’ve been visiting and enjoying different Haiku blogs. My favorites are the bloggers who try to write at least one Haiku a day and I have found two that I like very much.

I was inspired to reprint their Haiku here because their Haiku are powerful and deserve to be read by more readers.

The first is Crows & Daisies, a blog by Polona Oblak. Stricktly speaking, she writes Haiga.

The following is her November 25th contribution:

//crowsndaisies.blogspot.com/ for the original.

The compression and evocative power of the Haiku is perfectly illustrated by Oblak. The sum of her three lines far exceeds their content in that the reader is compelled not just to imagine the  bird’s tracks in the snow, but also the bird and its startled leap into the air. That she evokes this imagery without its description demonstrates a certain mastery of the form – an intuitive grasp of the Haiku’s unique potential. A poet with less experience might have written something like:

prints end
in the snowy path – startled

This haiku essentially conveys the same information but undermines some of the Haiku’s very strengths. The art of great haiku is in the form’s capacity to create an image and narrative that transcend the poem’s size. The great Haiku is like the pebble sending ripples deeply across the waters of the reader’s mind. Polona’s Haiku accomplishes just that.

woman’s desire
deeply rooted —
the wild violets

Chiyo-ni – Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master

Another strong Hakuist can be found at the blog: haiku notebook by w.f. owen. Owen adopts a one line approach which is keeping with Japanese Haiku. (The Japanese Haiku is written with cutting words, which translators have interpreted as line breaks.)

Owen’s November 25th contribution:

W.F. Owen - Flawless Persimmon

W.F. Owen – Flawless Persimmon

The compression in the Haiku is powerfully effective. The ambiguity of the poem’s meaning lends it meaning beyond what’s stated. Owen could have written: “the persimmon has a seed”. But he chose to describe the persimmon as flawless.  Then the reader might ask: Is the persimmon flawless because it contains a seed? – or is Owen expressing surprise that the “flawless persimmon” has been flawed by the seed? In this ambiguity we find what is, perhaps, one of the most profound Haiku I have read online. By flawless we usually think of beauty and perfection. But while life grants beauty and perfection, such flawlessness is momentary – an ephemeral dream.

But would the persimmon have been perfect if it had had no seed? The poet’s surprise, if one wishes to interpret it as that, is also an acknowledgment. The persimmon, or life, is made both perfect and imperfect by the seed. The seed is an acknowledgment of both the persimmon’s imperfection, that it must age and be flawed, but also its paradoxical perfection, that in order to be perfect, it must carry a seed inside – and that from this seed will spring renewed flawlessness. From this paradoxical heart is the heart of a great Haiku. From imperfection comes perfection – from the flaw comes flawlessness. There could be no life without it. The pithiness of the Haiku is aphoristic and, in my house, will become an aphorism.

Owen followed this Haiku by another November 26th.

W.F. Owen - Rustling Leaves

W.F. Owen – Rustling Leaves

While this Haiku may not attain the transcendent ambiguity and meaning of its predecessor, qualities that distinguish the Haiku from longer verse forms, there is nonetheless an evocative eeriness that is powerful and worth enjoying.

The “rustling leaves” tells us that the poem is written in Autumn. It tells us that there must be a strong breeze or wind, enough to stir leaves, and that the wind must be cold. The poet pulls up the covers. But the power of an image like this, not extenuated, is in guessing that one can pull up the covers not just for warmth, but out of fear – and that is what lends this Haiku its own eery power and resonance. Maybe the leaves aren’t rustling because of the wind? Could it be something else? Autumn is the season of endings and death – and nothing so reminds us of our temporary lives than the fall of leaves. Why does the poet pull up the covers? We are left wondering. We are left knowing that theleaves, themselves, are like a cover, readying the earth for a long sleep.

Our humanity is a common bond that is not separated by time. A hundred years before, a woman wrote:

sleeping alone
by the frosty night…

– Chiyo-ni – From Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master