Defining Haiku

by Robert D. Wilson


Haiku, to paraphrase what the late, great classical guitarist Andre Segovia said about playing the guitar, is the easiest genre of poetry to write but the hardest to write well.

It is reasonable to assume the general perception of haiku in North America is not shaped by writings emanating from Japanese short form poetry journals like Simply Haiku, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Heron’s Nest, Acorn, and others, on and off-line. It is also safe to assume that the vast majority of North Americans have not participated in on-line haiku forums, attended haiku conferences, or read the late William Higginson’s seminal Haiku Handbook.

The majority are taught the rudiments of writing and understanding haiku by teachers in our public and private school systems. Who’s teaching these teachers?  Most of what’s taught by the majority of teachers about haiku is covered briefly by authors of textbooks who know little or nothing about haiku; and what’s covered is too general and sparse to give the genre justice.   Most define haiku as a 17 syllable poem consisting of three lines utilizing a 7/5/7 syllable format with a reference to nature.  The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines haiku as “an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively; also a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference.” 

English language haiku in North America is barely understood even by those who claim to be authorities on the genre.  Many of them have been influenced by North American imagist and free verse poetry, and see the genre as an entity different than the genre that originated in Japan centuries ago.  To complicate things even more, many of the (well meaning) haiku authorities in North America disagree as to what is and isn’t okay to include in a haiku. Some say metaphors are anathema, others say they are okay.  Some denounce personification, some say they’re acceptable.  Some insist on a pivot, some don’t.  There are those who say the three lined haiku schemata of short/ long/ short are indigenous to the Japanese and teach that’s it’s acceptable to write haiku using different formulas as long as the total amount of the syllables used in the three lines are 17 syllables  or shorter.

What then is an English language haiku? A haiku is a haiku regardless of the geosphere it’s written in.  Either it is or it isn’t.  The genre can’t be a collection of different entities depending on the language it’s written in. A rose is a rose and can’t be called by any other name.

The Japanese language is very different than the English language.  What we call syllables in English are called “Mora, metrical units of time,” according to renowned Japanese poetry critic, teacher, and poet, Koji Kawamoto, in his book, The Poetics of Japanese Verse, “are the equivalent to a short vowel . . .  the term syllable is an inaccurate way of of describing the actual metrics of Japanese poetry.” States translator/author Robin D. Gill, “English syllables are hopelessly irregular and, on average, half-again longer than the Japanese syllabet.”

A lot of serious English-language haiku poets today compose haiku in a short/long/short three-lined format using fewer syllables than a traditional 5/7/5 Japanese haiku.  The vowel sounds (mora) in Japanese are shorter in intonation than those in English (syllables).  A haiku in English, therefore, utilizing the 5/7/5 syllable schemata, often sounds awkward, losing the meter a haiku written in Japanese would have.  Contrary to what’s taught in the majority of North American public schools, haiku is not an exercise in counting syllables. It should, as author and poetry columnist for the Kyoto Journal, Patricia Donegan says, “be as long as one breath.” If a haiku is too long, it comes across as awkward.  When writing a haiku, one needs to be cognizant of meter (rhythm). When it’s missing, it is not a poem but a line of thought.

at night,                        short (2)

i try not to think . . .     long  (5)

tall reeds                       short (2)

Robert D. Wilson

The meter in the above poem would sound different if I were to deviate from the S/L/S schemata indigenous to the haiku genre.  Two examples:

at night, i try

not to think . . .

tall reeds


at night i try not

to think . . .

tall reeds

Meter is important to haiku.  The S/L/S metrical system gives it its own meter.

If one changes the meter, what he/she ends up with is a haiku-like free verse poem.

Having covered the rudiments, let’s exam the genre. It’s important not to “say all” in a haiku. There needs to be room for interpretation by the reader.  Dr. Richard Gilbert in his book, Poems of Consciousness, states: “Because haiku are extremely brief, the reader not only reads but also re-reads.  As re-reading occurs, further thoughts and feelings arise, interpretations build up, while some are discarded; you could say that the poems grows out of itself.” In essence, what the poet writes, the reader completes.  Without this participation a haiku becomes non-memorable.

In the aforementioned haiku, there is room for interpretation depending upon a reader’s cultural memory, experience, and geographical biosphere.  When I wrote it, I was thinking about the eerie quiet in Vietnam in the jungle at night.  Listening and silence on the battlefield is all important.  A single noise could give you away to the enemy.  Notice I use a comma at the end of the first line, the comma serving as a rest (a cutting word, and then an ellipsis at the end of the second line [three evenly space dots or dashes], the ellipsis too serving as a kire (cutting word) again to indicate a longer pause. Kire (cutting words, or for English language speakers who do not have cutting words in their lexicon, the use of punctuation such as a semi-colon, comma, ellipsis, etc,) indicate what the Japanese call “ma.”  Kire, cutting words,  are words inserted into Japanese poetry to indicate ma.  This is done because the Japanese language lacks punctuation.  Patricia Donegan in her book, Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts For Creative kids, describes a kireji (cutting word) as “a break or pause in a haiku, usually after the first or second line, that makes a contrast or spark between to parts of the haiku images; in Japanese, cutting words like ya, keri, kana are used to emphasize feeling; in English, this is done with punctuation like a dash, comma, colon, or exclamation point.”

States Kai Hasegawa, also a noted haiku critic, teacher, poet, and scholar in my recent interview with him for the Winter 2008 issue of Simply Haiku, “The “cutting” (kire) of haiku is there to create ma, and that ma is more eloquent than words. That is because even though a superior haiku may appear to be simply describing a “thing,” the working of ma conveys feeling (kokoro). In contrast, Western culture does not recognize this thing called ma. In the literary arts, everything must be expressed by words. But Japanese literature, especially haiku, is different. As with the blank spaces in a painting or the silent parts of a musical composition, it is what is not put into words that is important.” Pauses (ma) provide stress and “dreaming room,” as publisher, editor, and poet Denis Garrison labels the term.  I like this explanation of “ma” by Lizzy Van Lysebeth in her book, Transforming Traditions: Japanese Design and Philosophy, “Ma is a silent fullness. It is a sort of untouched moment or space which can be completed by every individual observer differently, a moment or space in which one’s fantasy can move freely.  In this way the artist gets the observers actively involved in his work.”

at night, (short pause)

i try not to think . . . . (longer pause)

tall reeds

Kokoro (feeling, heart, spirit) are oftentimes neglected by Western poets.  States Hasegawa,“Because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only ‘things’ have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as ‘junk’ (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, ‘junk haiku’ just aren’t interesting.”

Essential to haiku is the kigo (seasonal word – indicator).  It is the heart of haiku, setting the tone for what’s written.

Explains Toshimi Horiuchi in his book, Oasis in The Heart,  “A haiku without a kigo loses compactness and succumbs to the prosaic.  Haiku follows this axiom: ‘The fewer the words, the broader the meaning.’ Season words provide haiku with tone; that is, intellectual and emotional color to embellish contents.  Kigo tend to unite and synthesize the elements of words. These elements yield to kaleidoscopic combinations which leap and intertwine among multi-layered mutations in the reader’s mind.”

A haiku is based on truth, whatever truth is to the person writing the haiku.  This truth can include cultural memory, mythology, interpretation, metaphor, allegory, and perception.  Buson, for instance, would go out into nature and allow nature to speak to him.  Shiki would look out his window from his sickbed and paint with words what he saw, remembered, and envisioned.  Bashô wrote during his travels, making use of ambiguity, sabi, metaphor, and other literary tools.  All of these poets had this in common: they painted what they perceived to be the truth; their perceptions and visions of the world around them, with an economy of words, combining the natural world with Japanese tradition.

As I stated in the beginning of this essay,“Writing haiku is the easiest genre of poetry to write but the hardest to write well.” It’s not a genre that’s easily grasped, it only looks simple due to the brevity (economy) of words.  I read haiku daily by famous Japanese poets such as Basho, Issa, Buson, Chiyo ni, and Shiki. Reading the haiku of haiku masters helps me to study form, style, and fine tune my feel for the genre.

To conclude, I’ll quote from Matsuo Basho’s disciple, Doho, “. . . the poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and feelings.  Where upon a poem forms itself.  Description of the object is not enough:  unless a poem contains feelings which have come from the object, the object and the poet’s self will be separate things.”

Added Doho: “Learn about the pine from the pine and the bamboo from the bamboo –  the poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object . . . so the poem forms itself when poet and object become one.”


Appearing first in Magnapoets, Winter, 2009 and in Haiku Reality, June 2010