Metaphor in Haiku

First published in South by Southeast 20:1, Spring 2013, pages 34–35. First written in November and December of 2011, and revised in December 2012 and January and February of 2013. The intrinsic and extrinsic metaphor I mention here might also be referred to, respectively, as explicit metaphor (within the poem) and implicit metaphor (implied, outside the poem, as part of an allegorical interpretation). Note the postscript at the end, and also see “Three Ironside Haiku.”

Two kinds of metaphor occur in haiku, and some people confuse them (I’ve even heard Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, who’s done a wonderful book of haiku translations, seemingly confuse them). They are
intrinsic (overt) and extrinsic (implied) metaphors. If I say “the dinner-plate moon rises in the sky,” that’s an overt metaphor, intrinsic to the poem, where I am directly calling the moon a dinner plate, which is not literally true. If I say “the table set for Thanksgiving— / moonlight shines / through the latticed window,” there’s an implied possible metaphor that readers may see: the unmentioned plates are shaped like the moon and probably white like the moon. Such an interpretation may be a stretch, but it demonstrates the concept. It’s an example of an implied metaphor that’s extrinsic to the poem, meaning that the reader adds the metaphor by his or her interpretation, rather than it being a part of the words of the poem itself.
        Here’s a poem I recall by Kay F. Anderson:

five years
in the wrong window:
the violet’s first bloom

There’s no intrinsic metaphor here. I happened to share this poem with a friend who had just gotten divorced. She immediately wanted to write down the poem to have a copy for herself. Her divorce was recently final, she had just moved to San Francisco, and had been married for five years. So you can see the metaphorical interpretation she brought to the poem—she was just like that violet, and was now “blooming.” Perhaps this is a clearer example of an
extrinsic metaphor. In fact, it’s these extrinsic metaphors that give so many good haiku their reverberations, as we apply each poem to our own lives, or empathize with how they may apply to the lives of others. You can’t plan these overtones, though, at least not often—and in fact, it’s probably best not to even have any such agendas when writing haiku. But if you trust the image, extrinsic metaphorical interpretation will take care of itself.
        As I already mentioned, I’ve heard many people confuse these two types of metaphor repeatedly. In Hass’s case, he saw all of it as metaphor, and didn’t make the distinction I explore here, saying that “of course” haiku contain metaphor. I would say that no, they don’t necessarily contain metaphor, but sometimes imply it. Often haiku poets are taught to avoid metaphor in haiku, because it’s a detour, and not the thing itself. To counter this approach, I’ve heard some people say that “metaphor happens in haiku all the time.” However, they apparently don’t realize (as seemed to be the case with Hass) that they’re nearly always thinking of extrinsic metaphor. Overt intrinsic metaphor does happen in haiku (classic and contemporary Japanese haiku as well as English-language haiku), but it’s uncommon—in fact, pretty rare. To the extent that haiku dwells primarily on the literal, its no wonder that overt metaphors are relatively rare—they are, as Harold Bloom put it in The Art of Reading Poetry (New York: Perennial, 2004), a turning from the literal” (emphasis added). For a brief discussion of contemporary examples in English, please visit “Three Ironside Haiku.” In The Measure of Emptiness (from my press, Press Here, 2001), Paul O. Williams has an excellent essay, “The Question of Metaphor in Haiku,” and other writers have also written about the subject, such as Martin Lucas, who says in “Presence: An Introduction (Metaphors and Microwaves)” in Presence #1, January 1996, that “haiku is metaphor”—in the sense of “open” (extrinsic) versus “closed” (intrinsic) metaphors.
        To learn how to handle overt metaphor in haiku, I’d like to suggest that haiku poets engage in these two tasks:

1.       First, learn how to avoid metaphor in haiku. By learning how to control that, you’ll learn how to admit it, occasionally, into your work.

2.       Read as much contemporary English-language haiku as you can, from the various haiku journals and anthologies or reliable online sites. When you see metaphor, write down that poem and perhaps write a sentence or two explaining the metaphor for yourself. Determine whether the metaphor is intrinsic and extrinsic. Also be aware of similes (which are easier to spot because they nearly always require a “like” or “as” construction).

Such practice and reading, with metaphors in mind, will not only help you better understand this poetic technique and when or how to use it effectively, if at all, but also help you with other aspects of haiku craft. Harold G. Henderson referred to the two-part juxtaposition as a sort of “internal comparison.” So it’s common for one part of the haiku to echo with the other, perhaps even in a metaphorical comparison. Even gendai haiku, which is more liberal with its use of overt metaphor, can benefit from understanding the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic metaphor. It’s a challenge to do this well, but seems eminently possible with practice.


Here’s a haiku that uses metaphor well. It’s by Tanya McDonald, and was first published in Mariposa #34 (spring/summer 2016):

        rain on the skylight
        I carve off a petal
        of lavender ice cream

The word “petal” makes the poem. But of course it’s not a literal petal from a flower or blossom, but a scoop of ice cream that looks like a petal, thus a metaphor. Tanya lives near Seattle in Washington State, where rain dampens the winter months, so “rain on the skylight” invokes winter for me, trumping any seasonal suggestion from petal, lavender, or ice cream. In fact, it’s the interplay between the actual season and the seemingly desired season that the metaphor brings together so well. Skylights are intended to let in light, but here that light is darkened by rain clouds. This puts the poet in an introspective mood, perhaps eating ice cream to console herself against the doldrums of winter. This is not just any ice cream, but lavender ice cream, which suggests a longing for warmer days, when the lavender blooms. In this poem we dwell in tastes and shapes and contemplative feelings. But it’s the word “petal” that connects it all. The poet’s longing takes her to seeing a petal shape in the scoop she carves for herself. There’s a fine line in haiku for when a metaphor works, or doesn’t work, but this poem finds a perfect way to make it work. Maybe, like me, you want to pull up a chair to join Tanya in having a scoop of lavender ice cream too.
—16 August 2016