The ISN’Ts of Haiku:
Learning from Lorraine Ellis Harr

The following is an annotated presentation of Lorraine Ellis Harr’s “The ISN’Ts of Haiku.” My introduction and annotations are not previously published.


Around 1976, Lorraine Ellis Harr published her list of twenty guidelines for haiku, “The ISN’Ts of Haiku.” I believe this checklist first appeared in her own journal, and has been reprinted in multiple places since, generating much discussion, and sometimes dissent. This list has been influential, I believe, at least partly because of its memorable title. Lorraine Ellis Harr, of Portland, Oregon, started the Western World Haiku Society in 1972. She was also the longtime editor of the haiku journal Dragonfly. Her pen name, Tombō, means “dragonfly” in Japanese, and she was sometimes called the Dragon Lady on account of her high standards and sometimes impatience with those who were unaware of long-established traditions in haiku. Harr, who died in 2006, was the 2001–2002 honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives (you can read Ce Rosenows extensive biographical sketch at the American Haiku Archives website). What follows is an assessment of Harr’s haiku checklist with annotations and commentary. Harr’s original text is in bold, and my comments are indented and not bold. For more on haiku checklists, please see my own “Haiku Checklist” and the essay “The Practical Poet: Creating Your Own Haiku Checklist.”

 

 

Do your haiku submissions contain any of these ISN’Ts? Better check!

 

Let me start by commenting on the tone of this list. It focuses on what isn’t haiku, which promotes a negative tone. Whether Lorraine Harr was aware of it or not, her list has a precedent in Ezra Pound’s 1913 Poetry magazine essay, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” and perhaps Harr and Pound were similarly curmudgeonly (I think too of the poem “No More,” by Vanessa Place, also published in Poetry, exactly one hundred years later). Perhaps Harr was aware of Pound’s precedent, given the connection between haiku and Imagism, but perhaps not, or maybe she would have used “Don’ts” in her title instead of “Isn’ts” to point to the precedent. In any event, is Harr’s negative tone helpful? It may work for some readers, whereas other readers may prefer to be encouraged by a more positive focus. What gave rise to this list, however, is indicated in the word “submissions.” This list isn’t so much about how to write, but about what mattered to Lorraine Harr if you submitted haiku to her for possible publication in her journal Dragonfly. She has reported that she had grown tired of the submissions that kept missing the mark. So if she might have been in a bad mood when writing these “isn’ts,” it was surely because the stacks of disappointing submissions put her there. While the tone of this approach may not work for some people, it’s still useful to have a list like this to help poets identify what not to aim for. And obviously, some people must think that haiku IS the following things, because they’d been submitted to Harr, and she’d grown tired of explaining that no, it wasn’t haiku. Let’s hope her readers learned something.

 

1. Haiku ISN’T a prose sentence divided into three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, nor a “dribble of prose.” Haiku IS an art form that requires study and discipline.

 

The dribble of prose mentioned here is a reference to Harold G. Hendersons A Bamboo Broom, a 1934 book from Houghton Mifflin that was one of the earliest to explore haiku poetry in detail. On the books last page, Henderson says that What the final English haiku-form will be, I do not know. . . . But I am sure that whatever it is, it will be a definite form, for a haiku is a poem and not a dribble of prose” (124; emphasis in the original). Meanwhile, any list of isn’ts points to their opposites, and to what haiku is, at least according to Lorraine Ellis Harr. No, haiku isn’t prose divided into an arbitrary syllable pattern, and yes, it requires study and discipline. Many people (usually beginners) think that writing 5-7-5 is what gives it discipline, but counting syllables, if one chooses to do that, is actually the most superficial discipline haiku offers. The real discipline of haiku comes in understanding what makes a poem a good haiku regardless of form, not because of it. It’s a much greater discipline for a haiku to integrate a seasonal reference, objective sensory imagery, implication, feeling, and an effective two-part juxtapositional structure, among other techniques.

 

2. Haiku ISN’T always divided into 5-7-5 syllables. The 5-7-5 count refers to the Japanese onji (symbol/sound) not to English language syllables. It IS usually in a short/long/short form. It ISN’T “padded” with modifiers to make the count come out right.

 

Harr, who died in 2006, was known for years to favour 5-7-5 haiku. That wasn’t really accurate, because many of her own poems departed from that pattern, sometimes considerably, and the pages of her Dragonfly magazine showcased a range of lengths and patterns, although the poems did tend to be traditional, with season words and a juxtapositional structure. They also tended to be maximal (on the longer side) rather than minimal. Of course, her reference to “onji” is outdated and incorrect. She was reflecting the common parlance of the time. Once and for all, however, let us put the term to rest. As Richard Gilbert has written in “Stalking the Wild Onji,” the term is obsolete, and not an accurate term for the sounds counted in Japanese haiku. The more accurate term is “on” (pronounced as “own,” but more quickly). In any event, Harr reminds readers that what they count in Japanese haiku is not syllables. While she says that haiku is usually short-long-short in its three lines, she does not prescribe that it has to be, and wisely she advises against padding one’s words just to fit a syllable count. To do so is to put more importance in the form rather than the content.

 

3. Haiku ISN’T poetics (in the English-language-poetry sense) but IS pure poetry.

 

Well, what does this mean? I’m afraid she doesn’t really define her terms. What does she intend by “poetics” and by “pure poetry”? Without a clear understanding of what she means by these terms, the reader has little to go on. If we take “poetics” to be theory and the discussion of theory, then why is it necessary to raise this issue? Since when do serious haiku poets write haiku that somehow focus on theory or talk about that in the poems themselves? It would seem that she’s complaining about something that isn’t a problem to begin with, so I don’t understand what motivated this corrective. And while she was speaking of haiku, one could also say that “Poetry isn’t poetics” either. So what’s the point here? I suppose it’s the reminder that haiku isn’t meant to be a place to show off theory, but to just be image and experience. It’s a place to share those images and experiences. Maybe that’s what she means by “pure poetry,” but we cannot be sure. If nothing else, perhaps the reader’s takeaway is to value feeling and content ahead of intellectualism and analysis in haiku poems themselves.

 

4. Haiku ISN’T simile or metaphor. Simile and metaphor turn haiku into English-poetics.

 

Really? Haiku do occasionally contain overt metaphor and simile, and it’s true that this is relatively uncommon. But haiku themselves aren’t metaphor or simile? I would suggest the opposite—that haiku easily can be metaphorical, as we apply an allegorical or symbolic meaning in a poem to other situations, such as our own lives. It’s exactly such metaphorical implications that can give each particular haiku extra reverberations. The issue here is semantics, though. In her first statement, she says haiku isn’t simile or metaphor. Well, the poem itself actually can be interpreted exactly that way. But what she probably meant is that haiku don’t (usually) contain overt simile and metaphor, which, she rightly says, turn haiku into regular English poems. At the very least, she is pointing out how haiku usually differ from the majority of Western poems and poetics.

 

5. Haiku ISN’T an intellectual statement—it IS an intuitive response to NATURE.

 

Oh that more beginners would understand this. Too often the Western mindset injects judgment and analysis into beginner attempts at haiku. They may start off well, with a striking image, if we’re lucky, but then the poem can’t resist commenting about the image, thus destroying the reader’s opportunity to respond, emotionally or intellectually, to the image already presented. As I say in my haiku workshops, don’t write about your feelings; instead, write about what caused your feelings. That puts your focus on things, not on your response to things. Harr, however, does say that haiku is an intuitive response to nature. Well, yes and no. The poem is indeed a response of sorts. You have an experience. You are moved to write about that experience. And thus the poem occurs. That’s a “response,” obviously. But I’d like to make the distinction that the best haiku themselves do not “respond” to nature in the poem itself. Instead, they describe nature (or whatever the experience is) and let the reader respond. Haiku, in effect, is a means of taking something to respond to and transferring that experience from the writer to the reader. In fact, the beauty of a successful haiku lies in its ability to create or recreate an experience for the reader. At their best, haiku has the maturity to avoid commentary, trusting the reader to have his or her own intuitive reaction, just as the poet did. One final comment I’d make here is that while nature is indeed a common source of inspiration for haiku, that’s sort of a misunderstanding, or at least not what haiku is aiming at. A haiku traditionally requires a kigo or season word. These words focus on seasons, which may include human events that are not “natural.” Haiku don’t require a “nature word,” but a “season word.” While nature is part of the seasonal target more often than not, haiku itself is not really just a nature poem. It dwells, too, on human nature. Harr’s comment is perhaps better understood in the sense that “haiku is an intuitive response to experience.”

 

6. Haiku isn’t a picture postcard or a “pretty picture.” It IS a moment of heightened awareness which may be shared by the reader. It should have depths of meaning.

 

Haiku don’t end with images; they start with them. Perhaps the word “just” could be added to Harr’s first sentence. Haiku can be pretty pictures, and some wonderful haiku are indeed very pretty descriptions. The point is that they don’t stop there, and even the prettiest haiku picture has other objectives—reverberations, allusions, and depths of meaning, as Harr indicates. And of course many haiku are not pretty at all, embracing a full range of human emotions and aesthetics. Haiku dwell in the dark as well as the light, shadows as well as sunshine. As for “heightened awareness,” that phrase has been buzzing around haiku circles for decades. It’s a useful phrase, but has been so overused that it may have lost its sharpness and clarity. Haiku are about awareness, of course, and it’s good to be aware of the images and experiences around us, especially those we experience through our five senses. We notice things more intensely, it seems to me, because of haiku. But isn’t awareness enough? Why does it have to be heightened? Are only certain awarenesses sufficient? Do they have be sufficiently intense to matter? Well, yes and no. Bashō said that “haiku is what is happening in this place and in this time,” which would suggest that any awareness will do, not necessarily a heightened one. But I think it’s a misreading of Bashō to say that anything and everything happening here and now is a haiku (rather, when one reads a haiku, that haiku has arisen out of a here and now). One has to be selective. Being selective is not a matter of avoiding the mundane, however, because a good haiku can indeed dwell in the mundane, making the ordinary extraordinary. But still one has to be selective in deciding which mundane (or non-mundane) subject to dwell upon. And it’s what you do with it that really matters, which also involves matters of craft, especially in one’s juxtapositions and seasonal reference. Being selective, then, would suggest that a heightened awareness is indeed helpful. However, Roland Barthes says that haiku just is, and implies that a haiku could be about anything, and that anything just exists, without signifying further meaning. Whether one’s awareness needs to be heightened or selective or not, the larger point is that the poem must connect with a reader, and the best way to do that is to build on the bedrock of common experience with depths of reverberation. The act of sharing is important here, to create a connection, to transfer energy. Leaving something out can engage the reader to intuit what is left out, and this is often a source of depths of meaning as each reader finishes the poem with individualized interpretations.

 

7. Haiku ISN’T a three-line poem with the first or last line a title for the other two. All three lines should be necessary to the clarity of the haiku. Don’t waste word-space.

 

This comment seems to be addressing a problem that doesn’t often occur. Haiku don’t traditionally have titles, of course, and adding one, as I’ve written elsewhere, is either cheating (adding a fourth line to the poem) or redundant (repeating something in the poem). But that isn’t what Harr is addressing here. She seems to be complaining about the first line acting like a title to the remaining two lines, or variations thereof. I don’t see this problem happening in any of the haiku I’ve seen in print or submitted for publication, so I’m not sure I see the value of this comment. What I do agree with is that all three lines of the haiku (if it’s a three-liner) need to carry their weight, with no unnecessary parts.

 

8. Haiku ISN’T summed up by the poet’s intellectual comment regarding the experience. It IS left open-ended, so that the reader can share in its creation.

 

Here’s where we can trot out the old “show, don’t tell” writing dictum. Leave off judgment and intellectualizing analysis. Of course, the problem is that most beginners don’t even realize when they’re doing this. The point of leaving the poem open-ended, of course, is because the open-endedness is exactly what engages the reader, whereas the commentary or judgment of an insecure or inexperienced poet tends to disengage the reader because it tells the reader what to think instead of letting the reader have his or her own experience and emotion in response to the images presented.

 

9. Haiku ISN’T a clutter of words strung together to get a 5-7-5 syllable count, or a staccato tongue-twister. Haiku should flow, especially when read aloud. It doesn’t rhyme, except rarely. Avoid run-on lines. Take the time to write haiku without them.

 

A clutter of words strung together in a 5-7-5 pattern? That’s essentially the same thing as the “dribble of prose” mentioned earlier. So why the repetition? I wonder if this list was put together rather casually, and could have been edited better. Here, though, an interesting point is that the poem should not be staccato (I picture such a poem missing necessary articles, for example). This is a problem that Paul O. Williams referred to as “Tontoism.” Indeed, the haiku should flow smoothly, both aloud and to the eye. And the reason for avoiding rhyme is that, in English, it tends to overpower a poem as short as haiku, and points more to the words than the experience or image that the words represent. Meanwhile, I’m not sure what Harr means by “run-on lines.” A run-on sentence, of course, is the combination of two or more independent clauses that are spliced together, incorrectly, with a comma. Is that what she means? If so, then yes, avoid that. If she means something else, then she’s not very clear. The truth is that because haiku has two parts, one of the two parts is going “run on” from one line to the next. But that, of course, is a good thing, provided it happens just once (usually) in each haiku.

 

10. Haiku ISN’T a mechanical poetry with rhythms (i.e., iambic pentameter) but the line endings should be as complete a thought as possible, with the total poem as the total expression. Haiku requires polishing! “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

 

Well, shucks, of course haiku has rhythm. No poetry should ever be merely mechanical, but I have no problem with a haiku being iambic—or any other meter. But haiku definitely has rhythm, and should indeed aim to have rhythm, even if it doesn’t sustain a regular rhythm throughout the poem. In fact, the 5-7-5 pattern in Japanese is referred to specifically as a rhythm, and this rhythm is what matters most in haiku, not just mere counting. What Harr is getting at is that haiku isn’t sustained metrical poetry in the Western sense of meter, and she makes a useful comment when she says each line should complete a thought (which is not the same thing as saying that each line is a complete sentence—in fact, usually it isn’t). The total poem as the total expression? What does that mean? Seems like fluff, except that we are reminded to make the poem sufficiently complete so that the reader can go somewhere with it. The poem should not be so self-involved that only the poet gets something from it, and the text should control ambiguity sufficiently well so that misreadings are prevented.

 

11. Haiku ISN’T of human values, morals, judgments, comments, etc. It ISN’T an epigram or a couplet. It ISN’T didactic, either overtly or covertly. It IS of Nature and the “Nature of Things.” Capturing the “Nature of Things” is the essence of good haiku.

 

Of course, the nature of things might not be “nature” at all, but let’s leave that aside. I agree that haiku generally doesn’t point at morals, judgments, commentary, and so on, and isn’t an epigram. But I do think it can be a poetry of human values. Each haiku, in effect, says “this matters to me.” Is that not a human value? In fact, I can think of no higher value than to say that a forest or a mountain or a garden or a child playing in a sandbox matters. Whether the poem points to some aspect of nature or the seasons, the behavior of friends or family, or the interaction between the two, is that not a sharing of human values? The trick, as Harr points out, is to avoid being didactic.

 

12. Haiku ISN’T anthropomorphic, as English-language poetry. No humanizing of nature or personification! Rather, Naturalize MAN. This is a subtle difference.

 

I don’t see it as a subtle difference at all. It’s a stark difference. But I would also say the idea to “naturalize” humans is a bit ambiguous. What does that mean? To put humans in nature, I suppose. But again, this comment arises out of the assumption that haiku is a nature poem. No, it’s really a seasonal poem, which brings nature along for the ride more often than not. That’s why the Japanese have almanacs of season words, not nature words. But yes, don’t anthropomorphize, even though that may be done in other Western poetry. Instead, present or imply human emotion or activity in a seasonal context.

 

13. Haiku ISN’T a generalization about something. It IS a specific thing/time/place/season/event. It IS nature poetry in the Japanese sense (ZEN-like). In the present moment.

 

Okay, the old Zen canard. Haiku is no more a Zen poem than sonnets are somehow Christian. Does anyone gad about saying that sonnets are Christian? Of course not. The same should be true with haiku—no one should assume they’re a “Zen” poem. R. H. Blyth over-Zenned haiku, and the Beat poets caught onto haiku under Blyth’s influence, and thus perpetuated this perception. Sure, a couple of prominent Japanese haiku masters had Zen leanings, but over the grand scale of haiku’s history, over hundreds of years, the vast bulk of this poetry is only marginally a “Zen” poetry. Ask typical haiku poets in Japan why they write Zen poetry, and they will just give you a puzzled look, as if you’d just asked them what kind of polar bears are native to Japan. In any event, yes, haiku does not generalize, and seeks to be specific with places and events. It’s a poetry of the noun, focusing on things. It tends towards objective description, and yes, it celebrates the present moment.

 

14. Haiku ISN’T a “tell-all.” It IS indicating by not saying. Show don’t tell.

 

Yes, haiku leaves something out. It’s a poetry of implication and suggestion. It creates a vacuum that sucks the reader in. I would clarify, however, that haiku need not be restricted to showing rather than telling. As with fiction writing, one needs to know when to show, and when to tell—although mostly haiku focuses on showing. It is indeed a poetry of “not saying,” of withholding the point of the poem, thus enabling readers to figure out the point on their own—which is much more satisfying for readers than having everything spelled out.

 

15. Haiku ISN’T obscure. The season (ki) should be named, or a season-word (kigo) used. The reader should be able to co-create the mood/season/event. Be specific. Don’t say “tree” if you mean elm; don’t say “bird” if you mean wren, for instance. The thing/time/place/season should be apparent to the reader. Avoid “this” or “that” bird/insect/leaf etc. Unnecessary.

 

Jack Kerouac said that haiku should be “as simple as porridge.” I love quoting that comment. What it means is that haiku is ordinary, direct, and immediate. Not obscure, private language and esoteric events. It’s here and now, based on shared common experience. The season word helps to make it immediate, not only anchoring the poem in time, but also alluding to other haiku with the same season word—all part of one big conversation. The thing is, you need to know when to say just “tree” when “elm” is too specific, and might alter the poem’s focus. But yes, be specific, to a point, an art that first requires close observation. As Henry James observed, you don’t want to be someone on whom “something is lost.” Meanwhile, what does Harr mean by referring to “this” or “that” as unnecessary? Because the entire point of haiku is that anything it refers to automatically emphasized—every subject in haiku is an emphatic this or that, so there’s no need to say so, in practically every case.

 

16. Haiku ISN’T a “pretty picture,” nor is it deliberately grim for the sake of “showing off.” It is an interplay between two or more things/objects in a state of unresolved tension—don’t tell the reader how to react, or feel; leave the reader something to co-create.

 

Okay, she said this before, that haiku isn’t a pretty picture. Why the need to repeat it? The difference here is that she counters by saying that haiku isn’t overly grim, either, just for the sake of shock value. I like the phrase “unresolved tension” here, that the poem’s two juxtaposed part create a sort of tension. Perhaps the reader can make the leap between the two parts, and thus perhaps resolve the tension between them (why is one image paired with the other?), but as an object, the poem retains that unresolved quality, awaiting each new reader to resolve its tensions. This tension creates a sort of chemistry, which is why, in the best haiku, that two parts are not 1+1 = 2, but 1+1 = 3, like mixing baking soda and vinegar. As I said earlier, don’t write about your feelings; instead, write about what caused your feelings. This focus on images therefore enables readers to deduce what your emotions might have been. If the poem is crafted well, readers will be able to figure it out and have the same feeling you had when you first had that experience—and thus get to that 1+1 = 3 gestalt. You want readers to co-create with you. This is why Seisensui referred to haiku as an “unfinished poem”—a comment that has nothing to do with how short a haiku is, and everything to do with the manner in which it is written and perceived, and how the reader is expected to interact with the poem.

 

17. Haiku ISN’T just anything that comes to mind. It IS a specific enlightened experience shared with the reader. It IS heightened awareness not imaginary images. It IS what is going on right here/right now, not a day-dream or exposition.

 

Well, we’ve heard Bashō say that “haiku is what’s happening in this place and time.” But we need to realize that not everything can be made into an effective haiku. What he means is that the elements of a good haiku have the sense of happening here and now, but it’s not true that everything happening here and now is haiku. It all depends on how you handle it. So yes, haiku isn’t just anything that comes to mind. But does it have to be an “enlightened” experience? There’s that stink of Zen again. Rather, I think it’s wiser to say it’s just a heightened awareness, something that you are sharply aware of, and convey to the reader. As for imagination, well, I’ll politely disagree there. I think some elements of haiku can be imagined, or brought forth from memory. It is technically not possible to write about the here and now, anyway. Rather, all haiku are written after the fact, even if only very shortly after the fact. As I’ve written elsewhere, what matters is the vibrancy of an experience, not the recency. This means you can write effective haiku about long-past memories. The point is to make the poem come across as seeming to happen here and now. To my mind, it’s almost irrelevant whether the experience that prompted it was very recent or not.

 

18. Use no unnecessary words that overlap or say the same thing such as April/spring, winter/snow. Each word should have value and importance. Choose carefully.

 

An engine has no unnecessary parts. Good advice, too, for haiku to have no unnecessary words. Harr’s mention of seasons is a reminder, too, not to have more than one seasonal reference, if possible (exceptions can work, however). The point is that sometimes the parts of a haiku repeat themselves, which is not only redundant, but robs the poem of an opportunity to add something more.

 

19. Haiku ISN’T just a “little poem” by anyone who can count to 17. The Masters of the Art worked at it, sometimes an entire lifetime.

 

Roland Barthes once said, as I love to quote, “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we can write such things easily.” There’s a hell of a lot more to it than merely counting syllables. The haiku should not be dismissed or diminished because of how short it is, too. It’s no more a “little poem” than a diamond is a “little rock.”

 

20. Haiku ISN’T easy to write, but when you get “hooked” you’ll be glad you tried it. The study and discipline sharpen the perception and improve all other fields of writing, as well as adding zest to living. Haiku IS what IS!

 

Ah, but haiku can be easy to write, and that’s part of its charm. But they are also difficult. Beginners often say to me that they find it really hard to come up with juxtapositions sometimes. And I tell them I’ve been writing haiku for decades, and still feel the same challenge. And Harr is right that haiku can “hook” you. It’s often an obsession for many people. Too many flame out after they explore this obsession. The best haiku poets usually emerge from this obsession with a more balanced, mature passion, one that matches the joy of creation with the discipline of revision. A bonus from haiku is how it can indeed help you with your other writing, and also help you develop a closer awareness of the world around you.

 

If you have broken one or more of these ISN’Ts, study these GUIDELINES again; we need good haiku poets.

 

For every “rule,” it seems that rule can and will be broken by the experienced poet. And also the very inexperienced. That’s okay, but because most of us are neither inexperienced nor very experienced, let’s stick with the guidelines presented here, to master their elements before we move on to consider the careful breaking of a particular rule for poetic effect. In any event, yes, we do indeed need more good haiku poets!

 

HAPPY HAIKU-ing!

 

One may rightly question how easy it is to write haiku happily with all these isn’ts hanging around one’s neck. Bashō said to learn the rules and then forget them—meaning to have the rules so ingrained in one’s writing practice that one no longer needs to think about them. That, perhaps, is the best goal here, with these isn’ts of haiku. When one has learned them instinctively enough, then, hopefully, one can indeed write haiku happily.

 

At the beginning of this list, Lorraine Ellis Harr asked the question, “Do your haiku submissions contain any of these ISN’Ts?” One issue for all of these isn’ts is whether the student of haiku can truly identify whether they exist in his or her poems. For example, I’ve talked in workshops about giving the poem no more than two parts, and yet students will produce poems with three parts—while believing that they’re not in three parts. They just don’t quite grasp the concept. Same with issues of objectivity and subjectivity—it takes some experience to figure out what that truly means. Or they’ll say that such-and-such is their seasonal reference when in fact it’s not seasonal at all. So some disconnect is bound to remain between these isn’ts and whether beginning poets will clearly understand whether they occur in their own poems or not. Learning to understand takes practice and experience, but need not be difficult. With practice, one can eventually shift one’s focus from what haiku ISN’T to what haiku IS. That, I believe, is what Lorraine Ellis Harr had wanted all along.