Haiku Form and Content

First published in Dogwood Blossoms #11, Summer 1995, the first online haiku journal published in English, edited by Gary Warner (I was also on the staff, as a contributing editor). I have made two substantive corrections to this article. One is that it was not Bashō but James W. Hackett who referred to haiku as being like a finger pointing to the moon (and that the finger shouldn’t be bejeweled). And the other is to correct my reference to “onji,” now considered to be an incorrect term. Instead, to refer to Japanese sound symbols, the correct term is “on” (pronounced like “own,” but more quickly). These early days of the Internet were formative for the critique and exchange of English-language haiku, and much of that formative discussion took place in Dogwood Blossoms as well as on the Shiki discussion list. This essay was also reprinted in Haiku Reality 8:14, Summer 2011, also in a Serbian translation.

Regarding the “Beginner’s Corner” by Bill Blohm, I hope that the many readers of Dogwood Blossoms do in fact gain something from the poems discussed. Whatever Bill Blohm’s talents as a haiku writer, he has the difficult task of encouraging beginning haiku poets while needing to assert criticism where it may be necessary. This is not an easy balance to strike, and I wish him well with the task. However, I feel that many of the haiku even tentatively lauded by Blohm (even if for the simple purposes of encouragement) fall well short of the mark for quality haiku. Requiring the 5-7-5 format is his choice, but I would immediately question that requirement as pushing too much focus on form, to the detriment of content. I fear for the future of haiku to the extent that it is taught by the blind leading the blind.

        Haiku, as the late poet Judson Jerome once wrote, is an easy form to learn, but a difficult form to master. While many beginners tend to focus on the so-called “traditional” aspects of haiku (that it contain so many syllables and a seasonal reference), the most successful haiku published in English today are in fact seldom as long as 17 syllables. To see that this is true, one need only scan the pages of Modern Haiku, Brussels Sprout, the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond, and Woodnotes, published by the Haiku Poets of Northern California, and many other popular haiku journals. Indeed, the rigidity of the syllable count often forces the padding or chopping of words that does damage to the meaning and natural flow of the poem. Too often beginners stop writing simply when they have satisfied a syllable count, and do not continue to write and edit their poem to winnow it down to the essence of the moment, a moment behind the words—and beyond words. The focus should be on content rather than form, to the point that the words become transparent and unseen—or “wordless,” as Alan Watts and Eric Amann have proposed.

        Moreover, it can be argued that the “traditional” 5-7-5-syllable structure of haiku should never have been applied in English. The simplified reason for this is that the Japanese “on” (sound symbol; the closest equivalent to the English syllable) is always very short, both in sound and in spelling, whereas the English syllable varies greatly in sound and spelling. In English, for example, “thought” is longer than “radio.” Yet in Japan almost all words are like “radio,” with very short syllables. As a further example, consider the Japanese borrowing of our two-syllable word “Christmas.” In Japanese it becomes “Ku-ri-su-ma-su”—five syllables. The sounds of the two languages are obviously different, and preserving just the “number” of sound units has no inherent universal linguistic value. As a consequence, in English, 17 syllables is almost always too long for the “one-breath” form of successful haiku. The best English haiku are invariably shorter, and the more mature themes are usually developed in poems that have grown beyond the relatively superficial aspect of counting syllables. A review of the two most prominent English-language haiku anthologies, Haiku Moment edited by Bruce Ross (Tuttle, 1993) and The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Heuvel (Touchstone, 1986/1991 [now also available in a third edition, published in 1999]), quickly verifies this assertion.

        While it may be useful for teachers to present haiku as a 5-7-5 nature poem, haiku is so much more than that—and less than that. Haiku is indeed easy to learn yet difficult to master. But, with diligence and practice, the mastery of haiku may be found in learning the more and the less of what haiku is.

        Some people, due to their own psychology, may be attracted to their perception of haiku’s “formal” aspects, and may enjoy the game of fitting their words into a set number of syllables. But I would assert that aside from a guiding principle of brevity for haiku, the poem’s content is vastly more important than its form. What’s more, the superficial focus on form distracts even those purporting to be haiku “educators” from properly assessing the haiku’s content. For example, in Dogwood Blossoms #9, the Beginner’s Corner shared the following poem:


                Deer in forests green

                Fawns by noisy rapids play

                Wolf sees its next meal


        Bill Blohm says “There is nothing really wrong with this.” With no offense to the author of this poem, I would say nothing could be further from the truth. The first and second lines both use a syntax that is awkward to English ears (the adjective “green” and the verb “play” are both displaced). Such unnatural speech should be avoided in haiku. Rather, haiku should look effortless. The words should be transparent—the image is the thing. As James W. Hackett has said, we should see the moon, not the bejeweled finger pointing at the moon. Also, the mention of “deer” and “fawns” is essentially redundant; for the sharpened moment necessary for haiku, the first line of this poem is entirely unnecessary. I’m distracted by the capitals that start each line and the period at the end. There are also too many elements and three grammatical parts to this haiku—it is too much, and comes across as wordy. The adjectives contribute to this wordiness (probably used to pad the poem to fit 17 syllables), and are oftentimes avoided in quality haiku. But more important, the concept of “forests” in the first line is too large for haiku. Haiku are moments of here and now. They are moments of a fawn (singular) licking at a pool of water, not about dozens of deer and entire forests. They must be seeable and experienceable (as opposed to actually seen and experienced—although that is obviously common and advisable to help authenticate the poem). One observer cannot see the entire forest, and even if he or she can see many deer, focusing on one deer makes the poem more intimate and personal. Thus haiku are almost always improved by making them singular. Sharpening the image always makes the observation more clear and effective and the communication more intimate.

        The worst problem with this poem, however, is the third line. Elsewhere in his column, Bill rightly says that “in writing a haiku, you are trying to provide a picture, and what is in that picture must also be recordable by a camera.” This is what is meant by being “objective” in haiku. Subjective or “unknowable” feelings, perceptions, or points of view other than your own are not effective. In “Wolf sees its next meal” (where I’m also bothered by t he lopping off of the article, presumably to satisfy the arbitrary syllable count), the “objective” camera may see a wolf, but it has no idea what that wolf is thinking. If the wolf’s mouth is dripping with saliva, then say that to imply the wolf’s hunger. The poet may assume that the wolf he sees may be hungry, but how is that objectively knowable? And how does the poet know that the wolf isn’t seeing the blue sky or the waterfall or grasses of the meadow instead? Haiku are poems of direct perception, almost always written from the first-person perspective. While it is plausible that a wolf near a fawn may be about to attack and eat the fawn, to say “wolf sees its next meal” is to take an omniscient viewpoint. The third-person viewpoint is sometimes used in senryu for satirical and humourous purposes, but in haiku the omniscient viewpoint invariably fails because it removes the poet and the reader from deeply-felt direct experience. Haiku happen through the senses—direct perception and experience—not through the intellect or emotions. Ideas and feelings may come to mind, but they should only be implied or suggested, brought to mind (if ideas come to mind at all) by carefully selected objective images. The consistent use of the first-person viewpoint will help accomplish this.

        So, what is really happening in this poem? Or, more specifically, what can really be seen? What is the image, and what is the haiku moment? The nouns and verbs will help tell us. We have deer in a forest, fawns playing by rapids, and a wolf, presumably nearby. The adjectives here are superfluous. To sharpen the poem I would drop the reference to the deer in the forest, and I’d craft the poem about just one fawn in this case; the context of a forest or woods is understood given the mention of a fawn beside some rapids. The next clue to the weakness in this poem is the word “play.” How do we know that the fawn is playing? What is it doing? And no matter what it is doing, there is still a problem. To call its activity “playing” is to assert a subjective judgement on the image. Again, a haiku no-no. If the fawn is jumping after a butterfly, then say that —it is much more vivid than to say it is “playing.” If the fawn’s tongue licks at a dew-covered leaf, then say that. This is nothing less than the poetry dictum of “showing” rather than “telling.” We need to see the wolf leap at the fawn—perhaps sinking it s fangs into the fawn’s hind legs—before we can really see (rather than be told) that the wolf may be hungry. And if the “moment” of the poem is the wolf’s impending leap, then that needs to be implied rather than some bald analytical statement about a “next meal.” As an alternative to the poem a s submitted, and attempting to correct some of its most egregious problems (but by no means suggesting that the following is terribly effective), I offer the following first-draft revision:


                a speckled fawn

                licks from an eddy—

                the wolf’s ear twitches


        One possible weakness remaining in this poem is the unstated and perhaps unclear location of the wolf (behind a log, in deep grasses?). But what is gained by this revision is the focus on images, and defter placement of the poem’s elements, creating a “background” (the deer licking from a pool) and a “foreground” (the wolf’s twitching ear). Notice that I’ve shifted focus to the wolf. The “moment” of the poem is the ear twitch—that is what is “foremost” in the poem, put in the context (“background”) of the fawn licking water. What is also gained by this revision is the suggestion and reverberation in the twitching ear. Does the wolf’s noticing the fawn cause his ear to twitch, or does the (accidental?) twitching of the wolf’s ear alert the fawn to run for safety? This is what I call “perpetrated ambiguity”—a good kind of ambiguity that allows for at least two specific interpretations (but not so many that meaning suffers). In this way, the poem “opens” rather than “closes.” By ending with a judgment (“wolf sees its next meal”), the previous version of the poem told the reader what to see and think—closing the poem off. In my revision, I don’t say what I think, and I refrain from telling the reader what to think, nor do I tell what happens next—thus the poem opens and reverberates, which is the way all good haiku work. I trust the image because I have chosen and directed it as carefully as I can. The result, hopefully, is that the reader will experience what I experienced, or, the reader will see the image in the poem as if it could have been personally experienced. Regarding the question of direct experience, I’d like to offer one other comment before leaving this poem and Bill Blohm’s comments on it. He notes in his analysis that, “If this were written and submitted as an original haiku based on the author’s experiences, it would be required that he or she have actually experienced the entire scene and not thrown in the wolf to provide the element of suspense.” Required? By whom? I agree with Bill that contrivance is merely a manipulation of the reader. I am tired of haiku about homeless people and bag ladies or other extremities (the first this, the last that) that have a calculated emotional effect on the reader. Something more original and subtle is called for. But I disagree strongly with Bill on his belief about a “requirement” for direct experience in haiku. Haiku is many things to many people. For those to whom it is meditation and an awareness practice, then personal and direct experience is normal. But to those who consider haiku to be poetry and literature, then it is the product, not just the process, that matters most. In other words, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to create a single haiku based on several experience s or memories, perhaps even images seen on television or heard in a story but not directly experienced. Purists who disagree with this assertion reveal their perception of haiku as something smaller than literature. As far as literature and poetry is concerned, there is no inherent virtue in preserving things realistically—sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. Rather, haiku should be believable. The point is that the poem should be created so that it reads as if it were real and directly experienceable. No reader can ever verify the actuality of every poet’s experience anyway. Sometimes the most unbelievable things really do happen—and because they are so unbelievable they may be best not written about. The haiku is best read as literature, as product ahead of process, and the reader should ask of the poem, could this be true, not is this true? For the most part readers have no way of answering the latter question, so they are better off assessing haiku as poetry. Indeed, the “truth” of poetry is not the same thing as utter reality. As for myself, many of my poems arise whole out of direct experience. But others arise out of pastiches of memory—emotion recollected in tranquility, to quote Wordsworth’s definition of poetry. There are many misperceptions about haiku, and I would encourage readers of Dogwood Blossoms to read widely, to write frequently, and to always seek to enlarge their understanding of this rewarding mode of poetry.

        While I have looked at only one of the poems offered for the Beginner’s Corner in Dogwood Blossoms #9, all six exhibit serious problems (as well as some positive qualities), most likely exacerbated by the limiting premises of the assignment, specifically the formal requirement, and what is to my mind a tired and cutesy nature scenario. Nevertheless, I hope to have accomplished three objectives with these thoughts. The first is to suggest a healthy skepticism among the beginners who read words of advice about their haiku (even about my comments, for they are only an opinion). The second is to suggest that despite his infectious enthusiasm for haiku, perhaps Bill Blohm is not the best teacher of a beginner’s haiku corner (although we all learn what we teach, and surely Bill is learning). Indeed, Blohm’s belief that the “contributors to the first Beginner’s Corner have such a good grasp of how to write haiku” makes me shudder! The third and most important point is that a greater focus on content rather than form will surely improve all of our haiku. My hope is that we are able to balance our joy for the poetry—for we all want to enjoy it—with the conscientiousness that creates striking and memorable literature.