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 postscripts 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. The intrinsic may also be called linguistic, as opposed to the extrinsic, which is cognitive—in other words, one takes place in the words, the other in the mind. If I say “the dinner-plate moon rises in the sky,” that’s an overt metaphor, linguistically 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, and that is therefore cognitive rather than linguistic: 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, five years in the wrong window, 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 might 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, it’s 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

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

Here’s another haiku that uses metaphor effectively, a poem by Paul Chambers published in his book This Single Thread (Uxbridge, United Kingdom: Alba Publishing, 2015, page 8):

        sun in the ribs

        of the old pier

        ebb tide

Note, first, how the sound of “ribs” echoes with “ebb,” emphasizing both words. These words, indeed, form the heart of the poem. At the time of an ebbing tide, the sun is low enough to shine into the “ribs” of the old pier—the wooden pilings and cross pieces that keep the pier standing firmly against ocean winds and waves. The poem implies the sun’s lowering, in that only at this time is the light low enough to enter the pier’s “ribs.” And just as the tide is ebbing, so too is the day, giving readers a feeling of melancholy sadness yet contentedness. The word “ribs” is an efficient and evocative way to describe the undersides of the pier, a way of seeing into the pier’s skeleton, the bones that keep it standing. And yet, just as the day and the tide are ebbing, maybe even the pier will ebb one day, its wooden bones rotting, collapsing, and ebbing away, eventually, like our own bones, returning to dust.

—8 April 2017

Two more poems to consider, each with effective metaphors:

        after the street cleaner

        a puddle

        of robins

In this poem by Julie Warther (Bottle Rockets #41, August 2019, p. 5), robins are presented using the collective noun of their being a puddle. What is really happening is that the weather must have been dry, perhaps for a long time, and a puddle appears only after a street cleaner machine has gone by. And so the robins appear, puddling together. The poet has presented this activity in an apt way, not shying away from the metaphorical use of language when it’s effective.

        sword ferns—

        the Stradivarius curl

        of each new leaf

The preceding poem is by Richard Stevenson, from Collected Haiku, published by the League of Canadian Poets, showcasing winners and honourable mentions of its 2018 Haiku Poetry Contest (p. 22). We can immediately see the shape of these young ferns, the way they curl like the top end of a violin, called the scroll. And of course, what more famous violins are there than Stradivarius? By equating the curl of the ferns metaphorically to a Stradivarius, not only do we see the ferns freshly, but the value of these rare and precious violins is applied to sword ferns.

—15 November 2019

In his book Strong Words, poet Hugo Williams said, “Given that poems themselves are metaphors, I find overt metaphors more and more embarrassing in poems.” Would you agree? This impulse is surely why most metaphor, especially overt metaphor, is resisted in haiku, and yet such metaphor can sometimes work well in haiku (and in longer poetry), as I hope the preceding examples demonstrate. When not done well, they can indeed verge on embarrassment, especially in haiku. But if one finds the right way to do it, haiku need not resist metaphor entirely—and here I do mean explicit metaphor rather than implicit (implied) metaphor. Implicit metaphor has always been completely fine, provided it’s not too obvious (common-thought haiku, as the Japanese say), even while explicit metaphor is difficult to do well in haiku. And yet, to quote English cricketer Fred Trueman, “We didn’t have metaphors in our day. We didn’t beat about the bush.” It still seems true that the majority of haiku continue to be as direct as possible, even while still employing implication and suggestion.

—29 August 2021