On Writing Haiku
I prepared the following fifty-four comments, rules, and suggestions on the writing of haiku for the 1993 Haiku North America conference, held 15–18 July 1993 at Los Positas College in Livermore. I thought I had lost this file, after a hard-drive crash around 1996 or so, but was pleased to see it again on 3 June 2017, in Seattle, Washington, when Gary Evans mentioned that someone had shared it with him—he kindly sent me a scan of my handout. Talk about bread cast upon the waters! This list is previously unpublished. I also include a new postscript at the end, with comments on some of these fifty-four suggestions. Here, then, are some thoughts on writing haiku. See also “Haiku Checklist” and “The Practical Poet: Creating a Haiku Checklist.”
Use ideal words; don’t settle simply for whatever words you can think of.
Write what you feel.
Feel what you write.
The best haiku aren’t written by the lazy or undisciplined (in other words, work at it).
Write what you know.
Know what you write.
Sit on your poems (that is, write, wait, edit, wait, and edit some more—but don’t revise so much that you overdo it).
Be patient (don’t hurry to publish what you have written—try waiting six or more months).
Be simple, direct, and brief.
Write with seventeen syllables if you want to, but don’t let an external, arbitrary form kill or weaken the essence or rightness of your poem.
Avoid intellectualizations, including metaphor, simile, personification, pathetic fallacy, judgment, and analysis.
Convey what causes your emotion, not your emotion.
Write about a now moment—here and now.
Share a moment of keen insight or heightened awareness, an instant of suchness.
Be singularly specific (but not obscurely specific).
Be accessible, not obscure.
Aim to shed light on your own path, not someone else’s (if the light is universal, it will shine on other paths too, but of its own accord).
Write about nature or human nature.
Juxtapose images with care—by comparison or contrast.
Be still; notice things (you can be moving and still be still—be still inside).
Write one to four short lines.
Avoid tricks (or gimmicks).
If you do use a trick, put your tongue in your cheek.
Use natural language (don’t pad or chop).
Use common words (aim to communicate).
Don’t assume readers are ignorant of less-common words.
Communicate—not necessarily with everyone, but at least with a specific audience (have and audience).
Show, don’t tell. +
Suggest, don’t state.
Art, not artifice.
Don’t use rhyme—unless readers don’t notice it.
Don’t use any poetic, syntactic, or metrical device that detracts from the poem (and the moment in the poem).
Readers should see what the poem is about; they should not see the poem.
Experience your way to the words; don’t word your way to the experience.
Let seasonal references come naturally, authentically, without conflict (don’t worry about someone else’s seasonal classification of so-called “season words”).
Avoid regionalism (be universal).
As James W. Hackett has said, “Lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku” (in other words, be authentic without regard to whether a subject is pretty or not).
Be intuitive, not intellectual.
Learn how to read haiku.
Read English and translated haiku extensively.
Learn the cultural, literary, and historical contexts of haiku.
Write often, but only if you have to.
Learn the art of editing yourself (and others).
Ask yourself why you write haiku (assess your motives).
Keep out of ruts (assess your habits).
Don’t be afraid to do something just because there’s a rule against it (but be conscientious and disciplined, not lazy).
Go where your heart leads.
Keep yourself renewed (be whole).
Above all, enjoy yourself.
At the 1993 Haiku North America conference at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, I gave a presentation on punctuation in haiku. If I gave any other presentation for which I wrote this list, I’ve forgotten the specifics. Perhaps I’ll come across the 1993 HNA schedule someday and reconnect the dots, but even my own report on the conference doesn’t shed light on what I wrote this list for. My guess is that I give it out as part of the panel discussion I was on, “What Is Essential to English Haiku” (with me, David Wright, Geraldine C. Little, William J. Higginson, and Jerry Ball, moderated by June Hopper Hymas and Christopher Herold), but I’m not sure. But I had obviously given it out, and it came back to me twenty-four years later. On looking at this list again in 2017, it seems to retain most of its relevance. However, I would now add the following thoughts, by suggestion number:
1: I don’t say what it means to be authentic, and this could easily be a matter of discussion. For me, authenticity is not gauged by the writer or by “what really happened” (and trying to record an experience as accurately as possible). Rather, for me, authenticity is gauged by the reader, and how the poem comes across to the reader, and whether the reader believes the poem to have the ring of truth. Whatever “really happened” can never be proved, anyway.
2: Perhaps I should have said “don’t settle simply for whatever words you first think of.” I’ve never been a fan of the notion “first thought, best thought,” except to recognize the energy that spontaneous reactions often have.
6: As for “Write what you know,” yes, it’s a good idea, but it can also be inspiring to write what you don’t know, so you can learn it, and it gives you so much more to write about. I think of Howard Nemerov, who reportedly said, “Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.” More importantly, haiku is an art of empathy, so you don’t always have to write what you know, but if you don’t, you have an extra burden to make sure your poem rings true with authenticity. +
8: Here I say not to overdo it, yet in suggestion 5 I say to be disciplined and “work at it.” Good haiku are a matter of balance between work and overwork. Finding the sweet spot that lies in between takes practice. Meanwhile, I usually sit on my poems until I finish an entire notebook, which can take more than a year. Such distance provides objectivity, which helps improve the poems when I revise them and decide which ones I might want to publish. It’s also good to be patient in putting together a book of published poems (and yes, it’s usually best if each poem is first published individually, or mostly so). Don’t hurry your poems into a book, no matter how tempting it might be to want to have a published book.
13: It might seem good to convey what causes your emotion, not your emotion. But I would word it differently now. You want a haiku to convey emotion, and you do it by presenting what caused that emotion. So I now take issue with the word convey here, which suggests implication, and I think I applied convey to the wrong thing, or that I should have said share instead of convey. In workshops for years now I have instead said, “Don’t write about your emotions. Write about what caused your emotions.”
14: Writing about the here and now is always good advice, but I would not limit myself to that. Writing about memory is entirely valid, and I’ve written elsewhere (since putting together this list in 1993) that all haiku are moments of history. More important, I think, is for the poem to come across as a here-and-now moment.
15. Shades of the Haiku Society of America definition of haiku appear here—keen insight and heightened awareness. And the idea of suchness, I think, comes from R. H. Blyth. These are all good ideas but feel received or borrowed here. The notion of “keen insight” suggests a sort of enlightenment that may stink of Zen—and we all know how haiku has been over-Zenned in the west. An “insight” can too easily be taken to be a judgment or analysis, too, so I’m not sure it’s best to write haiku in order to convey an “insight.” Better to convey a feeling or emotion, which can indeed arise from heightened awareness. That awareness can come from being present in the suchness of the moment—but I hesitate at saying that, because it feels jargony and esoteric. A good haiku makes you feel an emotion through your five senses—that’s what really matters.
17. There are obscure haiku out there, perhaps because they’ve gone too far or remain too personal or private. Yet there’s also some (limited) virtue in readers trying to go to where the writer is; the writer doesn’t have to always go to where the reader is. Readers should be open to being challenged, but writers should also cultivate a sensitivity to when they go too far.
21: In his 1934 book, A Bamboo Broom, Harold G. Henderson wrote of Bashō’s “old pond” poem that “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed strongly enough to make Bashō compose a poem about it” (34; emphasis added). This idea needs more attention in the lives of haiku poets, it seems to me—to cultivate an inner stillness in order to fully notice and appreciate outer stillness, yet to also notice dynamic activities deeply as well. I think of the poet Marianne Moore, who said, “I shall be there when the wave has gone by.”
27: I would now add that words rooted in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin tend to be more primal and immediate—such as saying “car” rather than “automobile,” or “cat” rather than “feline.”
30: I would now add “know when to tell,” which is important for haiku as well as for fiction.
35: This is really the notion of “wordlessness,” where the words disappear into their meaning rather being words, the way you turn page after page of a good novel, engrossed in the story rather than seeing the words or sentences themselves and thinking about how well crafted they are.
37: I think my point here was to let nature itself rule over the codifications of a saijiki, or season-word almanac.
38: This point seems to be at odds with #18, which says “Aim to shed light on your own path, not someone else’s.” I would now actually say to embrace regionalism, except that it’s good to know when your audience might be unfamiliar with a term and too easily pushed away or excluded by it, rather than prompted simply to look it up.
41: Learning to read haiku means to know what to look for—the juxtaposition, the effect of the juxtaposition, the seasonal reference, the archetypes of human growth that seasonal reference infers, the use of the five senses, the handling of time, the freshness of the experience, and more (see the essay “Thirteen Ways to Read Haiku”). It’s quite a different matter, but haiku poets should also learn how to read their haiku aloud. A thousand times on the tongue, I think Bashō said. Thus the written poem benefits from thinking about how it sounds when read aloud. And of course we should practice saying out haiku aloud for readings too—with enough space between the poems (even as long as the poem itself), so each poem has enough breathing room. I’m of the opinion, meanwhile, that it’s best to read each haiku just once (unless an espresso machine goes off), provided you make sure you have the audience’s attention. Reading the poem twice, although that’s often done in Japan and in the West, seems unnecessary if the poet reads the poem well the first time.
44: I suppose it would have been predictable here to say “unless you want to.” But that’s not what I mean. Of course, no one has to write. Or do we? I think of E. E. Cummings, who said of his poems, “Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being;somebody who said to those near him,when his fingers would not hold a brush ‘tie it to my hand.’”
50: I once remember someone saying that you should never start a haiku with a preposition. So for weeks afterwards I wrote what felt like hundreds of poems that started with a preposition, to explore how it could work, and to see when it doesn’t. So whenever I see one of my haiku that starts with a preposition, I know it probably came from this time. We might well reconsider every “rule” we’ve heard about haiku and try doing the opposite for a while. In some cases it will prove the “rule” to be unhelpful; in others the exercise will show us why the advice is beneficial.
54: Yes, in reading and writing haiku, if we’re not enjoying ourselves, even in at intellectual way, why bother? Jane Reichhold began her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku by saying “Though the word ‘enjoying’ is the third word in the title of this book, for me enjoying anything and everything is the primary function of our lives.” My list presented here may be slightly reminiscent of Jane’s list of “Haiku Rules that Have Come and Gone,” which was published (in Albatross) around 1993.
—4 June 2017, Sammamish, Washington