Ten Ways to Improve Your Poetry with Haiku
First published in Poet’s Market 2005 (Writer’s Digest Books, 2004), and reprinted in The Craft & Business of Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008), pages 323–330. Originally written in February of 2004, with a few minor revisions in August of 2007, such as correcting my original attribution of the “bejeweled” comment to Bashō when it was actually James W. Hackett. The definition sidebar has since been published in numerous other places, including in the Haiku Journey computer game. This essay can help writers of fiction and nonfiction improve their work as well.
In his poem “Japan,” former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins revels in the experience of reading a haiku—“the one about the one-ton temple bell / with the moth sleeping on its surface.” He repeats the poem to himself over and over in various parts of the house, even bending down to the dog, whispering the poem “into each of his long white ears.” When he says the poem to himself in the mirror, he explains that he becomes the heavy bell and that “the moth is life with its papery wings.” He nears the end of his 35-line poem by saying that, “later, when I say it to you in the dark, / you are the bell, / and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you.” We flow along with the poet’s thoughts, going where the haiku takes him. We, too, see the image, the contrast, and may ponder what it means for us.
All good haiku have this open and expansive quality, a capability for resonance that engages the reader. Billy Collins reads Buson’s tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochō kana in translation (the word kochō is actually butterfly, not moth) and is able to dwell in the poem for a day, to meditate upon it, to let it enlarge for him. “It feels,” he tells us, “like eating / the same small, perfect grape / again and again.” Because of its brevity, haiku can say only so much. Yet it really does say so much. It does this by relying on implication, on what is not said. No wonder haiku has been called an “unfinished” poem. The reader must finish it, bringing his or her own experience into the picture. The poem itself makes the most of this expectation by focusing on the universal in the particular, and the particular in the universal. A haiku makes us aware of what we already know, but may not know that we know.
But how does haiku do this? And how can understanding the strategies of writing haiku aid you in improving your poetry? No matter what lengths or sorts of poetry you prefer, haiku techniques can help you write better poetry. Here are ten tips for improving all your poetry with haiku.
1. Focus on Concrete Images
Good haiku are concrete and objective. They are not about abstractions such as beauty or ugliness—which are interpretations of the mind—but focus on things themselves that may only happen to be beautiful or ugly, qualities that may even be irrelevant. Haiku have things in them like glossy pebbles that are smooth to the thumb. They do not present subjective interpretations such as how you feel about these things. Haiku have real toads in them. If you don’t like the toads, you are free to jump if you want—without the poet having to tell you how to react. By including such clear images in your writing, as haiku does, you can bring stories and experience to life. By describing things, rather than your reaction to things, you trust these objects to have their own emotional impact. And by choosing certain objects to name or describe, you can begin to shape or direct the emotional response you desire. Here’s a poem of mine that relies on objective imagistic description:
meteor shower . . .
a gentle wave
wets our sandals +
My hope is that this haiku contrasts up and down, fire and water, cosmic and personal, and even offers a sense of the gravitational cause of tides. Moreover, I hope readers will enter into the poem to feel the absorption of watching the meteor shower only to be surprised by the gently rising tide.
T. S. Eliot talked about this technique of detachment as the “objective correlative,” which he defined in a 1919 essay (“Hamlet and His Problems”): “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Haiku poets rely on objective correlatives all the time, even if they never think about them. Did Buson ponder how we feel about the weight of a temple bell, or the delicateness of a butterfly on its dull or shiny surface? That doesn’t matter. What matters is how these images make us feel, and how we react to them. Buson, like many other masters of haiku in both Japanese and English, has the grace to let the image be itself, and trusts us to react to it however we will.
In an essay titled “Images,” from Twentieth Century Pleasures (Ecco Press), Robert Hass writes that “Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.” He also adds later that “It simply presents and by presenting asserts the adequacy and completeness of our experience of the physical world.” That’s exactly what a haiku does. It says, simply, this is, and trusts the image to work in asserting the adequacy, and even joy, of pure existence.
2. Come to Your Senses
The image, of course, need not be purely visual. As Eliot notes, the objects or situation or events we describe terminate in a sensory experience. This is what haiku focuses on as the “image”—sensory experience. Whatever we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell is ripe as haiku fodder. What we imagine, think, conclude, or feel emotionally quickly begins to interrupt and be inappropriate—we want to produce these results, not start with them. This is an extension of that old writing adage, show, don’t tell. There’s also a fundamental difference between “ice cream is good” (simply a judgment) and “ice cream tastes good” (a sensory focus). Poets are concerned with exactly that difference, especially in haiku, which relies so heavily on the senses. +
Just as sensory impressions make an immediate connection with readers in haiku, so too can they get under our skin in other poetry. It is through the senses that the world enters our bodies, how the future becomes our past, how we experience life in the present moment. Or, as Ezra Pound put it in his “Vorticism” essay (Fortnightly Review, 1914), “In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” Our five senses tell us we are alive, and make real what we know and feel around us.
Lee Gurga, in his book Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press), reminds readers that haiku “focus on perception rather than invention, so writing them trains poets to become aware of all their senses.” Poetry, because it is a language of the body, can communicate strongly through the senses. As a result, sharpening sensory awareness, as commonly happens with haiku, is a worthwhile goal for any poet.
3. Control Objectivity and Subjectivity
Haiku focus on objective images in the here and now. But what is objective? What is subjective? The best haiku tend to be objective, partly because the objective description (of the thing, the noun) works well to bring about emotional response when we trust the image to do so. As William J. Higginson explains in The Haiku Handbook (Kodansha), “words that are too concerned with how I respond prevent you from responding freely to the object or event that caused my response.” Thus, it’s helpful for us to draw back, to be aware of when “we” (the self, the ego) intrude too much in our poetic descriptions. It’s a sort of poetic graciousness, where the poet is a good host for the reader’s emotional reactions, enabling them to flower where they will.
4. Distinguish Between Description and Inference
One thing we can do in our poetry is to realize where we are being subjective, where we are being objective, and why. A related skill is to learn the difference between description and inference. Scientists, who typically seek objective proof, are cautioned against inference in drawing certain conclusions, for inference can be subjective. Description, as is common in haiku, dwells on actual observation—the concrete and objective. Description may imply certain things, but implication is not the same as inference. The poet, if writing about his or her own inferences, runs the risk of deflating his or her poems by not allowing the reader to draw conclusions. The poet may imply something. The reader may infer. It’s effective for the poet to imply, and central to the enjoyment of poetry, particularly haiku, for the reader to infer, to figure something out based on hints in the poem. But this enjoyment starts with the reader “holding back,” and haiku provides a fine example of how to do that. Inference dwells on logic or intuition rather than direct observation. The haiku may present the premises of a syllogism, but never the conclusion. The reader provides the intuitive conclusion, and this sort of collaboration is what a good haiku seeks.
As a result, the poet can add energy and strength to his or her writing by converging on what is actually observed rather than what he or she infers. If you smell a rose scent, you can infer that a rose is nearby, but if you want to describe this, the subtlety of describing just the scent is typically more powerful than just naming the rose. And then you let the reader figure out just as you do that a rose is around the corner, or perhaps figure out something less obvious than that. A rose may always be a rose, but saying only that you smell the rose may make it more immediate and profound than naming it. By being aware of what you really do perceive, as opposed to infer, you can tap into the perceptions you have and rely on those in your poetry so that the reader, too, may make the same leaping inferences that you do.
In The Haiku Apprentice (Stone Bridge Press), Abigail Friedman writes about her experience as an American diplomat learning how to write haiku in Japan. In haiku, she learned to describe things as they are, and discovered that this was an extension of her professional life as a diplomat, observing and reporting on the North Korean nuclear threat and that country’s human rights issues. Her job was to describe events in North Korea as they were, not as she interpreted them, and once she realized that this restraint also applied to haiku, she was able to plumb the deepest of haiku’s strengths. Or, as she put it herself, “The more I accepted the world around me as it was and just described what I saw, the more authentic my haiku.”
5. Seek Immediacy and Accessibility
A good haiku often captures or produces a moment of epiphany—a moment of realization, understanding, or suchness. One way haiku crystallizes epiphanies is by being immediate and accessible, avoiding artifice. The poem happens now, in the present tense, and focuses on the common and the simple. Yet somehow the ordinary becomes extraordinary, because the effect of the poem is transcendent. Yet it begins with something as immediate and everyday as a nail clipping getting lost in the carpet. Whether haiku can mean something larger or not is a matter of debate. Roland Barthes, in The Empire of Signs (Hill and Wang), said that haiku signifies only itself, the thing as it is. This may be true, and there is certainly value in seeing and respecting the thing itself. As poet David Ignatow has said, “I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life.” Ultimately, by focusing on the objects of existence, haiku engages the possibility of representational and numinous transcendence. This may be why haiku are often described as having an “aha” moment. Life is full of penetrating moments, and haiku notices them and seeks to freeze the instant, not coldly or lifelessly, but with the profound immediacy of a lightning flash.
In poetry, there’s a place for the erudite and challenging (or what Owen Barfield calls “strangeness”), but if it’s too obscure or difficult, it can alienate. Jack Kerouac said that haiku should be as simple as porridge. What he meant is that it dwells in the ordinary, the everyday—in other words, the immediate and accessible. A haiku using a common Anglo-Saxon word rather than a Latinate one, such as “dog” rather than “canine,” becomes more primal, more universal. This is how the ordinary has strength, and part of how haiku celebrating the ordinary—using ordinary rather than elaborate language—somehow becomes extraordinary.
6. Control Formal Devices
As Ezra Pound once wrote, “I believe in an ‘absolute rhythm’ . . . in poetry which corresponds to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” In longer poetry, sometimes such a rhythm might be metrical, but in a poem as short as a haiku, metrical form and other devices quickly overpower the poem. This is why haiku never have titles, almost never rhyme, alliterate only occasionally, and tend to minimize or eliminate metaphor, simile, and other poetic tricks. Some of these devices point to the poem or the maker’s cleverness rather than to a sensory perception or an intuitive physical experience. In The Way of Haiku (Japan Publications), James W. Hackett has given good advice on this topic: “A haiku,” he said, “is a like finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon.” A longer poem has room for a wider range of devices than haiku, of course, but it’s worth noting the limitations of these devices, and how they can be signs of themselves rather than signs for a transcendent reader experience.
A Proposed Definition
Haiku is typically a three-line poem that uses concrete sensory images to convey or imply natural and human seasonal phenomena, using a two-part juxtapositional structure as well as simple and primarily objective language. Originally a Japanese genre of poetry, now written and adapted in many languages worldwide, traditional haiku in Japanese consists of 17 morae (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5. Because of language differences, this rhythm is generally not followed for literary haiku in most languages other than Japanese. As intuitive and emotional poems, haiku often capture a sense of wonder and wholeness in presenting existence such as it is. Rather than presenting one’s emotions, haiku present the cause of one’s emotions, thus empowering the reader to have the same intuitive reaction to an experience that the poet had.
7. Find the Right Form
It’s a common belief that the defining characteristic of haiku is form. Haiku, however, is better understood as a genre of poetry, of which form (and not necessarily a particular form) is only one aspect. Writing in the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama asserts that “The 5-7-5 pattern by itself does not make a haiku.” The 5-7-5 arrangement applies to traditional (meaning not all) haiku in Japanese, but such a set syllabic form does not apply to Western languages for various reasons, the chief of them being that Japanese sound symbols are not equal to syllables. Copying merely the number without understanding what is being counted is like saying 100 yen is equal to 100 dollars. Many haiku scholars, translators, linguists, and poets have frequently written about this—for example, read Appendix I, “The Japanese Mora,” in Kōji Sakamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse (University of Tokyo Press). Schoolteacher pronouncements die hard, though, and it may therefore come as a surprise that it’s not a set syllabic form that matters most in haiku, but seasonal reference and a two-part juxtapositional structure.
But what is one to do with haiku if it is not 5-7-5? The three-line arrangement common in English is a Western contrivance, for haiku in Japanese is written in a single vertical line. The three lines do give the haiku a sense of being a poem, but how long should the lines be? What most leading haiku poets writing in English have done, as readily seen in anthologies such as Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (W. W. Norton), is to let form arise from what needs to be said—an organic form. Though she does not address haiku, Denise Levertov’s essays on this topic are worth a read for some of this theory. As Roland Barthes has written, “The brevity of the haiku is not formal; the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief event which immediately finds its proper form.” Thus, in haiku, one does not compress into the fewest words possible, but the fewest words necessary.
In Japanese, the prescribed syllabic form comes very naturally, and the malleability of the grammar allows greater flexibility in word order than English, making it easier to achieve the 5-7-5 arrangement (Keiko Imaoka addresses these issues succinctly in an essay titled “Forms in English Haiku,” first published in my former journal Woodnotes and readily available online). English has capacities that Japanese does not, but a poet’s slavish adherence to syllabic form in haiku, in English, immediately makes the reader aware of the form ahead of the intuition. But why write like that when you want to mean something, or convey a keen perception, rather than merely fill a bucket? Regardless of the form, the poem’s scaffolding should be nearly invisible. To return again to Barthes, “the work of reading which is attached to [haiku] is to suspend language, not to provoke it.”
What poets can learn from haiku in this regard is an awareness of the effect of form on the poem. Finding the right form, whether metrical or organic, or deliberately violating a form, can set the poem’s tone the way a string quartet can transport diners in an upscale restaurant.
8. Follow Seasonal Rhythms
As just mentioned, one of the two key characteristics of haiku is seasonal reference. Haiku center on season words—known as kigo in Japanese—that not only anchor the poem in time, but allusively embrace other poems that employ the same season word. The seasons in Japan are highly pronounced, so it is no wonder that Japanese poetry celebrates seasonal change. As we know from Ecclesiastes, everything has its season, and across the world we intuitively interpret seasons as metaphors for life’s passages. As poets, if we can be more aware of seasonal archetypes and the subtle seasonal changes around us, and tap into them, our poetry can become more connected to nature and to the earth we live on—the ultimate environmental poem. With seasonal connections, our poetry can also be more entwined with the primal human progression from birth to death.
The seasonal reference can be subtle, however, and need not stoop to the cheapest seasonal trick of naming the season. The Japanese have categorized the multitudes of seasonal phenomena in haiku almanacs known as saijiki. An example of such a book in English is William J. Higginson’s Haiku World (Kodansha), where we can learn that “cicada” is a late-summer season word, and that “pothole” is classified as late winter. The reasons for such classifications have to do with Japanese seasonal traditions and when a given phenomenon reaches its typical zenith, reasons that are challenged by problems of latitude and altitude. Despite the hazards of classification, haiku poets recognize these archetypes, and use them to gain greater evocativeness than the haiku’s three brief lines would otherwise possess.
古池や furuike ya old pond . . .
蛙飛びこむ kawazu tobikomu a frog leaps in
水の音 mizu no oto water’s sound
Bashō’s famous frog poem, here in Higginson’s translation, is not just a poem about the frog’s splash (written in 1686 when predominately the frog was celebrated for its croaking), but an archetypal evocation of spring and change. As a spring season word, the frog and its vitality contrast with the veneration and possible stagnation of the old pond. The new focus on the frog’s jump and the sound it makes in water rather than the sound of its singing provides a freshness of image that matches the vitality of spring. The seasonal awareness thus enlarges the poem, much as the butterfly on the temple bell in Buson’s poem contrasts the fragility of spring and youth with the winter-like permanence of the ageless bell.
Haiku translator R. H. Blyth has described haiku as “a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature.” The moon is autumn, the blossom spring, the leaf autumn. It is this seasonal essence and everything it implies that haiku reveres and relies on, and these evocations can extend to longer poetry.
9. Trust Juxtaposition
The other key characteristic of haiku is its two-part juxtapositional structure. In Japanese haiku, a kireji, or cutting word, separates the poem’s two parts (one of the parts, in English, is spread over two lines). This juxtapositional structure is not only grammatical, in that one line is a separate fragment, distinct from the rest of the poem, but often imagistically juxtaposed as well.
thunderclap . . .
the frayed shoestring
In this haiku by Peggy Willis Lyles, what does the thunder, redolent of summer, have to do with the snapping of a shoestring? That’s the technique of juxtaposition at work, like the montage and cutting techniques of modern film, where the juxtaposition of images implies a progression or emotion (in “The Cinematographic Principle and Japanese Culture,” a 1932 essay in Experimental Cinema, Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein specifically credits haiku for influencing cutting techniques in film). Something is not stated, and does not need to be, because the reader can figure it out. Does the thunder’s suddenness cause the person tying her shoe to be startled, thus jerking the shoelace with enough force to snap it? Or does the juxtaposition suggest that the unexpectedness and quickness of a thunderclap is akin to the sudden snapping of a shoestring? Probably both.
Haiku translator Harold G. Henderson, in Haiku in English (Tuttle), talks of this as “internal comparison,” where one thing may be compared with another, sometimes obliquely, without the relationship being explained. Thus, the objective in haiku is not merely to juxtapose, but to create an effect with that juxtaposition. The two parts of the haiku create a gap that the poet trusts the reader to leap across, much like the instantaneous process of getting a pun. This is leaping poetry of the smallest size but largest order, and the same techniques of juxtaposition and internal comparison can be used in longer poetry.
10. Discover More About Haiku
A basic starting point for learning more about haiku, in addition to the books mentioned here, is William J. Higginson’s “Open Directory” portal site for haiku [no longer active; site discontinued 17 March 2017]. Every rule or suggestion can prove the value of its opposite, so certainly poets have a variety of ways to approach poetry. The techniques I’ve presented are common to haiku published in such journals as Charles Trumbull’s Modern Haiku, the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond, and my own publication, Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem. These techniques may be more readily apparent in haiku than they are in longer genres, but understanding how they work in haiku may help some poets extend them to their longer poetry—or even other kinds of writing such as memoir, fiction, or drama. For example, in comparison to drama writing, haiku shares the principle of “arrive late and leave early” in whatever scene one is describing. These techniques are also common in the related Japanese poetic genres of tanka (the lyrical five-line precursor to haiku), senryu (a more humorous or satirical version of haiku), haibun (elliptical prose, usually autobiographical, interspersed with haiku), haiga (paintings combining haiku and calligraphy), and renku (formal linked verse). More than just applying these techniques to your longer poetry, though, how about writing haiku? Roland Barthes once wrote that “The haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” He is right, but why not explore haiku to see why it is not as easy as it seems? There is much to discover.
The translation of Bashō’s “old pond” is from William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, copyright © 1985, published by Kodansha International, by permission of William J. Higginson. “thunderclap” is from To Hear the Rain: Selected Haiku of Peggy Lyles, published by Brooks Books, Decatur, Illinois, 2002, by permission of Peggy Willis Lyles. “meteor shower” is from Frogpond XXIV:1, Spring 2001, by permission of Michael Dylan Welch.
Suggested Further Reading
Why “No 5-7-5” (on my NaHaiWriMo website)
Michael Dylan Welch is editor and publisher of Tundra and of Press Here haiku and tanka books. Formerly editor of the haiku journal Woodnotes, he is a longtime vice president of the Haiku Society of America, founder of the Tanka Society of America, and founder of the “Poets in the Park” poetry conference. He is a board member of the Washington Poets Association and a contributing editor for Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society. In 1996, he cofounded the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento, California, and he is also a director of the biennial Haiku North America conference (started in 1991). In 2003, he also served as one of the editors of Poets Against the War. He has won Henderson, Brady, and Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of America, and his own poetry, including haiku and tanka, has been published in hundreds of journals and anthologies in more than a dozen languages. He lives with his wife and two children in Sammamish, Washington.