The Heart of Haiku

First published in Geppo XLV:2, February–April 2020, pages 31–32. Originally written in December of 2009 and revised in January and September of 2010, September of 2017, and in April of 2020. See also the new postscript at the end. I also acknowledge Jane Hirshfield’s independent Kindle publication that has the same title as this essay. Her publication is available on Amazon, and was published in June of 2011.

Much about the craft of haiku can be taught—and learned. But the art of haiku—the heart of haiku—must be innate, or so it would seem. Either you revel in the joys of the ordinary, or you don’t. It’s as innate as looking at the shells and tide pools at the beach with a keen curiosity, as opposed to discussing stock prices while crossing all that sand. True haiku cannot be manufactured, and the heart of haiku lies in the authenticity of experience—the realness that makes us care about the poem and what it presents.

        Consider this excerpt from Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), pages 34 and 35:

        About ten years ago, an elementary school teacher in Minneapolis showed me how a student on a computer could learn to write a haiku. The computer said a haiku was a Japanese poetry form of three lines. It wrote on the screen, “For your first line, pick a season and type it in.” I picked “spring” and typed it in. The teacher stood behind me, nodding approval. “You have written the first line of your haiku. Next type in something concrete about spring; for example, ‘The birds chirp.’” I typed in, “The willows are green.”

        “Now pick an emotion and express it.” I typed in, “I am sad.” It appeared on the screen: I am sad.

        “You have finished your haiku,” the computer said. Then, quickly, the whole genius haiku appeared in front of the enthusiastic teacher and me:


        The willows are green.

        I am sad.

        Then the computer said, “Very good. You have just written your first haiku. Let’s try another one. Usually a haiku has seventeen syllables. . . .”

        “Isn’t it marvelous,” the teacher said.

        I grinned and stepped away from the machine.

        Actually, the haiku I wrote wasn’t awful. I’ve heard worse, but it had no human element. It had nothing to do with me. The real essence of a haiku is the poet’s awakening, and the haiku gives you a small taste of that, like a ripe red berry on the tip of your tongue. Your mind actually experiences a marvelous leap when you hear a haiku, and in the space of that leap you feel awe. Ahh, you say. You get it. The poet transmits her awakening.

Natalie Goldberg then reminds her readers that “There are no quick prescriptions for writing.” That’s certainly true for fiction, and also true for haiku. And the quickest way there is through the heart.

        Indeed, heart is central to Japanese poetry forms. In his preface of the first imperial waka anthology of 905, the Kokinshū, Ki no Tsurayuki began by proclaiming that “Japanese poetry takes as its seed the human heart.” This is one of the most widely quoted summations of Japanese poetry in all its history. While he was writing mostly about waka (now called tanka), it still applies today, and also applies to haiku. But there’s a subtlety to this. You want the poem to “have heart,” yes, and to show each person’s “personal heart,” for the poem to feel authentic and individual. But that doesn’t mean that you can be overly subjective, let alone dripping with emotion. You want to imply it all. As a result, suggesting emotions is vital in haiku, and it’s advisable to convey a personal voice, and to talk about yourself and your relationships—in a balance of sharing and witholding. For example, I’ve written a lot of haiku about my kids (although that’s drying up a bit as my kids get older).

        Note another distinction in the Ki no Tsurayuki quotation—he said the human heart is the seed for Japanese poetry, meaning that the poem has to begin in the heart, that is, it must begin with some sort of emotion, as an expression of one’s true self. The poem is what sprouts from the seed. That’s really what lies at the “heart” of haiku. It may grow into something that speaks of you, who you are, and what matters to you, as a presentation of the self (your heart), but it has to begin with personal feeling. As Robert Frost said, no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.


I talk here of authenticity and the realness of experience as it comes across to readers of our haiku. Let me hasten to add that I don’t mean that haiku has to be limited to so-called “actual” experience. Rather, I mean that the poem should come across as if it’s an actual experience, regardless of whether it happened or not. The reality of whatever “really happened” can never be proved, so it’s important for the poem to work on its own terms, creating a believable experience for the reader. Direct experience frequently helps to generate that authenticity in the poem, but not always—meaning that the poem still needs to be crafted to come across as believable even if it did “really” happen. Likewise, something possibly invented or pastiched from memory still needs the same crafting. The end result of believability is possible with both approaches, and is not limited to conveying only those experiences that “actually” happened. The larger point is that, no matter which path you take to writing haiku (see “How Do You Write Haiku”), you want the poem to convey your heart, your perspective on the world.

—12 May 2020, Sammamish, Washington