Thirteen Ways of Reading Haiku

First published by the Africa Haiku Network in The Mamba #5, March 2018, pages 92–126 . Two paragraphs, starting with “Speaking of empathy,” are new additions since first publication, as are the quotations at the start, and the Henderson quotation at the end. Originally written in November and December of 2017. See also the postscript at the end, also published in The Mamba, originally written in January of 2018. This essay was also published on the New Zealand Poetry Society website in October of 2018, and on the NeverEnding Story blog on 16 November 2018. See also my poem, “Seventeen Ways of Looking at a Haiku,” and Ron Padgett’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Haiku.”        +       +       +       +

“Haiku-reading has been called an art in itself.”

—Harold G. Henderson, in Haiku in English

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Creative reading is the mixture of textual knowledge combined with experience.”

—Alexander Fortier

“You can’t read a haiku better than you can write one, and you can’t write a haiku better than you can read one.”

—Clark Strand (spoken at the 2021 Upaya Zen Center haiku weekend)

“Reading is a majority skill but a minority art.”

—Julian Barnes, Through the Window

“The thrill of reading contains the thrill of making.”

—Louise Glück, in “Invitation and Exclusion”

“The fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird is mine.”

Mary Ruefle, in “The Butter Festival,” from Dunce

Japanese haiku, read rightly, are built on [a] foundation of tact and trust and active collaboration. Good poems may always be math problems that end with the equal sign, leaving their conclusions to enact themselves inside us.

—Jane Hirshfield, in a Paris Review interview

“There are several arts which are so widely practiced in Japan that they may be considered an integral part of its culture. . . . Among these are the twin arts of reading and of writing haiku.”

—Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku

What do you look for when you read haiku? Many people who are new to haiku look for the syllable count, without realizing that this takes them out of the poem and turns them into adjudicators looking to see if the poet “did it right.” In the process, such readers might too easily miss the images and emotions of the poem. There’s much else to look for in reading a haiku. The Japanese haiku master Seisensui has referred to haiku as an “unfinished” poem. This means that the reader finishes the poem by engaging with it. The art of reading haiku amounts to finishing the poem that the poet started. But what does the reader engage with beyond the trivialities of the syllable count? When you read haiku, it helps to know what to look for so that you may “finish” the poem as finely as possible. These strategies may also help you write haiku, but the focus here is on reading them. As with Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” there may well be at least thirteen ways to read haiku.

1. Form

Although presumptions about 5-7-5 syllables produce widespread distractions in both reading and writing haiku, form is the first aspect we notice about these poems, either consciously or subconsciously, when we see them on the page. In Japan, traditional haiku follows a 5-7-5 rhythm (written in a single vertical line). But they are not counting syllables, and it’s been a misunderstanding outside Japan, such as in English, to presume that 5-7-5 syllables is equivalent. Much has been written elsewhere about why this is problematic, and how it obscures other more important aspects of the poem, so it’s important to look beyond form to focus on content. But form may be the natural place to start. How does the poem appear on the page? Most haiku in English appear in three lines, and one-liners are also common, but the poem could appear in a variety of other forms. Consider how the form, whatever it is, might help or hinder the poem. For example, do indents give a sense of movement, and does that sense complement the poem’s meaning? Does centering each line give the poem a feeling of formality? If the poem is 5-7-5, are the lines padded or chopped artificially just to cater to that form? Are the line breaks natural, or does an unnatural break cause a useful emphasis on a particular word or line? Does the symmetry of a short-long-short line pattern help the haiku, married with the asymmetry of a two-part structure? Ultimately, has the poem found its best organic form to present the content? Similarly, as an extension of form, consider how the poem handles capitalization and punctuation. Often these are matters of personal style, such as whether a poet chooses to mark the poem’s “cut” with a dash or an ellipsis, or whether the poet omits punctuation, trusting the grammatical shift to make a two-part structure clear. Starting the poem with a lowercase letter can signal that the poem is fragmentary, as haiku so often is, rather than a complete sentence, but some poets prefer to start with a capital, even if they don’t end with a period. Such style choices may not make a difference to the meaning of some poems, but sometimes they will, so pay attention.

                Evening coming—

                the office girl

                unloosing her scarf

                                —Jack Kerouac

                    Coming from the woods,

                A bull has a lilac sprig

                    Dangling from a horn.

                                —Richard Wright

These two early haiku pioneers take different approaches to form. Wright’s poem is 5-7-5, and fortunately it reads naturally, but presents more information than a typical Japanese haiku. Wright’s indents follow the practice used by translator R. H. Blyth, who was Wright’s only influence during the brief period when he wrote haiku. Both poems have natural line breaks and use their chosen forms appropriately. Other haiku may appear in a single line, or have words scattered down the page. Or they may take other creative approaches. It’s worth considering how the form helps the meaning, and to enjoy varying forms as well as the content.

2. Feeling

While form is the first characteristic we might notice about haiku, it’s good to move toward content as soon as possible, and to dwell in the effects of that content. First, how does the poem make you feel? William J. Higginson has written that the purpose of haiku is to share them. We share haiku to convey experience and feeling, and a haiku succeeds if the reader has a feeling similar to the writer’s. Does a haiku make you sad, happy, joyful, melancholy, puzzled, fulfilled? Or do you feel any other emotion? Does the poem suggest a story that engages you to wonder what happened? Does the poem convey an appreciation for youthfulness or aging, and an acceptance of these changes through the seasons of life? You may feel whatever you like in response to haiku poems, but it’s worthwhile to notice your feelings in reaction to a haiku, because those feelings are what the poem is trying to stir. You can also become a better haiku reader and writer by figuring out what the poem is doing to cause those feelings—and in the best haiku, the poem will create feelings rather than naming or explaining them. As a reader, you have the burden to reach the emotion that the poet has pointed you toward. And bear in mind that some poems may speak to you and others won’t, depending on your own background and experiences. It’s okay to resonate strongly with some poems, and not with others. Just read more.

                city street

                the darkness inside

                the snow-covered cars

                                —Cor van den Heuvel

                town barberpole

                stops turning:

                autumn nightfall

                                —Nick Virgilio

These two haiku convey a feeling of melancholy. Cor van den Heuvel has observed the city scene closely, noticing an increased darkness in parked cars that are covered with snow. Perhaps the snow seems whiter in contrast to the darkness inside the cars. And in Virgilio’s poem, we get a profound sense of ending, even of death, when the barberpole is shut off—or turns off for some other reason (power failure?). The day too is ending, as night falls, and the year’s seasons are drawing to a close with autumn. The elements work together to create a feeling of sadness. It’s always advisable, when reading a haiku, to ask how the poem makes you feel.

3. Two-Part Structure

Another characteristic to look for in haiku is a two-part structure. It doesn’t appear in every haiku, but usually does, where one part of the poem (typically the first or third line) is grammatically independent from the rest of the poem. But the shift is more than just grammatical—the juxtaposed part should be a change of images as well, and not just a restatement of the previous part. One part of the poem is “cut” apart from the other, equivalent to the use of what the Japanese call a “kireji” or “cutting word,” serving as a sort of spoken punctuation. More importantly, it’s the interaction of these two parts that matters most, as the leap between them may create a mystery (what does one part have to do with the other?) that the reader may resolve, either logically or emotionally. The resonance between the parts matters more than the mere placement of one image with another—like making one plus one equal three. The relationship of the poem’s two parts is intended to imply something that’s deliberately left out, or to give the reader a feeling. This technique can sometimes create what the Japanese call “ma,” or space within the poem. Leaving something out generates a vacuum that can suck the reader in, engaging them with the poem’s seeming mystery.

                Midwinter gloom—

                she turns on the lights

                in her doll’s house

                                —Lorraine Ellis Harr

                the long night

                of the mannequins—

                snow falling

                                —Martin Shea

In Harr’s poem, a pause occurs after the first line. With “Midwinter gloom,” we are given an emotional context, as well as a seasonal setting, for the rest of the poem. The effect here is a kind of zooming in as we tighten our focus on the doll house, and even more closely on its lights being turned on. The moment is quick—just when the lights flick on—but it’s in the context of a much longer season of gloom. Indeed, this small action is a protest against the dreariness of winter, and this unspoken feeling of protest lies at the heart of this poem. In Shea’s haiku, the pause occurs before the last line. In this case the poem’s moment is long—an entire night. It’s not just the snow that might be keeping shoppers away but the long hours of night when the store is closed. This poem extends empathy to the mannequins and their seeming loneliness in this situation. Every night is surely the same, but this particular night feels even longer because of the snow.

        Speaking of empathy, Eric Amann refers to “the art of reading haiku” as an essentially empathetic act. In his book, The Wordless Poem (Haiku Canada, 1969, 1978), he says, “A haiku is not meant to be read like a longer poem. It is more of an object of contemplation.” He explains as follows (page 7):

First we must empty our minds of all preconceived ideas and re-experience what the poet saw or heard or felt; we must allow the images to touch us, we must enter, for example, the stillness of the old pond, see/hear/feel the sudden leap of the frog, and allow the ripples to fade out slowly in our mind. Only if we thus put ourselves in the poet’s place, only if we experience the images directly and without intellectualization, only then—if the haiku is a good one—will it achieve its effect, evoking moods and memories, echoes and ripples of associations, playing on the mind as though it were an instrument where all the sympathetic strings resonate when a single note is struck.

4. Seasonal Reference

Yet another technique to look for in haiku is seasonal reference. Naming the season is the most obvious way haiku poets will do this, but haiku often uses more subtle methods. These could be as direct as snow for winter or blossoms for spring, but look for less obvious indications as well. The value of these seasonal references is that they anchor each poem in time, evoke seasonal metaphors for the unfolding of human life, and allude, especially in the Japanese tradition, to other poems that use the same season words, called “kigo” in Japanese. Japanese culture is highly sensitive to the seasons, and this sensitivity manifests itself in haiku and many other Japanese arts. While it is not necessary merely to imitate Japan with haiku poetry, those who write haiku in English or other languages frequently honour the seasons where they live in a way that is common in Japanese haiku. Remember, too, that haiku is not strictly a “nature” poem, but focuses on the seasons instead. This means that human and pure-nature subjects are both appropriate for haiku (human presence does not necessarily make the poem a senryu). You might want to consider each haiku in terms of how much human or nature content appears in the poem and notice which poems you tend to prefer. Either is fine—or both.

                summer night:

                we turn out all the lights

                to hear the rain

                                —Peggy Willis Lyles

                Late August—

                I bring him the garden

                in my skirt.

                                —Alexis Rotella

The first of these two poems names the season, whereas the second one shows the season through the image of the bountiful garden. The word “August” is not necessarily a season word for summer, except in the Northern Hemisphere, because the seasons are opposite in the southern half of the world. Both ways of indicating the season can work in haiku. When the season is named, as in Lyles’ “summer night,” we can expect the rest of the poem to build on that context. It is night time, so we know it must be late if it’s during the summer. And surely it’s been a long dry summer, too, if rain is enough of a novelty to warrant the putting out of lights to hear it better. The poem presents a moment of celebration. So too does Rotella’s poem, expressing love in sharing the garden’s bounties. And note how this sharing must have been spontaneous, too. The poet did not go out to the garden with a basket, but just went out to look, or perhaps to do some weeding. Upon seeing the garden’s late-August yield, the poet can’t help but collect some of this bounty, using the only means available, her skirt, to carry it indoors. In both poems we find rich evocations of the season.

5. Five Senses and Objectivity

Another trait to pay attention to in haiku is how objectively the poem presents its images and experiences. Yet this objective portrayal can produce a subjective effect, where the facts of the five senses can produce a feeling in the reader. The haiku poem uses chiefly objective means to produce a subjective end. But the subjectivity is usually added by the reader in interpreting the poem—part of how the reader finishes the “unfinished” poem. It takes practice for Western writers to control their use of subjectivity and objectivity in haiku. As a reader of haiku, it can be rewarding to notice which parts of the poem are objective or subjective. Touches of subjectivity can sometimes work very well if the majority of the poem remains objective and concrete. Objectivity enables the poet to show rather than to tell, and when the reader sees the image (or feels the experience through other senses), he or she can have a unique emotional reaction, whereas a haiku that presents too much subjective interpretation does the reader’s job, and risks reducing engagement with the poem.

                her silence at dinner


                                 hanging in the wine

                                —Scott Montgomery

                the telephone

                rings only once

                                  autumn rain

                                —Nick Avis

Both of these poems focus on the sense of sound—in the dinner silence and the telephone’s ring, but also, in the second poem, the sound of the rain. Yet visual elements arise, too, especially in Montgomery’s image of sediments hanging in the wine, a precarious sort of suspension that extends the tension in “her” silence. We don’t know the reason for this silence, perhaps part of an argument, but we can inhabit that moment for what it is. It might even be a moment of contentedness, with no need to talk, but something in the tension of unsettled sediments suggests that the relationship is unsettled also. In Avis’s poem, the denial of communication and the mystery of why the phone would ring only once finds solace in an awareness of the rain, the sound of which the poet might not have noticed were it not for the phone’s ring. Avis’s poem feels melancholy, and we are invited to join that melancholy instant—and this despondence (or perhaps bittersweetness) is heightened by the suitability of this being an autumn rain. In both poems, the scenes are depicted with utter objectivity (showing, not telling—just the facts), yet what emotional overtones these images convey. When haiku poets rely on their five senses to show what they experienced, we as readers can feel what they felt.

6. Sound and Rhythm

It also helps to think of sound in haiku—not sound as a subject, but how the words themselves sound. Haiku can be just as lyrical as a longer poem. Try saying each poem aloud when you encounter it, or at least try hearing it in your head. Rhyme is typically too overpowering in a poem as short as haiku, but assonance, consonance, slant rhymes, and other sound techniques may enhance the poem. In Japan, poets speak of “composing” their haiku, not “writing” them, which can remind us of the lyrical elements of the poem—and how it sounds. Don’t let the poem’s sounds pass you by. And pay attention to the rhythm of each line. Are the line breaks natural and unobtrusive, or is a useful effect produced by an unexpected line break? Look for the poem’s music and let it sing in you.

                          Listening . . .

                After a while,

                     I take up my axe again

                                —Rod Willmot

                Muttering thunder . . .

                     the bottom of the river

                          scattered with clams

                                —Robert Spiess

The first of these two poems is about sound, but the point here is to think about the sounds of the words themselves. In Willmot’s poem, a strong moment of silence occurs after the first line. We don’t know what the poet is listening to, perhaps the call of a far-off bird, but it is enough to attract his attention, and we dwell in that appreciation for a moment of listening before he takes up his axe again. And we surely also hear the poet’s next swing of the axe—that thwack of steel into cedar. Spiess’s poem, meanwhile, is also about sound (the rolling of thunder, contrasted with clams that seem silent at the river’s bottom—and notice how the river is rolling too). But the poem uses sound as well, as with the similar “tt” sounds of “mutter” and “scatter,” repeated again in “bottom.” Additional sounds repeat in the last syllables of “mutter,” “thunder,” “river,” and “scatter,” and recurring “m,” “r,” and “s” sounds add to the poem’s sonorous tightness. The poem’s pleasing rhythm also contributes to its music. And although the word “clams” finds no sound connection with any other words, this difference gives the word emphasis, sharpening our focus.

7. Wordplay and Allusion

And there’s more. What about wordplay and allusion? Good haiku may well employ double meanings or turns of phrases. And it’s common in Japanese haiku—and increasingly in English—for haiku to allude to other literature (not just poems), or to take advantage of the overtones of place names or other cultural references. In English, we can’t write a lily or elevator haiku without bringing to mind prominent poems that have handled these subjects before us. These techniques help to compress more meaning and poetic effect into such a short poem, as do season words. Allusion may be a more advanced target to look for, but noticing it will come naturally as you gain more haiku reading experience.

                foghorns . . .

                we lower a kayak

                into the sound

                                —Christopher Herold

                standing in the middle of now here

                                —Peter Newton

                body bag

                not asking

                not telling

                                —Jerry Kilbride

                gone from the woods

                the bird I knew

                by song alone

                                —Paul O. Williams

                on his youth in Japan

                my neighbor falls silent . . .

                the clear summer sky

                                —Chuck Brickley

It’s worth talking about several poems here, so we might thoroughly explore the practices of wordplay and allusion in haiku. In Herold’s haiku we immediately sense the wordplay, in this case a double meaning, in the word “sound.” He means not just a “sound” as in a large ocean inlet (the poet lives on Puget Sound in Washington State) but the sensory “sound” of the foghorns. The discovery of this simultaneous meaning gives the poem a satisfying sense of completeness and resolution, and we can enjoy the pleasure of kayaking despite the warning of fog. We see another kind of wordplay in Newton’s play on “nowhere” and “now here” to the point that it does not matter where in the world he might be—all that matters is that he’s now here rather than “nowhere.” In Kilbride’s poem, we most likely know that “body bag” refers to a casualty of war, and that the last two lines refer to what was then an American military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding the sexual orientation of its soldiers. It may help to know that Kilbride himself fought in the Korean war despite being a gay man—at a time when the veiled tolerance of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had not even come into practice. But even without this information, the cultural allusions in this poem, though not literary, are still strong. The gestalt of the poem is that surely the dead solder was gay, and how sad it is that even this sense of identity is lost along with the soldier’s life—he was, in a way, already “killed” before he died. A similar sort of meta-information informs the poem by Paul O. Williams. On one level anyone can relate to knowing a bird that he or she had only heard in the woods, but is no longer there. But this poem was written as a memorial for the late Nick Virgilio, whose “song” Williams had “heard” only in various haiku journals over a long period of time—and now the song was gone. He had never met Nick in person. This is a contextual allusion, thus different from literary or place-name allusions that poets can also use in haiku, but it’s useful to know that this is possible. And as for Brickley’s poem, here an allusion to place—such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is obvious. The reference to a clear sky makes a sharp contrast to the chaos of a mushroom cloud, so this is why Hiroshima and Nagasaki will come to mind for many readers. This allusion deepens the poem, yet it’s worth noting that the poem can still work on other levels even without this understanding. Allusion and wordplay can help to condense and deepen haiku poetry.

8. Personal Taste

Poets around the world write many millions of haiku every year. Because they are such personal poems, you may respond to some poems but not others. This too is part of how you read haiku—let poems speak to you if they will, and don’t worry too much about others that don’t. Years later you may read the same poems and ones that meant so much to you before might no longer speak to you, and others will come alive. Or perhaps all will work for you at another time, or none of them. This too is an extension of how the reader completes the poem—set yourself free in enjoying each poem, and move on from poems that might puzzle you. With more experience with haiku, perhaps certain poems might no longer puzzle you, but remember that some puzzling poems might simply be poorly written. However, don’t expect all poems to “come to you.” That is, it can be valuable for you to “go to the poem.” Make at least some effort to figure out a puzzling poem. Perhaps there’s a cultural context that initially eludes you. Don’t expect each poet to spoon-feed his or her poem to you. Some haiku may take risks, and when you “get” the poem, you will get it more strongly than if the poem had spelled things out more obviously. It’s also perfectly fine sometimes to just feel something from the poem, whether you “get it” or not.

                bearing down

                on a borrowed pen

                do not resuscitate

                                —Yu Chang

                mountain wind

                the stillness of a lamb

                gathering crows

                                —Matt Morden

These are two poems I happen to like, even though they’re dark. You may like them, too, but it’s okay if you don’t. In fact, the second one is particularly morbid, which may not appeal to some readers at all. Yet both carry a sense of suchness, of life as it is. As James W. Hackett once wrote, “lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.” Although these two poems may be readily accessible to you, there might be other haiku I like that completely puzzle you. Or that you like but that puzzle me. For example, I’m baffled by a lot of avant-garde gendai (modern) haiku out of Japan, and by the recent rise (though more recently decline) of similar poems in English. Although these poems produce an immediate “reader resistance” in me, I also recognize that that’s their point—to challenge stereotypes and narrow visions for what haiku “should” be. Quite aside from whether a poem “puzzles” you, though, taste is a matter of whether you happen to like or dislike even poems that don’t puzzle you. Indeed, you need not feel you have to like what other people like. Because haiku are so particular in their focus, and because they require the reader to “finish” each poem, these poems are highly personal. So if a poem happens not to appeal to you or me, but appeals to someone else, this selectiveness is worth celebrating, not bemoaning. Moreover, it’s worth paying attention to why you like or don’t like a poem. If you figure out the reasons, then you can cultivate poems written in the way you like, yet also challenge yourself to try writing poems in ways that you hadn’t liked previously. However, for the sake of reading haiku (as opposed to writing them), knowing why you like certain poems can help you better understand haiku that you don’t.

9. The Fourth Line

With experience, too, you may find that the name of the poet provides a deeper context for the poem. The name that appears after each haiku may be considered as the poem’s “fourth line” (even if the poem isn’t always in three lines). The name can offer information about the poet’s gender, nationality, location, biography, or even his or her style or brand of haiku if you know that poet’s work. A haiku might have a very different effect if you know the writer to be male rather than female, or vice versa—or even transgender or nonbinary. If you know the poet lives in Greenland or Gambia, that too may make a difference in how the poem comes across. Poets might also deliberately write against expectations for their usual style—perhaps writing a pure-nature poem when they normally focus on human relationships, or vice versa, and this choice may make the poem stand out. For readers who are new to haiku, many of these details won’t be obvious until you encounter particular poets repeatedly, or meet them in person, but you can still pay attention to whatever clues the name might provide.

                8 seconds . . .

                the bull rider opens

                a hand to the sky

                                —Chad Lee Robinson

                silent Friends meeting . . .

                the sound of chairs being moved

                to enlarge the circle

                                —Robert Major

As with the Kilbride and Williams poems mentioned previously, where it may help to know something about the poet or the poem’s context, here it helps to know that Robinson lives in South Dakota, part of American cowboy country, where rodeos are common occurrences. Knowing this about Robinson helps to validate the poem. Amid the intense frenzy of bull-riding, the poet notices that instant where the rider’s hand opens to the sky, as if open to whatever happens while riding the bull to the best of his or her ability. A similar influence of the fourth line, the name under the poem, is true for Major’s poem, if we know that he himself was a Quaker, a Christian religion whose formal title is the “Society of Friends” or the “Religious Society of Friends.” Many Quaker meetings are held in silence, and yet not without awareness, perhaps similar to Zen meditation in this regard. We find great warmth in the action of moving chairs to enlarge a circle, a gathering of welcoming acceptance. In other poems, the gender of the poet might completely change how we read a poem, or knowing that a poet lives in Botswana or Brazil might have an effect too. Whatever information we know, or can gather, about the poem’s “fourth line” can help to deepen the poem. Some observers may feel that the poem has to stand on its own, and yes, that’s a worthwhile goal, but we might easily welcome whatever additional information is available to us through the name after the poem to deepen our appreciation even further.

10. Intuitional Interpretation

Another step to take when reading haiku is to welcome your own interpretations. Yet look for clues that help you discount misinterpretations. A good haiku might entertain some degree of ambiguity, hopefully to suggest more than one meaning—although it should be careful to avoid excess ambiguity that merely confuses rather than engages. But ultimately, you are the judge of each poem. Trust your intuition. How does the poem make you feel? Where does the poem take you? What do you picture? That is the best any of us can offer to each poem, even if we become highly experienced readers and writers of haiku.

                two lines in the water . . .

                not a word between

                father and son

                                —Randy M. Brooks

                These hills

                have nothing to say

                and go on saying it

                                —Ken Jones

How do you interpret the poem by Randy Brooks? Why are the father and son silent? Are they upset with each other? I suspect not, that they are simply content instead. But the poem leaves that up to readers to decide. You can take haiku wherever you want, and almost any interpretation is probably reasonable. In this poem, the point is the shared experience, the cross-generational moment of fishing together, whether for food or for sport. Likewise, what does Ken Jones mean in his poem? What are the hills saying? And how are the hills “saying” anything? There’s a Zen sense of just being, here, and that may well be the point. As the poet Marianne Moore once said, “I shall be there when the wave has gone by.” Something about the poem speaks of permanence, of utter acceptance. Or at least it does to me. That’s my intuition. Perhaps your intuition is different, and that’s fine too. Remember, of course, that not every poem will speak to you, and it’s worth welcoming this fact, contentedly leaving aside any poems that happen not to click for you.

11. Noticing Moments

Much has been written about the so-called “haiku moment.” This might be the poet’s original experience, or it might be the experience recreated in the poem. Or it might be the moment when the reader “gets” the poem, if something is implied or left out. Whatever the case, haiku can vary greatly in the length of the “moment” depicted. Many are very short, but not all (I have a poem about light from a window crossing a room in a nursing home—the poem takes all day). The seasonal reference helps to narrow the focus, or at least provide a context, but usually a verb in the poem sharpens our attention. Yet some haiku have no verb at all, instead presenting a state of being. Look for the verbs in haiku (usually just one is best) or the lack of verbs.

                slave cemetery

                i scrape the moss to find

                no name

                                —William M. Ramsey

                after Christmas

                a flock of sparrows

                in the unsold trees

                                —Dee Evetts

                rain-swept parking lot

                headlights of a locked car

                grow dim

                                —Charles B. Dickson

In the Ramsey poem, a single verb centers our attention on that intimate moment of physically scraping moss from a grave marker. We are presumably saddened to find that a dead slave was robbed not only of his or her freedom but even of his or her name. And notice how the poet seems to feel culpable in this injustice, because he refers to himself with a diminished lowercase “i.” We too, as readers, can feel this shame. And this moment is crystallized in that fleeting action of scraping off moss. In contrast, the Evetts poem has no verb. The birds just exist in the unsold trees. Nevertheless, the word “after” gives us a moment in time. We don’t know how long after Christmas it is, but the leftover Christmas trees commonly sold in European or North American countries and elsewhere have not yet been carted away. And for that brief time, the trees are decorated not with Christmas baubles but with birds. Instead of a verb such as the sparrows “sheltering” in the trees, we are given just the preposition “in”—and that’s all we need to know, that the birds are “in” the unsold trees. And a third type of “moment” occurs in the Dickson poem. This haiku gives us a verb, “grow,” but it’s not a quick action this time. Instead, it’s a slow change as the light dims while the car’s battery drains. We can easily imagine the owner out shopping or perhaps at work, busy with some other task that makes him or her forget the car. A feeling of sadness is deepened by the parking-lot setting being rain-swept. Whatever the moment’s length, it’s worth paying attention to how it’s presented, and how long that moment is.

12. Playing Favourites

One more recommendation is to mark favourite poems when you read haiku in a book or journal, and perhaps even write notes as to why you like (or dislike) particular poems. You might note the seasonal reference or note unusual techniques. This practice can help you read more conscientiously (I like to call it interactive reading—George Steiner said that “The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book”). Writing out your reasons for liking a haiku—or at least thinking them through—can help you understand the complex achievements of even the simplest-seeming poems. And if you like a particular poem, take a few minutes to write to the poet to say so. It will help you deepen your understanding to articulate why you like the poem, and the act of connecting and building social relationships will help you understand the poem’s “fourth line” by knowing the poet better. It can also be helpful to think about ways you might revise the poem if it were yours, such as changing a word (saying “maple” instead of just “tree”) or reversing the order of lines—and you may well discover that the poem can’t be improved.

                pregnant again . . .

                the fluttering of moths

                against the window

                                —Janice Bostok

                at the height

                of the argument   the old couple

                pour each other tea

                                —George Swede

                after the garden party     the garden

                                —Ruth Yarrow

                spring sunshine

                my dead wife’s handprints

                on the window pane

                                —David Cobb

                a skull no bigger

                than my thumbnail

                jasmine in bloom

                                —Cherie Hunter Day

                jackknifed rig

                a trooper waves us

                into wildflowers

                                —Robert Gilliland

                     out of the haze

                the dog brings back

                     the wrong stick

                                —Max Verhart

These poems are among many I’ve marked as favourites in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton, 2013), edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, from which I’ve quoted all of the poems in this essay. I know my reasons for liking and admiring these poems, and you may have similar reasons—or even different reasons. Or you might not care for some of these haiku. Here I like the variety or emotions, the images, the careful crafting, the sounds, the senses, and above all the feeling of satisfaction I get from encountering these exquisite expressions. William J. Higginson wrote in the first paragraph of The Haiku Handbook, as mentioned earlier, that the purpose of haiku is to share them. As readers, we provide the final step in sharing haiku, as we receive them into our ears and eyes, into our hearts and minds. By knowing what to look for as we read, we can better appreciate each haiku poem.

13. Wholeness

The preceding techniques and characteristics are always worth looking for in haiku—if you want to think them through. But don’t forget to let the poem wash over you—to just appreciate the haiku. Notice what you feel before you start to think about the poem—pay attention to your “precognitive response.” As E. E. Cummings said of life, not just poetry, “feeling is first.” And if you do take the poem apart to analyze it, don’t forget to put it back together again—by ignoring your critical mind, your inner editor, and letting the poem just be. As poet and critic Edward Hirsch once said, “Poems communicate before they are understood.” Parts of a given poem may break so-called rules, and yet the whole poem may work together marvelously.

                yesterday’s paper

                in the next seat—

                the train picks up speed

                                —Gary Hotham

                in the eggshell after the chick has hatched

                                —Michael Segers

                moss-hung trees

                a deer moves into

                the hunter’s silence

                                —Winona Baker

                spring breeze

                archers at their targets

                collecting arrows

                                —Jerry Ball


                my way home

                the starfish

                                —Carlos Colón

Roland Barthes once said that “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we can write such things easily.” Yet it can be very hard to write haiku to make them look utterly easy. When you are reading haiku, you have the advantage of not having to worry about writing haiku. But don’t be fooled by what looks easy. Pay attention and you will be rewarded by noticing what looks easy but really isn’t. Ultimately, as Harold G. Henderson wrote in Haiku in English (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1967), “the development of haiku in English may depend on the existence of a body of trained readers as well as a body of trained writers” (44).

                Among twenty snowy mountains,

                The only moving thing

                Was the eye of the blackbird.

                                —Wallace Stevens


As a supplement to the preceding essay, I offer the following responses to a set of African haiku, starting and ending with buffalo poems. These poems were all first published in The Mamba. It is a particular pleasure for me, after having lived in Ghana as a child, to see haiku growing so well in many parts of Africa. On a continent where the seasons are sometimes subtle, seasonal words such as “harmattan winds” are emerging as uniquely African, and subjects such as elephants and mambas carry the meaning of wild animals instead of animals in a zoo. Here’s to a long and inspirational future for haiku throughout Africa, in many of its languages.

                a committee

                gathers in celebration

                dying buffalo

                                —Nshai Waluzimba, Zambia

If we take the buffalo to be a source of food or other benefit for some native tribes, it’s easy to understand why this buffalo’s death might be a celebration. The poem’s key word, however, may well be “committee,” which shows not only that this is a community event, but that mutual decisions remain to be made. What will be done with the buffalo after it dies, and who will benefit? These decisions would seem to follow community tradition, too, adding a sense of history to the poem. If haiku are “unfinished” poems, we can also add to this poem by imagining how the buffalo was injured. What may at first seem sad (the death of anything) shows a uniquely African point of view by turning this particular death into a celebration.


                in flames


                                —Celestine Nudanu, Ghana

Here we encounter a minimalist haiku, one that turns on a pivot line, “in flames.” Both the night and the fireflies are “in flames”—the night because of the light of fireflies (I also imagine stars), the fireflies because of their luminescent glow. However, we might also imagine an actual fire, such as the seasonal harmattan fires, which are more likely during these dry and windy months. This poem is direct and simple, yet carries overtones that may continue to engage readers in other non-African locations as well.

                Maasai village

                cattle bells awakening

                the dawn

                                —Mercy Ikuri, Kenya

This poem offers a switch. Of course it’s the dawn that awakens the cattle, but sometimes it can feel like the stirring of livestock is what awakens the dawn. They go together, and we see that intrinsic relationship more clearly by the switch this poem offers. The connection of dawn to the awakening of the cattle extends to the interdependent connection between the natives and their livestock. We may picture a particular kind of cattle, too, because of the setting in a Maasai village, where cattle are especially important as a source of milk and meat. The cattle are essential to the native way of life—as essential as the dawn. The detail of bells on the cattle gives this poem a pleasing personality and intimacy as well.

                funeral speech

                i put down my sorrows

                in a haiku

                                —Caleb Mutua, Kenya

This poem presents a more introspective than outward-looking point of view. But what else would we expect from a funeral? In Kenya, a typical life expectancy is about fifteen years less than in the United States, England, and many other Western countries, making funerals a more common occurrence. Yet that makes them no less sad, and here the author has nowhere to turn but haiku to handle his sorrows. We can imagine the relationship of the poet to the deceased, and perhaps also find some impatience with the speech’s length. The poem seems not to be about the funeral speech, nor even about the person who died, as it focuses on the poet’s need to express himself. In this roundabout way, perhaps the poem is about the person who died, for the sorrow is surely profound.

                roasting sun

                the egret’s measured steps

                in buffalo shadow

                                —Adjei Agyei-Baah, Ghana

In this haiku, unlike the earlier one, the buffalo remains alive. It is surely resting in the sun—a roasting tropical sun. We may see the buffalo as being still and quiet, in contrast to the moving egret. The buffalo surely has no interest in the egret as a meal (even if the word “roasting” might suggest food), yet still the egret is wary. Is the egret looking for shade? Or is the bird being careful not to wake the buffalo (if it’s sleeping), so as not to cause the bigger beast to startle or roll over the egret? We can dwell in this moment, as we can with all the best haiku, to feel a moment of experience—in this case with all its heat and unmentioned dust.

—19 January 2018, Sammamish, Washington