LOOKING AT HAIKU
by Elizabeth St Jacques ©1998
A common complaint of novice haiku poets is,
"Most of my haiku are rejected. What am I doing
wrong?" As newcomers soon discover, haiku may
seem easy to write, but there is a lot more than
meets the eye.
To understand haiku, the beginner must be aware of
the basic rules. Because haiku deals with a moment
that is presently happening, it is best written in
the present tense. A haiku also contains a seasonal
word (a kigo), that implies the season rather
than stating it outright .
For example, instead of saying "Springtime," the
reader will get a sense of Spring through the
image of dandelions, a robin, melting snow or
whatever. In other words, let the reader think,
use his/her imagination -- participate in the
Reader participation. Since haiku leaves so much
to the imagination, readers draw upon their own
experiences to relate to a haiku. What one reader
sees in a haiku may be entirely different
from the next. Therefore, when someone reads your
haiku and finds a different vision, try not to
explain the vision you intended. The greatest
compliment a haiku poet can receive is for a reader
to discover their own experience through it.
Undoubtedly, this is what makes haiku unique
While some excellent three-line 5-7-5 haiku are
being written today, it's not uncommon to read
one, two, four and even five line haiku, all of
which have fewer than the traditional seventeen
syllable count. Brevity is essential, so the
tighter you write, the better.
When writing haiku, set aside the usual poetic
devices.For many beginners, this seems to be
most troublesome as they incorrectly assume,
because haiku relates to nature, the poem should
be flowery, poetic, and contain a philosophical
You are probably shaking your head by now and
mumbling, "I've seen metaphor in published
haiku!" You are quite right; metaphor
has found its way into haiku -- even in ancient
haiku by Japanese masters. But, in my opinion,
metaphor that works best is subtle. Usually only
haiku poets with a great deal of experience can
pull it off. So those of you who are just beginning
to write haiku would be wise to learn the basics
and collect a long list of credible publishing
credits before experimenting with metaphor in
Beginners often better understand the mechanisms
of haiku by seeing what another reader
discovers. Therefore,let's look at a haiku by
one finger tall --
the morning sky
Immediately, one feels the relaxed mood of this poem, the
solitude of a clear morning sky, its blue serving as a
backdrop for the more pronounced blue of the irises. Blue
suggests tranquillity, peace of mind. And because the
flowers are only "one finger tall" the reader realizes
he/she is looking at them from a distance -- perhaps
stretched out on his/her stomach on the cool grass.
It is an unhurried time, nothing more pressing than to
discover these beautiful flowers standing beneath a new
morning sky. Is it before the work hour? Perhaps the
observer is an early riser with the distinct purpose to
enjoy and attune himself to nature before the bustle of
daily chores. Or is it a day off when he can explore small
wonders at leisure?
There is also a child-like quality to this poem, a purity
of thought that enables the observer to notice "one finger
tall" irises. Imagine! These majestic flowers that often
dominate a garden or tower above other flowers in a field
have, by the observer's position, shrunk to "one finger tall."
This viewpoint tells me that all things are at the mercy of
the observer, being as tall or small as the eye (or mind)
registers. Therefore, I am reminded that all is not as it
appears; there are other dimensions to everything --
IF I take the time and interest to seek them out.
On the other hand, from the point of view of the irises:
they are content as they are, as is the morning
sky. Now I ask myself: am I content with and within
myself? If not, is it because of my own expectations
or because of what others expect of me?
Let's look now at the structure of this haiku. As you
will note, this haiku has only twelve syllables. To
tighten (or lengthen) it would destroy the sharp pure
image that the author presents. Insofar as arrangement,
the first line balances perfectly with line three.
Although "blue" is not mentioned in the final lines,
one automatically thinks of a blue sky, probably paler
in intensity than that of the flowers. Therefore, the
deep blue versus pale blue serves not only as a color
contrast but as a spiritual one as well. Between these
lines, the "one finger tall" is the human element.
Is it really coincidental that the poet chose to place
this line between two images of nature where humans/
beasts/birds naturally dwell in the order of existence?
As shown, there is much more depth to haiku than the eye
initially realizes. A great deal of thought goes not only
into line arrangement and word choice, but in the
presentation of a lean image (the pure image)
that permits the reader to fill in the spaces via
personal experience and imagination.
Of course, there is much more to learn about haiku but if
you apply these basic rules, your haiku are sure to improve.
Also, by reading and studying haiku by respected haiku
poets, your own work will benefit.
Finally, if you want to write haiku that will be appreciated
and remembered, live haiku every waking hour. When out
for a walk getting groceries, taking a shower -- everyday,
common occurrences -- fine-tune yourself to capture a
haiku moment and free it through your unique vision.
Haiku may be small, simple, and insignificant in all
physical appearances, but remember, we once thought
that about the humble bee . . . .
This article is a revised and expanded version of the original
that first appeared in Writer's Journal, 1990.
RHYTHM IN HAIKU?: An Article
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