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Basic Elements of Haiku

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  • Basic Elements of Haiku

    Since we're getting some new members who aren't that familiar with haiku as a genre, and certainly not the aspects of haiku that drew us to make this sanctuary, I thought I'd share this introduction. Many introductions to haiku attempt to strictly define it, in terms of content, tone or spirit. For me the haiku has been too many things to too many people over the centuries for any such definition to hold true, and the story of haiku is as yet unfinished, so we must also leave possibilities open for the future. With that in mind, the following is an explanation of several of the basic and often essential features or principles that serve to inform the haiku genre, intended as a guide to demystify it for those unfamiliar with the haiku, both for reading/appreciating as well as beginning to write them.

    It is irresponsible to make false equivalence between Japanese and “foreign” (ie. English-language) haiku, but understanding both approaches is valuable even for the beginner, so I will present both together and make disambiguations where the paths diverge notably.


    The most basic building block of haiku is an image. This much was surmised by Ezra Pound when he was influenced by Japanese literary aesthetics in his Imagistic “hokku.” But the image has worked differently in Japanese haiku and has been developed in unique ways in haiku in English as well since Pound's first theories. Terminology varies, some have called this kernel at the core of the haiku a “haiku moment,” or an “aha!” but it can also be a more abstract premise—a paradoxical concept, a sound or smell experience, or even an idiomatic expression, song or piece of art—at the core of every haiku is a conceptual spark that stops the reader, pulls them out of their day-to-day routine and creates a sense of mental space. This isn't so different than any other art. But in such a short form as haiku, there needs to be something arresting for the reader to hold on to immediately before full understanding has even begun and generally, this tends to be a striking choice of words that creates a strong image.

    I look up
    from writing
    to daylight

    Bill Higginson

    The way the word “daylight” functions in this ku grabs our attention in the unexpected turn and offers a vibrant, clear image of the sunrise—a night spent burning the midnight oil only to end with a glimpse of the rising sun. In a way, every haiku has an element of this kind of illumination and recognition of some detail that changes the perception of the reader, even if it is in a single quiet detail. Much has been said about this pertaining to Zen philosophy, but the mechanism behind it has no distinct ideology and Japanese literary criticism is distinct and independent from Zen thought.

    In fact, perception and consciousness often feature strongly in a wide swath of haiku, such that we might call haiku (as Richard Gilbert named his 2008 book) “Poems of Consciousness.” As such, writing haiku regularly can become a practice of mindfulness—noticing the little moments in life that one otherwise would discard: haiku as a diary of daily experience. It need not be overtly philosophical or austere, simply keeping a notepad with you to write these moments down is the first step in writing haiku. Recognizing the poignancy in these small moments in our day to day lives helps uplift our spirits as well as allowing us to enjoy haiku on even the simplest of subjects when we come back to them in moments of quiet reflection.

    crisp dawn over the steel bridge a single cormorant

    Clayton Beach

    The most basic kind of haiku is just a description of a single image or moment from everyday life. The details we collect in our daily practice of quiet observation are sometimes used as haiku on their own (if there is some level of insight or aesthetic beauty in the moment captured) but usually small moments need a larger context to really “pop” as haiku that create a sense of interior space.


    in the heavy rain the crane's leg has gotten shorter


    This is a single image, “uncut” haiku. It has no classical kireji (cutting word)
    that would give it the quintessential haiku formula. The “fifth month rains” that I have translated as “heavy rain” is a kigo (seasonal reference), something that has not been stressed in haiku in English yet remains extremely important in Japan. Pictorial, unadorned, simple, straight out of life haiku would later come to be called “shasei.” which means “sketch of life,” a concept that has been heavily stressed in haiku in English. Bashō's poem is not necessarily a sketch of life, nor quite as plain and simple as it seems in translation, however, for the rhythmic count is 5-5-7, instead of the expected 5-7-5—the middle “leg” of the haiku has been shortened, just as the crane's, and it the language plays with classic literary images and diction. On the the other hand in translation it comes across as a simple, ordinary observation that hardly qualifies as a poem at all in a Western sense.

    Japanese haiku seem much simpler in translation than the actual language of the original poem, which is often full of archaic spellings, elevated literary language and allusions to previous poems with heavy wordplay that is lost in translation. Since haiku in English is largely based on early stylistic interpretations of the genre based on English translations rather than the originals, and much of the literary subtlety went unnoticed, there can sometimes appear to be much less stylistic diversity in Japanese haiku from the Western view than is actually represented in the original Japanese. This is good to keep in mind later when looking at more complex and difficult haiku in English, which may be showing use of language that mimics the difficulty and opacity of some Japanese haiku that is often lost in translation, but which has come to light due to developments in research and translation of early, modern and contemporary haiku.

    In that sense, and this is perhaps the most important caveat in terms of the haiku in English: do not chase a “traditional” English-language haiku rooted in simple English translations of Japanese haiku, which may ignore important techniques in the use of language and miss the literary depth that spans the entire haiku lineage in Japan.

    ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god

  • #2

    Most haiku follow a two part structure, technical terms used for the two parts are “superposed section” and “base section,” but they are also commonly called fragment and phrase. I don't like to use this terminology, because the “phrase” is often a sentence fragment, and the “fragment” is usually a single image, and I see them as being more independent of each other and complete as units in a pair. For our purposes in this essay, I'll call them the foil and the base, for the foil reflects and illuminates the base section, allowing us to find deeper meaning, and the base forms the substrate of the poem—the soil from which our understanding grows.


    old pond. a frog jumps in the sound of water


    Bashō and his disciples would find a good base section then start working through foils, choosing the one that most fully fit the particular puzzle piece of the base section, unlocking its essence. In that sense, haiku can be artificial and not based on the initial moment that inspired the poem.
    In this ku the second part was written first and there was discussion about which image was fitting to serve as a cap to the phrase. There was no “old pond” nearby, it was a literary touchstone created after the original moment by Bashō and the two concepts, separated by the cutting word “ya,” (signified by the period in my translation) remain separate in time and space, yet present in the mind simultaneously. The Japanese word for this mental balancing act is toriawase. More detailed explanation of this famous ku and the theory informing it can be found in these videos of Hasegawa Kai. The concepts of blending, yoking, juxtaposition etc. all relate to the interaction between the two halves of the haiku.

    So, when composing haiku, you start with a moment or observation, a turn of phrase that you like, but then you choose a foil that best reflects the deeper meaning of your insight, that draws the reader deeper in to make more connections and explore the meaning of your poem. Earlier versions of Bashō 's ku had elegant images like “mountain rose,” an ironic contrast to the splashing frogs, but Bashō chose an old pond, which had the dilapidated, austere sabi aesthetic.

    base section in classic haiku often has some kind of mix of elegant imagery and the worn, the common or the strange. Here, the tiny tree frog known for its delightful call is not heard singing (as it would be in an elegant tanka) but slipping into the pond; there is only “the sound of water,” an innovative shift away from reader expectation. The base draws the reader in through some kind of playfulness, abnormality or obscurity, while the foil gives clues to the meaning or emotional subtext of the base, in this case the peace and sadly rustic tranquility of an old pond.



    octopus trap—
    these fleeting dreams
    the summer moon


    About 70% of modern Japanese haiku have kigo. In Japan there are some that say that without kigo, a poem is not haiku. Kigo are not just about season though, they have emotional subtexts in the way they refer to previous poems and evoke set associations. Thus, they are a kind of symbolism
    with cultural resonance—something beyond nature and simple realism. Oftentimes in contemporary Japanese haiku, the traditional implications of a kigo will be twisted ironically, which adds a humorous element to the haiku. Even in this classic poem by Bashō, fleeting dreams and the summer moon are the language of classical love poetry, which implies that the octopus is having dreams of love, unaware he will be hauled up by the fisherman in the morning. Perhaps love is the tender trap. This kind of playing with expectation and exploring the vertical axis through development of tropes is a key component largely missing from English-language haiku.

    Seasonal Reference:

    winter moon
    the name only he
    knows me by

    Carolyn Hall

    In English language haiku, we can't import an entire culture's worth of this kind of symbolism
    and most people aren't familiar with a fair number of famous poems exemplifying expert use of the shared connotations of a particular season word, the way it is is demanded of serious haiku poets in Japan. Even some native Japanese poets trying to write haiku in foreign lands can find the different climate, flora and fauna disruptive to engaging meaningfully with kigo, so it goes beyond language to a specific cultural context. Trying too hard to borrow or replicate kigo in other languages can sound forced and perhaps even culturally insensitive if done in a heavy handed manner, so many have opted for a more regional and specific seasonal references free of Japanese kigo or merely a non-seasonal natural image instead of trying to imitate Japanese usage.

    However, without the sense of shared connotation, shared poetic lineage and common experience, English language haiku can feel somewhat one dimensional. So, we have to find some kind of vertical axis and shared sense of “haikuness” in order for the genre to be more than mere formalism, to be a community of writers. Whatever it is you chose to replace kigo with in your haiku, be it sketching from life and adherence to realism, attention to the natural world, or literary engagement, complex wordplay and allusion, the process should have some depth and personal philosophy to it. Haiku is not just syllable counting and mashing together two things you coincidentally saw together in a real moment. There is a kernel of truth and real experience at the heart of the haiku, but in terms of craft, one must choose details carefully in a way that they say something about the rest of the poem on a deeper level. That's the best way to approach finding a proper substitute for the use of kigo, whether it is a reference to other art or poetry, a natural image or a seasonal reference, the image is used to convey emotion and meaning indirectly, through fraught language. In Hall's poem, there isn't any direct metaphorical tie between base and foil, and yet when placed together, there is a deepening of feeling and we sense that the winter moon has a wistful melancholy that fits the tone of the haiku.



    snow melt,
    the village teems
    with children


    In Japanese, classical kireji (cutting words) help mark and isolate significant words or images, and can add emotional shading and depth. Sometimes they come at the end and create a sense of the poem being unfinished, leading the reader outside the poem, or they simply lend a classical elegance and emotive tone. Other times, they are used to separate the foil and base sections. In the sense that they have a rhythmic component, they can't be translated into English, but they often function like our normal punctuation, or else as some kind of emphatic expression. Fortunately, they don't occur in every single haiku, and they aren't entirely necessary in creating a true “cut,” which is the actual sense of separation between the foil and base, inviting the reader to step into the poem and figure it out.

    In the poem above, the
    official kireji is the final word, kana, which is used when the speaker wants to add a musing, emotive tone, but doesn't want to explicate exactly how they feel. We are supposed to decide how we feel about the poem ourselves. Issa's children all died young, perhaps this village full of children brings joy to his heart, or sadness, but most likely it is a mixture of both. What point in his life the haiku was written in would tell us more, but the “kana” allows us freedom to put our own emotions into it. So here, the kireji adds emotional weight without spelling everything out, and isn't involved directly in any separation of the sections.


    In the previous haiku by Issa, the actual cut, which I have signified by a comma, is not created by a classical kireji. Bashō made it clear that formal kireji were not necessary for cutting—for the actual separation of base and foil—so in English we can use whatever means we want to create a cut, and still be none the poorer. We don't need kireji to emulate the cut in a haiku.

    half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and

    David Boyer

    In this single line haiku, Boyer has used a period to perform a strong cut, but he has also added a trailing off and incompleteness, showing two of the ways we can emulate both the use of cutting and the function of kireji in English, even without the aid of line breaks, like Issa's ku, this has both a cut that separates two ideas as well as a break with an emotive sense of discompletion and lack of closure, which invites the reader into the poem.

    ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god


    • #3

      Once cut, a haiku has two elements next to each other. The way they connect and interact is the most delightful aspect of haiku and makes it unique as a poetry. The most natural and easy type of haiku simply puts two similar things side to side, making a thinly veiled metaphor, as in these two haiku, which make similar comparisons.


      the flower
      makes a shy face—
      misty moon


      Here the comparisons are obvious and logical. While the ideas are technically separated by a cut, we can immediately connect the dots. The base section with the flower on its own might be slightly enigmatic, but the foil seamlessly ties into the base and explicates its meaning, there is a slight tension, and then release.


      a night of moonlit mist—
      I should think that odd faces
      must find love, too


      In this second haiku, from the modern era, the distance in connection is slightly greater and sets a more pensive, psychological tone. Notice, here the foil comes first, introducing a reflective and mysterious tone, with the combination of moonlight and rain giving a slight hint of the supernatural or an otherwordly undertone, an association utilized in the Ugetsu Monotagari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), a collection of ghost stories from the Edo Period, where love liaisons between humans and snake demons or departed ghosts are not uncommon. And yet it recalls the comparison of moon and face. The connection between halves here is less direct, but still relies on the juxtaposition of two similar images or ideas that deepen each other through context.


      Haiku can also have an ironic contrast or surprise, utilizing incongruities to create a humorous or pathos filled haiku.


      a fool in the dark,
      I snatch a bramble—


      A touch of comedy softens the nasty surprise awaiting Bashō in the darkness, here the firefly both explains the circumstances of the base section and provides contrast through the elegant, classical image of a summer firefly hunt and the stab of a thorn.


      a single firefly
      stuck on the fur
      of the wolf


      Similarly, this modern Japanese haiku also makes a contrast with the delicate firefly, though here we see that what is essentially a single image haiku, without any classical kireji, can still exhibit a sense of base and foil through two contrasting elements.

      Blending, Fusion and Pivot:

      Blending is a technique used extensively in contemporary English haiku. Whereas punctuation or line breaks are often needed to create a sense of clear cutting, the recent tendency toward single line haiku with no punctuation opens of the possibility of one idea running into the other and the two blending together into a single compound image.

      I look up
      from writing
      to daylight.

      William J. Higginson

      Here the grammatically correct sentence nevertheless is structured to shift into a paradoxical frame, the final line surprises our expectations and makes us go back to the beginning, realizing the implication of the ending, but otherwise the poem is seamless, without any clear caesura.


      Nick Virgilio

      Blending turns into fusion when the poem makes an odd image pair sound connected by placing them side by side, or even by making a compound word of two separate concepts as in this single “poem-word” by Nick Virgilio.

      leftover moon whitening the surrender of camellias

      Cherie Hunter Day

      Somewhat in between these two is a pivot, a technique used in Japanese, but also popular in one line haiku in English. Here, the word “whitening” can be seen as a transitive or intransitive verb, depending on whether we assume the moon is itself becoming more white, or if it is an agent that is “whitening the surrender of camellias.” The poem can be read with a cut, or as a single line. Other pivots can be read as two different parts, but with a single word both serving as both the end of one section and the beginning of the other.

      Blending, fusion, and pivoting all exploit language in a paradoxical way, creating multiple readings that challenge the reader and deepen the suggestive power of the poem.

      White Space and Misreading as Meaning:

      In the absence of the symbolic and highly referential use of kigo in Japanese, English-language haiku has become a poetry of ambiguity or indeterminacy. Whereas, usually an astute reader can solve the puzzle of a traditional Japanese haiku by tapping into the traditional associations behind each image, in English, reading a haiku is more of an interpretive act of creation on the part of the reader. “White space,” and “misreading as meaning”are two oft used phrases that describe the manner in which the reader uses a haiku as a starting place and creates their own meaning through free association. Certain modern Japanese haiku adopt a more subjective and individualist stance, becoming more obscure and less tied to tradition, but these techniques are of primary importance to English language haiku.

      pussy willow the phial of expired wishes

      Alan Summers

      Here, there are no explicit answers. We cannot rely on a set implication of “pussy willow” from a tradition of kigo to explain the undertones it provides, perhaps they have been cut and the catkins have died and dried as decorations, never to flower, but even then, “phial of expired wishes” is an evocative phrase that is much more than simply some buds that will never blossom—we are invited to explore the “white space” of what feelings pussy willows inspire in our own hearts, and what dried up wishes and stale desires they might contain.

      just a touch of deer within tall things that just grow

      Marlene Mountain

      This haiku can almost only be “misread,” depending on how one tries to find a cut, the sense of meaning is slippery and we are left guessing intent—the poem splits and shifts into several different clusters of evocative phrases and images, and any sense we derive from it comes from an intuitive, creative act of discovery rather than pure, deductive reasoning.


      Without some kind of incongruity or aberration (generally found within the base section or at the point of juncture between the two parts) a poem as short as the haiku flies by and can have little lasting effect upon the reader. A common mistake for beginning haiku poets is to simply describe a scene or feeling. This might be vaguely pleasant, but it will immediately be forgotten and the reader will quickly move on to the next haiku. That's not to say these brief sketches aren't worth writing for practice, and some are even worth sharing or publishing. But generally, they make a good base section that remains in need of a foil. Leaving ambiguity or creating paradox draws the reader in to the world of the poem.

      my fingerprints
      on the dragonfly
      in amber

      Jim Kacian

      This haiku inspired the title of Richard Gilbert's The Disjunctive Dragonfly, a book length exploration of the topic of disjunction. Like Tohta's firefly on a wolf, this is a single image, uncut haiku that nevertheless creates a layering and blending of ideas, exploiting many of the techniques explored in this essay.


      Variety in haiku is important, and simple poems compliment the complex. But the best haiku have to be read twice: the reader begins, becomes disoriented, then re-orients to find meaning and is satisfied with the insight they've gained. This is the true "aha!" Haiku can have a simple twist that quickly brings a smile of recognition to the reader's face, or be a labyrinth one can wander in meditation again and again, finding new possibilities or implications with every read. But any haiku should require at least some level of thought and searching for hidden significance on the part of the reader or risk being forgotten immediately. The best haiku create a palpable sense of place and presence, the microcosm in a single breath—they open doors to a space in our conscious mind that is more real and immediate than much of our everyday lives.

      i can't find the time destroyed by the past

      Marlene Mountain

      ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god


      • Dejan Pavlinović
        Dejan Pavlinović commented
        Editing a comment
        Thank you very much for this concise but thorough outline.

      • Clayton Beach
        Clayton Beach commented
        Editing a comment
        Thanks for the feedback, hope it serves you well!

      • Tirralirra
        Tirralirra commented
        Editing a comment
        A lot to chew on - thanks.

    • #4
      Thank you Clayton …. each time I read this I gain something from it!


      • #5
        For those of us who don't read Japanese characters, it would be nice to include the 'romaji' when quoting Japanese haiku. This would also make it easier to look up the quoted haiku in other sources that list Japanese haiku alphabetically by 'romaji'.