Not "Putting Words Between the Truth and Ourselves"

The essence of haiku

By: Wade Shepard (,

Part I: The Traditional Japanese HaikuThere is a Japanese art which has evolved from the opaque depths of antiquity; an art that is not indigenous to any other culture of this world; a manner of poetry which uses the word as a device to point towards the essence of existence, yet reacts harshly against the notion that the world is communicable through the confines of the word; a way of expression that is tantamount to, and the resultant of, the perceptional processes which are inherent to the Japanese psyche; an art which has as its focus the transference of refined images, feelings, emotions through spotlighting the all-encompassing parallels of human experience; this art, this poetry, this poignant, powerful outpouring of life… haiku.

To bird and butterfly

Unknown, a flower blooms:

The autumn sky.


The earliest examples of haiku poetry are known to be at least seven hundred years old. These rudimentary excerpts of the poetic style have been found scrawled out in old, disjointed Japanese texts as well as carved into the walls of caves and cliffs. The appearance of haiku is linked back to a time when Zen Buddhism was just beginning to mature and blend into the mainstay of Japanese society.

Although the precise origin of haiku is hidden deep within the vaults of time it is probable that the form and spirit of the poetry was taken from a pre-existing poetic style known as tanka. The influence of tanka on haiku and the resulting correlations between the two are such that they cannot be regarded as mutually independent forms.


utilizes a thirty one syllable, five line arrangement. The first four lines alternate between five and seven syllables and the last line mimics the forth with seven; hence, a 5,7,5,7,7 beat pattern. Tanka were very often composed and performed within a public medium; usually within the context of competitions which achieved a great height of popularity during ninth through twelfth century Japan.

During public tanka recitations there would be a competition, referred to as ‘verse-capping,’ in which the first three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables, were offered up to competitors who would then be induced to come up with the remaining two lines. The first three lines, or starting verse, are thought to be the birthplace of the three line, seventeen syllable, five, seven, five beat arrangement of haiku. Another, very obvious, tell-tale sign of these competitions being at the root of haiku’s etymology is that the word ‘hokku’, which is interchangeable with haiku, simply means starting verse; as in the starting verse of tanka competitions. Although the beginnings of tanka poetry are in haiku format it is not, in and of itself, true haiku; as many years of adaptation and refinement were needed to bring haiku into its pure form.

Although the five, seven, five syllable form is undeniably a major factor in haiku construction, what really defines haiku is the strategy used to manifest the poet’s ambition to, first, plant a pictorial image into the imagination of the audience and, then, to make them feel what is felt by the poet. This is done using as few words as possible as the intention is to draw up actual images and emotions that are based upon human experience, rather than the contrived, learned, symbolic constructs that are the inherent baggage of words. The entire aim and purpose of haiku is to make one feel and not think- to strike up long hidden feelings and memories; often memories that can be said to be rooted in the common ground of human experience. The basic manner of haiku word usage has the effect of directly usurping the conscience pictograming that is inherent to other styles of poetry and of allowing the reader to actually live the poem. This cannot be accomplished unless the poet of haiku can draw upon associations (renso) that are the common experience of all humans. Experiences which, when stimulated, provides the entire scene of which the poem speaks that is not only visualized but felt! A simple haiku can provoke from the recesses of ones memory vivid and personal experiences of what is written- to just know and to be able to picture the scene of which the poem tells but to be unable to actualize it within the frame of words. As Harold G. Henderson states, "When one tries to put all it’s connotations into words, one finds that it cannot be done: this is haiku (Henderson 92)" A.C. Missias wrote of the haiku experience as follows:

"Such an experience, referred to as the "aha moment," is the central

root of a haiku. The act of writing a haiku is an attempt to capture

that moment so that others (or we ourselves) can re-experience it and

its associated insight"(2).

"Haiku is more than a form of poetry; it is a way of seeing the world.

Each haiku captures a moment of experience; an instant when the

ordinary suddenly reveals its inner nature and makes us take a second

look at the event, at human nature, at life"(2).

To draw on associations (renso) that are in the collective memory stores of all humans, many haiku poets rely on the use of kigo, or season words. This has as its premise the notion that experiences of various natural settings and seasonal changes are held in common with the poet (well, at least within similar geographical areas and now, in modern times, a city vs. rural landscape). A simple reference to seasonal bookmarks such as deer, plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, a colour, weather, plant changes, etc…indicates, not only the season but more poignantly, all of the associations and images that these references bring to light. There after, the stage is set. Some examples of this are as follows:

Yellow rape in bloom:

in the west there is the sun-

in the east, the moon.



The rain of spring:

in the carriage that we share,

my dear one’s whispering.


In these two examples one can visualized the scene first through the broad environmental context and then get a more refined picture as the rest of the poem unfolds. The first poem shows that the season is spring by the use of the line "Yellow rape in bloom." The next line, "In the west is the sun-," offers the reader the time of day- evening- which serves to taper down ones image of the scene even further. Then the last line, "in the east, the moon," provides the real punch of the haiku; it makes one feel the un-oppositional balance- the ambiguity- of all existence as well as the ephemeral nature of all life, events, entities- the sun gives way to the moon; all is in a constant state of flux, forever. It hits hard, the way a good haiku must.

After the basic image and feel of the scene is offered up the poet then, usually, progresses to the substance of the piece. Often this part is full of overtones and suggestions; some of which are obvious while others need to be read repeatedly until the point "breaks through." Common associations are the mention of cherry blossoms to represent early death, morning glories to imply fading beauty, plum blossoms are used as a metaphor for anticipation, autumn wind represents sadness, the song of the cuckoo, which is thought by the Japanese to be real sad sounding, communicates the passing of time and there are many others.

But, as was aforementioned, to be able to understand these associations one needs to have some degree of background knowledge or experience of the subject matter. Hence, by its very nature, haiku is both culturally and geographically exclusive. For example: many haiku reference events adherent to Japanese history. Events that all Japanese would have some degree of familiarity with but of which very few foreigners could draw the necessary correlations to feel what the poet is attempting to communicate. Another example of this is the fact that people outside of the geographic realm within which the poet writes would have nearly an impossible task, of, not only envisioning but, drawing the pertinent experientially derived associations from the use of season words, kigo. Therefore, the effect would be as if one were to observe an actor recite a single line from a play in an unfamiliar language and without any show of context. The words would perhaps sound beautiful, but all that they would be, all that they could be, are mere words. Language barriers are also a major impediment in the cross-cultural sharing of haiku. This is not only problematic in the base translating of various pieces (use of best words etc…) but in the basic rhythm of the poem: seventeen syllables of Japanese does not translate into seventeen Korean syllables. Therefore, the entire fluidity, and hence, beauty of a haiku is greatly diminished. Perhaps because of these reasons haikus are traditionally, and still even today, predominantly shared solely amongst friends- to mark a moment, to better feel ones surroundings, to simply communicate.

Examples of traditional Japanese haiku:


For me who go,

For you who stay-

Two autumns.



There a beggar goes!

Heaven and earth he’s wearing

for his summer clothes.



In the winter river,

thrown away, a dog’s

dead body.



Suma Temple....

I hear the unblown flute

in the shade of a tree



killing an ant

I have by three children

been seen

-Shuson Kato


you listen to a monkey-

to an abandoned child in the autumn

wind, what.....



Part II: The Modern Foreign Haiku

Haikus are now being written and published on nearly every continent of the planet in a whole variety of languages and styles. In these haikus are found many deviations from the traditional Japanese predecessors but the essence still remains the same; the very root, the substance of life is still brought out through them. As Gary Snyder stated in his acceptance speech upon receiving the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize for 2004:


an international non-Japanese haiku movement has begun, which

takes the idea of haiku hundreds of new directions. School teachers

in Denmark, Italy, or California have no hesitation giving translations

of Japanese haiku to their student, and then also reading locally-written

brief poems to them, telling the children to look around, see what they

see, have a thought, make and image, and write their own brief poem"(2).

The methods of constructing western language haiku does not completely follow the somewhat strict Japanese process. The five- seven- five beat count is predominantly obsolete; as western languages are not as syllabically in-sync as Japanese and therefore do not naturally fit the haiku format. It is felt that most Romance language haiku which strictly conform to the seventeen syllable pattern are far too cluttered, ill-rolling, lengthy and, above all, contrived to adequately convey the pure spirit of the haiku. Another reason for this deviation is perhaps due to the fact that most westerners first read haiku only after it had been translated from Japanese, whereupon it no longer conformed to the seventeen syllable count of the un-molested poem. But whatever the reasons are for this difference it must be stated that, above all, the western haiku puts a much greater emphasis upon feel rather than form, on lucidity as opposed to mere calculation, on the essence rather than the beat- on the punch rather than the filter. This should not be viewed as an assault upon the pure Japanese form but as an evolution of the poetry as it grows within and adapts to different cultures, times and situations. Nor should the variation in syllable count be viewed as degrading the value of the poetry as it is done to preserve what is magical about haiku. The following is Jack Kerouac’s take on how one should approach haiku from within a western language format:

"A western haiku need not concern itself with seventeen syllables since

western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese.

I propose that the ‘western haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines"(Kerouac



Although the lack of a strict seventeen syllable count is a major difference between western and Japanese haiku, most aspects of the poetry remain very similar. The three line format is almost exclusively used in haiku of all language to the extent that it is one of the major defining points of the poetry. The method of utilizing the three lines has also been directly carried over to the west; the first line sets the scene, the second brings one a little deeper into it and the third delivers the punch- the whoa provoking feeling akin to being smacked across the face. The use of kigo, season words, is another device that is culturally androgynous as haiku poets of all nationalities use them to better provide the scene that they wish to display. This is also one of the more interesting aspects of multi-national haiku as the words used to describe nature will be as different as the varying environmental surroundings that the poet writes in, and it is the responsibility of the poet to come up with these new words to describe these scenes. This presents a whole array of fresh new pathways that the poetry can evolve within. Gary Snyder put this very excitedly when he said:

"The Euro-, African-, Asian-Americans are just a little more than

two hundred years on the west coast of North America, and it will

be several centuries yet before our poetic vocabulary matches the land.

The haiku tradition gives us the pointers that we need to begin this

process, which will be part of making a culture and a home in North

America (and I hope eventually, for all people, a home on planet earth)

for the long future ahead"(2).


The evolution of haiku has witnessed a great expansion of subject matter that is brought into focus within the poems. In traditional Japanese haiku nature is the main theme and the use of environmental keywords (kigo) is present in almost every poem. Whilst it is true that western haiku are very often also based in natural themes they also venture into various other realms such as politics, family life, quirky technological interactions, and just about any other experience that strikes one with that particular "aha!" response which causes them to ponder the very essence and mystery of life.

Modern haiku is very much alive and is continually growing in popularity. As the poetic form undergoes new incarnations as it blends itself within the mold of new cultures, languages, and communities it can be assured that

Some examples of distinctly modern haiku:


Early morning yellow flowers,

thinking about

the drunkards of Mexico

-Jack Kerouac


while you sleep

the gentle rocking

of the night train

-Lee Gurga



more string than he has

the Kite Master

-Vincent Tripi


After weeks of watching the roof leak

I fixed it tonight

by moving a single board

-Gary Snyder


weight lifter

slowly lifting

the tea cup

-Gary Gay


yellow leaves

a girl plays hopscotch

by herself

-Peggy Lyles


I’ve upset the pail

in which my daughter had kept

her five-"No, six"-snails

-Paul Muldoon


A hammock at dusk

I scrimshaw a narwhal hunt

on a narwhal tusk

-Paul Muldoon


Missing a kick

at the icebox door

it closed anyway

-Jack Kerouac

Part III: Personal Experiences with Haiku

I first experienced haiku, as many Americans of recent generations, through the writings of Kerouac and Gary Snyder. At this time I simply thought that haiku were short little nature poems that packed a fat punch. I soon began writing my own and, as I knew nothing of the particularities of haiku, they playfully poured out of me. But what I was writing were not haiku- as I would later find out.

I very quickly began seeking out other haiku sources, and as I did so I began to fall in love with these cuteish three line poems. I soon went off to Japan to dig a little deeper into the original context and language of the poetic form; to feel the spark within the culture, perhaps, that ignited the haiku- a medium which forces the very beat of life into the hearts of those who are open to it. I soon became familiar with the poems and lives of Basho, Busan, Shuson Kato, Kikaku, and Shiki- magical names that would only continue to grow in magnitude as I became more knowledgeable of the difficulties inherent to making pure haiku.

The more I learned of the proper haiku formula the harder it became for me to simple allow them to pour from me. I began thinking about what I was writing rather than simply feeling. I was thoroughly caught in that cerebral vice which compresses the life from living, breathing poems; what I wrote was mechanical, what I wrote was inanimate, stagnate, stiff- dead. I became frustrated and ceased trying to write haiku until they would again feel playful and fluid.

In the course of my Zen Buddhism studies I befriended the Utani University scholar Aiko Watanabe. She was a tiny little woman of around sixty years of age with white hair that she pulled back into a pigtail. We would go for walks together around Lake Biwa and just talk about Buddhism, language, poetry, old time Japan and the old time Zen lunatics; laughing and smiling all the while. I expressed my interest in haiku and she quickly offered to take me to a shrine dedicated to the poet Basho.

I met Aiko at the train station the next weekend and we got into her Japanese utility vehicle and drove to the Basho shrine. It was hugged close by houses on each side and had two large, stone grey pillars on either side of the gate which had haiku carved vertically down them. We walked in slowly and I purposefully walked behind Aiko as she was showing me around the garden. The complex was set up in a semi-circular formation with all the buildings facing in towards the extensive garden, as is quite usual in Japan.

We entered a small museum which has pictures of Basho and other prominent poets. One such poet was a samurai warrior who was painted, ukiyo-e style, ridding a horse with his sword drawn; I suppose he was a writer.

We then ventured back into the garden and Aiko continued to tell me the Japanese names of all the flowers and plants and I would try hard to tell her the English names. We then took notice, through the massive picture widow of a building on the other side of the garden, of a group of people wearing formal dress sitting hunched over a long wooden table writing and talking little. They appeared to be real serious and seemed to be concentrating hard. "They must be the administrative body of the shrine discussing some frustrating topic," I thought to myself. I asked Aiko what they were doing; they could not have possibly have been writing haiku. She told me that they were. Writing haiku inside a building seem absolutely preposterous to me! My facial expression must have spoken of all that I was thinking because Aiko soon gave me a little giggle and laugh of understanding. I laughed too.

I was then instructed by Aiko to translate into English the inscription of a haiku that was chiselled into a stone that lay upon a soft tuft of moss. I fumbled for a few moments through the maze of hiragana and kanji, sounding out the sylables as I went- ", Ka..wa....zu"- and then at the word for frog it clicked: it was Basho’s frog pond poem, probably the most famous haiku ever written. I look at Aiko, smiled, and recited:

Old pond....

frog jumps in

water sound

Aiko then pointed to a large stone with an inscription on it and told me that Basho was buried beneath it. I was jolted with awe and momentarily could not move. My previous train of thought was completely disrupted and all of my attention was immediately focused on the boulder which lay before me- it was a pure haiku moment. I smiled but no haiku came to my lips; Aiko’s pointing finger was haiku enough. It was then that I realized that the only ingredient that a haiku needs is that marvellous kick which knocks one into a state of complete awareness. Haiku is simply the output of a way of life in which one lives completely connected within their surroundings; the only reason for writing them is to mark and share this experience. A.C. Missias wrote that to write haiku you need to, "Open yourself to the world around you, to the inputs from all five senses, to the details of existence"(5).

Whatever the particularities, haiku is simply meant to be a faucet from which one can outpour their experiences of beauty, awareness, and wholeness for the purpose of sharing them with other people- as a laugh crosses the gap between strangers. To induce others to feel what oneself feels- to pop them into reality that is unclouded by delusion; to shake them until they can touch the very core of phenomena- is the essence and beauty of haiku. Haiku is simply the outpouring of a life lived.


The following are examples of the author’s haiku:


Should I go?

Phone rings

I miss my ride



pumpkin remains-

a pumpkin


Only empty space

can give Jack-o-lantern

his face


Mould wins

the race for

my broccoli


Wood table

Burroughs over Crane over Whitman

the love of books


Crimson sky, work done

ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh




we sit patiently

for now


Cold city street

seagull eats a chicken wing-



Bottle of sake

mug of tea

wet november- outside!


We walked down a path

and talked of

the path



hands shoot towards her mouth

"whew"....she only laughs


We peed

on opposite sides of

the path


We talked of beauty

all night, I still

feel beautiful


All alone, now

she is still

with me


Silence, silence




Soul tied

rare november sun

I write- inside


Waiting for her

through crimson sky

night alone


No love for me

but autumn’s

heavy cold


Futile, geese travellers

shaking dry your wings

in pond water


My face lies,

about yesterday’s todays

fool done nothing


Late night

she really did not call

waited alone


I look

to hotel room walls

for tomorrow


I love him

but I will not speak

pussy willow


Shot of fire water

with peasants of Ecuador

...and I think of germs?


Downing liquor

dirty smiling, Ecuador fishermen

salty breeze cools my lips


Seco liquor

smiling Ecuador fishermen

dusty wind


I was damn positive, then

that I would be loved



Beautiful Ecuador girl

speaks, "or-i-blay"

I say- "horrible"


Withering away

snow-wet crumbling weeds

I hide


Wondering what happened

to last year’s



Baby lifts

his head, wait...

too heavy


I found a poem,

inside my

wine flask


In parking lot

down home American family

plays truck fixing


No love for me

but autumn’s

heavy sweaters


Mug of tea, open book

rainy november-



She would put

her hands to her mouth

and laugh


November sun

girl’s bright eyes

look away from me


Beauty I can not touch

blows away

with autumn


Branches bare

car door closes

I watch her leave


Spring rain

tadpoles at home

in old footprint


Winter rain

froze me in

my sleeping bag