Becoming a Haiku Poet

Michael Dylan Welch
First published online at the Haiku World site as the
featured article in April of 2003. It appeared later on the New Zealand Poetry Society and Writing It Real sites (after an interview on the latter site). It has also appeared on Salvatore Buttaci’s blog and on Haiku Reality (also translated into RomanianSerbian, and Simplified Chinese). The poems in this essay, all previously published, appear by permission of each poet. For those who are new to haiku, I also recommend reading the essays listed in Further Reading, such as the Haiku Checklist.      +  +  +

 

When I first tried writing haiku, my attempts were based on very limited information. The quality and effectiveness was poor as a result. My schoolteachers meant well, but often presented only a superficial and sometimes misguided notion of haiku. If you’re new to haiku, you may be in the same situation—without knowing it. While too much information can also impede the poetic impulse, with haiku, as with other genres of poetry, it’s worthwhile to move beyond superficialities to gain a more substantial knowledge of the genre. So what is haiku, and how does one become a haiku poet?

        The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it. In the last hundred years—in Japanese and English-language haiku—implication has been achieved most successfully through the use of objective imagery. This means you avoid words that interpret what you experience, such as saying something is “beautiful” or “mysterious,” and rely on words that objectively convey the facts of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Instead of writing about your reactions to stimuli, in a good haiku you write about those things that cause your reactions. If you remember nothing else about crafting haiku, remember that. If your haiku take advantage of this technique, your readers can experience the same feelings you felt, without your having to explain them.

 

        spring breeze—

        the pull of her hand

        as we near the pet store

 

                —Michael Dylan Welch, Sammamish, Washington

 

        A haiku also centers structurally on a pause or caesura (“kire” in Japanese). By juxtaposing two elements or parts (with one of the elements spanning over two of the poem’s three lines), the two parts create a spark of energy, like the gap in a spark plug. The two elements of a good haiku may seem unrelated at first glance, but if the reader lingers on them sufficiently, he or she may notice a reverberation. When you realize the connection between the two parts (sometimes called an “internal comparison”), you have a “spark” of realization, an “aha” moment. As a writer of haiku, it’s your job to allow the poem to have that spark—and not to spell it out for the reader. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do with haiku, as well as its most important—yet often least understood—structural characteristic.

 

        new moon . . .

        curve of the steeple bell

        in winter twilight

 

                —Ebba Story, San Francisco, California

 

        Another key strategy in haiku is the seasonal reference. Traditional Japanese haiku use a season word (“kigo”) to anchor the poem in time and to allude to other poems that use the same reference. While a formalized set of season words has yet to fully evolve in English-language haiku, many seasonal references are intuitive, and are worth including in your haiku. A simple example would be “snow” to indicate winter, or “frog” to indicate spring. You could name the season also, but the best season words are more subtle than that. Some terms can be troublesome, as in “dry grass,” which may mean winter in some places (such as in New Jersey) but summer in other places (such as California). As you begin to learn haiku that are well known in English, you will be able to allude to or understand allusions to other haiku (including Japanese haiku). It’s important, with season words, to usually use just one in each haiku (unless one clearly dominates another). As you become more experienced with haiku, you’ll discover that words often have seasonal associations to them that you might not have been conscious of before. You can maximize the effect of these words by using them carefully in your haiku.

 

        Mother’s scarf

        slides from my shoulder—

        wild violets

 

                —Peggy Willis Lyles, Tucker, Georgia

 

        Speaking of writing carefully, haiku is often thought of as the most compressed poem in the world. This doesn’t just mean it’s the briefest, but that it packs a lot more into its scant three lines than you might have in other poems or prose. This is thanks to the techniques I’ve already described. With objectivity, the images reverberate for themselves, opening up for the reader rather than being closed down by the use of subjective explanation. With a caesura, you create energy through the juxtaposition between the two elements, which may be a background or context, juxtaposed with a foreground or focus. And with a season word, you connect the poem to nature and time and other poetry. Above all, a haiku mysteriously creates an emotional impression, a whole that is often much greater than the sum of its parts.

 

        gone from the woods

        the bird I knew

        by song alone

 

                —Paul O. Williams, Belmont, California

 

        On a practical note, haiku never have titles, almost never rhyme, and seldom use overt metaphor and simile. These devices often make the reader more aware of the words than their meaning. Haiku, as Jack Kerouac once said, should be as simple as porridge. Use direct and simple language. Avoid long, conceptual, Latinate words. And note, too, that the word “haiku” is both singular and plural (thus one doesn’t say “haikus,” even though Kerouac did to rhyme with “blues”).

 

        withering wind

        the fence-builder pulls a nail

        from his lips

 

                —Mark Brooks, Austin, Texas

 

        You may have noticed that thus far I’ve said almost nothing about form in haiku. That’s because form is not nearly as important as the other strategies I’ve covered. Form, in fact, is the most misunderstood aspect of haiku. Haiku is frequently mistaught in schools, and many textbooks and dictionary definitions are superficial and sometimes even misguided. Many textbooks are simply out of date, and haiku is best understood as a genre of poetry, not a form. Haiku in Japan are arranged in a single vertical line, and traditionally (meaning, not always) have three parts of 5, 7, and then 5 Japanese sound symbols (which are not the same as syllables). Many English-language textbooks say that haiku in English should be 5-7-5 syllables. This assertion exhibits a gross misunderstanding of the differences between Japanese and English syllables and how the languages differ (for example, the word “haiku” itself is two syllables in English, but counts as three sounds in Japanese). Indeed, the vast bulk of literary haiku written in English are usually shorter than seventeen syllables, and their authors choose to follow or apply a free or organic form rather than an arbitrary external syllable count that hasn’t proved effective or appropriate in the English language. This fact may come as a surprise to many poets who are new to haiku (or even some who think they aren’t that new to it), but it’s worth reviewing books such as Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Norton, third edition, 1999), Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013), and William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook (Kodansha, 1989) to see examples and to understand why haiku in English is best written without a slavish adherence to a set syllabic form.

 

        mime

        lifting

        fog

 

                —Jerry Kilbride, Sacramento, California

 

        When you write your haiku, focus on perceptions and images. Be aware of the seasons and what you perceive through your five senses. Write about your perceptions objectively. Strive to master the understanding of what is objective and subjective in what you write. Learn the difference between description and inference, so your poem can avoid doing any inferring for the reader; instead, let the reader infer ideas and connections from the carefully juxtaposed objective descriptions you present. With this focus, relying on the perceptions you receive through your five senses, and using the technique of juxtaposition, your haiku can be excellent. They will be far more effective than the pseudo-haiku that parade around email in-boxes making light of some subject or another—or lots of other pseudo-haiku that the writers don’t even realize is not really haiku. With the proper haiku fundamentals in mind, you can write haiku that rise above the superficial understandings that are commonly presented or believed about haiku. Using the more advanced techniques, which you can learn the basics of quickly, but which can take a lifetime to master, you can write effective haiku. It isn’t hard to write haiku that are far more successful than what fits the popular misperception of haiku merely as a 5-7-5 poem. Too often those poems lack many of the other techniques that are much more vital to haiku than a superficial external structure. Search for the deeper form of haiku—the keen perceptions that are presented objectively through the use of juxtaposition. Read many good haiku to see what makes them work. Observe life around you closely and see freshly and authentically so that you may imply life’s daily epiphanies effectively. Let the “aha” moments of life be implied by your carefully chosen words describing nature and human nature. Then you, too, will become a haiku poet.

 

        meteor shower . . .

        a gentle wave

        wets our sandals                                                                        +     +

 

                —Michael Dylan Welch, Sammamish, Washington

 

  

Learn more about haiku at Further Reading. Interested in getting into the habit of writing haiku every day, with daily writing prompts in a friendly and supportive community? Visit National Haiku Writing Month. Please also consider joining the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, or a haiku group near you. Comments or questions? Please contact Michael Dylan Welch.