Traditional and Modern Haiku: A Vibrant Dichotomy

First published in Frogpond 20:3, December 1997, pages 64–65. Written in June of 1997 in Burnaby, British Columbia.


In the great sweep of haiku tradition, the vast bulk of that tradition is, of course, Japanese. When American haiku writers band together to discuss tradition, they are obviously limited by what they know. Basically, we don’t know what we don’t know. So we always have something to learn, or perhaps we should always feel humility as partial trustees of a borrowed poetry. But some of us don’t care, feeling that haiku is now fully Americanized, and can—and should—find its own path. No extreme seems ultimately helpful, however.

        Harold G. Henderson is often quoted as saying that “haiku in English will become what the poets make it,” and there is a certain wisdom in that empowerment. Yet perhaps, in our enthusiasm, we risk running too far off course, making our “haiku” into something that really isn’t haiku.

        This need for freedom and self-expression, however, is often balanced by at least some sense of tradition. We receive this tradition in the form of translations of Japanese haiku, which are published regularly in books and magazines, and in global interaction and criticism, whether by letter, email, magazine articles, or international travel. Yet we also develop our own traditions, not blindly, but responsibly, as we seek our own authentic voices, our national voice. Thus North American haiku operates in a dichotomy: some poets are drawn by Japanese tradition, sometimes travelling a well-worn path (at its worst, merely imitative), and some poets are enlivened by striking off into new territory (at its extreme, no longer haiku).

        Certainly the languages differ, making some things possible in Japanese that are not possible in English—but also vice versa. Yet underneath the differences of syntax and grammar and the fundamental notion of syllables in each language, there lies, I think, a universal haiku essence, often called the “haiku spirit.” Perhaps this is the sense of keen seeing, of deep feeling, and of recording moments of heightened awareness in our brief poems. In haiku of all languages of all times, intuitive insight into nature and human nature seems to be the most important common poetic denominator—along with brevity. Details of form and season word, though still important, strike me as less important. Thus it seems that divergences in form and some content (formal patterns, season word usage, and so on) more frequently reflect differences in language and culture (a necessary reflection) than any sort of rejection—as some might believe—of tradition.

        In 1993, at the second Haiku North America conference, held in California, a panel of poets [I was one of the panelists] held a discussion of “what is essential to haiku.” The topic generated lively debate. I think the notion of haiku’s “essential” will probably always be a matter of contention, perhaps with the arguments more often reflecting personal bias than the essentials of haiku. I would suggest that English-language haiku will always exist in this dichotomy—the traditional/conservative and modern/liberal—and that the dichotomy is probably the very thing that keeps haiku alive and vibrant. We are each drawn to what we love. We each touch a different part of the elephant. Haiku, thank goodness, is a large elephant.


On 4 May 1998, after publication of this short essay the previous month, I received a letter dated 1 May 1998 from Zolo (John Polozzolo), writing from Aiea, Hawaii. He said, in part, “I’d like to take this opportunity to say that it’s always a pleasure to read your haiku and other works in so many publications over the years, including your most recent essay in Frogpond, although I would add punctuation to your list of American haiku variables. Briefly, I just can’t fathom why anyone would do away with punctuation in haiku since it’s obviously one more element that can be used to convey meaning. Indeed, I can’t fathom why anyone would not take full advantage of using 17 syllables in haiku (except on rare occasions), and thereby convey more than just two bare zen links. And using punctuation is clearly American (or Western) and not classical Japanese, which further helps to distinguish American haiku.” I agree, punctuation is definitely an aspect of English-language haiku whereby its practitioners can exert significant control, although whether one uses it or not would seem to be a personal choice and part of the “voice” of one’s haiku.

        Regarding the need to use as many as seventeen syllables in haiku, I both agree and disagree. I have long maintained that a haiku should not be as short as possible, but as short as necessary, which means that you should say what needs to be said, and nothing more. That means that one poem might be nine syllables, or another one nineteen, if you’re even counting. Thus I have no trouble using more than seventeen syllables, and no trouble using significantly fewer—if that’s what that the poem needs. Most Western literary haiku poets have rejected the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. But this is not all. Some English-language haiku writers have also gone through a reactionary phase of believing that their haiku should be significantly shorter or even minimalist. Perhaps, as Zolo suggests, a later phase of one’s personal haiku development might be one of not being afraid to use a “longer” haiku. Whether one goes through such phases or not, for me the truth remains that one should be free to write either “short” or “long” haiku, provided that the poem always uses the fewest words necessary for what one is trying to say.
        I should also add that I believe the two-part structure to be an essential characteristic of haiku. The form of haiku differs from language to language simply because the languages differ (it’s naive to aim at 5-7-5 syllables in English, for example—the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English, but three sounds in Japanese). Likewise, season words need to accumulate based on chiefly local (that is, not just Japanese) phenomena, so the tradition of kigo (season words) must of necessity differ from what has evolved in Japan. But, in addition to primarily objective sensory imagery, the two-part juxtapositional structure of haiku seems easily transferrable to any language, any culture. The poem gains its energy by the intuitive or emotional leap that occurs in the space between the poem’s two parts, in the gap of what’s deliberately left out. As I’ve written elsewhere, the art of haiku lies in creating exactly that gap, in leaving something out, and in dwelling in the cut the divides the haiku into its two energizing parts.

—1 November 2009