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Lessons in Haiku

Traditional Japanese School

Susumu Takiguchi, Instructor


 LESSON 1: Japanese Kukai Style 

1 Kigo: snow;

2 Form: 3 lines or variations thereof, 5-7-5 or shorter, either by syllables or by other counters;

3 Rhythm, stress, sound, flow etc. are more important than the syllable count;

4 Submission up to 3 haiku poems per person.

As I write this sen-pyo (selection comments), it has started to snow again here in the Oxfordshire countryside, England. What an appropriate timing!

flurries of snow 
falling silently down, 
calming me down

Japanese kukai typically last about an hour. The size ranges from a small kukai of half a dozen people to a gigantic one of, say, 500 participants. Often, they are combined with ginko (haiku walk, or journey) during which there would be kukai which could be one session or many sessions depending. Ginko could be just a small stroll in a public part, or a bit bigger one such as a two-week trip to Australia or the Lake District in Britain.

Participants select their favourites anonymously ranging from 3 to 10 haiku and these are read out loudly byyomibito (haiku reader) as authors have to reply loudly if their poems are read out in order to reveal their identity. These are tense and thrilling moments.

After this, the shusai (master, or leader, or editor) of the kukai will read out his/her selections, normally 15 of them (some choose as many as 25), and give general comments as well as comments on each haiku. Usually, theshusai gives tokusen (special merit) to the best haiku.

Even based on traditional Japanese school, haiku in English cannot be but different. I accept three lines as they reflect the three segments in a Japanese haiku and also lines are an essential feature of Western poems (verse => Latin versus=line, furrow, row and vertere=to turn (page, line) However, some haiku are better in two lines or four lines in terms of rhythm, flow, contents and "look". One liners are slightly a different proposition and need more time to develop.

My idea is let each haiku determine the length, choice of words, rhythm etc. etc.

Now, our own kukai. On the whole, I am pleasantly surprised that the standard and quality of the submitted works are higher from the viewpoint of this School than those of general postings to the haikuforum.

Setsu-getsu-ka is a phrase which is used to describe the symbol of Japanese aesthetics closely related to nature. Setsu is snow, getsu moon and ka cherry blossom.

Snow has been liked by the Japanese for centuries so much so that there are numerous nouns and phrases to express all kinds of snow under different conditions, hence many kigo relating to snow. The lack of variety in your description of snow is one of the things which struck me as different. Snow is snow and that's that, is just about all.

Traditional Japanese School, with its restrictions such as kigo, teikei (5-7-5), kireji and lots of other conventions including limiting the subject matter, tends to encourage convergence, conformity and standardisation, which in turn often lead to stereo-typed and hackneyed haiku without newness, originality and innovation. Little wonder that Basho stressed the importance of fueki-ryuko (unchanging poetical values and newness).

From this, two things stem: -

(1) Acceptance of certain haiku which are written and appreciated within these limitations (such as the beauty of snow on the Mr. Fuji);

(2) Exceptional haiku which fall into these limitations and yet showing newness, originality and innovation (surprisingly these are possible);

It is wrong to dismiss (1) as worthless. It is all a question of expectation. If one expects more than (1) can offer, of course one feels dissatisfied and frustrated and judges these haiku under (1) by saying, So what? orThese are incapable of answering important issues of society or human affairs. However, if one's expectations are conservative, haiku is still a pleasant pastime. If we want more from haiku, then we must expand the strait-jacket without destroying traditional values unduly (more on this in other lessons)

So, let us look at our own haiku then. In so doing, for obvious reasons we would wish to aim at (2) but it is a very difficult target indeed. Out of 54 works submitted, I have chosen seven.  

LESSON 2-1: "cold" 

In traditional Japanese kukai, typically the Shusai (master) selects something like 15 to 25 haiku poems and makes general comments and specific comments on 3 to 5 haiku. This lasts 10 to 15 minutes as kukai is usually tightly scheduled.

Though we follow this practice broadly, I will make comments on more haiku because this is a school, as opposed to a real kukai.

Generally speaking, there are many good and potentially good poems in Lesson 2 haiku, indicating a promising start of the School.

Some general observations: -

1) One of Kyoshi's famous remarks is sen wa seisaku (selection [of haiku] is creation in its own right). I enjoyed reading your comments on others' haiku as much as reading your own haiku. They reflect the commentator's personality as well as his/her haiku views. Some make brilliant readings. In the commenting of other people's haiku, honesty, sincerity and other qualities are as important as in writing your own;

2) [Two members] raised the point which I was going to mention before anything else. And that is, in the Japanese kukai, if the kigo is presented everybody must use that specific kigo or a few variations thereof which are in the saijiki (kigo dictionary). This was observed in Lesson 1, where snow was given as a set kigo. Kigo is either given on the day (seki-dai), or notified beforehand (ken-dai). This system is called dai-ei (haiku composition according to given kigo"). These Japanese terms are not important but are given partly to allow you to savour some feeling of the real kukai in Japan and partly because you may be tempted to experiment the Japanese-style kukai in your area. In this Lesson, the kigo cold is not given so strictly as in the case of Lesson 1 but in the way that anything which tells the cold of winter would be acceptable. I think probably some people have taken this too liberally;

3) The kigo which are related to cold include: kanki (cold air), tsumetashi (chilly), sokobie (chilly to the bone),kooru (freeze), sayu (crispy cold), kanpa (cold wave, cold spell), genkan (extreme cold), gento (atrocious winter).

LESSON 2-3: "cold" continued

(1) Borrowing Japanese kigo:

We have seen elsewhere that applying Japanese kigo to haiku written in regions of different climate would not work. This is one of the most obvious limitations of traditional Japanese haiku conventions used outside Japan. Again, we should start compiling our own kigo words which are suitable for each of our localities.

__ had to deal with this question by borrowing a Japanese kigo, kogarashi (withering wind). In the Edo Period,kogarashi was used either for autumn or winter, but it is now a kigo for early winter. It is the cold and strong north or west wind in October and November, which withers leaves and blows them off the trees. However, it seems that the emphasis is more on the strength of the wind than on its coldness. (This is another reason why I posed my question to __) There are colder winds.

kogarashi ya umi ni yuhi wo fuki-otosu (Natsume Soseki)

withering wind
blows the setting sun
down to the sea 
(ST version)

kogarashi ya hoshi fuki-kobosu umi no ue (Masaoka Shiki)

withering wind --
stars are blown scattered
over the sea 
(ST version) 

kogarashi ya ishi fuki-tobasu Ohi-gawa (Hasegawa Reyoko)

winter gale --
blowing rocks away
at the Ohi-gawa River 
(ST version)

kogarashi ni Asama no kemuri fuki-chiru ka (Takahama Kyoshi)

withering wind --
would the smoke of Asama vocano
be blown everywhere 
(ST version)

Some other samples where the strength of kogarashi is not that apparent: -

kogarashi no hikkakari iru toge no ki (Hara Yutaka)

withering wind --
caught and hanging on
to the hilltop tree 
(ST version)

kogarashi ya me yori toridasu ishi no tsubu (Watanabe Hakusen)

winter gale --
I get out grit
from my eyes 
(ST version)

umi ni dete kogarashi kaeru tokoro nashi (Yamaguchi Seishi)

blowing into the sea
withering wind has now
no place to return 
(ST version)

*This haiku was written in October 1944 and the Kamikaze pilots were flying to the sea then.

kogarashi ya mezashi ni nokoru umi no iro (Akutagawa Ryunosuke)

withering wind --
faint on the dried sardines
the colour of the sea 
(ST version)

(2) "Fuga-no-makoto"

I will deal with just one more issue, which to my mind is probably the most important of all issues of haiku, fuga-no-makoto (poetic sincerity, honesty and truth).

This is the most important of all teachings of Basho. Sadly, it is also the one value which is either missing or neglected in many haiku poems written today. One cannot stress the importance of it too much, or repeat it too often. Criticism of haiku against this value is always, yes always, justified. The problem is that it is no easy task for us to get to the true understanding of what was or is meant by fuga-no-makoto. It is even more difficult for us to explore what Basho would have taught us by this value in the 21st century context, or how much we can search for the 21st century solution to the problems posed by this value.

Some members might have thought that __ has gone on and on and on for too long in his inquisition. However, what he has really been doing was posing this most important of all questions, fuga-no-makoto. __ is a seeker of answers to fundamental issues of contemporary haiku, practised both in Japan and outside Japan, and is in a very rare position as a Westerner living in Japan and having access to the first-line materials but looking at them both through the Japanese eyes and Western background, giving the feedback to the Western haijin. In a way, we should be thankful to __ for being out there, trying to make sense of the different perceptions of the Western and the Japanese haijin. Every time strange things pop out of his lips ... we should be thankful. If he says anything and everything which conforms to the Western, Zen-inspired haiku moment minimalist conventions, I for one would politely and quietly write him off as a golden boy apple polisher. Bridging the appalling communication gap between Japan and the rest of the world in haiku is one of the main aims of WHC. So, every time __ opens his mouth and says strange things we should consider them so carefully as to be able to think that they are not strange. I know __ well enough to be convinced that there is no question about his poetic integrity, i.e. he was completely truthful in his ... haiku. That is not the issue. The issue is an advanced and higher stages over and above that truthful stance, i.e. truthful in what way and in terms of what. We will raise this question in WHCacademia.

There is this fundamentally difficult question: be true to the facts but facts are not automatically and/or empirically the same thing as truth; be true to your imagination but imaginations are by definition not facts but that does not mean that imaginations are not truths. Basho used both facts and imaginations. Not only there is nothing wrong with human imaginations but they are one of our best additions to whatever has been designed for nature. Fuga-no-makoto is the key. The Westerners are no less qualified to try to search for the true meaning of this aesthetic canon, particularly in the WHC context, i.e. the world-wide relevance.


LESSON 3: advent/arrival of spring


1 Kigo: In this lesson, I will not give any specific kigo. Instead, I will set a theme and the theme is the coming of spring, i.e. anticipation of the arrival of spring and/or the joy of having spring actually sprung. Use either established kigo or kigo of your own invention, which indicate the harbinger of spring and/or various things symbolising the arrival of spring;

2 Form: 3 lines or variations thereof, 5-7-5 or shorter, either by
syllables or by other counters (5-7-5 is not denied in my school but it is
not positively endorsed either. It is just a convenient maximum length);

3 Rhythm, stress, sound, flow, rhyming etc. are more important than the
syllable count in determining the length of each line, or number and choice
of words;

Re: Traditional Japanese School: Lesson 3-1 "Spring"

In Lesson 3, I will be explaining a little bit about my own position as a haiku poet.

In a nutshell, I have been trained on an orthodox basis, i.e. traditional (sometimes referred to as classical) Japanese haiku. This has limitations in terms of subject matter, universality (especially in the world context) and innovation. Therefore, I have been developing my own revisionist line to try to solve these limitations. At this School, the orthodox Japanese haiku is taught, interspersed with my additional comments and even criticism from the revisionist point of view. Separately, I have been developing a radically different line called the Shintai Haiku, which is a form of vers libre and which would bring in many more possibilities in poetic creation. 

For this purpose, I will first deal with the basics of the haiku orthodoxy. Lesson 3-1 is going to be a hard work and heavy reading for you but haiku cannot be learnt like fast-food or TV commercial. In fact, ironically the more you learn, the less you feel you understand it, and the better haiku you write, the more you become humble. So, if you are feeling you understand it or do not like eating humble pie, let the alarm bells be ringing for you. The text of the lesson is an excerpt from one of my books.


Let us look at some of the criteria for composing and appreciating Japanese haiku by quoting actual works by modern Japanese haiku poets. The criteria reflect traditional practices but there are now different schools of haiku which do not follow them. The following sections are presented as an introduction to the former and not as a denial of the latter.

[ 1 ] The 5 - 7 - 5 Format (seventeen syllables)

Examples following this rule

Ka-ki ku-e-ba/ ka-ne ga na-ru-nari/ ho-u-ry-u-ji

5 7 5

(Eating a persimmon/ temple bell is ringing/ from Horyuji-temple = Shiki)

Ki-ri hi-to-ha/ hi-a-ta-ri-na-ga-ra-/ o-chi-ni-ke-ri

5 7 5

(A single leaf of paulownia/ Has fallen:/ catching the sunlight/ As it went = Kyoshi)

Tsu-bo-ni shi-te/ mi-ya-ma no ho-o no/ha-na hi-ra-ku

5 7 5

(Arranged in a vase/ deep mountain magnolia/ blossoms open = Shuoshi)

a. Examples slightly breaking the rule (hacho)

These are called jiamari (excessive syllables) and jitarazu (insufficient syllables). They have been seen since before Basho's time.

A-ka-i tsu-ba-ki/ shi-ro-i tsu-ba-ki to/ o-chi-ni-ke-ri

6 7 5

(Red camellia blossom, then/ White camellia blossom,/ Both fell to the ground = Hekigodo)

Ya-ma no i-ro tsu-ri-a-ge-shi a-yu ni ugo-ku-nana

5 8 5

(The colours of the mountain move as I fish out the ayu-fish that I've just caught. = Hara Sekitei)

Su-mi-re ho-do na/ chi-i-sa-ki hi-to ni/ u-ma-re-ta-shi

6 7 5

(I wish I could be born again a person as small as a violet. = Natsume Soseki)

Ya-ku-so-ku no/ka-n no tsu-ku-shi wo/ ni-te ku-da-sa-I

5 7 6

(Please cook for me the winter horsetail as you have promised. = Kawabata Bosha)

U-sa-gi mo/ ka-ta-mi-mi ta-ru-ru/ ta-i-sho-ka-na

4 7 5

(Even a rabbit's ear is bent, what heat! = Akutagawa Ryunosuke)

Examples completely ignoring, or denying the rule

Na-tsu-a-sa hi-n-mi-n no ko ga hi-ki-ka-ka-e-ta-ru hi-to-tsu-no ky-a-be-tsu (
26 syllables)

(Summer morn a child of the poor/ tugging and hugging/ a head of cabbage = Ippekiro)

Se-ki wo shi-te mo hi-to-ri (
9 syllables)

(coughing, even: alone = Hosai)

To-ma-to wo ta-na-go-ko-ro ni, mi-ho-to-ke no ma-e ni, chi-chi-ha-ha no ma-e ni (
26 syllables)

(with a tomato on the palm of my hand, my only offering, do I pray in front of Buddha, and in front of my dead parents = Santoka)

Wa-n-ky-o-ku-shi ya-ke-do-shi ba-ku-shi-n-chi no ma-ra-so-n (20 syllables)

(Bent and burnt/ the atomic-bomb site/ a marathon race = Tota)

[ 2 ] Season words

There are more than ten thousand season words and average haiku poets are estimated to use 500 to 1, 000 of them regularly.  

Season words expressly mentioning a particular season itself

Are kuruu umi wo wasurete fuyugomori (

(Oblivious to the raging sea I am keeping indoors for the winter. = Ikeuchi Takeshi)

Endai ni ushirode wo tsuki aki no kumo (

(Sitting on a long stool and leaning backwards with my hands placed behind me, I look at autumn clouds. = Tomiyasu Fusei)

Kamogawa no mizu no kokoro no dokoka haru (

(Somehow the soul of the water of Kamogawa River tells me that spring seems to be with us somewhere. = Nomoto Eikyu)

Aiida wo kikite Roma no natsu no tsuki (

(Listening to Aida, I look up the summer moon over Rome. - Nishikawa Hiroko)

Waga koe no fukimodosaruru nowaki kana (

(My voice has been blown back by the strong autumn wind. = Naito Meisetsu)

Season words as a symbol of a particular season, or events during that season

Furu yuki ya Meiji wa tohku narinikeri (

(Falling snow/ Ah, the Meiji era is now far behind! = Nakamura Kusatao)

Hisho no ko ni uma yo bohto yo pinpon yo (

(My daughter is enjoying riding a pony, rowing a boat and playing pingpong,
summer holiday. = Inahata Teiko)

Tsuku tsue ni ho wo sasowaretsu ume biyori (

(My steps are enticed by the walking stick towards plum blossoms on a [spring] day. = Ogata Kukyo)

Ikko no hitori ga kakuru nisshabyo (

(One person is missing from our group, sun stroke = Bojo Toshiatsu)

Himosugara sagiri nagaruru tani momiji (

(All day long thin fog flows along the red and yellow leaves of the valley. = Kawamura Saishu)

Season words inducing associations and inspiring imagination

Usumetemo hana no nioi no kuzuyu kana (

(Even thinned by hot water the arrowroot starch gruel has the smell of cherry blossoms. = Watanabe Suiha)

Toku obi no ashi ni matsuwari hanazukare (

(Undoing the sash that coils round [my] legs, I am weary having been to a cherry blossom viewing. = Mihara Sokyushi)

Season words which are concrete "things", or objects

Hito taki ni kikuna no kaori iya tsuyoku (

(The smell of chrysanthemum coronarium becomes even stronger as I give it a boil. = Takahama Toshio)

Uchiwa tome nani ka kokoro ni todometaru (

(Waving of a fan stopped, something has occurred to me. = Mashimo Masuji)

Historically well-established season words

Ichi no yana, ni no yana Hida no akifukashi (

(Going from one weir to the next deeper into Hida mountain the autumn is ending. = Saito Hachiro)

Yukuharu no mado ni taretaru tamoto kana (

(Spring is ending, someone's sleeve is hanging across the window. = Nomura Hakugetsu)

Season words with double meaning

Basu ware wo kareno ni hitori nokoshi saru (

(The bus has dumped me and gone, leaving me standing all alone in the withered field. = Iwakiri Tessho)

The withered field, being a winter season word, also represents the feeling of loneliness, desolation and decay in Iwakiri's heart.

Banshu no hei no tsukitaru hitorigoto (

(End of autumn, end of the stone wall, too, I talk to myself. = Kimura Shigeo)

Here, end of autumn also indicates the end of the wall, and in turn the end of the poet's linkage with his fellow human beings.

Mizubana ya hana no saki dake kure nokoru (

(It has all become dark except the tip of my dripping nose. = Akutagawa Ryunosuke)

This haiku has a zensho (or, brief foreword), saying self mockery and is regarded as the jisei no ku (or, death poem) of this talented but tragic novelist. The drip sitting on the tip of his nose is the winter season word but Akutagawa, soon to commit suicide, compares his desperate and meaningless self to it, sitting useless on the useless nose which is malfunctioning like his life itself.

Some of additional points on season words

Other functions of season words are universality, commonality, depicting broader meanings in a compact way.

Kigasanari = using more than one season word in a single haiku, which is to be avoided. If there are two, one becomes the leading season word.

Kichigai = using words of different seasons in a haiku, which also should be avoided.

Muki = using no season word, either by design or by default

[ 3 ] Kireji (cutting words)

Since kireji is purely a Japanese practice based on the linguistic and grammatical features, there is practically no way of demonstrating it by trying to find the English equivalent. There are, however, ways of gaining similar effects in English, such as the use of commas, semi colons, dots etc. but this is not within the scope of this paper. (For basic understanding of kireji, see Higginson (4).)

[ 4 ] Other features of haiku

Nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.

The general point to observe is to secure concreteness and immediacy and to avoid abstraction and conceptualisation. Nouns are much more important than verbs or adjectives. Avoid abstract nouns expressing such notions as beauty, happiness and honour. Names of actual flowers, birds and places give immediate impact. Adjectives are a problem. Rather than sad, use concrete things to express sadness.

Particles, or "te-ni-wo-ha"

Japanese particles play an important role in haiku, clarifying direction, relationship, tense, spatial positioning, subject/object articulation and all other grammatical inter-relationships. They therefore play the same role as English prepositions, and word order. Being short, normally just one syllable (e.g. ha, ga, ni, te, wo), the Japanese particles are ideal for haiku and are sometimes critical for the success of a haiku.


The main source of haiku rhythm is the 5 - 7- 5 syllable format already discussed. It can be grouped in one or other of two ways, i.e. either 5 + 12, or 12 + 5, but even then there is a notional pause between 7 and 5, or 5 and 7 within the 12 syllables.

Sound properties

The sounds in Japanese are simpler and less varied than those in English. They also have much less accent, stress and intonation, giving a somewhat monotonous, soft and flat impression. There are only five vowels and in theory consonants are always followed by a vowel. Certain English sounds are absent in Japanese, such as v, f, di as in dim. Other English sounds, most notably r and l, are bundled together in a single sound.

The five vowels, a, i, u, e, o, are said to have the following "feelings": 

a: grand, rich, bright and positive

i: light, sensitive

u: calm, melancholic

e: mild, elegant, sharp

o: bold, majestic

The rest of the fifty plus one sounds, which form all Japanese sounds, are created by adding these five vowels to consonants, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r/l, w. The last sound is a soft, nasal version of n. They are said to have the following feelings: 

ka, ki, ku, ke, ko: strong, clean

sa, shi, su, se, so: sharp, soft

ta, chi, tsu, te, to: heavy, thick

na, ni, nu, ne, no: sticky

ha, hi, ju, he, ho: light, open

ma, mi, mu, me, mo: rich

ya, yi, yu, (ye), yo: cloudy, closed

ra, ri, ru, re, ro: fluid, smooth

(la, li, lu, le, lo)

wa, (wi), (wu), (we), wo: loud, open


Rhyming in haiku is neither as prominent nor as important as in English poems. Its abuse could even make a haiku gimmicky and artificial but used well it can help create a sophisticated and dramatic haiku. Its position is not restricted to the ends but frequently found within the lines. In this sense haiku rhyme is more like refrain explained in the next section and perhaps should not be called rhyme at all in the sense used in English or Chinese poems.

Yama mata yama yamazakura mata yamazakura

(Mountain after mountain, mountain cherry trees after mountain cherry trees = Awano Seiho)

Ikikawari shinikawari shite utsu ta kana

(generation after generation cultivate these rice fields = Murakami Kijo)

Chiru sakura umi aokereba umi e chiru

(Falling cherry flowers fall into the sea - that sea which is blue = Takaya Soshu)

Koineko no koisuru neko de oshitohsu

(Cats in love will persist as cats in love = Nagata Koi)

Ajisai ya ao ni kimarishi aki no ame

(Hydrangea has settled its colour to blue; autumn rain = Shiki)


Yuki naran sayo no Nakayama yoru naran

(It must be snowing at Sayo no Nakayama, it must be night. = Hekigodo)

Samukaro, kayukaro, hito ni aitakaro

(You must be cold, you must be itching and you must be wanting to see other human beings. = Shiki)

Kono aki no uragareno yuku karenoyuku

(This autumn I am crossing the desolate fields and going across the desolate fields. = Kyoshi)

Uragaeshi mata uragaeshi taiga haku

(Sweeping a big moth, it turns one side up and then the other side up. = Maeda Fura)

Kanbotan sakishiburi shiburi keri

(Winter peonies, reluctant to flower, very reluctant to flower. = Hino Sojo)

Monono me no hogure hogururu asane kana

(Buds are opening and opening; I am still in bed in the morning. = Matsumoto Takashi)

Tsuki ichirin toko ichirin hikariau

(One moon, one frozen lake, shining at each other. = Hashimoto Takako  

Lesson 4: GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku
Susumu Takiguchi, Instructor



It was over four years ago that I wrote a list of "tips" for haiku composition under the title of Guidelines: How to Compose Haiku. (see below) This was later printed in my book, Kyoshi - A Haiku Master1. It was not a set of rules as I do not believe in rules as such, or at least I had not reached any rules I could advocate without any shadow of doubt. Since then, I have walked farther in my eternal journey of learning the form. Above all, it is the kuyu (haiku friends) whom I am supposed to be teaching, that have taught me most at WHC. 

I believe that everything man does needs to be re-examined and reassessed every now and again to see if it still works or not. Here, I apply the methods inspired by those of Socrates and Descartes. They may be termed as "constructive doubt and challenge". They could, however, be a dangerous route, for behind everything man does, lie men and women (far more the former than the latter) whose vested interest, narrow-mindedness, mad conservatism, rivalry, jealousy and all manner of destructive forces which could wreak havoc on what would otherwise be a normal endeavour. One wants to avoid having to drink hemlock.

Thus it is that in this Lesson 4, I wish to exercise "constructive doubt and challenge" to the Guidelines and, by reviewing them critically, to revise or improve on them as necessary. If it is myself who is doing the doubting and challenging to something of my own creation, it is unlikely that I would be stabbed in the back by myself or be drinking hemlock. I will do so by asking you all, as the exercise of Lesson 4, to submit at least one haiku poem (you may submit as many as you wish) which you will write anew, strictly according to these Guidelines (no other conditions are imposed). If your works satisfy all 12 Guidelines, fine. If not, try to satisfy as many of them as possible. Put those numbers of Guidelines which you think your work has satisfied in brackets. If you cannot produce such work anew, then search from your past poems which you think would satisfy the Guidelines. 

GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku

Some useful guidelines can be gleaned from the various teachings and advice given by three centuries of haiku masters and practitioners, from Basho to Kyoshi.

1) Try to write a haiku only about what actually happens to you (i.e. avoid fictitious, or imaginary renderings). 

2) Try to write a haiku, only when you have been deeply moved, strongly inspired and poetically touched by the subject matter (i.e. do not "fake" poetic feelings).

3) Try to write a haiku immediately after the haiku feeling has hit you and do not leave it for too long. Alterations and changes are an essential part of haiku-writing process, but do not linger or elaborate. If it does not write easily, leave it and do something else. 

4) Try to reject clichés, hackneyed expressions and words, or even deep feelings if they have been used time and time again by countless haiku poets. 

5) Try not to use embellishment or "lay it on thick", even if you have hit on a brilliant idea. Be honest, simple, clear, straightforward and modest. 

6) Try not to "explain". Haiku is not science and should need no explanation if it is good. 

7) Try not to "conceptualise", "intellectualise", "philosophise", "moralise" or "theorise". 

8) Try not to "report". "Express" it. 

9) Try not to be "clever", gimmicky, over-witty, artificial, presumptuous, too precious, mysterious or esoteric. Just be "natural". 

10) Try not to express your raw and subjective feelings, such as being "happy", "sad", "lonely", or "glad" in so many words. Express them by presenting some concrete action, object etc. (e.g. "Even coughing, I do all alone.", Ozaki Hosai) and let the concrete image speak for itself. 

11) Try to keep some detachment, even in the most dire circumstances, and preserve always a sense of humour. Haiku is not in the business to be cold or unkind, but it is not about wallowing in raw sentiments in misery either. Always remember that haiku originated from haikai no renga (or, comic renga), and the sense of humour remains a prerequisite of the haiku spirit. 

12) Try not to explain the minutiae, but keep to the essentials and leave the rest to the readers' imagination. If your haiku feeling is deep, your haiku will be deep, i.e.,  if you are deep, so much more will be your haiku. Good haiku comes from your whole being like a good singing voice from the singer's whole body, and from his mind, and from his entire life.


Lesson 4: GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku
Selections for Commentary

Susumu Takiguchi, Instructor


It proved to be quite time-consuming to go through all the member's submissions, but it was rewarding to see how the haiku responded to my GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku.

Apart from the GUIDELINES, I had assumed that all understood that this was Traditional Japanese Haiku School but there were many poems without kigo or seasonal reference, or themes which are normally regarded unsuitable for the School. Authors names are not given, here.

Here are the results 
(numbers indicate guidelines the author felt the poem follows):

green parasols bow 
to the rain

(1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12)

For some reason, nasturtium is not included in saijiki or in Higginson’s but that is not the main point. It gives a sense of season and reflects the going of nature. Two main attractions of this haiku are the words “parasols” and “bow”, neither of which worries me as personification or some such concern. As the author claims, it probably meets all 12 points. A nice haiku. The author tells us in part, “…In the time just before rain, there is a distinct change in the humidity where I live (which is usually dry) which causes the leaves to bend slightly (therefore, bow) to the promise of moisture.”

Thunder clouds,
through the rain
the first blue irises

Thunder clouds and rain are too many things cluttering a single haiku. Could they not be put in a single phrase or line? Apart from that, a sense of delight to see the first flowering of the irises and its fresh imagery are impressive. Perhaps, if the third line is moved to the middle, it might solve the “omomi” (heaviness), top-heavy and cluttered feeling and a bit awkward flow. The author may well have aimed that effect: giving some dark and oppressive atmosphere which was suddenly cleared by the beauty of the irises, which is now focused and accentuated. There is nothing to doubt that this haiku has kept all the GUIDELINES.

the cicada's husk
clings to a shirt

A cicada develops from a larva (several years underground), through a chrysalis, to the imago. The changeover from the second to the third stage takes place during a summer’s night. So, presumably the author had the washings on the clothesline overnight. A cicada’s husk (“utsu-semi” is one Japanese word for it) has many connotations and associations, with the feeling of emptiness and uselessness being a typical example. Such an entity (dead and discarded) is still “clinging” to something which a living human (“utsu-semi” also means a living person, or this world) wears, quite a poignant scene. A feeling of something profound about our existence is engendered by such an everyday ordinary object as a clothesline. There is some sad irony and sense of humour to throw in. There is everything which is needed for a fine Japanese haiku here. 

the long shadow
of a rustling poplar --
still the heat

“Shadow” is everybody’s favourite theme and therefore liable to become clichés. There are quite a few such themes (herons, parking lot, spider, reflections, puddle, the sun in every dew drops etc. etc.), so much so that if I see them again I would SCREAM! However, every now and again one comes across a haiku which manages to escape that particular “trap”, like this one. The haiku is self-explanatory. And flawless from my point of view.

spider's web --
woven by moonlight
gone in the morning

My computer website once disappeared overnight but how un-haiku-like website sounds! This haiku brings us from the cyberspace back to nature. If this is the result of following my GUIDELINES I simply would be delighted as it reflects traditional Japanese haiku and more.

meditation hall--
following cricket song
rather than breath

I suppose the author practices zazen from time to time. If he/she can follow the cricket song rather than breath (or better still koan) while doing it, then he/she is as good as having entered into satori. I am slightly fed up with the association people draw between Zen and haiku and with haiku thus created. What a relief and a feeling of emancipation to read a haiku like this one, which has escaped that common mistake! I certainly did not expect such a haiku as this would emanate from my GUIDELINES. The credit, therefore, must be totally the author’s.

chill wind
flares a monk's robes -
skinny legs

A wonderful haiku. Nothing needs to be added by me. Just congratulations! (If the author “faked” this, I would not speak to him/her again.)

night of shooting stars
washing my daughter's first blood
from her underwear

Japan still being riddled with taboos, this theme is not normally accepted by traditional schools. I agonised what I should do about it in my Traditional Japanese School because if this wonderful haiku were to be rejected, what a poor school mine would be! I would put it without any hesitation as a fine example to WHCvanguard, which would be enriched by it at my School’s expense. Apart from the question of its acceptability, I would think this is one of the best haiku in English I have ever read.

summer moon
how many ways
I have failed you

This is one of the examples where the English language is used for good effect in haiku, in the sense that the same sentiment cannot be expressed in Japanese, at least with ease. I don’t take the nonsense of “I” entering into, and intruding upon, the poem, unless it would really be too blatant or ruin the poem. It probably is a touch too vague but not so vague as to render the poem meaningless. I also think that sometimes “mae-gaki” (a foreword, not a title) should be allowed to supplement, but not be part of a haiku. In this case, “Thinking of my husband” or something similar could be said, otherwise the reader would not know who this “you” is.

sultry evening
the curtain sways slightly
scent of gardenia

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
[9] [10] [11 (1/2 point, no humor)]

“Curtain” is another clichés subject, so, what’s new or original about this haiku? Nothing. However, the answer to that is probably that taking everything into consideration (choice of words, development, some movement=gentle breeze and scent, good alliteration etc.) it’s just happens to be a successful haiku. One can feel the humidity, oppressive heat, atmosphere of stillness and the incredible smell of gardenia filling the room. Good.

Summer high tide --
a starched shirt abandoned
on the sea wall.

[1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 5, 8, 9?, 10, 11, 12]

Self-explanatory. Nothing to add from me. Well done!

a plume of smoke
from the opium incense . . .
Sunday siesta

Now, I can only trust the integrity of the author and believe that this is something which actually happened to him/her. I would have thought he/she was a holiday-maker or a traveller in Spain or Italy and chanced to see this scene as an onlooker. If he/she is the opium addict the whole meaning would be different. It’s a good shasei on an unconventional subject and skilfully executed.

After posting these comments to the list, I had the opportunity to talk to the author. He says that the "opium incense" in this haiku, is a flavour of incense popular in the US, at least among people who like incense. So, my comments are largely invalidated. Apology to the author but it does not change the work's being good.

summer moon --
within its ultra thinness
nestles the cosmos

This I feel is a beautiful and mind-expanding haiku, even if it uses such words as “ultra”, “thinness” and “cosmos”.  It is a triumph of the artistry of “words” which are after all the tool of our trade (“within”, “thinness” and especially “nestles” – a wonderful wordsmith). Personally, if a haiku makes me want to paint a haiga of it, to eat it or drink it, it is a successful haiku along the traditional Japanese lines. I have seen exactly what this haiku is depicting and therefore will try to paint a haiga one day.

green! outside
key lime
green! inside

[all, not sure about #5]

Well, I can guess who the author is by the style and the subject matter of this haiku. Maybe, as the author admits, the wording and the idea are too “clever”. But if we think this is an Issa-like sense of fun, it is good. The orthodox haijin of the traditional school might reject this, though.

meditation room
after the closing bell
a firefly

Another Zen haiku? Or just normal meditation? Whatever it is, it is a lovely haiku about fireflies. Again, the focus is not on the thing of itself (i.e. meditation) but outside it (i.e. after the event) when the author notices something which assumes some new meaning, or in this case a sense of relief and a moment of indulging in the beauty and wonder of nature. Very much in the spirit of traditional Japanese haiku.