Voices of Haiku

by Becky Alexander

Annual TPS PoetryTALK

February 10, 2007

You are about to enter into a world of simple beauty.
This is the poetic art form known as haiku.

There are many definitions of haiku. I find some of these definitions to be too simple, too complicated, too limiting, too vague. Basically, haiku is a form of short image poetry, about nature, historically from Japan, which has been accepted and become profuse in the Western World. It is most often written in a three-line form, in the present tense. Historically, in Japan, haiku was based on a strict 17-syllable structure of those three lines: five syllables for the first line, seven for the second, and a repeat of five syllables for the last line. This structure had to do with the vowel sounds in the Japanese language. But modern haiku, in any language, does not need to follow that regimentation.

The haiku originated with the renga, which was a collaborative type of poem in which three poets worked together to create a whole poem, starting with the first three-line portion called the hokku. Eventually, the three-line hokku, or haiku, became a separate art form.    

Haiku poems were written on long sheets of rice paper, along with simple, effective drawings, often done in black ink, sometimes of just a few lines, which represented the poem in some way. These drawings were known as haiga (ga means painting), and the haiku poem and haiga artwork were directly important to each other. Both were studied and created together.

Traditional Japanese haiku, then, followed the strict 5-7-5 syllabic structure. In Japanese, even some punctuation counts as a syllable, but this is not the same in English: hence we have the age-old battle of whether or not a haiku should have such syllabic regimentation, or not.

Richard Wright, an African American writer of the 1950’s, wrote thousands of haiku. His haiku are therefore based on the 5-­7-­5 structure, as was the early belief as to how English haiku should be composed. Wright’s haiku flow beautifully and are among my favourite to read.

In the 1970’s, haiku came to Ontario’s school teachers. We taught children to write three-line poems, with 5-7-5 syllables, 17 in all. Because children grasp complicated concepts in the pure, quick and simple ways that children do, they took to haiku like geese in a cornfield. I have never taught a child who balked at writing haiku poems.

I advise those interested in writing haiku to go to some restful outdoor place (this is called going on a ginkgo) alone, or in a group, observe nature around you, and write simple short poems of high impact and strong imagery. You may call them haiku if you wish to do so!

A Haiku is:

a poem that is Japanese in tradition. The art of haiku has moved from Japan into the mainstream literary world and is studied and written around the globe.

a poem of simplicity with no contrivances, such as rhyme. There is no place within the simple beauty of haiku for language devices. It is the image and emotion transmitted from the poem which matters most. A haiku simply is.

in the mushroomed air
a puffball
big as summer

  —Wendy Visser  (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

Modern haikuists use sensory words to show what they are experiencing, as in this excellent modern poem:

on the back of my hand
the feel of summer

  —Wendy Visser  (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem of anywhere from one to four lines, three being the most frequently used and seen.

leaving the swamp
a jar of tadpoles

  —Wendy Visser  (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

36°C this holiday Monday
in the shade of friendship
    —a picnic fit for gods

  —Becky Alexander (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

  of birds and flower...
  languid thoughts
  on heat currents

  —Marta O’Reilly (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem of immediacy; snap your fingers: that nanosecond is the length of a haiku;

flowing through
the flower banks
a wave of shivers

  —Becky Alexander (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem written in the present tense to emphasize its immediate nature;

speckled fly
washing its face
before breakfast

  —Lin Geary (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

a relationship between the writer and the reader. A good haiku does not ‘show off’. A good haiku invites the reader in, allows the reader to interpret what s/he will from it. Emotion is invoked, but never ‘told’; always ‘shown’. This open-ended quality to a haiku is the writer’s gift to the reader. The reader’s reflection is part of the haiku experience.

pickled beet yes
hot pepper no
I eat half your salad

  —Lin Geary (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

In the following poem, the reader is immediately welcomed into the poem, and you can mentally change places with the poet and find yourself waiting for the hidden frog to jump into full view.

waiting patiently
frog—for me to go away
me—for him to show

  —Stella Kuiper (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

a poem that must be authentic:  meaning that it must be obvious to the reader that the poet actually and truly experienced what is shown in the haiku. The reader shouldn’t need to wonder if the haiku was truly experienced. ‘Couch Potato haiku’ are frowned upon. Haiku are based on actual experiences, so go and have some! If all you can do is look out a window, then do that. I wrote a whole series of Out the Window Haiku one day last year when sick with the flu. Get outside. Walk around. Look. Listen. Breathe. Reflect. Write!

Haiku poems are often written as part of the ginkgo experience, and ginkgo experiences include writing haiku, as in Craigleigh Press’s first ginkgo experience in Norval, where six artists spent the day exploring the Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Gardens, and the nearby conservation area. The resulting poems, haiku, haiga and photography became the successful chapbook In L.M.’s Garden, published under license by the heirs of L. M. Montgomery. As you can see by two of these following poems, a small yellow spider became a focus of the ginkgo!

presenting arms—
a neon yellow spider
spans a thumbnail

  —Nancy Morrey

in-depth study—
from what world
this banana coloured spider

  —Wendy Visser

brushing my face . . .
the breath
of spiders

  —Becky Alexander

a poem that may be presented in a 5-7-5 (17) syllabic form of three lines, often referred to as Traditional Haiku or a poem which pays no regard to any syllabic rule of count, known as the Modern Haiku. As mentioned, Richard Wright wrote his haiku using the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic rule, and they are among some of the finest haiku ever written.  He manages perfect haiku, in my opinion, using that historically interpreted 5-7-5- restriction. His book Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, New York, 1998), is a treat to buy yourself. If you can afford only one book of haiku poetry, buy this one. It will indeed take you away into the ‘other world’ of haiku.

a poem honouring nature, which may include human nature. Traditionally, if the poet depicts people and humour within the poem, it becomes a senryu, not a haiku. If you plan to enter a haiku contest, or submit to a haiku magazine, you need to find out the editorial stance on this nature-human nature, humour-senryu issue before you submit. But these arguments need be no restriction at all in regard to a person’s enjoyment in the reading and writing of haiku.

a poem that traditionally held a kigo or season word, such as pumpkin, crickets, blizzard, bud, lily, frog, nest, etc. Seasonal words in Japan are not necessarily the same as they are in English.  An English-speaking reader may not catch all of the Japanese kigo, when reading the English translations of work by the masters. Nevertheless, it is fun to try to determine just what the season words are in all haiku poetry.    

in tree’s peak
of the oriole

  —Wendy Visser (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

over the dam
shooting into the current
a milkweed seed takes sail

  —Becky Alexander (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)  

still green

  —Marta O’Reilly (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem in which a comparison or contrast is evident.  There is some talk about juxtaposition, or ambivalence, in writing haiku, but I find those words to be far too big for haiku! It is the internal comparisons that give magic to the haiku:

weather birds gathering
on a half-mown field
the crow days of August

  —Lin Geary (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

a poem which involves the senses, and often a mix of senses going on at the same time:

the swipe of  twin paddles
gossip among the lilies

  —Lin Geary (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

too much sun—
faceless bonnets
drinking iced tea

  —Wendy Visser (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem with a small focus.  You don’t think big with haiku. You think small: the smaller parts of the scene, are the characteristic nub of the haiku. Write about one leaf, not the forest, one child in the playground, one flower in the garden. Think of each haiku as a raindrop. I find that the biggest error new haikuists make is to put too much into a haiku: keep it simple.

yellow bud
curls foetal-like
within the lily pads

  —Wendy Visser  (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

a poem that can show the irony of life, and oh, yes, possibly be a senryu!

East wind on my back
you can talk all you want
about August!

  —Lin Geary (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

a poem that has a sense of loneliness or Sabi (the Japanese word for solitude or loneliness). The reader, by unlocking and understanding the poem, understands some part of the poet’s feelings in the haiku, feels his sense of being apart, and even that of desolation. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes you have to think about it.

deserted dock
into the August shore

  —Wendy Visser  (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

time warp
 on these hot cobblestones
 the shadows
 of ancestors

  —Wendy Visser  (from In L.M.’s Garden, Craigleigh Press, 2002)

a poem that gives you a shock or surprise, something unexpected:

leaf after leaf
I almost step
on a leopard frog

  —Becky Alexander (from Cloud Shine, Craigleigh Press, 2006)

Who Were the Masters?    

Matsuo Basho (1644-­1694), Yosa Buson (1716-­1783), and Kobayashi Issa are the three names that continually appear as the haiku masters. They are collectively known as the Three Pillars of Haiku. There are many excellent books in print about the masters and their lives. I enjoy my copy of The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa, Robert Hass (The Ecco Press, New Jersey, 1994). This book gives biographical information on the three masters, and follows each bio with a selection of many of the haiku written by each of the masters.


Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa  (The Ecco Press, New Jersey, 1994)

Harold G. Henderson, Haiku in English (Charles E. Tuttle Co. Vermont, 1971)

Richard Wright, Haiku:This Other World (Arcade Publishing, New York, 1998)

  more PROSE about Poetry . . .