Site Contents
The Lessons
Basho's Spirit
Show Don't Tell


The Reference Section

Seasons and the season-word
Zen and Haiku
Thing, Moment, Spirit
The Two-Image Haiku
The Nature of English Haiku
Interviews with Haiku Masters


Part 7 - The Nature of English Haiku

Haiku is now a worldwide phenomenon, yet when people discuss its nature one is soon aware of different perspectives. Some see it mainly as "a kind of poetry, to be treated as an artistic creation, mouldable" (George Swede). For others, it is a source of philosophical inspiration and in particular the basis for meditation according to Zen practice; while for still others it is a window onto the Japanese experience. Most serious readers/writers of haiku adopt more than one of these viewpoints.

They also debate the extent to which haiku in English should observe the same rules that are taken to apply to haiku in Japan, noting that in the land where haiku was born there have, in fact, not been constant, undisputed rules. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see the companion paper obtainable from the British Haiku Society, "The Development and Nature of Haiku in Japan".)

Thus it proves elusive to reach the description of haiku which all those fascinated by the genre can accept without reservation. With this qualification, that in the present time something like the following represents an informed consensus in the West.

The criteria by which we recognise and judge haiku are:-

  • their fidelity to 'haiku spirit'
  • their sense of 'presence'
  • the success with which images are juxtaposed
  • the appropriateness of the subject matter
  • the poetic taste they display, and
  • the poets sense of proportion in choosing the right form.
There is, naturally, interplay between these ingredients, but the evocation of haiku spirit is generally the paramount consideration. For this reason, most dictionary definitions fall far short of the mark, mentioning little more than formal characteristics of haiku that are open to debate.

Haiku Spirit

The haiku poet cultivates awareness so that s/he may experience some unusually forceful impact coming from ordinary life or from everyday surroundings. The poet is apt to think of these perceptions as 'haiku moments', but without any wish to isolate them, for they are part of the continuous flow of experience and may exemplify life on a timeless scale.

We use our senses to observe 'haiku moments'; from which point they are developed, not by ratiocination, but by intuition and a release of emotion. "Haiku is the poetry of meaningful touch, taste, sound, site and smell"(RH Blyth).

In 'haiku spirit' the poet adopts a self-effacing and faithful attitude towards the object s/he perceives. S/he does not set out to be moralistic or didactic or judgemental. The haiku form has been used successfully to write adages and epigrams, but because the aim of adages and epigrams is to mould opinion they are not haiku in spirit.

A Sense of Presence

'Haiku moments' come normally from personal experience. The poets task, when recording such perceptions, is to keep them fresh and authentic, as unique events, avoiding generalisations. This does not preclude remembered 'moments' and a few haiku will even represent composite experience. To preserve a sense of immediacy, present tense is normally used, as if the situation were now. The term 'presence' is a mnemonic for this poetic stance.

The poet may feel that the ideal wording has come immediately. Some of the best haiku occur this way and never change. But many successful haiku result from a long process of draughting and re-writing, during which the poet clings hard to the original perception.

The pain is to give readers the means to feel as the poet her/himself felt at the time, or maybe differently, without any explicit (and so directive) statements about actual feelings. Some typical attitudes are humility, serenity, compassion, acceptance of transience and man's lonely state, joy in resurgence and company, wonder, wistfulness, as well as humour of a whimsical and sometimes paradoxical kind.

Juxtaposition of Images

It is concrete images, not abstract words, that carry the meaning and create the tension and atmosphere in haiku. Two (or perhaps three) images juxtaposed in a short poem, without a clear syntactical link, allow a possibility of comparison which the haiku poet would aver is more pregnant than the simile.

Haiku poets (in the West, at least) have an aversion to glaringly inventive metaphors, which they regard as intrusive, obliging the reader to accept the writer's personal view. They offend against the 'directness' which the writer wishes to achieve, "like jewels on a finger pointing at the moon". For the same reason, adjectives are sparse in haiku. A good rule might be to avoid descriptions that readers may easily imagine for themselves.

The best haiku do not just recreate the 'moment' pictorially or in a narrative way. They hint at something beyond, they present a movement. This may be an unexpected twist, or it may be a movement in the mind as the images are registered. Haiku are 'open-ended' or 'half-said things', so there will be later realisations. "Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew" (RH Blyth).

Some slight 'innovation of truth', stopping short of wilful fantasy, may be appropriate:

the frost holds:
Friesians in the byre
chew steam
(David Cobb)

Appropriateness of Subject Matter

The traditional subject matter of haiku is the world of nature of which humans are an integral part. Basho (1644-94) advised haiku writers to "enter into the object, perceiving its delicate life and feeling its feelings, whereupon a poem forms itself" (tr. Makoto Ueda).

We try to avoid projecting human viewpoints into natural things. So as not to humanise (and so patronise) the things of Nature, the English haiku poet is wary of personification and anthropomorphism, even though their use is tolerated in ancient and even modern Japanese poetry. But only the ultra-purist would have difficulty with the level of anthropomorphism expressed in

Sweeping into the pan
the narrow line of dust
that defies its edge.
(James W. Hackett)

Japanese poets, benefiting from a long cultural tradition, usually include a 'season word' (known as kigo) or a 'seasonal activity' (kidai) which creates an ambience for the poem. For the Japanese reader, the season word releases a whole schema of more or less predictable associations. This homogeneity of response is not generally available to the western haiku poet to play upon. Nevertheless, haiku in English often do include an image which enables us to see the chosen season in depth as well as detail. This said, the 'seasonless' haiku is also common in English.

Poetic Taste

Haiku writers, like other poets, accept that "the trained taste and trained ear are an indispensable part of a poets equipment" (Francis Stillman). Haiku has its own aesthetic but, like any similar set of principles, however long they have commanded respect, they are subject to fashion and change. This applies to some aspects of the aesthetic more than others.

One of the most enduring principles, established by Basho in his maturity, is that of 'lightness' (karumi). This does not mean that haiku are 'light verse', jokey little squibs, but that that we can accept all life, even its most dismal and gruesome moments, with a mixture of stoicism and serendipity.

Because haiku is modest and finds inspiration in everyday life, it prefers ordinary words and straightforward syntax (as we have said, often incomplete). It abjures words, or stylistic features such as inversions, which may seem consciously poetic.

The brevity of haiku reflects the shortness of life, but to lead even a brief life to the full we need to 'make space for ourselves' to 'stand and stare'. Thus, even as we pursue concision we use a sense of proportion. Haiku, like other forms of poetry, benefit from melody and rhythm.

Other matters that to some extent are subject to fashion as well as personal taste for the use of enjambment, titles, rhyme, punning, allusion, punctuation, and lay-out. This is not the place to go into great detail about any of these, but a few pointers to practice at the present time may be useful.

Skilful enjambment is very effective in Haiku, but cutting a 17-syllable sentence into 5-7-5, like some poor worm is not.
Titles and rhymes are eschewed, but tasteful alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are appreciated.
Puns and other kinds of ambiguity are acceptable, if the double meanings are congruous, of more or less equal interest, and do not over-elaborate the original perception. 'Pivot lines' (like the second line of this example) are a popular way of doubling the meaning;

Willow branches bend
    with the river current
    ducks drift backwards
(Martin Lucas)

Allusions were much favoured by Basho, but are riskier these days, when even well-read people do not all read the same works.
Punctuation - the minimum seems best.
Lay-out - some writers choose one particular lay-out which they find ideal and use it consistently, others choose one of a variety of lay-outs to try to reinforce the mood or movement of the poem.

Sense of Proportion and Appropriate use of Form

Form is important in haiku, but it depends on much more than a simple pattern of syllables. Even if it were true that all Japanese haiku were composed in 17, the difference between Japanese and English notions of what is a syllable makes it invalid to apply the same formula to haiku in both languages. Also, differences between English and Japanese grammar mean English can often carry the same amount of information in fewer syllables. Using 17 syllables will sometimes result in an overload of information. The scope for ambiguity is also different in the two languages. Finally, English is a stress-timed language which Japanese is not.

A large number of poets writing haiku in English, possibly the majority, feel that the haiku length of less than 17 syllables is 'natural', 'sounds right', and is 'enough for the purpose'. They may also try to distribute strong beats in a 2-3-2 or 2-2-2 pattern, while taking care to avoid a too regular, jingly iambic pattern. Their method is to listen with the 'poetic ear' for an effective short utterance that catches the 'haiku moment' without any redundancy.

Haiku written in 5-7-5 syllables are sometimes referred to as being in 'strict form'. Haiku that depart radically from 5-7-5 are often called 'free form', though one might well prefer the less licentious-sounding terms 'flexible style' or 'organic style', where "form is reinvented for each new poem/experience" (Mel McClellan).

edges the cats ear
with silver
(Susan Rowley)

For the brave quester after minimalism who take the view that "haiku is poetry tending towards silence" (Martin Lucas), concision is one of the ultimate challenges:

(Martin Lucas)

Whatever number of syllables they may choose to employ, most haiku poets arrange their poems in three lines, probably with the middle line longer than the other two. A few writers, regularly or occasionally, use 4, 2 or even 1 line, and may exceed 17 syllables. Writing a haiku in one line may add to the ways we can read it;

my head in the clouds in the lake
(Ruby Spriggs)

Although the four-line form "tends to reduce the sense of compactness and tension inherent in the Japanese verse form" (Makoto Ueda), a few writers can use it very skilfully:

Further down the cobble beach,
The face of another
Loses its copper glow

The best haiku commonly have a more or less obvious caesura at the end of the first or second line (exceptionally, in mid-line somewhere). Like the Japanese, we feel a pleasant sensation of 'balance despite imbalance', or of 'golden section', when two lines are pitted against one, or one against two. A caesura may be marked by punctuation, such as a dash. However, haiku as one continuous sentence are also common, as well as other rhetorical arrangements.


A senryu is identical in shape to haiku, but it lacks the season word and concentrates on human nature.

Whereas haiku avoid preaching, senryu are essentially moralistic, but most senryu resemble parables more than aphorisms or proverbs. They are pointed in a way that haiku are not, and well designed to puncture pomposity, yet they are not reduced easily to a single extractable moral. They provoke instant recognition ('I know someone just like that!'), but even though the target is some individual's foible, the aim is not to ostracise, rather - with humanity - to identify those absurdities that all human flesh is heir to, and accept these with an amused shrug.

In the West, we now see the development of a more serious, caring type of senryu, at 'the cutting edge'. These may hint at some form of commitment, but are too understated to be labelled propaganda. They exemplify an issue for consideration:

the pork chops
shaped like Africa
(Marco Fratelli)
custody battle
a bodyguard lifts the child
to see the snow
(Dee Evetts)

At the present day, senryu and haiku tend to enjoy equal esteem in the West and are not always clearly distinguishable.

In Conclusion...

Many writers of haiku respect the Japanese artistic dictum, "Learn the rules and then throw away the rule book". Beginners have often found it beneficial to gain some mastery of 'strict' form before venturing into 'free' or 'organic' form.

The Basho scholar Makoto Ueda predicts the future development of haiku and senryu: "As more and more western poets write haiku or haiku-like poems in their languages, Basho's influence on them through the haiku form will become diluted, often to the extent that it will disappear from the poetry. That is what is expected; in fact, that is precisely what Basho wished for. He always encouraged his students to cultivate their individual talents rather than to follow him with blind faith."

Waning Moon Press thanks the British Haiku Society for permission to publish this paper on the web.

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