Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 4

What is true about haiku?

A moment

The intent of a haiku is to capture a moment of wonder, a time and place of intense awareness, usually one of beauty and harmony. The objective is to plunge the reader personally into the moment described. Because the moment is the core of the haiku, using the present tense is most appropriate. It also saves syllables.

Writing haiku trains us to focus on the present moment, a good practice for living in general. Hackett, in fact, considers writing haiku to be a way of life.

As mentioned above, in traditional form, haiku do not ordinarily rhyme. (See the information below on twenty syllable translations, however.) The important element is not the exact number of syllables, nor the rhyme, or lack of it, but the imagery and the “stacking” of the most powerful element towards the end. Here is an example of a more or less traditional haiku:

The winter storm:
The voice of the rushing water,
Torn by the rocks.

Buson puts us on a Japanese mountainside, looking down into a turbulent river, hearing the white water below us as it cascades down the rocky mountain ravine. We feel the mist on our faces; we smell the cold, damp air. Be careful! Grab a branch so you don’t slip and fall in!


Haiku are very compact. There is, therefore, no room for explicit description of the onlooker’s reaction. In fact, it is considered best to leave the onlooker’s emotions out of it entirely. The intent is to evoke emotions in the reader, not to describe them in the onlooker. Typically, a haiku would not resemble the following:

Nine dogwood blossoms
Dripping in the April rain–
Dang, they look pretty!

The goal of compactness also requires that the poet not try to encompass the entire subject. The objective is not to cover a topic, such as cherry blossoms, comprehensively, but to communicate an impression of a cherry blossom moment. Any extra syllables should be spent not on more information, but on improving the form or balance of the poem or putting the reader into the moment or adding nuances of implicit feeling. As in sumié, description is subordinate to suggestion.

Word choice

Proper word choice is vital in haiku. Each word must be weighed carefully: How well do the vowel and consonant sounds in the word fit the rest of the poem? Is the meaning of the word exactly right to create the impression the writer are striving for? Is an inappropriate end-of-line rhyme created? Is the word too technical or intellectual or uncommon to be right for a haiku? Is there a shorter word that is better? Is there another word that suggests the situation better (e.g., gives information on the season, place, or time of day, such as saying “twilight” instead of “sky”)? Does the word have connotations or associations that will lead the reader in the wrong direction? (bad) Or in an ambiguous, but interesting, direction? (good)

Seven Important concepts

Three important haiku concepts are surplus meaning, lightness, and ambiguity.

Surplus meaning (“yojó”) is poetic content that is implied or suggested, rather than explicitly stated. This ancient term denotes an essential concept in the critical analysis of haiku. From the earliest days of the form, Japanese haiku scholars have regarded surplus meaning as an important measure of excellence in haiku. The more yojó, the better the poem.

Lightness is a concept not easily translated. One explanation is that a poem with lightness is one where the poet doesn’t include his reaction to a nature scene but instead presents it objectively, letting the reader experience his own emotional reaction. The more explicit sentiment in the poem, the heavier it is.

Ambiguity is not used for its own sake, or to confuse the reader, but as a means to present two possible interpretations, thus drawing a comparison between elements of the poem.

There are a few other elements of haiku that should be mentioned. Some of these actually pertain more to renku than to haiku, but they have some applicability to haiku, as well. They are: fragrance, reverberation, shadow, and reflection.

Fragrance refers to a subtle resemblance or connection between elements of verses. The verses can simply imply related objects or emotions or actions or situations.

Reverberation refers to interaction between verses, where the mood, or some other property, of one group of verses reinforces another

Shadow is the use of contrasting elements in verses or groups of verses.

Reflection is the presence of similar properties in verse elements. Without necessarily using adjectives, the poet creates a connection by employing images or objects that are related in mood, shape, temperature, color, or other property.

Bashó tried to go beyond creating single, static images. Some of his poems create a “leap,” a “movement of the mind that goes and then returns” [Dohó]. This was accomplished through ambiguity that lets the reader take first one mental picture and then another as the poem is read.

1Note that Buson’s poem is 4/8/4, after translation into English.

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2 Responses to Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 4

  1. I invite you to read some of mine

  2. Pingback: Another Thought on Haiku | jguentherauthor

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