Remarks on Haiku

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“Japanese haiku have been traditionally composed in 5-7-5 syllables. When poets started writing English haiku in the 1950’s, they adopted this 5-7-5 form, thinking it created a similar condition for English-language haiku. This style is what is generally considered “traditional” English haiku.

Over the years, however, most haiku poets in North America have become aware that 17 English syllables convey a great deal more information than 17 Japanese syllables, and have come to write haiku in fewer syllables, most often in three segments that follow a short-long-short pattern without a rigid structure. This style is called by some “free-form” haiku. In this essay, I will discuss the linguistic circumstances that necessitate shorter English haiku to be more loosely structured than Japanese haiku.”

Keiko Imaoka, “Forms in English Haiku,” (Sangeet’s Haiku and Poetry Corner, 1995).


“If we have no interest in using haiku as a spiritual practice, it is unnecessary to count syllables at all. We could, for instance, write a haiku in any form — one line, four, or seventeen — and include the season or not as we pleased. But I doubt we could take much long-term satisfaction from this kind of haiku. I doubt if haiku would endure beyond a few decades in America if it were practiced in this way.

Because haiku is so subtle, it is necessary to have some definite form. Otherwise, beginners will have no place to start, and experts will soon forget their beginner’s mind in the obsession over where to break the line. Already there are too many experts of this kind.”

Clark Strand, Seeds from a Birch Tree (New York: Hyperion, 1997), 26.


“. . . forcing the fixed form of Japanese haiku and accompanying techniques on other languages is nonsense.”

From Section 4 of the Matsuyama Declaration, a proposal for the Shiki Masaoka International Haiku Research Center, prepared by a group of internationally-known haiku poets and scholars.


“The Yuki Teikei Haiku Society of the United States and Canada was founded in San Jose, California, in 1975 by Mr. Kiyoshi Tokutomi and Mrs. Kiyoko Tokutomi. The purpose of the founders was to nourish and foster the art of writing Haiku in English using the traditional guidelines developed by haiku poets in Japan, where haiku originated. As explained by Mrs. Tokutomi, in Japanese “Yu” means “having”, “Ki” means “season”, “Tei” means formal”, and “Kei” means “pattern”. Therefore in the founders’ view, “yuki teikei” haiku with a season word and in the three-line 5-7-5 pattern of syllables are the proper rendering of the haiku form in English. “

From the “About” section of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Web site.

A haiku does not express ideas…

“A haiku does not express ideas, but puts forward images reflecting emotions.”

D.T. Suzuki

Direct Experience

“I have written in the conviction that the best haiku are created from direct and immediate experience with nature, and that this intuitive experience can be expressed in any language. In essence, I regard haiku as fundamentally existential and experiential, rather than literary.”

J.W. Hackett, The Way of Haiku (Tokyo: Japan Publications Inc., 1969), ix. See also the web site that is devoted to his work: The Haiku and Zen World of James W. Hackett.


“13. Haiku isn’t dreamed up. Haiku comes from direct experience— a place, a time, an impression, an insight that the poet actually experiences. The true-to-life sincerity of haiku is called makoto.”

Lorraine Ellis Harr, from one version of her famous “Guidelines for Dragonfly: East/West Haiku Quarterly.” Harr was the editor of Dragonfly from 1972 to 1984.


“One of the widespread beliefs in North America is that haiku should be based upon one’s own direct experience, that it must derive from one’s own observations, particularly of nature. But it is important to remember that this is basically a modern view of haiku, the result, in part, of nineteenth century European realism, which had an impact on modern Japanese haiku and then was re-imported back to the West as something very Japanese. Basho, who wrote in the seventeenth century, would have not made such a distinction between direct personal experience and the imaginary, nor would he have placed higher value on fact over fiction.”

Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment,” (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter Spring 2000), 48. See an online version of this article.

Metaphor in Haiku

“Metaphor is always an interference of the haiku poet. His aim is to render the object so that it appears in its own unique self, without reference to something other than itself.”

Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Rutland: Charles E Tuttle Company, 1978), 49-51.


“10. Haiku isn’t figurative language. It typically avoids figurative devices like similes, metaphors, and personification. These artificial devices attempt to humanize life. Try instead to naturalize man. Symbols, however, do exist in nature. Cherry blossoms, with their multitude of fragile petals lasting only three days, represent of themselves the brevity and beauty of life. Let an object speak for itself instead of superimposing a value on it.”

Lorraine Ellis Harr, from one version of her famous “Guidelines for Dragonfly: East/West Haiku Quarterly.” Harr was the editor of Dragonfly from 1972 to 1984.


“Another rule of North American haiku that Basho would probably find discomforting is the idea that haiku eschews metaphor and allegory. North American haiku handbooks and magazines stress that haiku should be concrete, that it should be about the thing itself. The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B, as in simile or metaphor; instead the poet concentrates on the object itself. . . . However, many of Basho’s haiku use metaphor and allegory, and in fact this is probably one of the most important aspects of his poetry.”

Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment,” (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter Spring 2000), 54. See an online version of this article.


“While poetic devices can increase the depth and power of individual haiku, it is also true that the use of overt simile or metaphor can have a limiting rather than expanding effect. In my own experience, the poems that have the greatest depth are those that operate successfully on the literal level as well as being potentially metaphorical. This more subtle kind of metaphor has been discussed by Paul O. Williams in a talk titled, “The Question of Metaphor in Haiku” presented at the Haiku North America Conference in [1991], and published for the first time in his new book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Press Here, 2000). In his talk, Williams coins the term “unresolved metaphor” to characterize the kind of subtle metaphoric suggestion that he finds most effective in haiku.”

Lee Gurga, “Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku,” (Modern Haiku, XXXI:3, Fall 2000), 68. See also an online version of this article.

Nature and Haiku

“The movement from a special attention toward non-human nature to some kind of union with that nature is a central facet of Japanese culture and is derived from Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. This movement from attention to union at the heart of the haiku tradition is for the most part alien to Western culture. This point was recently addressed by Sono Uchida, President of the Haiku International Association.

‘Haiku has also developed as a poem which expresses deep feelings for nature, including human beings. This follows the traditional Japanese idea that man is part of the natural world, and should live in harmony with it. This differs considerably from the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as being independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of nature.’ ”

Bruce Ross, Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1993), xii.


“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Definitions Committee, Haiku Society of America. See Official Haiku Definitions and Related Terms from the Haiku Society of America (revised in 2004).


“One consequence of a narrower definition of haiku is that English-language anthologies of haiku are overwhelmingly set in country or natural settings even though ninety percent of the haiku poets actually live in urban environments. “

Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment,” (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter Spring 2000), 61. See an online version of this article.


“…the problem lies not so much with dogmatic or opinionated editors, nor with established rules or guidelines, but rather with something inconveniently amorphous and much harder to influence: a consensus or status quo, a climate that is not conducive to the expression of the urban experience in haiku.”

Dee Evetts, “The Conscious Eye: On the Urban Experience” (Frogpond, XXVII:I: 2004), 14.


“And of course haiku are not just nature poems. There are lots of trees, clouds, wind, snow, and rain in mine, if that is what defines a nature poem. But there are other things in them such as cups of coffee, daughters, famous men, blank forms, soup, dentists, and closets. But even in the ones that look like a nature poem there is us. As far as the materials of the haiku go and its subject matter, all of creation is legitimate.”

Gary Hotham, from his article, Why Haiku? Hotham is the author of Breath Marks: Haiku to Read in the Dark (Canon Press, Moscow, Idaho, 1999).

See also Haiku Seasons.

Speculations by Robert Spiess

Speculations, by Robert Spiess, selected by Paul David Mena. See also A Year’s Speculations on Haiku (Modern Haiku Press, 1995).

Why Haiku?

“Haiku happen all of the time, wherever there are people ‘in touch’ with the world of their senses, and with their own feeling response to it.”

William J. Higginson, with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1985), 4.


“If it is true that the art of poetry consists in saying important things with the fewest possible words, then haiku has a just place in world literature. The limitation of syllables assures terseness and concision, and the range of association in the finest examples is at times astonishing. It has the added advantage of being accessible: a seasonal reference, direct or indirect; the simplest words, chiefly the names of things in dynamic relationships; and familiar themes make it understandable to most, on one level, at least. ”

Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, Zen Poetry, Let the Spring Breeze Enter, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), xxxvii.


“A number of Japanese critics sympathetic to the spread of haiku among other nations still hesitate to say that Westerners are writing genuine haiku. Some tend to call it “haiku,” always with quotation marks. In terms of the sharpness of seasonal definitions, the presence of traditions and certain religious attitudes, and perhaps in the echoes of old haiku in new, they are surely correct. They would know. But in terms of the vitality of the form in expressing haiku memory, and making haiku perceptions in the present, the form seems universal.”

Paul O. Williams, The Nick of Time, Essays on Haiku Aesthetics (Foster City: Press Here, 2001), 37-38. His essay “Haiku Memory” was originally published in Ko, Spring Summer 1989.


“That Western texts might find poetic forms derived from non-Western traditions—if that’s part of what appears assertive about them—doesn’t really feel so unnatural to me, for it reflects my belief in the interconnectedness of all literatures at all times, a belief, by the way, I hold very dear.”

Sherod Santos, in an interview conducted by Bryan Narendorf, orginally from Meridian Fall/Winter 2005, republished by Poetry Daily. In his book of translations, Greek Lyric Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2005), Santos translates some ancient Greek verse fragments as haiku.

Wordless Poem

“When I first read Alan Watt’s characterization of haiku as “the wordless poem,” I thought it was because a haiku had so few words, but now I believe it goes deeper than that (whether Watts intended it so or not). Haiku, for the reader, is wordless because those few words are invisible. We as readers look right through them. There is nothing between us and the moment.”

Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology, Third Edition (New York: Norton, 2000), xxix.

Zen and the Haiku Moment

“Haiku is the apprehension of a thing by a realization of our own original and essential unity with it.”

R.H. Blyth, History of Haiku (Japan: Hokuseido Press, 1963), 2, vii.


“As applied to haiku poetry, ‘That Art Thou’ (or ‘spiritual interpretation’) refers to a sense of identity intuited between poet and subject. Basho was influenced by this ancient spiritual principle and urged its use in creating haiku poetry. Zen interpenetration is, in a very real sense, the consummation of the haiku experience . . . .”

James W. Hackett, one of the founders of the haiku tradition in English. From his Introduction to That Art Thou: A Spiritual Way of Haiku, a manuscript in progress as of March 2005. Selections from this manuscript are available on Web site that is devoted to Hackett’s work: The Haiku and Zen World of James W. Hackett.


“The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future—and thus a true haiku is vitally important because it is a moment of total and genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.”

Robert Spiess, former editor of Modern Haiku. From New and Selected Speculations on Haiku (Madison: Modern Haiku Press, 1988), 10.


“A haiku does not simply portray mere nature. It reveals the universal importance of each particular in nature as it burgeons forth and relates to other particulars in a given moment.”

Bruce Ross, Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1993), xiv.


“In Zen Buddhism there is a great enlightenment called satori, sought through many years of disciplined meditation. There are also many little flashes of enlightenment, called kensho, which are intense forms of those everyday noticings that surprise us or please us because they seem to reveal a truth, or to be exemplary, or to connect us again, momentarily, with the sense of awe. Haiku is a momentary, condensed poetic form and its special quality is that it is perfectly adapted to give the reader that little instant of kensho insight. Basho developed the haiku form so that each haiku became a little burst of awakening. It is this that is the essence of haiku, not its number of syllables.

George Marsh, “Haiku and Zen,” an article in the reference section of the web site, “in the moonlight a worm . . . . ” See the online version of this article.


“Hokku and haiku have been written to congratulate, to praise, to describe, to express gratitude, wit, cleverness, disappointment, resentment, or what have you, but rarely enlightenment.”

Hiroaki Sato, One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English (New
York: Weatherhill, 1983).


“HS: I’m not saying that [the haiku moment] is not haiku, but it’s only one part of it. I’m not saying that the Zen inspired model is not haiku, because that would be a misunderstanding. It’s fine, but it’s not necessarily the essence. . . . I guess my own motive was that I saw these American scholars looking at Japanese culture that way. That was a serious misunderstanding. This was something that had been imported and was then being reimposed on Japan. To me, that was unbearable.”

Haruo Shirane, from an interview entitled “The Shirane Tapes” (Blithe Spirit, Vol 11: 4, December 2001). See the section entitled “The Haiku Moment” in an online version of this interview.


“Another of Shirane’s criticisms of Western haiku hinges on what he describes as the two fundamental levels that haiku operate on. The scenic level is the horizontal axis and the vertical axis is the deeper connection to what he calls cultural memory, a larger body of associations that the larger community can identify with. It’s not so that the emphasis on the moment in Western haiku deprives it of being able to work on both horizontal and vertical axes. It is precisely because the poem is in the moment that the communication is freed up to move it beyond the personal.

In the West at the beginning of the 21st century, where the sense of community is so fragmented, haiku rely on a kind of archetypal transference to evoke an experience, feeling or image that can be shared with writer and reader being essentially interchangeable. As in Cor van den Heuvel’s

hot night
turning the pillow
to the cool side

which unites us in our restlessness. Archetypal everyday activity is the contemporary Western equivalent of Shirane’s concept of ‘cultural memory’. Any failure has more to do with our lack of discrimination in what we publish, than the failure of the model.”

Brian Tasker, “Staying with the Moment—Our Western Haiku Tradition” (World Haiku Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1: May 2001).


“Haiku not only give us moments from the writer’s experience, but go on to give us moments of our own. The central act of haiku is letting an object or event touch us, and then sharing it with another. If we are the writer, we share it with the reader. If we read a haiku, we share that moment, or one like it, with the writer.”

William J. Higginson, with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1985), 6.


“People forget years and remember moments.”

Ann Beattie, American fiction writer.


“Nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

John Keats, in a letter to a friend.


“Out of a hundred years a few minutes were made that stayed with me, not a hundred years.” 

From Voices by Antonio Porchia, translated by W.S. Merwin 


See also Haiku Zen.