A Challenge to try Fixed-form Haiku

by J Zimmerman

A major benefit to a poem attempting a fixed form in writing haiku is that inspiration can arise from working with boundaries. As Twyla Tharp advises in The Creative Habit:

Giving yourself a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way. 1

Similarly, Liz Lerman’s insight into the value of ‘limitation’: 2

Think inside the box: Let limitation spark inspiration. 3

Tharp and Lerman each advocate for structure’s potential as a partner in creativity. Their advice is relevant to haiku poets working with a ‘handicap’ or ‘limitation’ of fixed form. Attempting to write well in fixed form can give you the chance to be ‘Rattling around in other people’s universes’ and discovering ‘unexpected connections, unexpected juxtapositions’.

Another benefit of form is that it can be ‘an integral part of haiku, supporting, reinforcing and amplifying meaning’ as Patricia J Machmiller advocates in her essay ‘Jewel in the Crown: How Form Deepens Meaning in English-language Haiku’. She starts with the traditional 5-7-5 syllable form. Her first example shows Deborah P Kolodji’s haiku about a ‘confinement … reinforced by the feeling that the words themselves are being confined by the form’. Discussing a poem of her own, Machmiller comments how she uses a line break ‘forced by the form’ as an opportunity to divide the word ‘barest’ into ‘bare-est’ as a ‘physical representation of an abstract idea’ of an edge or cusp in time that the poem embodies. 4

Machmiller later gives examples by J W Hackett, Richard Wright and others to illustrate a further aspect of the 5-7-5 syllable form: ‘The grace and balance of this form [can] give the poem a feeling of formality that enhances a meditative or philosophical quality.’

In light of such advice, the conscious writing of haiku in form might enhance a poet’s writing practice. Rather than dismissing fixed form, we can benefit from exploring it through some of the workshop techniques below.

A side benefit of strengthening one’s haiku muscles by using form is a growth of ability to observe rules and follow them accurately. This could help with contest submission chances where fixed forms are required. When I co-ordinated the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s 2013 Tokutomi fixed-form haiku contest, I discarded a quarter of all submitted poems because they failed to meet the contest rules. 5 The tools below might help a poet’s work survive such screening.

Exercises from a Fixed-form Workshop

In 2017 I led 20 poets in a fixed-form workshop. We explored exercises designed to help create haiku suitable for the Tokutomi contest, whose rules require each entry to have a 5-7-5 syllable count and a single kigo (season word) taken from a short contest-prescribed list. 6

Below are the four exercises, some illustrated by contest winners. The first exercise is an open-ended discussion. While this can be done solo, the 20 poets in our workshop benefited from each other’s mullings and insights. Readers are encouraged to reach out to other poets likewise.

The rest of the exercises are times writings. A time limit nudges the poet to keep the hand moving without pausing for internal criticism or worry (see Natalie Goldberg among many 7). Internal concerns often arise from dwelling on imagined past and future failures. You can potentially overcome such ideas by staying in the present, moving your pen over the page to write for a finite time. Another concern might arise from the need to do things without making a mistake. Conquer that by realizing that there is no wrong way to do a timed writing: Simply write any words for the given time. Your goal is to produce quantity. It is irrelevant that later you might find it all banal or bizarre or radiant with rubies.

Before the exercises, we warmed up with self-introductions during which participants who had placed in past contests read their haiku and commented on their inspiration. Winning poems tend to show strong and original imagery. Haiku with 17 English syllables are spacious. Many poets use this room to juxtapose images often in comparison or contrast. Other successful haiku enter deeply into a single rich experience such as

drying persimmons –
this deepening of color
so deliberate

Alison Woolpert (2003, Second)

Woolpert says this visual and tactile poem arose from her experience of drying whole, peeled persimmons that she dangled from their stems in a window for several weeks. Its terrific sounds, including the ‘d’ in each line, help the poem feel good in the mouth, like persimmons.

Exercise 1: Emotional Response

The first exercise is to limit the topics to a few words and then to recognise emotional responses to each of them. You might select from what you see, hear, touch and smell. Alternatively, you might self-assign intriguing topics from memory (such as the comfort foods of mom and pop’s home cooking) or from the day’s news (such as the distress of world politics). From about a dozen kigo or topics, select one or two that intrigue you. What emotional response does each arouse? Joy? Curiosity? Poignancy?

In the workshop, its orientation to the Tokutomi Contest let me use the contest kigo as a ready-made list. For 2017 the kigo included tadpole (a spring kigo that aroused smiles and memories of childhood), flea (a summer kigo with a pronounced ‘yuck’ factor for many participants), and harvested fields (an autumn kigo that evoked in some the satisfaction and joy of harvest time and in others a wistful sense of completion and shutting down). We moved through the kigo and shared our various responses.

Exercise 2: Build a One-line Phrase in Two Minutes

The second exercise is to build a line of the length required by the format. Do this by adding syllables to any kigo or topic you selected above. With a time limit of 2 minutes make as many 5-syllable and 7-syllable phrases as you can.

An example of a 5-syallble phrase from the second-place winner of the 2016 contest is Ferris Gilli’s augmentation of a contest kigo ‘dragonfly’ to form her closing 5-syllable line:

of dragonfly wings 8,9

An example of a 7-syllable phrase is from the third-placed haiku in the 2013 contest is by Roberta Beary who augmented the kigo ‘grasshopper’ to

faint voice of a grasshopper 10

In the workshops 2 minutes participants constructed as many and varied phrases as they liked.

Exercise 3: Juxtapose Images in Three Minutes

Juxtaposition has long been a powerful tool for enriching poetry, whether using the techniques of word link and content link or more subtle links such as ‘transference, reverberation, scent, or status’. 11 When you try this third exercise, select one of the phrases you created in the second exercise and set a new image beside it. Then, write a different image to accompany your chosen phrase. When you wish, choose another of those phrases and add a variety of images to pair it. Continue until you have created as many pairs as possible within 3 minutes.

Note that this exercise does not have the goal of writing a complete haiku. The focus is on the association of images to create many varied juxtapositions. As a sub-goal for the 5-7-5 syllable form, try to make lines of 5 and 7 syllables.

While the technique of comparison (allowing the parts to augment and reinforce each other) is widely used, for this exercise try something less common by thinking in terms of contrasts (offering phrases in opposition). Interesting contrasts include size and distance and origin, such as these examples in the 2016 Tokutomi Contest’s Honourable Mentions Meik Blottenberger juxtaposed ‘dragonfly’ with ‘spin of the earth’ and Phillip Kennedy juxtaposed ‘Orion’ with ‘short-wave radio’.

The following delicate and poignant First-place winner in the 2016 contest displays great contrasts of abundance and paucity and of beginnings and endings:

flowering dogwood –
mother’s belongings all fit
into one suitcase

Priscilla Lignori 12

In telling how she came to write this well-received haiku, Lignori writes: ‘My mother passed away last year at the time when Japan’s flowering trees were coming into full bloom. During her last few years, my mother lived in a nursing home in the Bronx where few of her belongings were allowed to come with her … I came up with a number of other flowering dogwood haiku … when I finally was ready to complete the batch to send, I went over the kigo again, and when I thought of the flowering dogwoods and the abundance of blossoms they held, my mother’s image came to mind and how all her belongings fit into one suitcase. It was as simple as that. That the dogwood can represent renewal and new beginnings had not consciously occurred to me at the time, just the contrast.’ 13

I invited poets in my workshop to juxtapose images of contrast. They could emulate the examples of size or shape or departure/arrival or abundance/scarcity. Or they could find new contrasts such as darkness/brightness. After 3 minutes, the variety of the shared juxtapositions was considerable. They were often written in lines of 5 and 7 syllables, and thus were two-thirds of the way to a complete haiku but without the pressure to create one yet.

Exercise 4: A Three-Minute Haiku ‘Dash to the Kigo’ in the Last Line

The fourth exercise is to construct a complete haiku (at last!), with the proviso that the kigo does not appear until the final line. A closing kigo allows the reader freedom to experience the poem before alighting on the season. This is in contrast with an opening kigo, which is much more common 14 and which might settle the reader too soon in time and space and emotion.

Given that your goal is to conclude with a line that includes a kigo, look at the results of the second exercise for your possible third line. Then look at the third exercise, where you created juxtapositions. Develop the non-kigo part of your juxtaposition into the first (5 syllable) and second (7 syllable) lines.

To keep the process moving if you get stuck in the first line, introduce a non-visual sense such as a sound (a roar or a rustle, a hiss or a crackle or a creak). If you get stuck in the second line, you might use a consonant or vowel from the first line to bring to mind some apt words with the sound.

Once you have your complete haiku, reconsider the final line. Substitute in turn each of the other 5 syllable phrases you created in the second exercise. You might find that you created a haiku where a different candidate could be more successful.

Usually you work alone to complete such an exercise. However, in the workshop, I asked people to write an opening line and then pass it to the poet on their left in our circle. The next poet wrote the second line and passed the resulting two lines to their left. The third poet wrote the final line. This relieved each poet of creating a complete poem, but allowed each to have the experience of writing 3 separate lines in 3 different poems. The results could delight and surprise the participants, as with:

Yosemite road                                                                              Karina M Young
all the way to Glacier Point                                                      Alison Woolpert
a long line of fleas                                                                      Dyana Basist

This haiku leverages the third exercise by including a contrast of size (the spaciousness of Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley versus the minuteness of fleas no matter how long their line). The quickly written poem is in the 5-7-5 syllable form, as were many of the other workshop haiku, supported by the participants’ intentions to explore the 5-7-5 syllable form and their doing so in the earlier exercises.

When you try this exercise solo, if your poem is unsatisfactory (perhaps lacking in surprise), at least you have a failed haiku that you might later resuscitate. In this context, Jane Reichhold’s rule from her essay ‘Haiku Rules that have Come and Gone’ is consoling:

‘Write down every haiku that comes to you even the bad ones. [They] may inspire the next one which will surely be better.’ 15

Inspiration for something better might come immediately if you look at your kigo list at hand or at your preferred sajiki. Find a kigo that has the resonance you want and substitute it into the last line. If the syllable count does not hit the target of 5 syllables you can return to the second exercise for 2 minutes to develop some appropriate-length phrases; then substitute the one you prefer.

Complete Haiku

When I quoted the haiku phrase in the workshop, participants immediately asked for the full poem so they could hear how a referenced phrase contributed to haiku success. Therefore I include the full haiku here.

Ferris Gilli’s Second-place winner of the 2016 contest:

river baptism
the brief cellophane rustle
of dragonfly wings

Roberta Beary’s Third-place winner of the 2013 contest:

open cellar door
faint voice of a grasshopper
lulls baby to sleep

Meik Blottenberger’s 2016 Honourable Mention:

blue-green dragonfly
racing against its shadow
how slow the earth spins

Phillip Kennedy’s:

hisses and crackles
on the short-wave radio
Orion aloft

Adaptation of Exercises to Other Forms

The exercises for the 5-7-5 fixed-form haiku workshop can be easily adapted for those who prefer a different form. To warm up, poets wanting a different opinion could prime their writing pumps by reading a book, journal, or anthology by haiku poets writing in a preferred style.

For exercise 1 (emotional response), instead of using a contest list, choose season words or non-seasonal topics from what you experience on a walk, whether in a craggy wilderness, on a suburban sidewalk, or in a high-decibel urban centre. A homebound poet can collect words and topics from journals, books, the web, newspapers, radio or TV. Once a list of a dozen items is assembled, take the time to acknowledge your emotional response to each of them. If the emotional responses are all similar, you might gain a variety by consciously selecting additional topics that invoke other emotions.

For exercise 2 (build a one-line phrase), if you prefer to try a different fixed form than a 5-7-5 format, consider Macmiller’s modified traditional (syllabic) form with a 4-6-4 syllable or 3-5-3 syllable format. For example, for a 4-6-4 form, you would add syllables to make 4-syllable or 6-syllable lines.

You might also explore the ‘modified modern’ (accented)’ form, which ‘counts accents or stresses: 2 stresses in the first line, 3 in the second, and 3 in the third’. 16 If so you would create phrases that have 2 stresses or 3. For a free verse haiku, you would probably let the material dictate the size of each phrase, which will still be brief, perhaps only one or two words. Remember to do this as a timed exercise.

For exercise 3 (juxtapose images), irrespective of your target form, try to create the contrasts (offering phrases in opposition) if you usually create comparisons (allowing the parts to augment and reinforce each other). Create comparisons if you usually create contrasts. Again, this is a timed exercise.

For exercise 4 (dash to completion), when you write outside a workshop you usually create each haiku alone. With a 3-minute time limit, you could try your material in different forms. In 30 minutes you could even create 10 new haiku, one of which will hopefully surprise and impress you.


Fixed form can be a new way to approach and augment the presentation of your preferred material. Poets that have not worked with form for years, perhaps not since high school,  have no doubt developed many haiku skills since then. You can potentially benefit from applying those skills within the boundaries of fixed form haiku, leveraging opportunities to think in new and different ways. Fixed form is challenging but rewarding. I encourage you to revisit it.

Participants in the workshop were very enthusiastic about having the fixed form process broken down into small and manageable steps. Many of them planned to create haiku of sufficient calibre to enter into the Tokutomi Contest. I look forward to seeing their names in contest results.


1: Tharp, Twyla ‘The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life’. (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

2: Lerman, Liz ‘Seven Ways to be Creative’ (2008). Accessed July 1, 2017.

3: Lerman, Liz ‘Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer’. (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), pp239.

4: maple on the edge
of the garden at the bare-
est edge of turning

Patricia J Machmiller, Modern Haiku 33.1 (2002)

5: Zimmerman, J ‘When the Moon Can Stand Alone: Single Kigo and the Tokutomi Contest’ from ‘Above the Clouds: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society Members Anthology, 2013).

6: Tokutomi Contest, accessed July 1, 2017.

7: Goldberg, Natalie ‘Writing Down the Bones’ (Shambhala, 1986).

8: Gilli, Ferris, 2016 Tokutomi Contest results. Accessed July 1, 2017.

9: Zimmerman, J ‘Inspiration by Past Winners of the Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest’, Geppo 42.1 (2017).

10: Beary, Roberta, 2013 Tokutomi Contest results. Accessed July 1, 2017.

11: Shirane, Haruo ‘The Art of Juxtapositon: Cutting and Joining’, Chapter 4 in ‘Traces of Dreams’ (1998), particularly pp85.

12: Lignori, Priscilla, 2016 Tokutomi Contest results. Accessed July 1, 2017.

13: Lignori, Priscilla, personal email Jan 28, 2017.

14: I counted that in the 10 years from 2007-2016 about 60% of Tokutomi Contest prizewinning haiku (as reported at the website) placed the kigo in the first line. Accessed July 1, 2017.

15: Reichhold, Jane ‘Haiku Rules that Have Come and Gone; Take your Pick’. Accessed July 1, 2017.

16: Machmiller, Patricia J ibid. pp101

Editor’s note: This essay was first published in Modern Haiku 49.2 (2018) and appears here with the author’s permission.

J. Zimmerman earned her doctorate from the University of Oxford (UK) through her research on solid-state physics with applications to archaeology. Her post-doc work was on the moon rocks at Washington University (USA). She was featured in the 2013 New Resonance haiku anthology and was the first Poet in Residence for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (2014). She came to haikai after three decades of being published as a lyric poet and being awarded the Mary Lonnberg Smith Poetry Prize. As well as reviewing books, she writes articles on Japanese poetry forms. J. Zimmerman is an active member of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society.