English Haiku: A Composite View

by David Cobb

Haiku originated in Japan, but latterly has become popular in an increasing number of languages and countries. Yet virtually everywhere where haiku has established itself – and that includes Japan itself – you will find people hallmark it differently. Some see haiku mainly as a kind of poetry, a literary phenomenon. For others, it is a source of philosophical inspiration and in some way helpful to their chosen lifestyle, possibly inspired by Zen. For others still, it is the specific genius of Japanese art that attracts. Readers/writers of haiku often share something of all three viewpoints.

Followers of haiku also debate whether the Japanese haiku experience (defined in socio-cultural, literary, linguistic and environmental terms) is too exotic to be assimilated by the West, and they argue about the validity of supposed Japanese ‘rules’ on how to make haiku – even though there has never been unanimity in Japan itself about such principles, and the view of haiku available to most people in the West is one clouded by translation and the mind-sets of those who did the translating.

These are the reasons why it is unlikely, either now or at any time in the future, that there will ever be an absolute consensus of what haiku means to the informed person.

This lack of a consensus has not deterred Western writers, though. They have used such knowledge as they had and their own artistic intuitions, so that after 40 years one may talk of Western traditions and Western styles which have a certain validity independent of Japanese haiku. Some might wish to make a case for the relevance to haiku of the ‘six common principles’ of the Imagist poetry school (see Appendix).

In the West, the following attributes are looked for to recognise and judge haiku, but they will vary in their significance according to the person’s standpoint and interests:

  • Spirit
  • Presence
  • Accepted writing conventions
  • Choice of appropriate subject matter
  • Poetic taste, sense of proportion, structure.


The argument about what makes a haiku has shifted largely from form to spirit. But there is still much discussion about what that ‘spirit’ is.

The more traditional view is that the haiku poet, by an act of surrender, becomes aware of things impacting on his consciousness and is enabled to present them with heightened, selective objectivity. These observations occur in the course of actual, ordinary life and are recorded with an effort to efface the self.

People (particularly those who follow Zen) are prone to interpret these observations as ‘moments’ of satori (that is, enlightenment, when the observer recognises life for what it is.) The corollary of this, for the Zennist, is that only actual experiences qualify as matter for haiku, and these should not be modified to serve artistic ends.

Dee Evetts articulates a different view: “For many years I held the view that a haiku poet was in some way cheating if he/she wrote poems drawing upon the writer’s imagination or fantasy rather than from real life. At first glance this looks like a clear enough distinction, yet what about the role of memory, of literature, the media? How about the combining of two separate moments, or allowing one event to suggest another – or even using imagination to modify or build upon an actual experience? My view today is that what really matters isn’t the source material or inspiration, but the degree to which the poem comes from a place of genuine feeling, not from tinkering around with ideas or ideals. This is related to the Japanese concept of makoto, often translated as ‘sincerity’, but for our purposes more usefully expressed as ‘the truth of the poet’s heart’.” In fact, some of the most inspirational Japanese haiku were imagined, e.g. Buson’s (1716-1784)

this piercing cold –
in the bedroom, I have stepped
on my dead wife’s comb

tr. Makoto Ueda

Today, there are actually ‘fringe’ groups that promote fantastic, surreal and sci-fi haiku:

This Autumn midnight
Orion’s at my window
shouting for his dog.

Carol A. Coiffait

Representatives of modern/avant-garde haiku in Japan are on record as saying that there is no such thing as ‘haiku spirit’, only the spirit, or intuition, of individual poets who have steeped themselves in haiku. There is a blanket rejection, however, of aphoristic, didactic or judgmental verses. Although the haiku form has been used to write adages and epigrams, these offend against the principle of “Show, don’t tell” which most writers of haiku adhere to, with or without modification.


When the present tense is used in haiku, as it generally is, it signifies a single observation or occurrence, not a habitual one or a generalisation; but it may nevertheless seem to have some representative quality. Some feel the present tense lends a sense of immediacy and the poet “actually being there”, even if he/she isn’t actually mentioned in the poem (as in Buson’s poem above).

Those ‘close to the consensus’ come across generalisations in Japanese haiku poetry, and don’t much like them, e.g.

the Flower Festival –
a mother’s womb is only for
temporary lodging

Buson tr. Makoto Ueda

A very few writers take the extreme view that haiku are ideally created in situ and should not be retouched; those with a strong conception of themselves as poets tend to agree that reconsideration and too much retouching can destroy the raw charm of a haiku; but in order to enhance the literary effect, a more or less indefinite process of reworking is acceptable (as it was to Bashō) providing the poet clings to the original perception.

The aim is to offer readers, drawing on their own schemata of experience, the chance to ‘feel themselves into’ the recorded observation, and (without any explicit statement of feelings by the poet) to share an emotional experience resembling that of the poet.

The desire for ‘presence’ does not preclude allusion. One of haiku’s achievements is to relate present and past (as represented by literature, legend, history), hinting at the transience of the former and the enduring quality of the latter, so that our living experience fuses in a constant paradox.

even here a child
looking for four-leaf clovers
on Culloden Moor

David Cobb

For some writers, ‘presence’ can be achieved at second-hand, via media such as TV (see Lenard D Moore’s haiku, quoted in Subject Matter, below, as a probable example.)

Accepted Writing Conventions

Concrete images, not abstract words, carry the meaning and create the emotional tension and atmosphere in haiku. Two (not so often, more) images juxtaposed in the space of a few short lines, freely associated, without any positive syntactical link, allow a possibility of comparison which can be stronger than simile.

To create or enhance such juxtaposition, the Japanese language provides the poet with an array of words (kireji) which ‘cut’ the haiku into opposing sections – 12 syllables matched with 5, usually. These words are like ‘verbalised punctuation’, generally with a hint of emotion or of attitude. “Haiku is grasped with all five senses, not by logic … in order to jump over the gap between logic and the senses, unique Japanese rhetorical techniques such as kireji and kigo (‘season word’) were invented.” (The Matsuyama Declaration, 2000) One is reminded a little of Keats’s “negative capability” and his rejection of “irritable reaching out after fact and reason”.

Juxtaposition and ‘cutting’ are of fundamental importance, and some would go so far as to argue that the ‘cut’ haiku is almost inevitably superior to one that reads like a sentence. To achieve a caesura, poets writing in English use punctuation marks (the dash is popular) or simple line-breaks without punctuation.

Ambiguity has always been a prized feature of haiku.

sound of dance music —
the last fishing boat
throbs into place

George Marsh

Using juxtaposition instead of conjunctions (such as because) opens up the possibility of different interpretations, and allows the poet to escape from imposing his own.

Adjectives are used sparingly in haiku. Any choice of attributes is more or less subjective and felt to be a bid to get the reader to agree with the writer. It ‘closes’ the transaction between poet and reader/auditor. ‘Open-endedness’ (‘the half-said thing’) is a cherished characteristic of haiku. Many of the best haiku have an unexpected ‘twist’ in the tail, ranging from outright shock to a satisfying surprise at the discovery of something one “knew all the time, but did not know one knew” (R H Blyth).

shipping oars
I hold my breath to hear
snow on the water

David Steele

Subject Matter

Traditionally, Japanese haiku have been intimately bound up with almost ritual celebration of the endless cycle of the natural seasons, specifically as they occur in Japan. This has led to a widespread belief that haiku is ‘a kind of nature poetry’, but with populations becoming more and more urbanised, industrialised and cosmopolitan, this is not a description of haiku that most practitioners of the art would now be happy with.

after the crash
the doll’s eyes
jammed open

Michael Gunton

For the Japanophile, the rather circumscribed traditional subject matter may have enduring appeal; but modern haiku has broadened out to encompass any subject in daily life, e.g. war and sex. At their best, both set their sights above ‘mere’ description to some engagement between the external world of things and the internal world of the haiku poet’s mind. The dominance of the human condition in Western literature no doubt urges us further in that direction.

caught in a storm
wearing nothing waterproof
except mascara

Janice Fixter

midday heat
soldiers on both sides
roll up their sleeves

Lenard D Moore

It is nevertheless important not to project human viewpoints and values on to things – effectively, to patronise them. For this reason, the English haiku poet is keen (even more keen, it seems, than his Japanese counterpart!) to minimise personification and anthropomorphism.

Japanese poets, in line with ancient convention, still typically include an acceptable ‘season word’ (kigo), taken from a respected almanac (saijiki), as the key image in each haiku they write. By drawing on a fund of common associations, the poet places his/her current observation in the continuous flow of Nature and Time, thus evoking a great deal that there would be no need to say explicitly, even if there were space. Recently, numerous freethinking poets in Japan have relaxed the stranglehold of the saijiki by advocating the use of ‘topic’ words or ‘keywords’ with a more vague ‘seasonal feeling’, or indeed, drawn from human affairs, with no such feeling at all. Nowadays there are many ‘seasonless haiku’ written in Japan.

In the West, opinion about the need for seasonal reference is sharply divided. There are poems with strong reference to particular moments in the natural year, some with fainter reference, and some with none at all.

Poetic Taste, Sense of Proportion, Structure

Some of the matters that influence the way a haiku poet writes, or sets a haiku down on paper, are merely taste. The Orientalist may have notions of taste which are exotic. Taste is influenced also by the house styles of various publications. Haiku is subject to ‘fashion’ as are other arts.

This is therefore an area of ‘each for their own’. Notwithstanding this, there is broad agreement among people of all viewpoints that haiku should be ‘light’ and not ostentatiously poetic. (‘Lightness’ is a reference to the last stage in the development of Bashō’s aesthetic, when he set great store by karumi. It does not mean that haiku aspires to be ‘light verse’, flippant; rather, that the haiku poet should be able to present all aspects of life, both joyous and tragic (even his own death!), in a sober, interesting, but disinterested way.) It has come in the West to also mean that the appreciation of haiku should not be demanding intellectually, but produce an instant meaning and impact on one or more of the senses.

Everyday words that come to mind naturally are favoured in haiku; anything at all ornamental risks distraction and prejudices directness. At the same time, we need to avoid cliche. Onomatopoeic words are prized. Word order is straightforward, syntax is frequently incomplete. Brevity is essential.

on the teacher’s apple —
small teeth marks

Frank Dullaghan

But brevity isn’t everything; it does not in itself make a haiku.

Those who approach haiku primarily as poetry will feel that various common techniques of English poetry (alliteration, assonance, enjambment, rhythm, melody) have a part to play, though none of these should attract too much attention to itself. Even rhyme may occasionally be used without detriment to taste, but it tends to glare. These are matters each poet is entitled to settle for him/herself, using personal taste in a pragmatic way. Titles as such are avoided – they may compromise the open-endedness and brevity, narrowing the context while lengthening the poem. However, ‘headnotes’ which establish little more than time and place of composition, or explain some esoteric background point, are considered acceptable, though not much used at the present time.

The use of simile is frequently questioned, but implied simile is not uncommon. Haiku poets can expect criticism and the need to plead a special case if they use ‘like’ or ‘as’. They must be prepared to put their hands on their hearts and say, sincerely, that there was no other way of recording the perception/experience truthfully, i.e. use of the simile had nothing to do with the poet’s vanity.

The less punctuation, the better, seems to be a general view. Experiments with lay-out are justified, but like other things, current taste rules out anything too ostentatious.

Structure is important in haiku, but in a stress-timed language like English it cannot be reduced to a simple matter of counting syllables. (In Japanese, long vowels count as two and the letter n on its own as one.)

Some regard the form of 17 syllables (divided 5-7-5) as sacrosanct, as if it had some indefinable poetic or spiritual justification, or was ordained by literary history. The fact is, the form derives from nothing more mysterious than inbred Japanese phrasing, found in statements as unpoetic as police notices and TV commercials. In Japanese, the 5-7-5 pattern is inherently mellifluous and consequently easy to remember. But even in Japan there is a growing proportion of haiku written in other than 17 syllables (usually fewer). For example, this Santōka haiku rendered into English by John Stevens counts as 12.

teppatsu no naka e mo arare

hailstones, too
enter my begging bowl

Poets writing in English have to find an equivalent that suits the natural cadences of their own tongue. (This may, on occasion, turn out to be 5-7-5 syllables.)

The majority of those who write haiku in English have come to feel that a haiku length of fewer than 17 syllables, with something like 6 or 7 beats overall, typically in three phrases with the middle line a little longer than the other two (i.e., with extra syllables and possibly an extra beat) sounds ‘natural’, ‘right’, ‘light’ and ‘enough for our purpose’. To insist on 17 syllables, willy-nilly, may result in the ‘half-said thing’ becoming the ‘too-much-said thing’.

On the other hand, some haiku poets choose to write 5-7-5 as a discipline and a challenge to do so spontaneously, while maintaining ‘lightness’.


Senryu are superficially similar to haiku, but do not employ season words or aim at seasonal feeling. They don’t make use of ‘cutting’ in the way haiku do. The tendency is towards a single observation rather than juxtaposition, and an avoidance of ambiguity. Senryu is also more detached than haiku; for this reason, use of first person is far less common.

The focus of senryu is on human behaviour – actions, rather than things. Without generalising in an overt way, they pinpoint our foibles and fallibilities in an ironic or satirical sort of way. We are shown how absurd we are all liable to be. (Blyth, quoted earlier as saying that haiku ‘tell us what we always knew but didn’t know we knew’, said that ‘senryu touch all our most sensitive spots and tell us the very things we do not wish to know’.) Although haiku may be gently humorous, senryu are characterised by a sharpness of wit that haiku avoids.

Shut up the house carefully
before you go to bed
he repeats, going off to burgle.

Jap. anon.

The fortune teller
At the fête this year
Offers therapy.

Cicely Hill

For most Japanese there is, for cultural-historical reasons, an almost unbridgeable gap between haiku and senryu. Because of our traditions in the West, this kind of compartmentalisation is unsustainable. The majority of Western writers produce haiku and senryu indiscriminately. Some would admit to finding senryu much more interesting than haiku; others might feel haiku go far deeper than senryu. The West has also taken the lead in producing a kind of hybrid – a senryu that gets under the skin, and may even, as in the following example, include the kind of seasonal reference we associate with haiku:

custody battle
a bodyguard lifts the child
to see the snow

Dee Evetts

We may say, then, that senryu and haiku enjoy equal esteem in the West and are not always clearly distinguishable.

In conclusion, ever since Bashō, who encouraged it, haiku poets have felt the need to serve an apprenticeship and, when established, perhaps then contribute to the liveliness of haiku by developing and broadening its scope, without compromising its essential characteristics, attributes and qualities. Haiku is not a fossil. It is also not a toy.

Appendix: A selection from the six ‘common principles’ of the Imagist poetry school (from the Preface to Some Imagist Poets, 1915):

  1. To use the language of common speech …
  2. To create new rhythms – as the expression of new moods – and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods …
  3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject …
  4. To present an image … We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities …
  5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
  6. … concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

Editor’s note: This essay was written for the British Haiku Society and was originally published in 2002. It appears here with the author’s permission.

David Cobb made a teaching research trip to Japan in 1977 and, with the encouragement of a local high school teacher, began to learn how to write haiku. In 1989 he helped establish the British Haiku Society, serving as secretary (1990-97) and president (1997-2002). He started the BHS newsletter and its magazine, Blithe Spirit. He has published a number of collections of haiku, haibun and other works and has received numerous international awards, the most recent being the Genjuan International Haibun Contest Grand Prix in 2020 for his haibun “Snow in Advent”. For more information see his website.