Haiku Content

by Jim Kacian

Is it too much to presume that all writers have something to say? We’ve all read things where we have wondered what the writer might possibly have in mind. Or else we might see why the author has an interest in his topic, but it is not apparent why anyone else would consider it. Nevertheless, it is useful to assume that there is a purpose to all writing, although we should also be aware that the purpose a reader might think a piece of writing has, and that which the author intends, are not necessarily the same.

If we begin with this presumption, then it follows that the writer knows what it is he or she is trying to convey, and has adopted a strategy designed to do just that. This is true for all communications, whether we are aware of it or not. Whether the author succeeds in realising his goals is a separate issue.

Take, for example, the following:

where: a pasture
when: twilight
what: frog sounds; a bucket

These raw materials are not promising, and yet in the hands of a master were used to create one of the great poems of the haiku form.

twilit pasture –
voices of frogs fill
the forgotten bucket

Ross Figgins

This brings us to another important consideration. When we choose a form we think will help us succeed in reaching our goals, we are doing more than simply selecting what is best for the material: we are also announcing a specific relationship to that material. No one attempts to squeeze the material of an epic into haiku form. There are conventions which must be present for a poem to be considered an epic. including the calling down of the Muses, a loftiness of language and subject matter, a thoroughness of treatment. It is possible to write other large-scale poems, but for it to be an epic, it must contain these elements.

Haiku is exactly the same. It is possible to write short poems that look like haiku, but unless they contain the elements which make a poem a haiku, then they are just another short poem.

What may a haiku contain? What is its range of expression? Is it capable of expressing all the truths of our times? And in this vein, what is it most, and least, effective in expressing? And, what must a haiku contain? What are the particulars which mark a poem as a haiku?

Let us begin by saying that anything we experience may be the subject of a haiku. When the Japanese masters were writing, they wrote about their environment, which was pastoral and feudalistic. Some contemporary editors have considered that these elements are the only appropriate subjects for haiku. But if Basho were alive today, would he choose not to capture a moment of significance because it was occasioned by his use of a computer, or his location in a skyscraper? Of course it is impossible to know for sure, but it seems evident that he was an innovator in every way, and would not shrink before the realities of his time. And so, should your moment include computers and skyscrapers, or any of the myriad other elements which constitute our contemporary life, do not feel that you may not include them in your haiku. To insist only on a view of life which is centuries out of date is a certain way for haiku to become moribund, and even worse, dull. Writers may choose many things, but they may not choose to be dull.

Of course, some things may seem to recommend themselves more readily to haiku, but this is due to at least two biases that we may have already formed. The first is, we already know a certain number of haiku, and if we think our haiku must be similar to those we know, we may find ourselves taking on the same kinds of subjects. Hence there is a proliferation of haiku about cherry blossoms and frogs, and while these are laudable subjects, they are not by any means exhaustive of the options we have. In fact, they may not even be part of your personal environment, and more than anything else, your haiku ought to reflect the space and time in which you live.

The second bias is a bit subtler, but perhaps even more pervasive for that. Since Basho helped redefine the form 400 years ago, certain qualities have been favoured in haiku over others — things like sabi, wabi, aware and yugen — and as a result poems which favour other qualities are not so readily published and therefore found. Again, these are laudable qualities, but they do not compose the entire range of what is admirable in haiku, nor of what haiku is capable of expressing.

And let us append one other idea here, suggested by R H Blyth and no doubt true for all the very best haiku: He once noted “. . .the true subject of a haiku is never mentioned in the haiku. It is what a haiku implies that makes it a great or worthless haiku.” And so it is:

rain-swept parking lot
 headlights of a locked car
 grow dim

Charles B. Dickson

What is left unexpressed is the true expression.

So it may be surprising to hear, but haiku is capable of containing every subject in the world, and conveying every quality and emotion. And isn’t this what we would expect of a form that has lasted so long and been so vital to so many people?

On the other hand, haiku is a small form, a vial rather than a vat. It is designed, like a vial, to hold essences, small and concentrated amounts of pure poetry. It is pointless to try to pour material which requires great elucidation, or narrative, or development, into such a form. And, since there is so little room within the constraints of a haiku, we wish also to find ways to communicate as much material as possible in the fewest words. So it is immediately useful to recognise that haiku lend themselves to the small, the momentary, the intimate. Haiku are most effective when they are used to express what is, rather than what should be. At their best, they do not put forth ideas or concepts — which may help us to define and articulate a truth, but do nothing to help us experience it directly and personally — but rather images which seek to embody intuitions. Intuition can be defined as the direct apprehension of reality without the intermediary of our logical minds — a direct knowing. Haiku seek not to explain reality, but to connect us with it.

close lightning
     the metallic taste
          in my mouth

Charles Easter

Haiku are less well equipped to convey duration or process (although you may find poems where the insight of a moment is the result of prolonged observation or action). Traditionally haiku has been considered to be the poetry of the ordinary, the small, the un- or ill-observed. Blyth ascribes this tendency to a characteristic of the Japanese people and culture, and argues that geography may well be responsible for at least some part of this. And yet, if we look at classical Japanese haiku we will find such a magnificent poem as

wild boars
are blown along —
the autumn storm


Rather than a proclivity towards the minute, it is perhaps more useful to think of the content of haiku in the way Shiki, the Japanese master who revolutionised haiku into a modern genre, describes it: Remember perspective, he advises us: larger things are large, but so are small things when viewed up close. It isn’t the nature of revelation to rank importance — all insights are equally valuable to the perceiver (if not necessarily so to the reader). Large or small makes no difference to the truth of the poem, provided it is truth. It is all a matter of perspective.

If we are free to call on any subject, and to convey any emotion, within a haiku, what must it contain to still be considered a haiku?

Haiku must contain a moment of insight. Haiku is not the only form in which such moments are essential — it might even be argued that all poetry is essentially the recording of such insights, and that this is the characteristic which unites haiku with these other forms — but without such a moment, there is no haiku. And what constitutes such a moment?

The moment of insight — termed the “ah-moment” by haiku translator and anthologist Kenneth Yasuda and a “seeing into the life of things” by Blyth — is that moment when the poet and his subject unite in a fundamental way, and he realises that he is not just part of the universe, but one and the same with it. It takes place outside of time — that is, time seems to stop in such moments — and the poet loses his sense of self into a larger sense of belonging. It is this feeling which informs the moment to make it fresh and sincere, and quite beyond ego.

After it flew
 feeling the butterfly
 still on my finger

Nelle Fertig

Basho expressed it this way:  “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one — when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural — if the object and yourself are separate — then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

Besides the moment of insight, what other elements are essential to the creation of a haiku? Haiku often has been called “nature poetry”. In a basic sense, haiku have had as their content the close observation of and revelation about nature, in the broadest sense including the range of elements, weather events, flora and fauna, and human behaviour as observed in the context of nature. In some instances the entire poem is infused with nature content, and in other cases only part of the poem evinces natural reference. In the latter instances, a kind of shorthand has been evolved which suggests, beyond its actual phrasing, the entirety of the natural phenomenon it evokes (for instance, “spring breeze” evokes the whole of spring, its tastes and smells and mists and sun). This system of shorthand is called season words, or kigo in the Japanese.

The seasons have been the underpinning subject of haiku — indeed, of all traditional Japanese poetry — for several centuries. And season words have evolved naturally from this need to include nature, with positive benefit. Their availability and codification of the natural cycle, their compression and common use, have made their use not just a rule to follow, but a shorthand which permits greater ease and breadth of expression and resonance, as well as association, throughout the corpus of haiku.

However, even in traditional circles haiku have long been written on certain subjects, imported from earlier traditional topics of poetry, which are considered to lie outside the structure provided by the natural cycle — poems primarily concerned with human behaviour such as love, religious belief, travel and so on. These are regarded no less as haiku, but because haiku are generally preserved by their appearance in anthologies and saijiki (listings of topics and words, with (often copious) illustrative examples, indicating the topics for use in haiku composition), which are arranged by season, such works are more difficult to find and retain. In fact, since such poems are difficult to place in saijiki, it was at first merely a matter of inconvenience for the editors, but over time, since examples of non-season word haiku were essentially neglected, it came to regarded that such poems belonged outside the tradition, and finally that they were evidence of poor crafting. And so what was an editorial difficulty became a traditional mandate.

Things have changed over the past 100 years. For one thing, the life of the average Japanese (and many others as well) is far less rural than it was when haiku was finding its classical form. And despite an “official” policy which still advocates their use, and the fact that the great preponderance of haiku being written today still use them, season words are no longer considered essential to haiku, in Japan or elsewhere. Likewise, haiku still take nature as their primary content, but the definition of nature is much broader than was the case even 50 years ago. Today we might discover Japanese haiku to include work such as:

From the turquoise
milk wells up
in December

Ban’ya Natsuishi

This sort of poem, widely recognised as haiku, makes us reconsider what must truly be considered essential for a poem to be a haiku. And we might well ask: can we write a haiku without a season word?

The answer, as is the case so often, is that we are always free to do whatever we wish. The real issue is more a matter of what do we get, and what do we lose, from choosing one way or another. And so the proper question is, does the use of a season word in my haiku help better convey the experience I wish to share? Or is the nature of my experience a moment of insight which is not focused within the natural cycle? And if this is the case, what alternatives do I have?

Season words will continue to matter in haiku in all cultures. The preponderance of our “haiku moments” will continue to be discovered within the parameters of the natural cycle, if for no other reason than that is where we look for them. And so in many instances a season word will prove a useful strategy in conveying these experiences.

But increasingly we will find that the traditional significances of season words will not embody all the moments we discover, especially as haiku is written in cultures whose climates are widely divergent from that of Japan, and as our increasingly urbanised environments become the locus for more and more of our insights. We will discover, then, that we want a system of words which function as season words do —that is, codify our experiences, provide a shorthand for expressing them, and unify our writings through association with other expressions in the form — but which more fully embraces the range of experiences which haiku may convey. This larger system we call keywords.

A keyword is a near kin to a season word. In fact, it may be a season word. But it may be other things as well. The most useful way of thinking of the idea of keywords is not as a one-to-one replacement for season words, but rather as an overarching system of correspondences available to the haiku poet which incorporates season words within its bounds.

river divides the forest
into two nights

Nikola Nilic

What we would have done in the past is to call this a non-seasonal haiku, or else assign it a season. It certainly could have been written in any season, and to place it in the “winter” season, for example, would be arbitrary at best. This is the way we have worked within the mindset of season words.

In the new way of reckoning, however, a season word is not an assumed part of a haiku, but a keyword is. A word or phrase which opens up the poem is employed, in this case “moonlight”. There are thousands of others, including all the known season words. The poem is a haiku employing a keyword, with a seasonal feeling (since it is a natural event being described), but not a definite seasonal attribution.  Season words operate as one large and important subset of all keywords, but are not the only words which a haiku may employ to the same effect.

Keywords can replace the notion of season words completely, and successfully, without radically altering the nature of haiku as we know it. This process is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Through such a development haiku will continue to be grounded in a universal system of value which is communicable to its practitioners and readership; there will be a smooth transition since none of the “classics” of haiku need be thrown out due to the adoption of this different orientation; and new work which speaks to a far larger and perhaps more contemporary audience will find acceptance within the canon of haiku because of the enlarged understanding of how such poems function. Some examples of keywords:

tide covers the sandspit
evening snow falling
on open sea

Randal Johnson

The keyword here, snow, is a season word. It grounds the poem in the specific, provides context, and promotes resonance: a great deal to expect from one little word.

This huge ocean —
       I could stand here forever
               it would still come to me

Proxade Davis

This haiku contains a non-seasonal keyword, ocean. It would be possible to imagine the season here — we might even be tempted to guess at it — but no matter our conclusion, it remains speculation. And rather than this being a problem for this poem, this ambiguity actually helps it. The poem is not dependent upon the season for its power, but rather upon the image itself. The ocean is powerful in its own right and commanding in all seasons.

i brush back
my son’s hair

Charles D. Nethaway

This example also contains the keyword funeral which suggests a human and personal context to the poem. Of course all poets, all people, have their private universes, and a poem is an attempt to describe one’s personal universe in hopes that others might recognise a similarity. The important point is not that the poet mentions himself. What matters is that the poet treats himself objectively — another image in the nexus of images which constitutes the poem. The poem is not about the self as ego, but about pointing to something objective about the self, something that might be shared.

This is an important point: haiku which refer to the self can be very tricky to manage in a way that is appropriate to the form. Many poets, coming to haiku from contemporary Western poetry, mistake the form as another type of confessional poetry. This could not be further from the case. Haiku is not a form for self-expression, or about interior states of mind.

Haiku are, instead, a means of sharing perceptions of the world outside us, an interaction with the exterior reality, a looking out rather than a looking in. This distinction cannot be stressed firmly enough: haiku are expressions of intuitive insights we experience from our encounter with the objective world.

Easter evening —
the old woman gathers
her unsold flowers

Ion Codrescu

This shows another orientation of the keyword, this time as a religious association. The keyword Easter allows the reader to recognise that a special understanding is being brought to this moment. The reader may or may not be able to enter this apprehension, and for this reason haiku with religious orientation can occasionally be seen as closed, or intended only for the “enlightened”. Often, too, such poems come across as dry and didactic.

Nevertheless it is worth considering the legacy of such an orientation in the transmission of haiku to Western poets. Many of the first students of the form outside Japan came to haiku directly or indirectly through their interest in Zen. A substantial number of books and papers have been written espousing Zen as the true way of haiku. It is often noted that Basho was a Zen priest. Even the great R H Blyth goes so far as to state categorically that Zen is the correct state of mind for understanding haiku. All this and more have perhaps led us to overvalue the role of Zen in haiku, both classical Japanese haiku and that of today.

There is no denying that Zen has been an important element in the transmission of haiku understanding in the West. And there is no doubt that there are some poems, in Japanese as well as in English, that have been accorded value by readers and critics that nevertheless remain closed to us in some way. But the fact is that the vast majority of writers of haiku, Japanese and English alike, attempt as the fundamental concern to communicate a moment of insight to all their possible readers, not just the cognoscenti. While discovering the revelatory in the ordinary may sound like Zen, it also sounds like any other exhortation toward heightened perception: slow down, pay attention to what’s before you, write clearly and accurately.

Here it seems almost inevitable that the “haiku moment” and the “moment of satori” (the attainment of enlightenment, according to Zen Scholar D T Suzuki) be conflated, and even seen by some as identical. Was the frog’s plop into the pond a moment of satori for Basho? I don’t know. Does it need to have been for us to appreciate his achievement in this poem? Emphatically, no.

The third element which we may consider to be essential to haiku is “presentness”. The moment of insight in haiku exists, as we have said, outside of time. And because of this experience of timelessness, we do not conceive of things happening during such a realisation in the past or future, but only in an eternal present.

The practical effect of such a sensation is that we write haiku in the present tense. This is more than simply an affectation or aesthetic decision: this is the poetic analogue to the ongoingness of our revelation. It has the further effect of allowing the reader to enter more directly into the poem: it is seen as vital and current, rather than reportage of an event once glorious but now gone. Consider how differently we feel about this poem:

the shell i took
     the shell it took
           ebb tide

and its present version:

the shell i take
      the shell it takes
            ebb tide

Another effect of locating haiku in the present is that this provides every poem with a sense of endlessness — it is the psychological truth that, given literary form, we can experience only the present moment. Since this is true, it is true, too, that dreams and memories have a place in haiku. The present is the time of poetic truth, the time of the possibility of sharing, and the time of haiku.

So, finally, what is the content of haiku? Haiku are about all the things we encounter in the world each day, and what they tell us about the world, and ourselves. They contain some reference to nature, but nature in the broadest sense. And they are about the present moment, the moment in which we are capable of experiencing new revelations.

But there are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader. It takes faith to let the images of our moment stand on their own, and to let the reader come to these images and intuit his own understanding. But this is exactly what we must do. Because, at the last resort, it is not the content of haiku which is essential to us: it is the growth in feeling, perception and connectedness which the content permits us to experience. And so we must not interfere with the things which allow us this growth. In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.


Editor’s note: Jim Kacian is a haiku writer of international standing. He is a former president of the Haiku Society of America and owner of Red Moon Press. Two of his haiku feature on boulders on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. This article, which appears here with his permission, forms part of a much longer primer on writing haiku, first posted on the f/k/a [formerly known as] website.