Haiku Technique

by Jim Kacian

Haiku are always about relationship. Sometimes this relationship is obvious, sometimes implied, but haiku always are positing image against image, and allowing the energy contained in these images, and in the way we phrase them, to charge the whole of the poem. We might consider the images to be the two poles of an electrical element, like a Tesla coil, and the relationship between them to be the spark which shoots the gap. The more powerful, clear and certain the choice of images, the brighter and surer the spark, the more easily seen and shared. And the stronger the spark, the more likely we will find secondary sparks as well, which in haiku we term resonance. Our goal in haiku is to find the correct images to serve as poles, and to allow the energy in the things themselves, the images and the language, to provide the spark inherent in them.

Once we have had our ‘haiku moment’, and have decided to verbalise it in order to share it, we begin to be confronted with a plethora of choices: How do we help the reader to come to the same moment as we did? What should be the order of things? How do we make the things speak with each other, to create the gap? How do we charge the language to make the energy contained shoot that gap? How do we balance the whole of the poem to maintain the same relative feel as the experience? And so on.

In this essay, we will consider the many ways in which the materials of haiku may be handled to best recreate the experience we have felt, so that we might communicate it as best as it might be.

Don’t insist on writing the moment right away — let it breathe and have its own life. Let it tell you if it is a haiku, or some other form, or something inexpressible. Don’t force.

If, after having allowed the moment to resonate in you, you find that it seems to demand a haiku treatment, then considerations of technique come into play. It is best to begin by taking our moment of insight very seriously, and literally. Review the experience: When did you have your insight — was the time of day (or year), or the timing within your routine significant in coming to your realisation? Where were you at the time? How did this play a role in your coming to your insight? Who or what were the elements that insinuated themselves into your moment? How did they come to be there — are they usual to your experience, or was this ‘exotic’ in some way? Why is this understanding new to you — how is it different than the understanding you had just before the experience?

A good rule of thumb is to present the moment exactly as it has come to you. Most often, an exact recreation of this order proves to be most effective in communicating the poem to others. And so an exact recalling of the event often enhances one’s ability to make the moment come alive for others.

In general, there are three different kinds of haiku we will encounter and write: Implied context; context and action, and juxtaposition. Let’s now consider each of these.

Context and Action Haiku

Usually the context of the poem provides basic material necessary for the reader to visualise and comprehend the range of possibilities which the poem is presenting. In fact, it is just this expected range of possibilities which the poet is exploiting. If the poet provides, by way of context, this:

On the first day of spring
snow falling

it is with the expectation that the reader will imagine snow as usual, without benefit of the insight which the rest of the poem provides:

from one bough to another.

Virginia Brady Young

If we saw into the lives of all things all the time, then haiku would not be possible; or rather, we would live a life of haiku, and never notice. Our lives of mundane perception, with their relative impoverishment of revelation, make haiku notable and prized.

In the majority of haiku, two images are presented to the reader. This is in order to create the poles of the coil we have suggested earlier, and permits the sparking across the gap.

Occasionally three or more images are encountered, but this creates a very complex moment which our minds may have difficulty ordering, or understanding.

Haiku of context and action are just what they sound like: one of the images of the haiku establishes the setting where the haiku moment is experienced; the other suggests the activity which caught the notice of the poet’s imagination. Consider these examples:

in the teeth
of Theodore Roosevelt
a raven nesting

S. W. Finn

Winter morning –
Dressing for work by light
from the next room

David Priebe

pregnant –
sucking at her feet
the outgoing tide

Carolyn Rohrig

The first of these is a very clever poem. It uses paradox to gain the reader’s attention, and only permits the moment to come clear in the last line. So it is charged with energy, and humour, a very fine combination. It is clear that ‘Theodore Roosevelt’s teeth’ is the locale! It is doubtful that many readers immediately identify the place as Mt Rushmore. But once the action is expressed, all is clear: it is the action of the raven nesting, in the context of these ‘teeth’, which brings us to a moment of realisation.

In the second example, we are given a seasonal context first. Only later do we recognise that we are inside a house, occupied with the mundane, and it is a further surprise that even the light which makes this homely task possible is provided artificially — a tribute to the dark powers of winter, neatly sustained by the poet until the very end of the poem.

In the third example, the exact opposite technique is used. The context begins as an interior space, as expressed by pregnant. The second line, odd as it is, prepares us for more of the same, but to our surprise it’s a natural context after all, and the relationship between inner and outer context is well matched.

Implied Context Haiku

Very occasionally, a haiku which contains only a single image still seems to contain sufficient interest to find lasting resonance in us. Consider this famous poem by Buson:

peony petals
falling atop each other
two or three

In haiku such as this, there is the first, strong image of peony petals having fallen. But haiku are always about relationship, as we have stated: To what are these petals related?

In this instance, as in the other instances where we find a single image sufficient, it is the unstated but implied context which serves as the point of comparison. It is easy to imagine that we are in a garden, a garden which contains other peonies. Or else we are in a living room, and the peony in this case has been cut. This peony is seen in the context of other peonies in the garden, whole as yet; but more, it is seen against all peonies, and our very image of peonies. And in its expression of the blossom’s decline, the poem changes the way in which we see the flower, insisting that the energy and value of our view of peonies must include this image as well.

One of the reasons such a treatment is rare is because the poet must create the whole of the sense of context out of the image in question. It is only an occasional image powerful enough to sustain the whole of this responsibility. And on those instances, it is a master’s stroke to realise the context is unnecessary. Imagine, for instance, that Buson had written:

dining room table:
peony petals fall
atop each other

A fine poem, but would it be as memorable as the poet’s starker version? Probably not. In this case, the context serves to limit the expressive range of the image chosen.

Haiku of Juxtaposition

The other type of haiku we encounter is haiku of juxtaposition. In these, two images not obviously related by context or action are paired. The energy which results from the pairing is the measure of its success. These haiku range from the hermetic:

a lump in her breast –
my mother shows me
how to fry eggs

Frank Higgins

to the lucid:

music two centuries old
the color flows
out of the teabag

Gary Hotham

In the first example, it might not be readily apparent how a lump in the breast is related to frying eggs. It may be possible to explain this relationship, but explanation is the death of haiku. When it is necessary to move outside of the images at hand to understand what is going on in the poem, the moment is lost, and the haiku fails. It is essential that the images speak clearly for themselves, and not require this sort of intellective discursion to be understood. In this poem, what may not be apparent at first gradually comes into focus, and the resonance of the poem is all the greater for the delay in coming to experience the moment.

This is, in some ways, similar to the difficulties which haiku face when they are translated from one language or culture to another. What is apparent to one reader might be completely lost upon another. Poetry in general, and haiku in particular, are especially fragile in the fashion, and many do not travel well.

In the second instance, however, the moments chosen seem less cryptic: they are more universal, or at least accessible to our culture, and as a result there is not a remove from the images themselves, and therefore the moment of insight. We can find, once the poet has placed them before us, a relationship between music of the distant past and the gathering of color from the steeping tea, and this relationship deepens with subsequent readings.

Haiku of juxtaposition are riskier than haiku of context and action: They are more difficult to gauge, to be certain that they will communicate. They are more dependent upon cultural cues and understandings for their meaning. But just as the risk is greater, so, too, can be the reward. Many of the very best haiku in any time are haiku of juxtaposition, a proportion higher than would be expected given the relative scarcity of them. But they are to be approached carefully, with full awareness that when they fail, they fail utterly.

Editor’s note: This article is one of the chapters contained in the digital book, How to Haiku by Jim Kacian, and appears here with the author’s permission. By clicking on the link you will have access to the whole book at The Haiku Foundation website.

Jim Kacian is a former president of the Haiku Society of America (HSA) and is owner and publisher of Red Moon Press. He has won numerous awards for his haiku and his work is published around the world. Two of his poems appear on the Katikati Haiku Pathway. He lives in West Virginia in the US.