Haiku & Western Poetic Devices

by Karen Peterson Butterworth

Whilst we were editing the taste of nashi, New Zealand Haiku (Windrift 2008), my co-editor Nola Borrell and I discussed the differences that were increasingly emerging between Japanese classical and Western haiku. We had invited four senior New Zealand haiku poets to assess the haiku submitted to us. Sometimes, when their scoring of haiku differed widely, we had to make a few final choices ourselves. To do so we needed to clarify our criteria of what makes a good Western haiku, and even a true haiku. This proved to be a difficult task.

From our reading of haiku journals and anthologies, we had noticed some trends in the historical development of Western haiku. The first was an increase in brevity since their liberation from the 5-7-5 syllable pattern (of which more later). On the whole this gave rise to clearer, less cluttered images, but there was a danger of jerkiness or too sparse an outline (sometimes dubbed ‘telegram haiku’) when the process was carried too far.

The second tendency was an increase in the use of Western poetic devices in haiku. Metaphor seemed to be gaining the most ground, although not in all haiku circles, and rhyme the least.

So, how far did we think haiku could take on western features and still be considered haiku? This question was the subject of vigorous discussion as we arrived at a working consensus.

From this point on I will describe my own thoughts about the journey that Western haiku has embarked on, with a bow to Nola for her part in the dialogue which helped form my views.

To me the essential features of haiku which distinguish them from other poetic forms are:

  • Based on direct observation of a moment in time which engages the observer’s feelings.
  • Descriptive of sensory impressions without abstraction, interpretation or judgement.
  • Inclusive of a turning point where the haiku illuminates our understanding both within and beyond its images.
  • Based on themes from nature, and/or human nature, and/or human creations (e g streets, houses, bridges).
  • Condensed in their language, which draws an outline of the subject, leaving the reader or hearer to complete the poem from her/his own experience.

Traditional elements which I consider optional in western haiku are:

  • The 5-7-5 onji
  • Seasonal words.

The 5-7-5 structure is inappropriate to English language haiku, since Japanese onji are not of the same nature or length as English syllables. 1 The original pattern is said to be related to the natural flow of Japanese language. Attempts to write 5-7-5 haiku in English usually employ more and longer words than are consistent with the verbal economy of good haiku. Unfortunately 5-7-5 is still widely taught in New Zealand schools, where it can cramp the flow and spontaneity of children’s poetry (as also can too much encouragement of Western poetic structures employing strict rhyme and rhythm).

I see seasonal words as useful but not essential features of Western haiku. The truths discovered through attentive observation of city and indoor images can be as profound as those found in the natural world. It would be a shame to banish them from the haiku genre. Yet contact with, and understanding of, natural environments is therapeutic, and may even be essential to the survival of the human race. Haiku poets have a useful (but non-didactic) role to play in such awareness.

Non-traditional elements increasingly creeping into Western haiku include:

  • Alliteration
  • Personification
  • Qualifiers – adjectives and adverbs
  • Puns
  • Rhymes
  • Metaphor
  • Simile.

Alliteration can mean playing games with language, and the directness of haiku rules out games, though not playfulness:

well! let’s go
snow-viewing till
we tumble

Matsuo Basho 2

Alliteration can be a tribute to the music of language, and works that way as long as it does not distract from what the words say. I find that use of alliteration acceptable in haiku.

Personification is currently unfashionable in Western literature, and perhaps disapproved of in haiku mostly on those grounds. Rather we should note that haiku describe real observations, and moons and mountains do not literally talk to us as we view them.

Too many qualifiers are distracting in all writing, haiku or otherwise. A tip I picked up at a short story workshop was, ‘Go through your writing and take out every adjective and adverb. First see if you can find a more vivid verb or noun that will do the same work. If not, read the passage without its qualifiers and only restore those that are essential to convey your meaning.’ I can’t think of better advice to haiku writers. Yet haiku writers should go further – a bare outline is much more suggestive than a description of, for example, the exact shade of a rose. If the perfume is central to the haiku moment, why mention colour at all?

I once thought puns did not belong in haiku, until I read ‘A Note on Translation’ at the end of Robert Hass’s book, The Essential Haiku. 3 There he describes the frequent word-play found in Japanese haiku, impossible to translate because the same associations (e.g., the resemblance of the character for ‘moon’ with that of ‘cup’) do not exist in English. From his description I gathered that Japanese word-play is subtle, whereas modern English-language puns are often heavy-handed and coined for their ‘groan’ value. The impact of haiku puns should be lighter than that – sledgehammers are not appropriate. With that qualification, puns have their place in haiku.

Rhyme is rarely found in haiku. When it is, it works best if unobtrusive – the reader does not even notice it on first reading. In my view the same is true for all modern poetry.

Metaphor is a natural part of everyday English. When we talk about ‘airing a subject’, ‘handling a situation’, ‘reading someone’s expression’: we are using metaphors that have become a part of everyday speech. Their literal meaning is no longer recalled as we speak.

My reading suggests that metaphor is a less intrinsic part of everyday Japanese language than it is of English. What seems to replace it in Japan is symbolism, such as a crow standing for death, and the associations evoked by seasonal words like ‘cherry blossom’. These were formally listed in catalogues, once compulsorily used by Japanese haiku poets. Many, if not most, modern Japanese haiku poets have abandoned the universal use of seasonal words. Since I cannot read Japanese I do not know whether such symbolism is part of Japanese everyday speech, or a largely poetic usage. So I need to use other criteria to evaluate the use of metaphors in western haiku.

Yet metaphor itself is not unknown in Japanese classical haiku:

            The holes in the wall
play the flute
            this autumn evening

Kobayashi Issa 4

The whitebait
opens its black eye
            in the net of the law

Matsuo Basho 5

I have heard workshop tutors say that masters (haijin) may break the rules of haiku, but beginners should practice strict adherence to them. Others say there are no rules of haiku, only essential properties or at most, guidelines. I tend to the latter opinion. I have seen rank beginners produce brilliant haiku that depart from the guidelines.

For all that, the increasing acceptance of metaphor in western haiku disturbs me. Unconscious metaphors are all very well. But when they are freshly invented, the directness which is the essence of haiku is diluted. Such metaphors place an obstacle or diversion between the haiku moment and the reader. The same is true of similes. Place two images side by side in a haiku, and we can see their  resemblances without being told. It is up to the reader to find resemblances outside the scene.

In some modern haiku one cannot tell whether or not the images are derived from direct experience. Such haiku may be termed ‘desku’ – dreamed up at the poet’s desk (or more usually, keyboard). The reader may never suspect this, and some such haiku have almost certainly won prizes in competitions.

Does this matter? It seems to violate the first principle of haiku, that they are based on a moment in time actually lived by the poet. Yet if we can’t tell the difference, is the perception of the imagination any less real than that of the senses?

Today’s mainstream western poetry communicates by a combination of mental-emotional authenticity and inventive language. Haiku contributes a different way of looking at the world around us – direct experience wedded to accurate, honed-down language. It encourages us to look firstly at what is, before we consider what might be. When it is co-opted by Western poetic criteria, it is no longer a haiku.

None of the Western poetic devices I’ve listed threatens to corrupt the directness of haiku to the same extent as metaphor and simile. Yet they may still be used, sparingly but effectively, in good haiku (and with adroit alliteration in the following example):

marshmallow sun
in the mist
my horse snorts

Elaine King 6



1: For a full discussion of these differences see Chapter 8, ‘The Form of Haiku’ in The Haiku Handbook, William J Higginson, with Penny Harker (Kodansha International, 1985, reprint 1989).

2: Ibid.

3: The Essential Haiku, ed Robert Hass (ecco, 1994).

4: Ibid.

5: Ibid.

6: First published in the enormous picture, ed Anna Livesey, (NZ Poetry Society 2004).   

Editor’s note: Karen Peterson Butterworth lives on the Otaki coast, north of Wellington in New Zealand. She and Nola Borrell co-edited the taste of nashi, New Zealand’s third haiku anthology, and both have had many years involvement with the Windrift haiku group. Karen was also one of the main organisers of the first Haiku Festival Aotearoa, held in Wellington in 2005. Her haiku, tanka and haibun are published regularly. Read more at Karen’s Showcase page.

This article was written especially for Haiku NewZ.