Haiku & Western Poetry

By Peggy Willis Lyles

Haiku along with other poems deserve more than one reading. If possible, they should be read aloud. While they often spark immediate recognition and appreciation, they give up their full meanings more slowly. They are, in fact, the most compressed of all poems. I like to think that means they are charged with extra energy and vitality. Certainly, they engage the reader as a co-creator.

All good poetry is selective, leaving much unsaid. As Yoko Sugawa tells us: “In order to say ten things a haiku presents only two”. Those two, though, are so carefully selected, simply and clearly presented and so interwoven with rich textures of suggestion and association that the receptive reader, willing to enter the poem and do his part, has what he needs to find the other eight things and possibly even more!

Western poetry often introduces additional sense imagery through figurative language. In his valuable essay “Toward a Definition of the English Haiku” George Swede examines various criteria or “rules” governing haiku and concludes that the one which insists it “usually avoids poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, etc.” is unnecessary.1

Why, then, are newcomers to haiku writing urged to avoid simile, metaphor, personification and other traditional tropes? There are many good answers, I think, but the most important is that haiku poets place high value on the creatures and things of this world just as they are, each unique in its essential nature and worthy of unobscured attention. Comparing one thing to another often seems to diminish both.

Consider Speculation 813 by Robert Spiess: 2 “Although simile occasionally occurs in Japanese masters’ haiku, it is rather rare. Perhaps for us the main reason that good haiku seldom use simile is exemplified by the proverb ‘Comparisons are odious’. Haiku is the comparison-less poetry of Suchness.”

Writing on the subject of poetics and personification in haiku in 2001, Christopher Herold said: “The haiku is capable of taking us to a place of simplicity and thusness that cannot be even closely approached with the use of flowery Western poetic devices. For the most part I find that those devices, used as lavishly as we tend to use them, block our reaching to the very crux of an experience. Simile, personification, overt metaphor, personal pronouns, narrative constructions, all tend to be jewelled fingers. We gaze at them rather than the moon towards which they point.”

Please don’t get carried away, though, and start drafting a strict rule prohibiting figurative language. Instead, let’s look at a delightful haiku:

night rain
the small serrated song
of a frog

Ferris Gilli 3

The nine words tell me enough that I can recreate the essence of the experience. Can you? I can imagine it as either an inside or outside moment. I am conscious of darkness and of the sound of rain, and perhaps the sight, touch, and smell of it, too. Then the frog song starts – small in the context of night and the rain, but this is not a weak sound. Not a smooth one either. I would like the haiku if it read “night rain/the small song/of a frog”. But I like it ever so much better because Ferris has included the figurative adjective “serrated”.

How can a song be serrated? It is not a thing with saw-like teeth or sharp projections. A frog doesn’t even sound much like a saw. Besides, don’t we usually trim adjectives from haiku whenever we can? I happen to know that Ferris counts this among her personal favourites. Both the experience and the words to record it came simply, clearly, and naturally as true haiku gifts. How do you “see” the haiku? How do you “hear” it? Thoughts of patterned roughness, and of ability to cut slowly, expand sensation and meaning. What other associations do? What does the haiku say about nature and the poet’s response to it? How do you enter the poem and participate? What do you find there?

As you are considering “night rain” and collecting your thoughts, please have a look at this award winner which also suggests more than it says:

June breeze
a hole in the cloud
mends itself

an’ya 4

(It might help Southern Hemisphere readers to be reminded that June is a summer month in the author’s American home.)

Now let’s think a little more carefully about the figures of speech we would want to use sparingly, if at all, in haiku. Laurence Perrine describes them clearly and well: “Metaphor and simile are both used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The distinction between them is only that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems; in metaphor the comparison is implied – that is the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term”.5

Personification gives “the attitudes of a human being to an animal, object, or concept”. An apostrophe “consists in addressing someone absent or dead or something non-human as if that person or thing were present and alive and could reply to what is being said”. Probably you are already thinking that you would not want to waste valuable words setting up a formal simile in a haiku.6

Maybe you are thinking, too, that juxtaposition in haiku sometimes calls attention to similarities between two essentially dissimilar things. That is a much more compressed and efficient way of doing so, isn’t it? It seems to show more respect for the reader, too, letting her draw her own conclusions instead of directing or spelling things out.

Are you also thinking about Issa’s use of personification and apostrophe? Maybe you have some specific examples in mind from other haiku masters, too. There are many of them. Such tropes are seldom used in contemporary English-language poetry, though, except perhaps to create humour. Most of us would feel awkward and a bit silly using them. That’s probably just as well because our readers would be likely to find direct address to an owl, lily, or moose pretty far out.

Perrine says, “a symbol may be roughly defined as something that means more than what it is”.. Then he goes on to clarify various figures of speech in a passage that I find especially relevant to haiku: “Image, metaphor, and symbol shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In general, however, an image means only what it is; the figurative term in a metaphor means something other than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more, too. A symbol, that is, functions literally and figuratively at the same time. . . . Images, of course, do not cease to be images when they are incorporated in metaphor or symbol.”7

We know the importance of sensory experience to the perception of haiku and the value of concrete images in presenting those perceptions to readers so that they can recreate the experience and share the feelings it evoked. We know too that words and images stir associations in perceptive readers and suggest more than the haiku says. Some simple words, “home”, for instance, or “forest”, or “snake” may call up deep images with associations that touch the universal or archetypal. Colours often mean more to us than we can explain. Tastes and smells are powerful in raising memories.

Some haiku mean what they say and nothing more. If they recreate a given time and place in clear sensory detail so that readers can go there again and again – and continue to find value in doing so – that is certainly enough. I don’t think good haiku mean something different from what they say. Haiku have a way of being honest and true. They don’t mislead us. Most, though, mean what they say and more as well.

Let me say that again: Most good haiku mean what they say and more as well. Take season words, for example. Frogs, herons, chrysanthemums, and snowstorms mean what they are in haiku, but they also enrich the poems with a whole context of the season they represent and whatever the poet and reader may associate with that season. Spring suggests youth and beginnings; autumn ripeness and completion – and we could write pages and pages about the connotative, suggestive, associative, and symbolic possibilities of each season.

We often hear comments about the metaphorical qualities of kigo. According to Perrine’s definition we would do better to think of them in terms of symbol. For those who know traditional Japanese literature, season words stir memories of earlier haiku, too. Sometimes a haiku alludes to a well-known earlier one that uses the same kigo. Image, metaphor symbol, allusion? There is little to be gained by quibbling over definitions and distinctions. What matters is that season words can expand the meaning of a haiku and deepen its emotional resonance. Please have a close look at another exceptional haiku:

a curtain billows
before the rain
scent of roses

Ferris Gilli 8

Beautiful, isn’t it? I feel the motion, sense the coming rain, smell the roses. If there were nothing more to the haiku than that, it would be a gift and a pleasure. The specific details create a strong sense of anticipation, too. Pleasant anticipation. “a curtain blows” means what it says . . . and much more. Christopher Herold’s appreciative Heron’s Nest Award essay presents a fine reading of it.

For enjoyment and to learn more about good haiku, I recommend all the Heron’s Nest essays. The haiku discussed are of high quality and are varied in subject matter and technique. The essays underscore many ways that haiku can succeed and excel.

Susumu Takiguchi has posted an especially fine discussion of Yamaguchi Seishi’s superb 1944 haiku about winter wind blown out over the sea and unable to return, a poem of deep imagery and profound sadness. That universal, perhaps archetypal, sadness of winter and loss deepens almost unbearably as we realise the poet was thinking of young Japanese airmen flying toward their deaths at sea. They were given enough fuel to reach their targets but none for return or escape. I agree with Susumu that this may be one of the best haiku ever written.

Haiku thrives world-wide. It can be both accessible and profound. It celebrates moments of human life and establishes bonds among poets and between poets and readers. For many, it is at least as much a way of life as a form of literature. There is every reason to believe it will become even more popular in the 21st century and that among the millions of haiku composed and shared there will be many that should be recognised as great literature.

Is it safe, then, for haiku poets to remember some of what they know about Western poetry and even, perhaps, to have a fresh look at its characteristics? I think so. If haiku poets keep the basic criteria firmly in mind, they are not likely to go astray as they consider the many ways that haiku communicate experience and the many levels on which some of them can be read. It won’t hurt us either to review ways we can make sound reinforce meaning. But that is a topic for another time.

For now let me go on record as one who will continue to use overt figurative language and other poetic devices sparingly, if at all, while concentrating on openness, participation, and discovery. At the same time, I believe that genuine haiku are likely to be multileveled and not easily exhausted. I would expect perceptive observation, deep feeling, and fresh insight to result in images that mean what they say – and much more. English-language haiku is a valuable part of world literature with an audience capable of nurturing great poets.



1: Global Haiku: Twenty-five Poets World-wide, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks (Mosaic Press 2000).

3: The Heron’s Nest, Vol. II, No. 1,  January, 2000.

4: The Heron’s Nest, Valentine’s Awards 2001

5: Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, fifth edition, Laurence Perrine with Thomas R. Arp, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1988).

6: Ibid.

7: Ibid.

8: The Heron’s Nest Award, Volume II, No. 8, August 2000.

Editor’s Note: Peggy Willis Lyles (1939-2010) was a well-known writer of haiku who  contributed to leading journals for more than 20 years. Peggy’s chapbook Thirty-Six Tones was published by Saki Press in 2000 as a Virgil Hutton Haiku Memorial Award winner. To Hear the Rain: Selected Haiku was published in 2002 (Brooks Books). She was associate editor of The Heron’s Nest and lived in Georgia in the US.

This article originally appeared as part of The Hibiscus School essays on World Haiku Review and appears here with the author’s permission.

Read an appreciation of Peggy, and some of her own haiku.