Literary Devices in English Haiku

by Megan Arkenberg

Most readers and writers of modern haiku are familiar with the form’s traditional literary techniques; the subtleties of juxtaposition, the emotions of wabi and sabi,1 the irony and hyperbole found in senryu.2 Other literary devices, such as metaphor and personification, have a rich history in English-language poetry but are neglected — even discouraged — in modern English haiku. But to ignore these and other unusual haiku devices, such as allusion and visual poetry, is to ignore much of the form’s history and literary potential.

Metaphor and personification have been most frequently argued against on the grounds that haiku are meant to be an objective record of things experienced, rather than an opportunity for the poet to display his or her technique. What this fails to take into account is that we do not all experience reality with perfect objectivity—everyone, haiku writers included, perceives certain experiences in illogical and improbable ways. This is particularly true for first impressions.

in the buttercup
blue sky

Carl Patrick 3

another red tongue
on mine

Jane Reichhold 4

The use of metaphor in haiku stretches from deliberate comparison:

under cherry trees
soup, salad, fish and all …
seasoned with petals


…to extremely close juxtaposition, in which one of the haiku’s images may be seen as renaming the other image:

on a bare branch
a crow lands
autumn dusk


freshly fallen snow
opening a new package
of typing paper

Nick Avis 5

Other haiku show strong figurative sensibilities, but do not make a specific comparison. In the following example, Christopher Herold presents an image that would be impossible to take literally, but does not rename it in concrete terms:

returning quail
to us from the moment
of which he speaks

Christopher Herold 6

Another figurative haiku device involves presenting a distorted but readily understandable perception of the world — for example, by confusing cause and effect. Sense-switching, the gathering of sensory information through multiple senses simultaneously, is another example of this:

calling home —
the colour of mother’s voice
before her words

Hilary Tann 7

his voice
deep purple

Ludmila Balabanova 8

Personification, the assigning of human traits to nonhuman things, seems less prevalent than metaphor in haiku. The most likely reason for this is personification’s inherent lack of subtlety — it is difficult for the haiku’s author to “vanish” when he or she has intentionally distorted the reader’s vision. Well-done personification in haiku allows the poem to speak for itself; it comes from an instantaneous connection in the poet’s mind, rather than deliberate ingenuity.

song birds
at the train yard’s edge
two cars coupling

Jeffrey Winke 9

In combining the traits of human and non-human things, personification can emphasise the “oneness” of the world and promote a sense of compassion:

don’t swat the fly!
see how he wrings his hands,
wrings his feet!


A step up from personification in forging a deliberate bond between writer and reader is the technique of allusion. Japanese poetry uses a device called honkadori, in which a modern poem references and builds on an older one through quotes or the names of famous places and characters. In modern English haiku, allusion can be as simple as mentioning the title or author of a famous work in order to build a similar atmosphere:

A page of Shelley
brightens and dims
with passing clouds

Rod Willmot 10

reading Basho,
the mournful strains
of Coltrane’s horn

Charles Rossiter 11

lighting the path
to Walden Pond –
my bedside lamp

Ebba Story 12

In this last example, the allusion also functions as a riddle; the last line shows that the speaker is not physically near Walden Pond, but reading Thoreau’s work.

There is a sort of sub-genre of allusion in English haiku which consists of references to specifically Japanese culture:

Flea …
that you

Raymond Roseliep 13

Haiku has a unique relationship with allusion, in that it is easy for a reader to quickly compose a response to a favourite poem. The same images may occur in dozens of haiku, each containing the poet’s personal and unique perception. Consider the following haiku and Basho’s furu ike 14:

frog pond —
a leaf falls in
without a sound

Bernard Lionel Einbond 15

old pond
a frog rises
belly up

Marlene Mountain 16

Some allusions are culturally specific; for example, the two following haiku may be harder to grasp for non-Catholics and those unacquainted with Martin Buber’s Ich and Du, respectively. This detracts somewhat from the haiku’s universality, but it pays off in the closer bond initiated readers experience with the poem.

Ash Wednesday —
the joints between the cobbles
lined with confetti

Max Verhart 17

my “I-Thou”

Raymond Roseliep 18

Finally, allusion may consist of phrases and ideas from general literature:

Lying — 
I tell him I’m not looking
for a prince.

Alexis Rotella 19

One literary device distinctive to modern English haiku is visual or concrete poetry. While concrete poetry has existed almost as long as the printing press, 20 Marlene Mountain introduced the concept of “unaloud haiku” with her 1977 poem Labium. Typically, the goal of concrete haiku is blend visual shapes with verbal images:

v           i
l             t

Marlene Mountain 21


                           s     m
                  s       t      o
          f      m     a      k
          o      o      c      i
          u      k      k     n
          r       e      s     g

Jeffrey Winke 22

Other concrete haiku give a sense of action and change, such as a frog’s leap or a rooster’s hop:


      r                                       g
f                                                     frog

Marlene Mountain 23

my neighbor’s rooster hops the            I throw

Marlene Mountain 24

What all these literary devices have in common is the goal of transferring an experience or perception from the haiku writer to the reader. The English language’s rich literary tradition makes it difficult for many poets to express an experience without incorporating literary devices — and that is perfectly acceptable. However objective the genre attempts to be, haiku is a form of poetry, and poetry is the communication of one human mind to another — complete with its attendant visualisations, comparisons, and improbable images.



1 Wabi, the “loneliness” of living in nature: sabi, “lean” or “withered”. Leonard Koren defined wabi-sabi as an aesthetic recognising the beauty of the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.
2 A humorous or satirical haiku.
3 From The Haiku Anthology 3rd edition (Cor van den Huevel, editor), W W Norton & Company, 1999.
4 From Writing and Enjoying Haiku by Jane Reichhold, Kodansha International, 2002.
5 From The Haiku Anthology.
6 Ibid.
7 From dust of summers (Jim Kacian, editor) The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku, 2007.
8 Ibid.
9 From Thirds by Charles Rossiter, William Schmidtkunz, and Jeffrey Winke. Distant Thunder Press, 1985.
10 From The Haiku Anthology.
11 From Thirds.
12 From The Haiku Anthology.
13 Ibid.
14 Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto: most frequently translated as old pond / a frog jumps into / the sound of water.
15 From The Haiku Anthology.
16 Ibid.
17 From dust of summers.
18 From The Haiku Anthology.
19 Ibid.
20 “Anagram” appeared in the 1633 edition of George Herbert’s The Temple.
21 From
22 From Thirds.
23 From The Haiku Anthology.
24 Ibid.

Editor’s note: Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin in the United States. Her haiku and tanka have appeared in Simply Haiku, Modern English Tanka, Daily Haiku, and dozens of other places. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and edits the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.

This article, which appears here with the kind permission of the author, originally appeared on this website.