Sincerity and the Future of Haiku

by Bruce Ross

Seeing emptiness, have compassion — Milarepa

When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other — Chinese Proverb

To be enlightened is to be one with all things —Dōgen

In the introduction to Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (1993) I suggested that American haiku needed to develop new phenomenologies of perception, and that there was a danger that haiku would, in the near, future become undifferentiated from senryu.

To my way of thinking, both of these things have come to pass, the first to the benefit of haiku, and the second to its detriment. What I could not foresee was the impact of the internet on haiku – it has changed the nature of haiku, but at the cost of something essential.

The Chinese proverb quoted above reminds us that we need beauty in our life. We mustn’t forget that haiku, as one of its most important characteristics, is poetry that explores natural beauty. But even if, under the pressure of the post-modern condition, such beauty seems artificial to our sensibilities, the easy road to cynicism and wit (in other words, senryu) is no substitute for such sensibility. Because we also are finite, like everything in our world, we must have a fraternity of compassion for others, both human and non-human entities. This compassion will lead us to a renewal of our true sensibilities, make us one with things, as Dōgen suggests, and connect us to the beauty of nature.

Bashō spoke of fuga no makoto (poetic sincerity, honesty, and truth) in regard to haiku. In a presentation at the 2001 meeting of Haiku North America in Boston, Vincent Tripi defined haiku as “the heart connecting to the moment”. One of the meanings of makoto is “a true heart”. Such a heart is unadulterated and open. To use an analogy, what the Sufi mystic Rumi saw as “love in one’s heart connecting one to the infinite” – in haiku makoto (the openness of one’s unadulterated heart), connects one to the infinite in experience.

And, as we know, such experience is full of beauty, pathos, surprise, and joy. Let us say that makoto in haiku leads to an implicit realisation of beauty and insight into the nature of things through feeling, sometimes of an unadulterated, childlike quality. Here are four contemporary haiku that register with makoto:

tomatoes ripening
on withered vines
All Souls’ Day

Karen Klein 2

November 1st —
the scarecrow’s head
at his feet

Linda Jeannette Ward 3

noonday heat —
children peeling tar
from an old wall

Emily Romano 4

the squirrel              
                       running with my first
red tomato

Marian Olson 5

On All Souls’ Day, people offer prayers for the souls in purgatory. Notice how Karen Klein’s feeling for this compassion connects her to the tomatoes that, like souls in purgatory, are perfecting themselves. Linda Jeannette Ward responds to [northern] autumn with an open heart that sees a connection, not without humour, of the season to the “poor” scarecrow’s head, like the leaves fallen to the ground. Emily Romano captures, with strong synesthetic imagery and a willing suspension of disbelief, the intriguing world of children’s play. And Marian Olson, through a cartoon-like identification with the squirrel, reveals her sympathy for the naughty creature. Whether of souls in purgatory, a scarecrow in fall, children at play in the summer heat or a squirrel with a garden tomato, these haiku poets have allowed themselves to follow their feelings toward an inspiring appreciation of their and our world.

Far from the hip and catchy formatting of much contemporary haiku, many haiku poets have expanded the spectrum of their senses and perceptions to produce impressive haiku. Here are four other contemporary haiku that highlight sensibility:

through the mist         
               apricot blossom

Stephen Addiss 6

morning drizzle
the origami bird
unfolds slowly

Sue Mill 7

deep in the sink
the great veins of chard;
summer’s end

Burnell Lippy 8

deserted field —
on waves of heat
wild onion scent

Gloria H. Procsal 9

Through a particular well-chosen word, described action, striking image or sensitive comparison, these haiku poets have expanded the boundaries of sensibility in haiku. Notice the weight carried by the word “but” in Addiss’s haiku. What is left out, is that he is in a mental and physical “fog” that is relieved by the burgeoning appearance of beauty in the apricot blossoms. Sue Mill accents her deft portrait of stillness in the self-unfolding of a folded paper bird. Burnell Lippy reminds us of deep fall and winter roots through the striking image of large-veined Swiss chard leaves in a deep sink. And the perceptive connection of heat waves to the aroma of wild onions makes Gloria H. Procsal’s haiku a gem of sensibility, like the others.

More and more, tanka sentiment of direct expressions of love or felt emotion seem to be making their way into contemporary haiku, often to the ends of an overly blurred distinction of the nature of haiku, which tends to downplay such overt and personalised emotion. But here are four examples of contemporary haiku that just barely skirt this issue in their expansion of haiku sensibility through their connection with nature:

moonlight swim
her hair lengthens
with the first stroke

John W. Wisdom 10

spring moon —
the baby’s heart
beats against mine

Kathy Lippard Cobb 11

summer’s last full moon —
the sand of the dune warming
our bare feet

Patricia Neubauer 12

I almost cried out —
the plum blossom
in my hand

Peter M. Jansen 13

John W. Wisdom’s wonderfully erotic haiku makes a stunning connection between moonlight and the desired woman. A similar connection between the spring moon and the baby’s heartbeat makes this portrait of maternal sensibility, drawn by Kathy Lippard Cobb, equally appealing in its tenderness. Patricia Neubauer’s haiku evokes the loving shared experience of the last end-of-summer warmth on a moonlit beach. And Peter M. Jansen offers his overwhelming emotional response to natural beauty in his haiku on a plum blossom.

It should be noticed that all of these 12 haiku have a sense of depth and completeness associated with haiku as opposed to a renga link which lacks such depth and completeness. Above all, such depth and completeness is unmistakably recognised in haiku as poetry.

This brings us to the issue of electronic haiku. But first, I would back up to when I began noticing what I would call “journalistic” haiku in more and more issues of the major American haiku journals. In other words social commentary began being published as haiku rather than as senryu. There were debates as to whether a TV image was a valid centre for a haiku. In sum though, such “haiku” seem to run aground upon the idea of “realisation-through-feeling-connected-to-nature” as discussed above.

Journalistic haiku is already thought through, probably by someone else, by the time the given author comes around to their connection with the given subject. Such “journalistic haiku” is therefore anti-sensibility and anti-haiku.

Some time after such haiku began to appear, what I would term “blip” haiku began to appear in the journals. This was not haiku coming out of a minimalist aesthetic. It was “haiku-with-connections-to-haiku” as it was published up to that time, but truncated in phrasing, words, and image. It was a step away from what used to be called the unforgivable sin of “telegraph” phrasing in haiku. It seems, in fact, that there is an insulated quality to electronically posted haiku from those haiku lists that generate a kind of insulated bonding, that in turn (in a self-congratulatory way) lowers the quality of haiku.

In a 2001 article in Frogpond, David Elliott examined formal conventions taken from the last two editions of Cor van den Heuvel’s haiku anthology, and found that there has been a decided increase in shortening phrasing.14 This can only be a reaction to the current moving away from the stodgy phrasing of earlier haiku, but this is not to what I refer.

In the same issue of Frogpond, Tom Tico has an article in which he says that shortening line length, or word count, in English-language haiku takes away the music in this form of poetry.15  Although Japanese haiku is called the “one breath” poem and many recitations by native speakers are over in a parsec, there are many sound, allusive, metric, etc., issues involved in Japanese haiku that don’t translate well to another language.

In English, for poetry, there is a sense of rhythmic phrasing at the least. Early English-language translations of Japanese poetry, and early English-language original haiku, tried to compensate for such lacks by adhering firmly to a 5-7-5 syllable count and by rhyming. Now these compensations have gone by the board, as have various attempts at an original metrics for English-language haiku. We are left with the dominance of the image, an inheritance of Imagism, and certain preferred aesthetics, like Zen. There was a vacuum of sorts in the idea of haiku as poetry in English.

Enter the Electronic School of haiku that a new generation of haiku writers in English were weaned on. I am almost certain that the parameters of electronic communication – that include brevity, absence of developed feeling, absence of deep thought and perception, and the like – have fostered the “blip” school of haiku, although some early online haiku sites may have indeed encouraged such brevity in haiku. There seems to be a danger to the substance and essence of haiku in such truncated work. At the least, the music leaves the work and a flat image remains.

Part of the problem is the issue of “made-up” haiku. Again, a haiku has a sense of completion and depth as opposed to a renga link. Imaginative responses to photographs, etc., that are now in vogue, some as coffee table books, are fun, much as a renga party is fun. But at some level these haiku are anti-makoto and work against the ideas of completion and depth.

At a meeting of the Calgary Haiku Group a discussion developed over the issue of “made-up” haiku. I defended the experiential mode of “organic” haiku in which the two aspects or images of a haiku connect in experiential immediacy as opposed to a “non-organic” mode of haiku in which those aspects are drawn from disparate sources, including the imagination. Another member of the group, who has posted haiku for many years on internet haiku sites, defended the latter position but conceded that he was disturbed by a kind of “automatic” posting of haiku by others in a manner of linking on the same subject as the one he posted. At issue was that these “linking” haiku were obviously made up on the spot.

Jane Reichhold once created a haiku mini-chapbook in which you could flip the lines of haiku on every page to create new haiku to join the permanent first line, “silence”. Sometimes I think much “made-up” haiku are simply parodies of translations of classical Japanese haiku. At other times, I think a writer has found a catchy “formula” for haiku and simply repeats the “formula” over and over again. I think some of these “non-organic” tendencies are encouraged by the nature of electronic formulation which can instantaneously produce information.

There are even haiku created by computers. A computer could produce strings of made-up haiku in no time at all. Should this be the model for haiku writers too? A study in the United States has shown that the use of computers among public school students has lowered their competence in spelling and basic grammar. What else may have resulted from these students’ engagement with electronic processing? I suspect that the creative and imaginative impulses of these students may have been somehow numbed.

So what constitutes a haiku? There seem to be two important issues at stake. The first is the focus of a haiku. There should probably be an implicit or “absolute” metaphor in a haiku that leads to a realisation. There should, in other words, be a relation of the happening in a present moment or of a specific person, place, or thing to some greater focus like a kigo (season word), season phrase, etc. As a co-director of an online haiku list amusingly put it: “Say what you want to say and add a weather report.” A crux in haiku might be said to be the juxtaposition of images to create an “absolute metaphor”. But this, by its definition, is not a mechanical process. Makoto and sensibility, not wit or mind, will lead to such haiku.

The second is the technical working of a haiku. The phrasing, i.e., that which brings the music of poetry into the haiku, becomes a check on the possibilities of the bad in all possible imaginings, juxtaposition. The proponents of “blip” haiku might re-examine the connection of haiku to juxtaposition and phrasing as it moves along on its merry way. They might also examine, in a real way, what sincerity might mean in haiku.



  1. Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku     (Tuttle Publishing, 1993), xxi & xxxii.
  2. Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 13.
  3.  Acorn 6 (2001), 43.
  4. Modern Haiku XXXII:2 (2001), 12.
  5. Hummingbird XI:4 (2001), 48.
  6. Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 27.
  7. Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 25.
  8. Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 10.
  9. Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 8.
  10. Modern Haiku XXXII:2 (2001), 13.
  11. The Heron’s Nest III:6 (2001), 10.
  12. Modern Haiku XXXII:2 (2001), 8.
  13. Acorn 6 (2001), 29.
  14. “Formal Convention in North American Haiku”, Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 59-68.
  15. “The Music of Haiku”, Frogpond XXIV:2 (2001), 69.

Editor’s Note: Bruce Ross is a Canadian poet, author, humanities educator and past president of the Haiku Society of America. He has taught Japanese poetry (in translation) and painting forms for many years and has lectured on haiku in the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, and Romania, as well as being a widely published author of haiku, senryu, tanka and renga. Bruce lives in Maine in the US. His most recent book is summer drizzles: haiku and haibun (2005). Read an interview with Bruce.

This essay first appeared on the World Haiku Review website and appears here with the kind permission of the author.