Some Philosophy and Personal Notes on Haiku

by Paul MacNeil

What is haiku?  What is it not? One approach by some Japanese and some Westerners is that haiku exists only in the Japanese language. Haiku is indeed a product of Japanese literature, descending from the much older literary form renga. Reductio ad absurdum, well yes, haiku may be only in and of the Japanese language, but then it would follow that Ibsen, Moliere, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams are not dramatists; surely this form of art can be achieved only in old Greek as perfected by Sophocles, Euripides, et al.

While, I do not think that too many fundamental distinctions are present between haiku written in Japanese and haiku written in English, I acknowledge that the languages are vastly different. I am not confident that I have ever read a translation from the Japanese that expresses the subtlety of the original. So too, I question that very many Japanese readers possess translation from the finest English-language masters. One can gather many translations of a particular Japanese classic haiku and find they vary tremendously. Plainly, the obverse must be true.

I can glean the meaning of words and phrases, and such translator/scholars as Makoto Ueda (all Japanese names here are in Western order) helpfully give not only the Romanji and the haiku in English, but the word-for-word English.  I believe absolute Japanese fluency, which I do not possess, would be needed for me to tell good from great. One would need not only a translator’s skill but also the ability of a fine haikuist. The leading haikuists in English have incredible language skill, great subtlety, and great insight.  Does this translate in the other direction? Plainly there are a great number of inferior haiku written and shared in English. I assume there are haiku “students” in Japan today as well as throughout history.  Their haiku are not translated or promulgated in the West.

My own developing philosophy of haiku does indeed arise mostly from Japanese sources. Western ones too, but I believe many of those also derive from Japanese thinking and practice. Just as a French band can play jazz developed in the US, and an orchestra in China can play Austria’s Mozart or a Viennese waltz, so too may I understand and at least attempt to write haiku.

I am not a Zennite or a Buddhist. I am a product, vis a vis haiku, of lectures attended, comments by haikuists to me, plus books, journals and internet essays I have read. I am both an amateur naturalist and a lover of language. I make no claim to be authoritative in this essay nor brilliant in my own efforts at haiku. There is neither the space here, nor have I the ability, to propound a complete theory, but I’ll explain just some of these Japanese influences on me, although not pose as an expert. I proselytise only that writers of English haiku, maybe especially those new to it, think about these issues. Perhaps as an outcome, they might develop a cohesive philosophy of their own. It is my conviction that much short poetry is mistakenly shared as “haiku”.

I ask rhetorically (and others have posed this long before me): why call it haiku?  By this I mean, why call what you write “haiku” if not to acknowledge the tradition and philosophy of the “haiku” that is Japanese haiku? The differences of language and  form are very well covered in an essay by Keiko Imaoka, whose writing has influenced me. One line, three lines, English syllables versus Japanese sound beats are all covered and easily, for me, put to rest. The languages are different; the expression of a haiku is different.

But at its essence what is haiku?  Internet resources can provide you with many fine definitions:

It is a fact but not a truth  – Shuson Kato

Dhugal Lindsay, an Australian living and working in Japan, is a member of a school of haiku, led in Tokyo, by Yoko Sugawa. Sugawa-sensei traces her lineage from Shiki through one of his disciples/followers Kyoshi Takahama. Kyoshi was sensei to Shuoshi Mizuhara who taught Shuson Kato, sensei to Ms. Sugawa.

Lindsay says of the Kato quote: “He often said this of people’s haiku.  Don’t make haiku that read like a news report.  It is not enough to state a scene.  It must be done in such a way that it illustrates a fundamental truth at the same time.”

These words go a long way toward defining the essence of haiku. With many complex aspects or parts, haiku definitions in this way can lead to a philosophy, a way of haiku. Sugawa (bi-lingual, writing in English) explains some of the things haiku is not:

  • Photographic descriptions of nature
    I think of this as a Kodak – a snapshot. This is not haiku. Some of his own philosophy was shared by Susumu Takiguchi-san, excerpted from his biography of Kyoshi.  He (also bi-lingual) offers a similar guideline: “Try not to report. Express it.”
  • Simple descriptions or accounts (prose)
    I often encounter on haiku internet lists, and as a haiku editor, what might be termed “shopping lists”. This can take the form of a list of three separate things on three lines or, if two things stretched over three lines, still just a listing of things. Perhaps:

my mother
wrote out a shopping list
I went to the store


first rays of dawn
dew on the brick wall
a peeper sings

One is mundane; the other beautiful.  Neither is haiku.

  • Subjects drawn from television or movies
    News events and such I call “CNN haiku”. Susumu Takiguchi comments: “Try to write a haiku only about what happens to you  (i.e., avoid fictitious or imaginary renderings).”
  • Straight facts and common knowledge devoid of emotion
    The choice of words to describe a scene concretely and also allow connections to both an underlying symbology and the human emotions becomes crucial in terms of success as haiku. Lindsay quotes from a 1947 essay by Otsuji (Seki Osuga):

If one does not grasp something – something which does not merely touch us through our senses but contacts the life within and has the dynamic form of nature – no matter how cunningly we form our words, they will give a hollow sound. Those who compose haiku without grasping anything are merely exercising their ingenuity. The ingenious become only selectors of words and cannot create new experiences for themselves.

Takiguchi says: “Try to write a haiku only when you have been deeply moved, strongly inspired and poetically touched by the subject matter.”  He goes on to add: “Do not fake poetic feelings.”

  • Pieces containing too much religion or intellectualism; rampant metaphors springing from the intellect
    It is not the role of the writer to place his process of thinking in the haiku. A haiku should lead not to obvious conclusions of what the writer emoted, believed, or interpreted, but rather set up a sharing of the experience.  In this, the reader may partake and bring his or her own reactions.  Susumu Takiguchi warns: “Try not to conceptualise, intellectualise, philosophise, moralise, or theorise.”
  • Pieces hiding their lack of content through ambiguity in language
    This is also close to the previous point of what is not haiku. Some writers use an inner language, private meanings, or hint at things known only to them. Uncommon words, or words used in unconventional meanings are a part of this type of non-haiku, or at least failed haiku attempts. The use of enigma, religious or otherwise, is not haiku.
  • Explanatory pieces leaving nothing for readers to discover themselves
    This is haiku that just tells the reader ALL about it. The relationships of the elements are spelled out.  One variety is the “cause and effect” haiku when an antecedent to the observation is made plain. A haiku that has its own answer. Sometimes I think of these as “so what?” haiku. The writer has failed to consider what is it about the subject(s) that should be shared with others. A reader encounters this kind of verse and may reply … “and, what about it?”  We have Basho’s teachings on this in several ways:
  • . . . a haiku (hokku) is made by combining things
  • A verse that is not cut is not a haiku (hokku)
  • Those who are good at combining or bringing together two topics are superior poets.

Rather than listing things or explaining all about things, haiku may better be considered in terms of the juxtaposition (I often prefer the term “apposition”) of the elements or parts and then the creation of the space (the “cutting”) between them.

Yoko Sugawa offers some positive points regarding what haiku IS or what should be included:

  • “If your haiku has captured a truth, there is no need to decorate your poem with flowery words.
  • Seasonal words (kigo) are very important to haiku. However, in the modern world where the seasons have lost much of their omnipotency and where we wish to share our haiku internationally a more relaxed stance on kigo could be called for. Kigo need not necessarily place a haiku in any particular season, but could rather be included simply to relate the haiku to the natural world.
  • To state without stating. In order to say ten things a haiku presents only two.  Due to its length, every word is of the utmost importance.”

This reminds me of the wisdom of old Master Basho, passed to us by his followers’ writings in the manner of Plato for Socrates. Basho is quoted as asking: “Is there any good in saying everything?” And with wisdom of great import for me, Sugawa-sensei wrote: “One cannot make good haiku simply by going about one’s life in a day-to-day fashion. It is necessary to hone one’s senses to the world around one and take an interest in all things great and small.”

She also wrote: “The key to making haiku is that when something of the natural world causes one to start in surprise and revelation … this shock caused by an encounter with a truth is yours and yours alone. Throw away all preconceptions and predetermined ideas about the object and experience it as if you were a young child.  In doing this, one is able to catch pure and fundamental truths in nature and through this discover truths within oneself and humankind in general.” Some of this truth-finding was spoken by Basho more than three centuries ago – his admonition to “learn of the pine from the pine, learn of bamboo from bamboo”.

Truth is subjective always because perception is subjective. But, the truths of things in their natural world, the interrelations of these truths with each other and with humankind, are knowable. They can be shared … with haiku. I adopt an aesthetic view that the definition of Art is the expression of emotion. Thus a creator and a perceiver are necessary. This theory encompasses Bernini, Balzac, Buson, and Busoni. In haiku, the emotion created in the reader/listener is derived from our simple phrasings of “truths” of nature, their consonance and/or dissonance. The emotion is found within the reader, as the observation is the province of the author. Certainly a serious writer of haiku is always trying to communicate with the reader/listener. The haiku is put to paper with this in mind. A writer does the best to show what was seen and experienced – the perception of “truths”. That is the extent of responsibility. In closing, the words of a modern English-language master, or sensei, the late Robert Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku: “… the poet must select and arrange the words of the haiku in such a manner that when the haiku is read or heard, the words arouse or evoke in the reader/listener those immediate feelings that the poet had.”



Basho, Matsuo.

Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku, Ecco Press, 1994. ISBN 0-88001-351-6.

Lindsay, Dhugal. (Sugawa), see Lindsay as follows

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams – Landscape, Cultural Memory, and The Poetry of Basho, Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8047-3099-7.

Kato, Shuson. see Lindsay as follows:

Lindsay, Dhugal from a previously available website.

Otsugi (Osuga,Seki). Lindsay, ibid.

Spiess, Robert. [from] Speculations in the journal: Modern Haiku. Quoted by Suzuki, Ryo.

Sugawa, Yoko. Lindsay, op.cit.

Takiguchi, Susumu. Kyoshi – A Haiku Master,  Ami-Net International Press, 1977.  ISBN 1-902135-00-8.

Takiguchi, Susumu. The World Haiku Club’s Haiku Forum Internet Mailing List,  February 16, 2000.

Ueda, Makoto. Basho and His Interpreters. Stanford University Press, 1992.  ISBN 0-804702526-8.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared as a guest lecture for the Hibiscus School taught by Ferris Gilli for the World Haiku Club, online, 2001. It has been edited for this website and appears here with the author’s permission.

Paul MacNeil is co-editor of The Heron’s Nest and is a widely published writer of haiku, haibun, renku and tanka. He lives in Florida.