The unsaid in haiku and senryu

by Owen Bullock

Recent reading of haiku anthologies has confirmed the thought that some of the best haiku and senryu get their power from what they do not say as much as from what they do say. I have come to regard this aspect of the forms as “the unsaid’’. I realise that my category is arbitrary, but I’ve used it on order to have a way of discussing some important aspects of writing. This is not a new idea, and Ernest Berry wrote of it recently in his excellent Judge’s Report on the New Zealand Poetry Society’s competition. Thinking about the topic more might help us confront the problems of over-writing, especially for those new to haiku. Here’s a good place to start:

early morning –
the cat’s tail
circles the bed

John Barlow (The New Haiku)

The detail and use of implication are important. The cat circles the bed, but that’s not what the poet says. The person lying in bed sees only the tail and from that perspective, it’s a strange sight. It is early, the cat is already awake, and invites the human to be awake too. If the poet had written “the cat circles the bed,” there would be no poem. The tail is a signal, a marker, something which stirs a reaction, rather than being the reaction itself. This pertains to the challenge of writing any form of poetry. Our task is to stir in the reader the reaction that we had when we came across a particular moment; or to leave the haiku so open that it can be read in many ways.

October bedtime
the feather on the dream catcher
turning gently

Claire Bugler Hewitt (TNH)

This is also a subtle signal. The haiku does not mention the wind or the draught, but its effects. Another reading might venture to ask if this is the spirit acting on the dreamcatcher – perhaps the dream is on its way.

red rubber boots
        not a puddle
  without ripples

eric l. houk jnr (TNH)

Again, it’s all about what you leave out. Never mind legs and a body. There are red boots and puddles and there’s a relation between the two. Part of that connection is created by the colour, the colour of action. The ripples also indicate the passage of time. The activity has been going on a while; the little one is persistent – and it is a little person, there is still water left in the puddles, with ripples in them.

parlour window   a flicker of lace

John O’Connor (2nd NZ Haiku Anthology)

Much is unsaid here, in fact, almost everything. We have only the bare necessaries of the situation: a flicker of lace at the window. We might speculate endlessly on the personality of the individual who glances out. Has this person withdrawn from the world by choice? Is this a routine? Does the watcher prefer to be behind the curtain most of the time? Is there more than one person, hiding to escape detection? One will not exhaust the possibilities.

at odds with myself –
not having bought a ticket:
the misty sunrise

Colin Blundell (The Iron Book of British Haiku)

We don’t know what event or journey he didn’t buy a ticket for, but it’s the old thing that you don’t need a ticket for the sunrise. There is a sense of frustration and of release. The transitions in the human being’s experience are what’s important, not the individual event. A senryu such as this depicts a moment not as an exterior event but as a moment of dynamic change.

It also rained
pink magnolia blossoms
upon the lawn

Bernard M. Aaronson (Haiku Moment)

As well as . . . The poet reminds us that there’s another topic of conversation than the weather, than the rain. It can also rain flowers, pink ones. Rain is captured as a verbal metaphor for the depiction of the world as it, less obviously, is.

father had known,
didn’t say a word:
pampas grass in the garden

Kawahigashi Hekigodo (Modern Japanese Haiku)

At a guess, father had known about a terminal illness and didn’t tell anyone – that’s what came to mind for me. But we’re not told what father didn’t say, so that the effect on the writer is reproduced in us. It could have been a secret that someone else was keeping but shouldn’t have been.

empty room
growing emptier
as the sun rises

Caroline Gourlay (Iron)

A characteristic of the unsaid in haiku is that it leaves you with a question. In this case, it’s about what could have been in the room, not just darkness, but memories, suppositions, hopes; day itself is much emptier than it might be, the hospital room (this is from a sequence titled ‘Intensive Care’) is a cold, clinical space.

I’d like to tease my own categorising with this haiku:

Summer mountain:
morning mist
the only sound

Dave Sutter (HM)

A lovely way of saying – but is it unsaid or unconsciously said? Surely there is no sound? But he doesn’t write that. The poet more firmly establishes the idea of silence by asserting that there is a sound, even when we know there can’t be; he also creates a sense of mystery. Here’s another haiku that is more than it first appears:

winter ice storm;
    the old cat wants out
wants in

Denver Stull (HM)

Are the ‘in’ and ‘out’ opposites? Probably not. The old cat wants out of the situation, but in the warmth. There’s nothing in the poem about a house, door or fire. But something makes the cat waver – the storm itself or the behaviour of people inside?

Another aspect of the unsaid in haiku is in the omission of small details for greater, though not always noticeable, effect:

After the rain
a white butterfly
on the clothesline

George Swede (HM)

‘Dried’ is the missing word. The butterfly is dead with the end of the rain. Something much more profound, ornamental and captivating is on the line than the usual load of washing!

Occasionally, a haiku utilises the abstract:

bird in the hand
the beat of its fright
on my fingertips

Frank Dullaghan (TNH)

The poet has ‘fright’ rather than ‘wings’. It is a rare case where an abstract word works better than the literal fact. It allows more. It is not waffly abstraction. We see the action before us on the fingertips. The first line alludes to the old saying, but with an humanitarian twist. The haijin probably does not want a bird in the hand rather than the bush if this excites such fear and pain in the creature. The word fright also helps us engage with the subject, the bird; it is an emotional term.

Stone’s plumpness
turns into snow

Ogiwara Seisensui (MJH)

The stone is covered in snow and its plumpness becomes accentuated – that is the pragmatic reading of the situation. But if the stone’s plumpness could literally turn into snow then our reality would be suspended. The writer focuses purely on the plumpness, it is not the stone’s plumpness, it does not belong exclusively to the stone, it may be shared by almost anything. At a simple grave site, for example, our plumpness might turn to snow – there must always be an allusion to burial, I think, when snow’s around (even though it beautifies the most ugly scene within minutes of a decent fall). There is no negativity in this burial though, no grief, it is a cycle.

The sunset glow:
changing my mind, I pick up
a seashell

Yamaguchi Seishi (MJH)

What did the poet change his mind about? It does not matter, the poet implies. In this case, it’s not necessary to have all the details. It’s the fact of having been able to change one’s mind that’s important. This dawn of realisation began with the sunset. The mind was subsequently changed, and the poet is somehow ‘free’ to pick up a seashell. The seashell was there all along, but the writer could not see it because of the mental activity.

These many examples of what I call the unsaid in haiku and senryu show how little the poems need contain. Our minds want to spell out what we write and to embellish. But not always to make clear. Life is not entirely assessable, because much is unsaid.



Haiku Moment – An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, ed. by Bruce Ross (Boston: Tuttle, 1993) 

The Iron Book of British Haiku, ed. by David Cobb and Martin Lucas (Northshields: Iron, 1998) 

Modern Japanese Haiku – An Anthology, ed. by Makoto Ueda (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976) 

The New Haiku, ed. by John Barlow and Martin Lucas (Liverpool: Snapshots, 2002) 

The Second New Zealand Haiku Anthology, ed. by Cyril Childs (Wellington: Poetry Society, 1998).

Editor’s note: Owen Bullock was born and bred in Cornwall and has lived in New Zealand since 1989. Bullock has won awards for his poetry and is widely published in New Zealand and overseas. He has been an editor of several magazines, including Poetry NZ and Kokako. He has published poetry, haiku, fiction and non-fiction. From 2015 he has lived in Canberra, Australia, where he is undertaking a PhD in creative writing. Read more at Owen’s Showcase page.