Thoughts on Juxtaposition

by Carmen Sterba

Why is haiku so alluring to each of us who enjoy reading and writing it? For haiku lovers, writing what one considers a successful haiku is likely to create a cathartic response. Once again, the poet hopes to compose a haiku that will not be forgotten. We often hear that juxtaposition is a key to successful haiku. The contrast of two images in haiku is most often instrumental in creating resonance. Robert Spiess, the beloved editor of Modern Haiku, had this to say in A Year’s Speculations on Haiku:

Juxtaposition of entities in haiku cannot be simply the throwing together of just anything; the poet must have the intuition that certain things, albeit of “opposite” characteristics, nonetheless have a resonance with each other that will evoke a revelation when they are juxtaposed in accordance with the time-tested canons and aesthetics of haiku.

As an editor for the Online journal haijinx, I found out how important it is to read each haiku several times before making individual choices. I need to evaluate the haiku on various levels, but the bottom line is whether the elements of the haiku also allow the reader to relate to a new way of seeing. This may involve both juxtaposition and an open-ended style, besides a careful choice of words. Here’s some contemporary haiku that are subtle or surprising in their juxtaposition. The first is an example of how juxtaposition creates synesthesia by combining more than one of the senses.

night of stars
all along the precipice

goat bells ring

an’ya, The Heron’s Nest, 2.2

On an especially clear night with bright stars overhead, mountain goats move along the mountain trail with their heavy burdens as their hooves come dangerously close to the precipice. Each goat bell rings and the stars seem to ring, also. This is an excellent example of synesthesia.

full moon
from my whisper
on her
silver earring

William Cullen, Jr, Frogpond, 29.1

This haiku is visually provocative in a refined manner. As the wee circular puff disappears (in imitation of the full moon) the repetition of i and s in the words mist, whisper and silver adds to the sense of intimacy and creates a delicate synesthesia.

the piano hammers

barely moving …

night snow

John Barlow, 2nd, 2006 Robert Speiss Memorial Haiku Award

Instead of a focus on the music, the poet zeros in on the hammers of the piano. The tempo of the hammers, and thus the unmentioned tune, is gently transferred to the tempo of the falling snow. Barlow’s control of the technique of transference is exquisite. I have noticed this to be true in many of his haiku.

sunlit jar

the beekeeper’s gift
on the doorstep

Carmen Sterba, The Heron’s Nest, 3.6

First, one imagines an empty jar filled by the sun, but the mention of a beekeeper suddenly fills this jar with fresh honey in this example of transference.

after love
the sweet burst

of cherry tomato

Claire Gallagher, How Fast the Ground Moves, 2001

If Gallagher had chosen a different first line, how different this haiku would be. The act of love reverberates in the bite of the cherry tomato. It is all so succinct and evocative.

heat lightning –
all the way into Mexico

the mountains rise

Michael McClintock, The Heron’s Nest, 2:5

At night, flashes of light transform a landscape temporarily. When the lightning strikes, the mountain seems to move towards Mexico. Without the word Mexico the mountains would still rise, yet with the addition of a place name, the poet gives the mountains a direction in which to move, and that extends the movement.

we wade into the current
of a great river

Kirsty Karkow, The Heron’s Nest, 4.2

Karkow’s coupling of honeymoon with a great river adds the exhilaration and the weight of a major commitment. This particular river changes into a river of life and lends substance to the haiku for each reader to reflect on in their own way. This is a successful transference link.

These haiku are examples of some of the techniques that the English language poets have learned from the translations of Bashô’s different techniques for juxtaposition:

The Master said, “The hokku has changed repeatedly since the distant past, but there have been only three changes in the nature of the haikai link. In the distant past, poets valued word links (kotoba-zuke). In the more recent past, poets have stressed content links (kokoro-zuke). Today, it is best to link by transference (usuri), reverberation (hibiki), scent (nioi), or status (kurai)” (NKBZ 51:503, Shirane, p85)

In Bashô’s time, these kinds of links were used in haikai no renga (popular-style linked verse) which is now called renku. All the techniques mentioned above are used in renku today. However, transference, reverberation, and scent link techniques are the most useful and effective in haiku juxtaposition.

I have focused on the techniques of transference and reverberation in this article. A status link requires using words that give a clue to the class of people or places. This is appropriate in renku, but not common in English-language haiku. Examples of scent link usage are those with a typically quiet, meditative and lonely mood (sabi). It is a popular style in contemporary haiku in all languages. 

Another method that Bashô used at the end of his life is the technique of lightness (karumi). This implied the “recovery of youthful playfulness, spontaneity, naturalness, and a fresh perspective . . .” (Shirane, p275). This kind of lightness is definitely alive in English-language haiku.

Lastly, a word about haiku with one image: marlene mountain pointed out that though juxtaposition is a technique, “non-juxtaposition is not the opposite and needn’t be compared” for it is “a technique too”. (Haikumania) And Bashô and his disciples would have agreed, though they called it a “single-object” poem:

The Master said, “A hokku that moves smoothly from the opening five syllables to the end is a superb verse.”

Kyorai: If a poet composes by combining separate things, he can compose many verses and compose them quickly. Beginning poets should know this. But when one becomes an accomplished poet, it is no longer a question of combining or not combining.” (NKBZ 51:498, Shirane, p111).

In the hands of a highly skilful haiku poet, one-image haiku can be exquisitely successful. Nevertheless, experimenting with different types of juxtaposition may add the depth that creates a memorable haiku; one that does not fail to reverberate again and again.



mountain, marlene. “‘the Japanese haiku’ and so on”, Haikumainia, June 6, 2004.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and Poetry of Bashô, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Spiess, Robert. A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, Madison, Wisconsin: Modern Haiku Press, 1995.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Simply Haiku Vol 5:3 (autumn 2007) and has been revised by the author for its 2011 publication here.

Carmen Sterba lived in Japan for 31 years before returning to the US in 2004. She is a founding editor for haijinx (relaunched in 2010), former haiku columnist for The Haiku Foundation’s Troutswirl Blog and for the North American Post, a Japanese-American newspaper in Seattle. She has previously servied as both secretary and first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America. Carmen’s haiku appeared in A New Resonance 4, Emerging Voices in English-language Haiku in 2005 and her chapbook, sunlit jar was first published in 2002. She is active in Haiku Northwest and is a co-founder of Commencement Bay Haiku in 2012. Carmen lives near Seattle in Washington state.