Toward an Aesthetic for English-Language Haiku by Lee Gurga

Among both poets and the general public there is a broad mass of people whose only understanding of haiku is that it has 17 syllables and that anything that is put in the 17-syllable, three-line form they remember from school is automatically haiku. That this understanding is not restricted to country bumpkins is exemplified by a feature in the New York Times of October 12, 1997, titled “Haiku Populi”, which presented as haiku 17-syllable efforts that could hold their own against the worst of what has appeared under the name of haiku. This poem led off the feature:

So many artists
Crowding this island canvas
Yikes here’s another

Yikes, indeed!

If we are to meaningfully discuss haiku, we must address what it is we are talking about. The first and most widely accepted position is that anything in 17 syllables is haiku. What is presented in these 17 syllables is usually a display of wit or an intellective statement. This is the posture that produces things such as “corporate haiku” and the like. A survey of the internet quickly demonstrates that vastly different things are called “haiku” and that they seem to have little in common other than their brevity. This might lead us to conclude that brevity is a defining characteristic of haiku and I believe it is. Beyond this characteristic, these constructs seem to have little in common with the Japanese haiku from which they are supposedly derived. While I will not argue that these efforts are “not haiku”, in the broadest sense, they are not significant to those working to develop haiku as an art form.

I suppose the most inclusive definition of haiku is that “haiku is anything that the writer or reader or viewer considers to be haiku”. I include “viewer” here because some things called haiku are visual or infraverbal. While this definition may be the most encompassing and liberal, it certainly is not very helpful in exploring an aesthetic for English-language haiku. The problem is that if “anything is haiku” then any aesthetic will do.

This leads to the question: “Is more than one haiku aesthetic possible?” There seems to be no choice but to answer this question in the affirmative. Where does that leave us? I believe it leaves us free to choose an aesthetic, and the one I have chosen to discuss looks back over haiku’s 300-plus year history and attempts to build a poetic based on the most significant poems that have been written over that time. However satisfying any aesthetic may be intellectually or emotionally, the only test that matters is whether it produces poems of significance.

Look at the finest of the classics and the finest contemporary haiku and I believe you will find a common thread – characterised as having a dedication to truthfulness combined with a lack of self-consciousness. Northrop Frye wrote that, “The poet’s task is to deliver the poem in as uninjured a state as possible, and if the poem is alive, it is equally anxious to be rid of him, and screams to be cut loose from his private memories and associations, his desire for self-expression, and all the other navel-strings and feeding tubes of his ego.” 1

This is the kind of haiku that I appreciate. When I read it, I say to myself, “I wish I had written that!”. The question then becomes, how does one approach the writing of this kind of haiku? Is there, as has been suggested, a state of mind conducive to writing haiku? Are there any kinds of perceptions that are peculiar to haiku? Is haiku to be written from the perspective of the upper case “I”? The lower case “i”? Or perhaps the spiritual “third eye”?

R.H. Blyth, who identified haiku with Zen, characterised the state of mind necessary for writing and appreciating haiku as having 13 elements. They are:

  • Selflessness
  • Loneliness
  • Grateful acceptance
  • Wordlessness
  • Non-intellectuality
  • Contradiction
  • Humour
  • Freedom
  • Non-morality
  • Simplicity
  • Materiality
  • Love
  • Courage.

In suggesting the basis for an approach to haiku, one could do worse.

A new era in the consideration of haiku aesthetics was ushered in by Haruo Shirane’s fine book, Traces of Dreams2. It presents Bashô not as a Zen patriarch, but as a literary man participating in a vibrant life involved with his contemporaries. One cannot claim to be writing today’s haiku without addressing the issues raised in this book and in Professor Shirane’s essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment”.3

Shirane discusses several aspects of 17th century haikai that he believes are important for the development of English-language haiku. These include:

  • The use of haiku to escape reality
  • Imagination and fiction in haiku, allusion
  • The role of kigo (season words)
  • The use of metaphor
  • Techniques for obtaining complexity and depth in haiku.

Among the tenets of English-language haiku that Professor Shirane questions is the necessity of direct experience. “Why then the constant emphasis by … [English-language] haiku poets on direct personal experience? . . . it should be noted that the haikai that preceded Bashô was almost entirely imaginary or fictional haikai. . . . Bashô was one of the critics of . . . ‘nonsense’ haikai. He believed that haikai should describe the world ‘as it is’.”

Then, apparently confusing nonsense with fiction, Shirane goes on to say, “However, to describe the world as it is did not mean denying fiction. Fiction can be very realistic and even more real than life itself”.

Well, perhaps, but given the extreme individualism of Western culture, I sense a danger in encouraging people to go beyond the imaginative to the imaginary and the fantastic. I am concerned this will simply take us back to the kind of trivial haikai that existed before Bashô.

Of course, I am not advocating mere journalistic reporting of events as an alternative to the use of imagination. Masaoki Shiki, the great moderniser of Japanese haiku, recommended shasei or “sketching from life” for beginners, and it is against the sterility of the images of many of these sketches that the proponents of the use of imaginary elements seem to be reacting.

But according to Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Poets4,  Shiki recommended other ways of composing haiku for more advanced poets. Shiki proposed that poets attempt  using imagination only after they had developed a sufficiently fine perception of the world and experience of truth. Shiki’s suggested development of the poet – from “sketches of life” for the beginner to “selective realism” for the more advanced poet to makoto or “poetic truth” for the master – is as valid today as it was one hundred years ago when he proposed it.

How to resolve this dilemma? Fortunately we have William J. Higginson and Professor Shirane himself to thank for stretching our understanding of haiku as only one part of a larger tradition of poetry. Haikai includes all of the linked-verse tradition from which haiku developed: the imaginative linked verse as a whole, the opening stanza from which haiku developed as an independent form, and the interior verses from which senryu and other poetic expressions have developed. If we see all of what is presented as “haiku” as having developed from this larger haikai tradition, it is much easier to resolve the issues raised by the differences between the various kinds of “haiku” we see today.

Broadly speaking, we can view all of haikai as a pyramid composed of three basic elements: zappai, senryu, and haiku. In Japanese poetry, zappai includes all types of 17-syllable poems that do not have the proper formal or technical characteristics of haiku – the cutting word, season word, rules for the use of postpositional particles and specific verb endings. It was a popular form of entertainment in the Edo period that includes many kinds of linking games, including the one from which senryu developed.

If we look at all of what is presented today as “haiku”, a large number of so-called haiku are, like zappai, imaginative or imaginary, wit-based poems that are written or shared for the entertainment of the reader and writer. Unlike haiku, these poems often have no relation to nature. Unlike senryu, these poems make no attempt to distinguish between the imaginative and the imaginary. This includes things like spam haiku, sci-fi haiku and their ilk. While it is appropriate to recognise these poems as part of the haikai tradition, they are not haiku except in the sense that they share with haiku the characteristic of brevity.

Zappai thus defined may be a handy label for the majority of what is written today in the name of “haiku”. If they are not the majority, they are certainly the kind of “haiku” that command the most attention in the media. Zappai, then, form the base of our pyramid and account for most of its volume, either literally or figuratively. Zappai provide the point of entry for many poets into the haikai tradition and the writing of zappai enables people to develop the skills and interest for subsequent exploration of other elements of this tradition.

Resting on this broad base of zappai are senryû and haiku. Like zappai, senryû are derived from the interior stanzas of haikai-linked verse. Like zappai, they are imaginative, but what distinguishes them is that they are not dominated by an imaginary element. They have a commitment to truth, in the case of senryû, the truth of the human condition. They also share with zappai a wit-based humour, which they use to convey this truth to the reader or listener. Their combination of wit and insight allows them to advance from the realm of light verse to that of poetry. However, since their purview is restricted to the human realm, they often lack the potential for universal significance that the finest haiku can attain by relating the human condition to the larger issue of our place in the universe. This is what haiku can attempt – and the finest haiku achieve. Through the elements of brevity, juxtaposition, observation of nature, insight, and humour, haiku give us a view of the unknown and the unknowable. This is why I place haiku at the apex of the pyramid. The fundamental difference that separates haiku and senryû above from zappai below is a commitment to truthfulness.

One of the original and enduring characteristics of haiku is the seasonal or nature reference. In addition to brevity, this nature reference has been an essential element of haiku since its beginnings. In its original role as the opening stanza in a linked poem, haiku as hokku not only evoked the season, but the particular season in which the poem was being composed. With these seasonal references, the Japanese have created a rich poetic texture over a thousand years and more – and the seasonal reference invites both poets and readers to weave these perceptions of the seasons into their lives and to weave themselves into this rich brocade.

It is true it is not our Western tradition, but then neither is judo or kendo or Zen, yet we have embraced all these. The tradition may seem contrived and of course it is – all human culture is contrived – even as it may try deliberately to avoid contrivance.

Emphasis on the season and sensitivity to the immediate present is a large part of what makes haiku what it is. It has been suggested, however, that this will not do for our age. The thinking seems to be that seasonal images are too local and, for people living in urban environments, a seasonal requirement is both unreasonable and artificial.

There is some truth to these arguments, but I do not believe they form a real impediment to the use of seasonal references in contemporary haiku. Wherever one lives, the signs of the changing seasons are present. That urban themes and a feeling of the seasons can be integrated to produce poetry of relevance is demonstrated in this classic haiku by L.A. Davidson:

in the lobby
of the residential hotel
a feeling of autumn 

This fine poem goes beyond wit to produce a poem of great resonance, evoking the season even in an environment where it is not overtly visible, but in which its presence is nonetheless felt by the poet.

In his book Haiku in English, Harold Henderson described what he considered the four general rules of Japanese haiku and proposes that writers of English-language haiku to explore each of them and adapt them to our language. These rules are:

  • Form
  • Nature reference
  • Reference to a particular event
  • The presentation of this event in the present rather than the past.

In addition, he discusses the use of the fundamental haiku technique of internal comparison.

While technical elements as a whole are not pertinent to this discussion, it is important to note that there is one technical element more important than the rest – the juxtaposition of two or more images. How crucial this element is to haiku is indicated by the Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan, which includes the cutting that results from the separation of the images in haiku as one of its three defining elements. When one sees a haiku or pseudo-haiku that begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, one can be fairly certain that the writer has missed this important point.

If English-language haiku is to be a genre of poetry rather than merely a form of light verse, we must consider how to appropriately achieve depth of expression. In his Modern Haiku essay, Professor suggests several devices – one is illusion or fantasy, another is allusion, references to culture, to the literary or historical past or to the present. In other words, personal experience plus engagement with literary tradition through allusion equals literary haiku. This is certainly a possibility, but is it the best one? Is it the only one?

There is no doubt that allusion can be an exceptionally effective way to increase the emotive power of a poem. But for English-language haiku, the question becomes, allude to what? Poems of the English-language canon? Nature writings of the transcendentalists and after? In the one example Shirane gives, the allusion is to a poem by Bashô. Should we allude to the Japanese classics in our haiku? More contemporary Japanese haiku? Early English-language haiku?

Allusion to individual haiku poems is certainly a valid suggestion. But if it is appropriate, why not invoke another, more fundamental, element? Shirane gives an inspiring account of the role of the seasonal reference in Japanese haiku, then simply dismisses it as an important element of allusion in English-language haiku because “the connotations of seasonal words differ greatly from region to region … and generally are not tied to specific literary or cultural associations that would be immediately recognised by the reader”. He goes on to say, “English-language haiku therefore has to depend on other dimensions of haiku for its life”.

Is it a problem that connotations of seasonal words differ from region to region, or is it a potential source of additional richness? Is it a problem that seasonal words are not tied to specific literary or cultural associations, or does this not give haiku the privilege of enriching our traditions as it develops?

The use of the seasonal reference enables us to participate in the centuries-long haiku tradition. The seasonal reference takes the poem beyond the merely personal, and enables us to align our individual experiences with the ever-changing but eternally recurring cycles of the natural world. This is the haiku tradition. Why insist that haiku become something else? Why not explore and enhance it? Why not let the experience of thousands of poets over the centuries enrich your life and perhaps as a side effect, enrich this tradition yourself?

Allusion is an important poetic device, but it is only one of the many tools available to the haiku poet to increase depth and resonance. Traditional poetic devices like simile and metaphor have been used effectively in both Japanese haiku and English-language haiku. The advantages of their use in haiku is the same as in any other kind of poetry – they permit the poet to introduce unexpected associations, and thereby allow the poet to convey his or her individual insights to the reader in a non-rational non-discursive way.

Consider for example the effective resonance in this haiku by Ban’ya Natsuishi:

in the undersea tunnel
my heart itself
is an autumn storm

In this poem, his heart’s claustrophobic reaction to confinement in a tunnel is captured artfully through its identification with the violence of an autumn storm.

On the other hand, the danger inherent in the use of these devices is that it will become an end in itself, that the poem will become merely an exercise in poetics rather than a poem with real depth. After all, what gives a poem resonance is not the presence or absence of poetic devices, but the ability of the poem to create an impression of significance in the heart of the reader.

The use of simile and metaphor has the same disadvantages of devices like allusion or the artificial use of seasonal references – they offer the poet a “lazy way out” of engaging the material of the poem directly. They introduce the dangers of stereotype in place of insight and fancy in place of imagination. It is true that skilfully constructed but insignificant poems can be judged “technically admirable” by the reader, but after that wave of admiration is passed, the poem will be forgotten unless those admirable techniques are used to convey something meaningful.

While poetic devices can increase the depth and power of individual haiku, it is also true that the use of overt simile or metaphor can have a limiting rather than expanding effect. In my own experience, the poems that have the greatest depth are those that operate successfully on the literal level as well as being potentially metaphorical. This more subtle kind of metaphor has been discussed by Paul O. Williams5 who, in his talk, coined the term “unresolved metaphor” to characterise the kind of subtle metaphoric suggestion that he finds most effective in haiku. The technique of juxtaposition makes it nearly inevitable that haiku will have some implied comparison between the elements of the poem. That these elements can be interpreted metaphorically as well as literally adds depth and resonance to many of the finest haiku.

Professor Ethan Lewis of the University of Illinois has pointed out that what I am really advocating through the use of unresolved metaphor is symbolism. And, in fact, the Matsuyama Declaration makes the point that Japanese haiku is “in essence, symbolic poetry”. This is not the arcane, personal symbolism of the tortured poet wasting away in his garret, but the potentially universal symbolism of the poet participating in contemporary life and culture.

A fine example of this is provided by James W. Hackett:

Deep within the stream
the huge fish lies motionless
facing the current

On the surface, this poem presents a simple scene from nature, something that many of us have experienced. Perhaps Hackett is standing on a bridge over a swiftly flowing mountain stream. But awareness of Hackett’s lifelong pursuit of Zen principles opens this poem to another, deeper (no pun intended!) interpretation. The fish could easily be seen as a Zen master. Moving, yet motionless. In the stream of life, but unaffected by the currents that carry others away. Facing upstream in a world that is moving downstream. This additional level of insight provides the richness that makes this haiku more than merely what David Cobb calls a “nature note”.

Two important haiku manifestos have come from Japan – from the First Symposium on Contemporary Haiku in Tokyo (1999) and the Shimanami Kaido Haiku Convention in Matsuyama (1999). They hope to influence the direction of international haiku. What these two manifestos have in common is the suggestion that the Japanese concept of the kigo might not be suitable for international haiku. Both  suggest the possibility of replacing the Japanese kigo with a culturally appropriate “keyword”.

The Japanese are correct in believing that haiku must adapt to different languages and cultures as it becomes a truly international art form, that the rigid and culturally bound system of Japanese kigo is probably not adaptable to other languages and situations.

By releasing haiku from the specific seasonal associations of Japanese culture, the keyword concept can help speed internationalisation. But I am concerned that the keyword concept might be misunderstood, and that this potential misunderstanding poses a grave danger.

If we are to have keywords in place of kigo, it is important these keywords retain their seasonal character, or at least that they retain some significant element of non-human nature. For example, if we are going to have non-seasonal keywords, it would be difficult to object to “spam” as a legitimate keyword. Thus “spam haiku” become real haiku. Surely this is not what is intended by the poets who produced these manifestos, but it is a possible interpretation of their suggestion.

If haiku keeps a seasonal element, the keyword concept can potentially enlarge haiku, but if it doesn’t, it risks diminishing the significance of haiku to the vanishing point. One of the things that sets haiku apart, and is a major part of its value, is that it encourages people to go beyond the merely personal, beyond the merely human-centred. It encourages them to view themselves and their perceptions as a part of a larger whole. The suggestion that people should be satisfied with strictly human-centred haiku risks trivialising haiku rather than expanding its boundaries.

The keyword concept is a potentially valuable contribution to international haiku. Non-seasonal haiku can be powerful. But the wholesale replacement of seasonal references with non-seasonal keywords risks transforming haiku back into the haikai from which it developed.

There is no doubt that Japanese haiku has some serious problems. However, their problems are not our problems. We have to worry less about haiku becoming moribund than we do about its being stillborn. In Japan, the primary problem is an over-conservatism, an over-dependence on tradition and a lack of individualism. In the West, the problem is nearly the opposite – a tradition that could be said to hardly exist at all and an almost pathological excess of individualism. One cannot apply the same cure to different diseases and expect efficacious results in both cases.

A crucial English-language deficiency is an incomplete or flawed understanding of what haiku is. We all know that haiku is composed of two parts – perception and imagination. If we can keep these two in balance, perhaps we can create a contemporary haiku that has both spiritual and social meaning.

I am a dentist by profession, as was Saitô Sanki, one of the premier haiku poets of 20th century Japan. I have a quotation hanging in my office that reads, “True understanding is actual practice itself”. What I do is called “the practice of dentistry”. A theoretical understanding will not do when one is confronted with a person with a swollen face. The ability to practice skilfully and compassionately is the only thing that is important. Likewise, a theoretical understanding of poetics will not necessarily produce good haiku. Only a poet can do that. If proposals lead to better haiku, we should explore their ramifications. If not, then we shouldn’t bother with them. Otherwise, what is the point?

If one takes haiku in English to be a short poem that presents images, one can follow this line of thinking to discern streams of contemporary haiku. One approach follows Pound’s one-line definition of image: “An ‘image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”.6 This defines an image as having a combination of intellective and emotional elements. The vast majority of Japanese and English-language haiku have been composed in this way. This “image” gives us the sort of haiku Shirane is proposing – haiku produced by a combination of attention to one’s immediate environment and reference to one’s literary tradition. This category, unfortunately, also includes all the intellective abominations in the West that have been produced in the name of haiku – often playful, usually cerebral poems that pay no attention to the immediate environment other than its human elements, poems that I suggest we categorise as zappai rather than haiku.

If we make a slight alteration in Pound’s definition, we get a second kind of haiku, one that may present us with a resolution. If we change “intellectual” to “intuitive”, we have: “An ‘image’ is that which presents an intuitive and emotional complex in an instant of time”. This altered definition can be used as the basis for a definition of haiku as “a short poem that uses images of nature and the seasons to present an intuitive and emotional complex in an instant of time”, which contains all the elements that are essential to haiku:

  • It is a poem
  • It is a poem limited in length, in English that limit being somewhere between 15 and 20 syllables
  • It presents images rather than ideas
  • It is intuitive rather than intellective
  • It uses observation of nature and the seasons as a basis for that intuition
  • Its observations are specific rather than general.

Today we have many people throughout the world writing many kinds of haiku. Let us continue to ponder the questions raised by their work. Are they good poems? Are they good haiku? My thoughts here should not be considered rigid prescriptions, but rather suggestions for further experimentation with haiku.


1 Quoted in The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature, editor Richard Kostelanetz, Prometheus Books (1982) p. 19.

2 Traces of Dreams by Haruo Shirane, Stanford University Press (1998).

3 “Beyond the Haiku Moment” by Haruo Shirane, Modern Haiku, Volume 31, #1.

4 Modern Japanese Poets by Makoto Ueda, Stanford University Press (1983).

5 “The Question of Metaphor in Haiku” presented at the Haiku North America Conference, 1993, by Paul O Williams, and published in The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Press Here (2000).

6 Quoted in Poetry, vol. I, #6, (1913) p. 200.

Editor’s Note: This article, which appears here with the kind permission of the author, is an abridged version of the one which appears on this website which itself was the transcript of a speech the author presented at the Global Haiku Festival at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois, in the United States in 2000.

Lee Gurga is the former editor of Modern Haiku and now editor of Modern Haiku Press.