Writing Haiku in English

by Lee Gurga

For those of us writing haiku in English, it is important both to honour the Japanese aesthetics that have informed haiku over the centuries and also to explore the potentials of our own language. This second area is one in which the Japanese masters, ancient and modern, can offer no guidance. Of primary importance to poets writing haiku in English are the sound devices, such as rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia, that are available to us.

Early translations of Japanese haiku, by Henderson and others, and early models of haiku in English, used rhyme at the end of the first and third lines to emphasise haiku’s status as a poem. While rhyme places haiku squarely in the mainstream of Western prosody, rhyme tends to close the poem rather than allowing the images to linger and work their magic. This leads most haiku poets to avoid end rhyme entirely and look for other devices more suited to its potentials.

Assonance, the use of repeated stressed vowel sounds, is less obtrusive than rhyme and thus more effective in haiku, as in this poem by Mary-Alice Herbert, the “oo” and “ah” sounds help us feel the poet’s sense of wonder in an autumn scene:

All Hallow’s Eve
loop the moon

The effective use of sound can penetrate the boundary between sound and meaning as this brilliant haiku by Peter Yovu demonstrates:

mosquito she too
insisting insisting she
is is is is is

While some poets believe that a haiku is a poem for the eye rather than the ear, readers often find that the poet’s skilful attention to rhythm or cadence can add noticeably to a poem’s artistry, as in this haiku by Robert Gilliland:

transplanting the sage —
a wheelbarrow full of bees
from backyard to front

I would like to particularly note two things about the use of language in this poem.

The first is the use of accented syllables “sage,” “bees,” and “front” to end each line. This contributes to the forward movement of the poem — and the wheelbarrow. The second is that the first line, “transplanting the sage”, and the third “from backyard to front”, have identical metrical patterns. This creates a unity in the poem that is much less obtrusive than if he had used rhyme to attempt the same effect.

When the poet has a feeling for the flow of the words, the result can be enchanting. It is with some sadness that I note that such artistry was more common in the early days of American haiku than it is today. Perhaps it is partly because the magical rhythms of the King James Bible are no longer a part of our daily thought. One has only to compare a passage from a speech by Abraham Lincoln or Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. with one by George W Bush to get some idea of what we in America have lost.

While poets sometimes believe that the use of figurative language such as simile or metaphor makes haiku worth reading, this is often not the case. Like the King James Bible, haiku use concrete images to do their work on the deepest parts of our souls, as in this haiku by haiku pioneer James W Hackett:

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

Of course, the images of haiku do not always consciously seek such depths. In this haiku by LeRoy Gorman, the images remain concrete but toy with our sense of reality in the hours after midnight:

last slow dance
winter flies
couple on the bar

In this haiku, we have an effective use of what Paul O Williams calls “unresolved metaphor”. On the surface, the haiku presents and credible and interesting scene. But this slice of life becomes a rich mixture of ambiguities as we dance with the different species of barflies in the poem.

Western poetry is often weighted down with heavy-handed figurative language. The sunset has little to do with an etherised patient, whatever T S Eliot might have thought. A device of Japanese haiku that we in the West can make use in place of figurative language is the pivot line. In this haiku by the late Kiyoko Tokutomi, the second line acts as a swinging door that carries us back and forth between two worlds:

in a comfortable chair
two hours of winter

The chair becomes the centre from which we watch the chemicals enter and in which we contemplate both the literal and figurative essence of winter.

America is a culture in love with machines and easy answers. For people who grow up in such a culture, it is a challenge to make the seasonal image a vital part of the poem. When I give workshops, I encourage every aspiring haiku poet to memorise and apply the following statement from The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan by Shigehisa Kuriyama concerning the use of seasons in haiku:

In a poem where the seasonal theme fulfils its true evocative function, there must be a reciprocity between the season, which expands the scope of the haiku and creates the background of associations for the scene, and the specific scene which points out a characteristic yet often forgotten aspect of the season and thus enriches our understanding of it.

At the Haiku Chicago conference in 1995, haiku Master Ishihara Yatsuka told poets to  “present the truth as if it were fiction”. This idea is of course not restricted to haiku. It is what every great novel does — presents in the costume of a story a truth that may be too difficult to tell directly. This allows the reader to embrace a hard truth without engaging in either defensiveness or self-righteousness. It allows the author to explore an issue without stridency, the reader, without self-consciousness. Fiction, like the poetry, doesn’t  tell us what is true, it reveals what is true. Great haiku have also this characteristic. Great haiku reveal, often through several levels of meaning, the truths we need to live by.

Blyth said haiku was Japan’s greatest gift to the world. I am not sure I am qualified to make such grand judgements, but to me as a poet, haiku of seasonal consciousness are Japanese haiku’s greatest gift to world poetry.


Editor’s note: This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. It originally formed part of a speech delivered to the Haiku International Association’s 7th lecture meeting in Tokyo, November 2005.

Lee Gurga was born and raised in Chicago, and now lives in the countryside near Lincoln, Illinois with his wife, four cats, two dogs and two horses. In 1997 he served as president of the Haiku Society of America. He was editor of Modern Haiku, from 2002-2006 and is currently editor of Modern Haiku Press.