The major figures contributing to our knowledge of the Japanese haiku are Harold G. Henderson and R.H.
Blyth. The riches offered by Blyth's translations of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki and other Japanese haiku poets point a direction
from which all contemporary writers of haiku can benefit. Both authors give insight into the long history and development
of this art and into its uniqueness. It is unlike Western poetry-and this is what creates the greatest problem for the reader
unfamiliar with it, for the novice attempting to write it.
Haiku is a poetry of suggestion, of understatement in which nature is linked to human nature. It records
those moments of special awareness that give one pause in the everyday world, make one feel the wonder of the ordinary seen
anew. Haiku does not lean upon fanciful verbiage for effect. It is written in plain language. It is written tersely-but with
grace. It is direct and factual, giving the reader just enough information to establish a delicate mood, a deep emotion by
new associations of images. It is a poetry of the senses. It may simply show us in a new way the heat of a summer
aftyernoon. It may express in a new way an acute awareness of sights or sounds, tastes or smells or touch. What it portrays
of the external world of the poet can reflect or imply- but not state overtly- a corresponding "soul-state" as Blyth calls
Of crimson foliage
There is none here,
Deep in the mountains. *
*From Haiku, Vol IV, by R.H. Blyth, 1952, with kind permission of the Hokuseido Press, Tokyo.
This poem's undertones convey a deep sadness and sense of isolation, a lack of joy. Yet none of that is mentioned in the
poem! The haiku poet gives his reader just enough of a glimpse of a reality to allow the reader to experience the emotion
it engendered in the poet.
For those of you accustomed to Western poetry, to the often elaborate use of language it employs, the
haiku is like entering a sparsely furnished room. This apparent 'emptiness' is unsettling. But once there, one gradually begins
to listen more- and to hear: a distant bird, a small chirp close by... the eyes see in the soft light: dust motes, subtle
colors. The nostrils detect delicate scents-or unpleasant ones. ( Nothing is without some significance in this world) And
we become bonded to the very world about us which heretofore escaped our notice. That is the special world of the haiku. It
respects the identity of each thing, it rejoices in things just as they are. That is why there is no place in
haiku for simile or metaphor, for anthropormorphism. Because haiku seek fresh insights into this world, they do not use
cliches nor platitudes. Because they relish the specific, they do not generalize. Because they record the essence of a moment
keenly perceived, they are written as objectively and briefly as possible. The best haiku do not include the opinions
of the poet: they do not draw conclusions about the scene they depict. And they do not presume to teach lessons about life
nor moralize about it. They simply present a slice of it. Because they aim for clarity above all, they are most careful of
ambiguity-it must work for the sense of the poem in all its meanings.
Closely related to haiku is the free-wheeling senryu. Eighteenth century in origin, it arose as a reaction
against the constraints of the haiku. Man is not dominant ( if he is there at all) in the haiku. But in most senryu, he is
central to the poem. Senryu are usually humorous or satirical, but because they deal with the range of human emotions and
relationships, they can sometimes be quite serious in tone. Unlike haiku, senryu do employ poetic devices such as
simile, metaphor, personification. Hence, in some senryu animals speak, darkness flinches, a pea can think out loud, a teacup
can be a metaphor for a human being. Because both genres occasionally utilize similar subject matter ( some senryu are parodies
of haiku) , one can be mistaken for the other. Then it helps to ask yourself what is the emphasis of the particular poem.
Simplistically speaking, if it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world within the man, it is senryu.
From John Stevenson:
Commentary given as a judge in a student haiku contest 2007
When it comes to English-language haiku, we are all students. Those among us who know most about haiku in its original
form, in Japanese, also know that English-language haiku must be something that is somewhat different. We only hope that
it is not so different that it is unrecognizable as a younger sibling or cousin. As English-language poets, editors, educators
and students we are engaged in a process of learning which elements of haiku in Japanese can be adopted with modifications,
and which must wait, regretfully and perhaps indefinitely, for the day when we understand each other well enough to share
So we make the most of what we have now and build upon that. Here are some thoughts that I frequently share with poets
who seem new to the English-language haiku:
* The defining characteristcs of haiku extend well beyond the idea of form. They include a sense of time, as manifested
in the seasons, the indirect expression of deep emotion, a certain kind of respect for each other and the world we share,
and a great many other things beyond the question of format. In fact the form of a haiku is one of the aspects of the
genre that transfers least effectively from Japanese to English. Years ago I had the experience of reciting a seventeen syllable
English-language haiku to some Japanese poets and they all wanted to know why it was so long! We now know that seventeen
English syllables often contain more information than seventeen Japanese "syllables" and almost always take a lot longer
to say. It is widely accepted at this time that English-language haiku should be shorter than seventeen syllables, though
no specific length or form has been agreed upon.
* I strongly agree with those who say that the language of haiku should be simple and concrete, utilizing common patterns
of speech. Minimal use of simile, metaphor or other figurative, abstract, or ornamental language is preferred. Cleverness
or direct comment by the poet is generally not a plus. The haiku I admire most attempt to be close to transparent. The reader
should experiencethe image(s) as directly as possible, with comparatively little sense of the mechanisms of the poem or the
presence of the poet.
* Haiku have evolved from the opening verse of a Japanese linked poem called a renku. Renku are collaborations of two
or more poets in which each verse simultaneously links to the verse before it and shifts away from it. Each renku verse is
less than a complete poem in itself. The poetry comes from the interplay between verses. What this means about a haiku is
that it often has an incomplete or open quality- the poetry is completed by the active participation of readers. The poet
can "tell too much" in a haiku, leaving the reader nothing to discover and no role in the creative process. Or the opposite
can happen; the poem can fail to contain enough or the right kind of material to engage the reader, resulting in a "so what"
reaction. An important skill of haiku poets is finding the most effective balance between telling too much and too little.
* I prefer haiku that arise from an experience of real things and inspire a sense of larger significance, primarily
through the stimulation of intuition rather than thought. A haiku that raises rational questions- who, what, where, when,
why, how, etc.- is usually less successful, in my opinion, than one that delivers a clear image on the very first reading
and then inspires a sense of an indefinite "something more." This is not because rational thought is in some way inferior
to intuition and sensory experience. But the rational faculties, once activated, tend to overwhelm and obscure intuition and
the senses. I believe a haiku needs to get at those before it starts to "mean something." A haiku that resembles a puzzle,
with a "solution," is a closed system with no freedom for the reader.
* For me, haiku are based upon the premise that what is most profound is also what is most ordinary. The overt subject
matter of a haiku should be "nothing special," that is, nothing that one might not encounter on an ordinary day in one's
ordinary surroundings. The sense of haiku is, I think, that these things are already profound if seen clearly and that any
attempt of a poet to "add meaning" is unnecessary.
These considerations are my starting point. There are no perfect English-language haiku, though there is an old saying
that practice makes perfect. I prefer a variation of this that I've heard in recent years: practice makes progress. With that
in mind, I find much to appreciate and celebrate in the work of my fellow students.
- John Stevenson