Haiku basics: an introduction

As a haiku poet of some fifteen years’ standing I have three overarching interests. The first of these is what I have termed “liberative haiku”. That is to say, haiku which enable us to live our lives as self and with others with just a little more ease and joy. The second interest is in haibun -- a blend of haiku and haiku-like prose which deserves wider attention beyond the haiku community. Lastly, I have an interest in haiku and social engagement which has been brought together in Chrysanthemums and Black Battleships.

To write and appreciate haibun and liberative haiku some understanding of the foundations of haiku writing is required. Therefore it may be wiser for newcomers to read through my workshop handout Joy and Grief – One Brush.

Next, I’d like to open up for reflection what I believe to be key characteristics which make for good haiku. Good haiku ? As with other literary genres, (and indeed, perhaps all creative work), there is a level below which the great majority of experienced practitioners would judge a piece to be poor. But above that level a high degree of subjective judgement will come into play. Just how subjective is not always sufficiently appreciated by competition entrants and hopefuls submitting their work to journal editors.

“Ego versus true receptivity”

Lee Gurga is a highly regarded member of the American haiku community, and not given to extravagant notions. Nonetheless, at the British Haiku Society April 1998 conference he made the following striking claim -

I am sure many of you realize, [that the] problem of ego versus true receptivity to reality is one of the most persistent and distressing issues of haiku.

These are strong words, and they go much deeper than the numerous self-proclamations of first prize in this or that competition which litter the pages of haiku society newsletters. So what might Gurga mean by “ego” and what is “true receptivity to reality” ?

Haiku poets endeavour to let their experience “speak for itself” (it were best to avoid the word “reality”, since at bottom writers can only communicate their experiences). Consider this simple haiku by Graham High:

between the slats

of the suspension bridge

the slow brown river

The poet is here offering the reader a wholly factual and unselfconscious communication of what he has observed, leaving space for each reader to fill out the picture according to their own experience and inclinations. It is the bridge, the “object”, which occupies the central place.

On the other hand, the observation which is offered can only be that of a particular individual. Even the most unimaginative photograph would still be the unique vision of the photographer. High is in fact a talented and versatile haiku poet, and a more typical example of his work might use words, imagery and a range of poetic devices which enable the reader to enjoy an enhanced experience of the everyday which might well be quite emotionally moving, as in the following -- a step up from the slatted bridge in terms the “grave and constant” which it evokes:

by the farm gate

new wheat is growing through

the rusty padlock

Thus it is not that haiku poets mask their unique personalities, and indeed the work of each may bear a more or less distinctive “signature”. It is just that their work more or less lacks ego contamination. That is to say, there is no “showing off” about it, no intrusive cleverness, no extravagant language, but instead a tendency to understatement and allusiveness. As the Daoist philosophers would say, they mask their brightness, rather than dazzling their readers. There is a paradox here expressed in the advice about how to go about stalking haiku: “If you search for them, you will not find them. But neither will you find them if you don’t”.

Haiku and Contemplative Spirituality

In all this there are striking parallels in contemplative spiritualities such as Buddhism, where the self is a central focus of enquiry. When the anxious, self-regarding mental chatter and the subtle neediness associated with it subside, then, as William Blake put it, “the doors of perception are cleansed.”

And we begin to observe things more in their own light than in ours.

In the words of Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Zen philosopher-monk: “When the self advances, the ten thousand things retire; when the self retires, the ten thousand things advance”.

The apprenticeship by which the would-be haiku poet becomes ever more aware of the subtle pull of ego was traditionally as long as that of the spiritual aspirant. This is why in Zen Buddhism haiku are seen as one of the do of Buddhist practice, on a foundation of zazen (meditation). This hardly commends itself to Westerners imbued with a speedy, competitive, high achieving culture, and a restless search for innovation. I am now straying into the field of “liberative haiku”, treated on another page of this site. However, I am referring here to a seamless evolution, where we remain apprentices throughout our lives, and the foundations, the essentials, are enhanced at the higher levels of creativity, rather than subsuming them.

The Need for Some Poetic Talent

A haiku may be innocent of any self-advertisement, but it will be a dull thing if there is no sense of poetry in it. Is the experience communicated in ways which inspire readers to visualise it and feel it in a new light, enriching their lives however briefly in passing ? Let us consider three examples by Yosa Buson (1716-1784), along with Basho, Issa and Shiki one of the great masters of the Japanese haiku.

In their choice of words and phrases haiku masters tend to avoid showiness, depending rather upon how quite commonplace words and phrases can interact to create an experience far from commonplace, particularly by the use of metaphor. The first of the three Buson haiku exemplifies this:

after the windstorm

foraging for firewood

three fierce old women

Nonetheless, fresh and striking imagery, even if only in a single word, can indeed create a memorable poem, as in this by Buson:

dancing: the fox treads

among the pale narcissi

in garden moonlight

My third Buson example goes well beyond the “sketches from life” level of haiku and were best rolled round the palette like a fine wine before intellectualising:

morning misted street…

with white inks an artist brushes

a dream of people

In the important work of revising and polishing haiku second only to discarding redundant words is changing the order of the lines, or perhaps making the poem a one liner (currently fashionable) or a two or four liner. Haiku which may read freshly enough on their own can become tediously repetitive down the page of a journal if all follow what has become a standard formulation. Here the first line sets the scene, the second line presents an experience, and the third line presents some kind of contrast (commonly a metaphor related to the second).

Better still it is if the poem offers some kind of music different from the usual thumping iambics. And even better if there is some alliteration, where the sounds of words recur in close succession, or onomatopoeia, where the sounds echo the sense of the words, as in this by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):-

travelling the world

to and fro, to and fro

harrowing the small field

The haiku poet has the task of internalising all of the above characteristics, by constant practice and with the help of sound critics. But they can also provide something of a checklist in revising work.

The lines of argument developed on this page are carried forward to the page entitled Liberative Haiku.