Joy and Grief - One Brush: a haiku workshop

those in line

watching the wind

sweep the earth

Thus Saito Sanki, on the hunger years of post-war Japan – or anytime, any place in the terrible twentieth century. You can see that not only is a haiku such a little thing – hardly the length of a breath – but it is a half-said thing. At its most effective this tiny coiled spring can release a subtle, fleeting, liberating release from the ache of wanting-it-otherwise.

Much quiet delight and gentle healing awaits the explorer of the haiku world. Haiku have traditionally been the most popular and accessible of literary forms (millions write them in Japan). But you do need to have the haiku knack.

Some Guidelines

1) Don’t search after haiku. Instead, cultivate alertness so you are inspired by authentic experience when it arises. The clarity of such a “haiku moment” should be infused with some warmth of feeling, a shared humanity, as with Osai Ozaki:


a mismatched pair

one whole winter

2) Just relax and keep it simple, without any straining after effect. Avoid cliché, cleverness and wordiness. Thus, Basho:

water jar cracks --

I lie awake

this icy night

3) SHOW -- don’t TELL. Try to express your experiences through the images that you use, rather than actually saying that you are “sad” or “lonely”. This gives space for readers to experience such feelings in their own way, as in this by the eighteenth century master, Buson:

the ends of the warriors’ bows

as they go, brushing

the dew

Use only freshly minted imagery, which sharpens the reader’s attention.

4) Similarly, avoid explanations, abstractions and philosophising. Prefer allusion and understatement. Tread lightly.

5) Many of the best haiku present unexpected and contrasting images. These can arouse profound and subtle emotions and can convey layers of subtle meaning. The Western convention is to write haiku in three lines, but haiku of one, two or four lines are acceptable where that makes the best “fit”. Often the first line sets the scene, within which the second line makes an observation. The third line then presents an image contrasting with the second line, throwing our normal expectations out of gear, as it were, and opening up a wider perspective which may be both allusive and elusive. There is a mysterious spark of a wider truth here, which is left to the reader’s awareness (an “open metaphor”). The first example below is from Kenneth White and the second by Shirao. The inkstone one, by Mitsui Suzuki, is more complex, recalling William Blake’s “love and grief are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.”

at Shirakawa

no poem, no song

only the rain

forty years --

how sharp

the insects’ cry

inkstone cold

joy and grief

one brush

6) Finally, are there words which you could omit which would make the haiku work better ? And what happens if you change the lines around?

In brief:-- 17 syllables or so; plain words, strong images, and an underlying metaphoric resonance between the different parts of the poem.

Haiku and Not Haiku ?

The authority of the above advice rests solely on its helpfulness in enabling us to develop the full potential of the haiku form. But within this mainstream haiku tradition there are, of course, many variations and controversies.

Most Westerners write in free form. That is to say, they do not stick to three lines of five, seven and five syllables each, though every haiku needs to have some music to it. However, there is general agreement about keeping the haiku short (“one breath”), and 17 syllables is commonly regarded as the maximum. Again, many Westerners are little concerned with “season words”, which play an important part in conventional Japanese haiku.

There are also less orthodox haiku, like these by Jim Norton and Nagata Koi respectively:

with melting hearts

two skeletons

vow to meet again

A weary man

lost in thought

an aged butterfly

between his thighs

There is a haiku variant called senryu. These deal humorously with human foibles and follies. First is a contemporary senryu by Sari Grandstaff, contrasting with a classic by Issa:

his hand

on my thigh --

I miss the next joke

those two tired dolls

in the corner there – ah yes,

they are man and wife

“Spam” (or “spoof”) haiku is the name sometimes given to those entertaining little three-liners which constitute the bulk of what popularly pass for “haiku”. In fact they have only a superficial resemblance to the poems discussed here. At the other extreme are the “pseudo haiku” commonly found in mainstream poetry magazines. These are in fact conventional three line poems which may appear flowery, exaggerated and self-absorbed when compared with the authentic product.

Exploring further

A good start –- spanning over three centuries – is to immerse oneself in “the Four Greats” – Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki and their contemporaries. Although haiku occupy only a third of The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry it is still a good buy, thanks to Lucien Stryk’s sympathetic translations. Lavishly illustrated and including contemporary haijin, is British Museum Haiku edited by David Cobb (British Museum Press,2002).

As to websites, an encyclopaedic directory will be found at There are a considerable number of electronic journals specialising in haiku. Two dealing exclusively with haibun are Contemporary Haibun and Haibun Today.

The Haiku Handbook by William Higginson (Kodansha, Japan, 1985) is an indispensable old favourite. However, an especially valuable learning resource is Lee Gurga’s Haiku: a Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press, box 68, Lincoln, Il 62656, USA, 2003.

The New Haiku is a Western selection edited by John Barlow and Martin Lucas (Snapshot Press, 2002). And a classic collection which concentrates on North American poets is The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van der Heuvel (3rd ed. W.W.Norton (New York, 1999). More recent is Stepping Stones by Martin Lucas (British Haiku Society, 2007), which offers comment on each of a large number of specific haiku.

It is well worth joining the British Haiku Society, which brings you four copies of the journal Blithe Spirit plus other benefits. Visit the Society’s website: The other main UK journal is Haiku Presence (12 Grovehall Ave., Leeds, LS11 7EX). Prominent in the USA are Frogpond - Journal of the Haiku Society of America, and Modern Haiku.