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Is Haiku Poetry?

Started by Jim Kacian, November 22, 2010, 08:01:26 PM

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Jim Kacian

Poetry has been famously defined as "the best words in the best order" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Haiku, with so few words and such seeming limitations to order, would be utterly lost without some sense of following this dictum, and at its very best it undeniably does. Why, then, do some people, and most notoriously, some poets, deny that haiku is poetry?

And, if it's not poetry, what is it?

What do you think?

All posts to this board must be consistent with The Haiku Foundation's Code of Conduct .

Laura Sherman

I'm curious as to how someone could say that haiku isn't poetry.  Why would it be deemed otherwise?

Jim Kacian

Hi Laura: Haiku has been used—and seen—in a variety of ways in every culture in which it has gained traction. Certainly one way in which it has been promoted has been as a "way" or a kind of ritual approach to, say, satori, or as a meditative practice. It's perhaps obvious to say that when one's writing attempts to serve two masters—poetry and religion, in this case—it's extremely rare when both masters receive equal shrift. Other denigraters of haiku as poetry—mainstream poets, for instance—have argued that haiku is more reportage than creative act (the distinction at one time made between fiction writing and journalism), and too easy to write (obviously they haven't tried it from within a working knowledge of the tradition and craft). And there are other arguments to be made. I will be interested to hear what our readers think about this. Thanks for joining in the discussion.  —JK

Terri French

Well, I would say that haiku is not conventionally "poetic," in that it is not really metrical, lyrical, figurative, nor conform to any of the traditional poetic conventions.

I wonder why we care if it is called poetry? Does that somehow indicate that it merits less respect? I think haiku is in a class of its own.  It is a meditative art.  A nugget of observation.  An experience edited to its essence.  To use a common expression, "It is what it is."

That's my two-cents worth, anyway  ;)


Can the question be answered by simply pointing to "real poets" -- poets published by literary publishers and discussed in literary journals -- sometimes use haiku forms?
I doubt that pointing solution would satisfy many. I think the question should be: why do we ask this question since there's plenty of evidence that haiku is poetry?
Is the question just sour grapes? As for sour grapes, I have personal experience with publishing works of haiku poetry that illustrate the power of haiku as a literary form and these works have gotten short shrift in the haiku critical media. At Single Island Press, we just published Cor van den Heuvel's A Boy's Seasons: haibun memoirs, a work that should put this question to rest, but so far the criticism has been dismissive and wholly inadequate. I do not doubt the sincerity of the dismissers; what I doubt is their ability to get outside the box and notice a work of haiku that actually moves things forward. Cor's book shows indisputably that haibun is adequate to the job of memoir, one of the most popular literary forms published today. Hello? The question posed in this forum -- long live the fora! -- should make us take a hard look at life in haiku nation.


I think this is one of those subjective questions/answers.  I approach haiku in the way I approach short story writing.  It's very very difficult since my goal is to have a work that cannot be added to, or detracted from without taking away from it.  Parity of expression that nevertheless expresses the whole perfectly.  But I don't think that a short story could not be called a story simply because it's a more concise work and I don't think that haiku should be labeled as non-poetry either simply because it doesn't have all the characteristics that have traditionally been associated with poetry.  My 2c too.  

Michele L. Harvey

Unfortunately, it is part of the human to condition to categorize all things. Often this is more than unhelpful. The 'I'm in the club and you're not' mentality makes the world smaller and destroys the art in art. No artist (of any stripe) should wish there to be definition of what is or isn't art. Haiku, like other poetic forms and art in general, is the way of touching the universal, the ineffable, the unknowable. We all can only dance around it and warm our hands by it. The creative comes through us and has no borders or boundaries. Nor does it have an end. It is known when  it is seen.
That said, I do understand the need for haiku to be recognized as part of the club and take its rightful place as part of the poetic whole. What else could it be called but poetry? I heartily agree in Jim's comment "(obviously they haven't tried it from within a working knowledge of the tradition and craft )". As we all know too well, haiku can be the damnedest thing.
As far as poetry being, "the best words in the best order" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), what is haiku if it isn't that? Granted it is a DIFFERENT form with different requirements, but fits that definition perfectly.

colin stewart jones

i used to study Gaelic poetry which had a very strict metrical format (Dain Direach) in the old days
I am sure the old bards who had to compose at night with a stone on their belly would say that free verse was not poetry.

If poetry is indeed "the best words in the best order" then haiku is poetry, though just not a familiar form to most westerners who still think it is about counting. Haiku could be described as "the least words in the best order" -- multum in parvo

i have read many ku which have many of the traditional devices used in "normal" poetry. I am reminded of Buson's:

bleak winter field
see how nobley the priest
deposits his stool

ok i prolly misquote from memory but the point is there is irony here and a great metaphor that the priest craps too and is therefore just like the rest of humanity. I agree Jim, about two masters, which Christ famously stated when he spoke about serving God and mammon. Poetry and haiku in particular is a distillation of thought and imagery conveyed in a concise manner.

Haiku goes far beyond mere reportage or comments on the weather and resonate with a deeper meaning which all good poetry does. All poetry is synergy and i believe haiku to be more so



good to be here :)

bear us in mind for your work

Colin Stewart Jones
Notes from the Gean: monthly haiku journal


When an image, a feeling or an emotion can be captured in so few words as those contained in a haiku, it is definitely poetry.


I would rather turn the question around and ask whether poetry isn't big enough to include haiku. 

The real issue, however, is "who is asking the question?"  I think people writing haiku need not be concerned about whether haiku is poetry: haiku is real enough to us without being grouped together with poetry or anything else.  To the uninitiated, to debate whether or not haiku is poetry, probably doesn't mean anything and doesn't convey enough information to yield any insight -- my dog can't tell the difference between poetry, haiku, and barking. And people who know poetry intimately would never need to ask the question.

David Lanoue

When my students ask me "What's the difference between prose and poetry?" I suppose it's a cop-out, but I tell them, "Look at how it's arranged on the page." If the words are broken into packages and not running from margin to margin, it's a poem, I say. (I avoid the topic of "prose-poems"!) My students usually don't question this answer, but they could easily challenge this definition by visually turning any random bit of prose into "poetry":

In a village of La Mancha,
the name of which
I have no desire
to call to mind,
there lived not long since
one of those gentlemen
that keep a lance
in the lance-rack,
an old buckler,
a lean hack,
and a greyhound for coursing.

Have I justy now made Cervantes' opening for Don Quixote into a poem? Maybe! When you read it, do you find yourself lingering on the words and perhaps savoring their music a bit more than you might when you see them printed on the page as prose? I do! I think that the reader's poetic frame of mind is essential to perceiving words as poetry. I always bring that frame of mind to my reading of haiku.


I have never heard the opinion that haiku was not considered to be poetry.  I think haiku, senryu, tanka, the Korean sijo, are all forms of poetry.  They have a tradition and rules just like cinquains, limericks, sonnets, villanelles and other forms of poetry.

Don Baird

I think a better question is:  "Is haiku JUST poetry?".  The word itself, poetry, in some unique way, actually limits the boundaries of haiku, if any.

From an enjoyable group game, to meditation, zen practice to poetic device, haiku exists as one of the most complete poetic and evocative structures of them all.  While the argument of whether haiku is poetry is irrelevant in some way, it remains an important stimulus because over the many years to come, it is going to be grabbing more and more shelf space at the book stores:  it's going to be nudging other poetry genres a bit to the side at Universities around the globe.  It's going to indelibly define itself, not by structure but by essence through forums like this, through internet publications and so on.

To me, poetry has always been a "voice".  Whether it is a sonnet voice, haiku voice, or a freestyle (freeform) voice, it's a voice.  And when we use that voice, regardless of the limitations of format, it is poetry. 

Thanks for all your hard work, Jim, in presenting such a fine site and now, this forum.

Don Baird
I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter



Despite being one who is not a fan of labels and categorizing, I still end up having the discussion in each of my high school poetry classes about what separates poetry from prose.  We usually end up talking about three things:

the line, not the sentence or paragraph, as the unit of composition

heightened use of/attention to sound -- the musicality of poetry


If that doesn't describe haiku as well as mainstream poetry, I don't know what does.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that haiku is used extensively in elementary school as a way of teaching syllables.  Because haiku is short, and because it's been taught to generations of children by teachers whose entire knowledge of the form is "nature and 5-7-5", many people -- including mainstream poetry editors -- have no idea that haiku is a rich and complex form of poetry.  Haiku is seen as cutesy verse, and a book search at Amazon reveals that there is no shortage of published work supporting that notion, including "Pirate Haiku:  Bilge-Sucking Poems of Booty, Grog, and Wenches for Scurvy Sea Dogs", "Redneck Haiku: Double Wide Edition", "Dog-ku: Very Clever Haikus Cleverly Written by Very Clever Dogs", "Robot Haiku: Poems for Humans to Read Until Their Robots Decide It's Kill Time" -- well, you get the picture.

I wonder what would happen if every haiku poet contacted five mainstream poetry journals and made the case for the inclusion of haiku.  Maybe there hasn't been enough of a push by enough poets yet?  I don't know.

Mr. Kacian, thank you for establishing this forum.  What a great resource.


P.S., Hey, Don, you and I were typing at the same time, but you finished first -- I agree with what you say and I hope you're right that haiku is going to be "nudging other poetry genres a bit to the side".

"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro


In general most Westerners don't 'get' haiku.  If we received any instruction in school it was minimal, maybe just a few assignments in grade school, and all we remember is "5-7-5".  We don't 'get' kigo at all, we think they're only about nature not about seasons so when we read it we think it's just some meaningless or paradoxical  Zen koan'esque riddle.  We buy novelty refrigerator magnets and randomly mix them on the fridge door to 'compose' haiku and think haiku from random online word/phrase generators are real... 

Japanese style haiku just doesn't translate well into western sensibilities.  We don't hear 5-7-5 syllabic meter and we don't share the same level of cultural references to the seasons as do the Japanese.  Western haiku kigo needs to be dumbed down, way down, or most Westerners won't get the aha.  And haiku without kigo (whatever you wanna call it) altogether would probably be more effective. 

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