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Haiku Maven: Which Rules to Follow?

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, I’m fairly new to haiku and seek your wisdom about where I can find the real haiku rules. Experts contradict other experts and give examples of why their rules are better. I don’t always like their examples, but since they are the experts, I think it must be my fault. I read that the ancient haiku master Basho advised poets to learn the rules before deciding to break them. Please let me know which rules I should learn.

Signed, Confused in the Wilderness

Dear Confused in the Wilderness, Haiku Maven is not a big believer in rules. In fact, whether or not there are any real haiku rules is a question for debate. However, there are three texts on haiku which Haiku Maven recommends: The Haiku Handbook-25th Anniversary Edition: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter (foreword by Jane Reichhold); Haiku: A Poet’s Guide by Lee Gurga; and Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide by Jane Reichhold. Of course, there are many other books on haiku which Haiku Maven feels sure readers will mention in the comments section. Once you have become more familiar with haiku, deciding which rules to follow is another matter. In writing haiku, you will in time develop your own individual style. And if you chose not to follow any haiku rules or to follow only certain rules, that will not be your fault, it will be your own journey on the haiku path. An alternative to Basho’s view comes from English novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” It also applies to haiku.

The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog. Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” Please use our Contact page to send a question. Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question. Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. I think this is the key: ““It is very important that you feel free to write a haiku your way. But there are certain basic conditions which you as a haiku poet are supposed to observe.” Gabi quoting Teiko.

    This is how I would summarize classical music as well. A concerto is still a concerto. Yes, it has gone through many varieties but the classical form of a concerto is taught today. If one strays too far from the thing, it is no longer the thing – it’s something else.

    I really enjoy the nuance differences between haiku, hokku, senryu and so on. When one broadens a genre such as haiku too wide, it engulfs/swallows the very existence of senryu – senryu gradually becoming a place to “dump anything that isn’t haiku and haiku being a place to dump anything that isn’t a hokku.” This is thin ice because, soon, the real art of writing a true senryu is lost through the expansive interpretation of what a haiku is. If haiku is “anything a poet believes it to be”, then senryu is lost as an identity forever; and possibly hokku lost right along with it.

  2. “the real haiku rules ” you might find in Japan.
    Basic Conditions of Japanese Language Haiku
    Inahata Teiko – President of the Japan Traditional Haiku Association

    “It is very important that you feel free to write a haiku your way.
    But there are certain basic conditions
    which you as a haiku poet are supposed to observe.”
    from here proceed to NEXT . . .

    You will find that there are three basic conditions about the formal aspect of haiku

    5 7 5 on
    one kireji (cut marker)
    one kigo (season word)
    As has been said before most of the “rulz” of other languages are just opinions of editors and forum owners.
    Choose wisely where your haiku way should lead you.

  3. In the haiku workshops I teach, I talk in terms of targets, not rules. What I’ve found is that it’s good for beginners (and even more experienced poets) to find out what most of the possible targets are, and then realize that each individual haiku is going to hit particular targets, whereas another haiku might hit different targets. Jack Cain’s classic haiku, “the empty elevator / opens / closes” misses the season word target, but that’s perfectly okay because it’s an indoor poem, and hits other targets very well (sensory imagery, two parts, immediacy, mystery, etc.). Cor van den Heuvel’s one-word poem, “tundra” misses the short-long-short target, but hits many other haiku targets (although not everyone sees them or agrees — it’s definitely on the fringe of haiku). If one chooses to write 5-7-5, then to make the poem a haiku, it will still need to hit other targets (5-7-5 itself doesn’t make it a haiku). If one writes a minimalist poem, it will still need to hit other targets. For me, a poem becomes a haiku if it hits a preponderance of the various targets. If it misses too many, then it gets closer and closer to the edge, until at some point it’s no longer a haiku. So yes, there are riverbanks, and a point when a poem definitely goes over the bank and isn’t a haiku. But I recognize that where we draw those lines can vary from person to person — so understanding that difference is part of the equation too. To me, this diversity is to be celebrated — to a point — because variety is a huge part of what makes haiku so engaging and vibrant.

    Harold Henderson said that haiku will be what the poets make it, but he also said that, at the same time, it cannot go too far and still be haiku. And for what it’s worth, I aksi remember Edith Shiffert, who said of haiku that “There never were any rules, just fashions.” Haiku is a dance of diversity in a land with somewhat amorphous boundaries, and some poems stand on different parts of the map, but the center of haiku, I trust, is always still there.

  4. correction:

    “brought them to where they had come – the history that made them great!”

    My apologies for typing too fast. :)

  5. Of course there are guidelines (rules). If not, there would no longer be a separation between tanka, haibun, haiku, hokku, senryu …. it would all blend together into an abyss. Hokku, while there was freedom and development, retained many of its original characteristics for hundreds of years. If compared to today, with one-liners, concrete haiku etc., it’s easy to see that these of today do not follow the same “guidelines” as the hokku or even haiku of earlier times. Clearly no question there.

    Without river banks, the river would be in chaos. Look at much of today’s writing; it’s chaos. It’s barely recognizable as haiku/hokku or any ku; it’s wild and free but it’s often not related in anyway whatsoever to hokku – the dna being lost completely. I’m not criticizing the poetry (much of the new age short poetry is outstanding!); I am, however, criticizing the fact that anything short form is called a haiku or a hokku if “the poet wants to call it that”. It just isn’t true. Form is important. Aesthetics are important. Research Basho; research Mozart: research Shiki; research Chopin. The all understood form. And each understood that if they change it too much, they had the decency to rename it – call it something else. They respected the prior forms; the respected the history that brought them to wear the had come – the history that made them great!

    This is a huge subject but I’ll leave this response simple – for now.



  6. Oh, I agree! ;-)
    Seriously: I try to use words to outline the path that I hear, and if I like it: then I like it. Publication is tertiary.

  7. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently at my local haiku group.
    Two ladies came who are into sumi-e and doing very well with it, but
    they haven’t been writing haiku much at all. When I showed a haiku with
    two verbs, one of them exclaimed, “I thought haiku should have only one
    or no verbs.” Then she searched for a paper in her purse and said, “These
    are so-and-so’s list of haiku rules.” I looked at it for a second and what came
    out of my mouth was: “This is not the Ten Commandments of Haiku!” And
    we all laughed.

  8. Without a definitive definition, haiku is word stew: a little of this, a dash of that.

  9. Just as I’ve found that there’s no rules that anyone can truly know in writing/singing haiku, there are also no rules that anyone can truly know in reading/hearing haiku. The miracle is that sometimes, every once I awhile someone else “gets” what you are trying to say…. Well, at least it appears that way. Sometimes they “get” something in your haiku that lit up something they were trying to say.

  10. I bounce between one line 15-17 syllables and the more widely used three lines of 5-7-5 syllables myself. When using the former I endeavor to make the Haiku sayable in one breath but even that’s a sometimes thing.

    Thanks Haiku Maven for clearing this all up!

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