Skip to content

Haiku — poetry of the imagination

A few years ago I was running a Facebook page called Haiku Now. At the time somebody accused me of writing “desk haiku” because I wrote a haiku where I put a spider in an unnatural situation, or at least a situation that I could not have witnessed.

A debate followed with many comments. Only Michael Dylan Welch defended the poet’s right to use imagination in haiku (by this I mean setting up a situation as opposed to reporting on a moment of reality).

That was before I met Richard Gilbert, whose book “Poems of Consciousness” argues against such a superficial understanding of haiku, and now here I am reading “Haiku 21.”

“[Haruo] Shirane was able to show that haiku (or haikai) was, essentially poetry of the imagination, that ‘the joy and pleasure of haikai was that it was imaginary literature,'” the book’s editors Lee Gurga & Scott Metz state in the introduction.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. A typo:

    In Sanskrit we say: manasa, vacha, karmanaha
    It’s a very famous line often quoted all over India.
    manasa – refers to the mind
    vacha – refers to the spoken word
    karmanaha – refers to the action

    What we think, we need to speak and what we speak we need to show it in action.

  2. In Sanskrit we say: manasa, vacha, karmanaha
    It’s a very famous line often quoted all over India.
    manasa – the mind
    vacha – to speek
    karmanaha – refers to the action

    When there’s unity (truthfulness) between one’s thought, word and action, we say there’s integrity in that person. Of course this is meant more in the philosophical sense.

    But I would like to bring this concept into haiku writing.
    The path of an image, from mind to paper is not easy and to be true to that image is even more tougher. This is the challenge we face when writing a haiku.
    But who ever said being truthful in projecting one’s thought doesn’t need craft, and craft to me is imagination plus technique.
    Do I make sense?

  3. The imagination is part of nature, too. The deep woods of consciousness in dream and wonderment, informs and brings us face to face with our sacred Mother. How else can we connect with the spirit of a sycamore, a dandelion or a sparrow…? Moment by moment, haiku by haiku, we might be able to save the world.


  4. Speaking of imagination, I recall that when Buson wrote about stepping on his dead wife’s comb, his wife was still alive. A careful use of the imagination is every bit a part of the haiku poet’s toolbox as other means of writing, if anyone wants to use it. What matters to me, as a reader, is for the poem to strike me as seeming to be real, echoing my own experiences, or providing enough detail for me to empathize with it even if I’ve not experienced it. It has to FEEL real, regardless of whether it really did happen or not — which is seldom provable anyway. The poem has to FEEL authentic, not BE authentic. And BEING authentic doesn’t guarantee that the poem will work for the reader anyway (reality may still feel unbelievable, for example). For a poem to FEEL authentic rather than just BE authentic shifts emphasis onto the reader — what is the effect on the reader? Whether the poem really is “authentic” (the fact of it “actually” having happened) matters much less once the poem is out in the world, in a reader’s hands. Each individual poet can employ or not employ imagination as much as he or she likes, but I don’t think he or she should impose that preference on how any specific other person should write. For me haiku are not diary entries but poems, and no one should assume that the haiku they read are diary entries of what “really” happened to a person.

    If it’s of any interest to some folks, “How Do You Write Haiku?” is an essay of mine that explores imagination and many other processes for writing haiku. You can find it at

  5. I would argue that we use imagination even when we are writing from experience. Since I’m not a word person, I have to translate my experience into words…shifting, magical and seemingly imaginary images of the tactile sensation of the experience. So I would argue that perhaps we have the healing of a dichotomy … a coming to wholeness in a haiku that may just add to it’s power.

  6. I’ve never understood some haiku poets’ suspicious reaction to the use of the imagination in writing haiku (or haibun). Perhaps it’s because I come from a free-verse poet/novelist/life writing background but, for me, to eliminate the role of the imagination in the writing of poetry, of any form of poetry, feels like writing with blinkers on.

    Our imaginations ARE part of our experience. And anyway, the membrane between memory and imagination can be so porous that what we think we remember is partly, and sometimes mostly, imagined. We only have to tug on a memory to realise that – if it was a ‘true’ memory we wouldn’t be watching ourselves, we’d be watching only what we witnessed in that moment.

    I’m really pleased to see spiders where a poet believes they belong not according to anyone else’s prescription or proscription : )

Comments are closed.

Back To Top