Skip to content

How We Haiku — Teaching Stories 2

Teaching and Learning Haiku in Community and Classroom: Stories, Challenges, Adventures

Do you teach haiku? In a classroom? An arts foundation? Community education? We want to hear about it. Want some new ideas? A place to vet an old idea before you try it “live”? Community support? How We Haiku — Teaching Stories is a monthly feature wherein we will share the many diverse and interesting ways your bring our favorite genre to your audience. Each month Brad Bennett and Jeannie Martin, co-chairs of The Haiku Foundation Education Committee, will host your stories of how you make haiku come alive for your students, and create an environment where educators can discuss the many challenges faced in bringing a fuller sense of haiku to a culture that knows little more than the stereotypes. Contact us to share your teaching stories, to ask your questions, and to find fellowship with your peers and the rest of the haiku community.

“We cannot teach a person directly, we can only facilitate his or her learning.”
— Carl Rogers

We welcome your comments (scroll down to the bottom of the page). And don’t forget about all the other fine education resources the Foundation has to offer.


This week’s column, “Exquisite Syllables”, is and interview of Robert Moyer by Terri L. French.

Exquisite Syllable: An Introductory Class in Haiku

Newcomers to haiku can often feel intimidated when crafting their first poems. Instructors of the genre need to do more that throw out Japanese terms like “kigo” and “kireji.” They also need to put their students at ease to alleviate the fear of putting pen to page. One way of doing this is by playing a group game — not a competitive game, but one in which the class works together to construct a viable haiku.

Haiku veteran and instructor Robert (Bob) Moyer has successfully used a technique based on the French parlor game Cadavre Equis (Exquistive Corpse) to lessen distress and bring a sense of play to the art of writing haiku. In the game Exquisite Corpse, each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence and is only allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed. I have borrowed Bob’s game when teaching my own classes and have been pleasantly (and sometimes hysterically) surprised with the results.

Recently, I interviewed Bob to get more insight on this technique and his experiences with it.

TF: Bob, can you explain to our readers a little about the game Exquisite Corpse and your rendition of this game for use in teaching haiku? Do you have your own name for your game?

RM: I call it “Exquisite Syllable,” to honor the spirit and letter of the original game. As you stated, the game brings about a playful attitude which is lacking in most introductory sessions. We have sat through too many presentations on form, weighting people down with detail before we get to the genre. This exercise helps us get to the writing. That’s what the Surrealists wanted — something that would bypass personal and societal structures, thus “. . . holding the intellect in abeyance, and fully liberating the mind’s metaphorical activity.” That’s just a fancy phrase for our intuition in my thinking, The game produces what Surrealist founder André Breton called “. . . a leeway which cannot be too highly valued in poetry.” And that sounds what some more serious haikuists have called “the haiku mind.”

Exquisite Syllable also honors the form of the game, as we played it: three folds for three sentence parts, three folds for three lines. Each writer cannot see what the previous player has written. Although Breton, Tanguy, even Henry Miller, played around with forms, the most common was adjective-noun-adverb-verb-adjective-noun, resulting in sentences like “The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine.” The poet/teacher can guide the participants accordingly. The basic premise is one line per fold, the first and third no more than five syllables, the second line no more than seven. In the drawing version of this game, the participants left the end of their line just past the fold (head-torso-legs). For our purposes, I leave the last word of the line just past the fold in the beginning. I might note, the previous writer does not have to see the last word of the previous fold and the poems works just as well. I also provide a structure that varies but which usually starts with Basho’s poem.

old pond
frog jumps in
sound of water


current place (any definition)
activity therein
sensory detail

TF: Do you use the technique with all age groups? If so, do you differ the technique:
RM: I have been planning to use Roberta Beary’s poetry for my next adult group, as follows (these structures are similar to what I have used before with all ages):

rainy season
again he tells me
she means nothing


season with modifier
somebody speaking
what they say
all day long
i feel its weight
the unworn necklace


length of time
personal sensory detail
an object

I do not read these examples before, only after. With younger students (I have used this with seventh graders), I sometimes do a demonstration before we start in small groups, although it works both ways. And sometimes I play the original Exquisite Corpse game as an intro. I also use common experiences usually drawn from the children. 

TF: Do you think it helps them to better understand the genre?
RM: Now is when the form emerges from what the teacher/poet calls to the writers’  attention with questions about specificity, music, balance, sensory variety, conciseness, etc. What better time to workshop poems that show promise, while the mind’s penchant for order has been disrupted—although I call it “playing around.” Of course, finding the poem that “moves” the most people provides the opportunity to speak about how a haiku shows not tells, how it is not narrative, and so on. I find it helpful to have a second poet available for contributions, and I always wait until comments are winding down to answer the question myself. Whether on paper or whiteboard, I never erase previous changes, but simply cross out, use arrow, etc. to keep the process as messy (and non-linear) as it really is! In my experience the group usually has cast aside reluctance by this time, and has as much fun rewriting as they did in the writing. I might note that the Surrealist had to deal with the perception that “play” and “games” were counter to serious art; my experience has been these sessions produce both better poetry and better understanding of the genre than many other workshops.

TF: I have found in using this technique that some of the first poems before workshopping can be hilarious and that helps to break the ice so that participants are more at ease during the critique — or rather, I should phrase it, the “workshopping” process.

RM: As you mentioned, the results are frequently good, and just as frequently hysterical. How often do you experience hilarity as well as good poetry in an introductory workshop? It’s all part of the collaborative accumulation which Breton notes “. . . produces something that could not be gotten buy one mind alone.” He calls this “mental contagion,” we might call it “shared consciousness,” or (dare we) group haiku mind.

TF: Sometimes by just swapping lines around, changing one word, or omitting words (I find it is the tendency of students to add too many words, so the syllable restriction is a good idea!) you may even come up with something publishable. This really excites the students and includes them in the process of writing a “good” haiku. This, in turn, helps keep their interest in haiku going even after class concludes. Have you found this to be true?

RM: Hmmm. I think you just answered the question. How pleasant is it to take a delightful journey which arrives at a rewarding destination — in this case, good poetry? It’s a total package.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Great idea to play games to introduce haiku – my kids used to love the drawing version of Exquisite Corpse (I had no idea that was the name of it until now!)

    I also like the idea of providing a structure for participants to work with. Somehow that doesn’t seem as daunting as a totally blank page.

    Oh, and those are two of my favourite haiku by Roberta! :)


  2. Love these ideas. I find that people sometimes are blocked when they first try to write a haiku. It somehow feels very mysterious for them. These ideas help them relax, have fun and create “outside the box”, so to speak. I will try this in my next workshop. Sometimes when I am leading an all day workshop I have folks do a simplified renga right after lunch. Just a sort of “round robin” haiku where each person adds a line. Fun and easy, and helps us to loosen up.

    Thank you for this!


  3. Love this kind of sharing – teaching haiku is like teaching anything – it forces you to learn more as you go. I’m opening a haiku walk in a couple of days, and trying to explain haiku to non-poets is a huge challenge that has shown me how diverse views of haiku are…

    1. Last year I gave an introduction to Haiku workshop, with a nature walk near the end for inspiration and a final haiku of their own to share if they chose. Basically, I gave them a brief history of the genre with historical placement of Iga Ueno, ninja, Basho, showing them photos of Iga Ueno Castle in cherry blossom time, Basho’s museum with the roof shaped like his hat, and a woodblock print of his hut in Shinagawa. The end of the warring periods brought peace and time for leisure art. We studied examples from, the four greats and then, using Transformational Grammar, we created our own examples. We had fum with that. After those poems were written and shared we took a walk.

      1. Hi Judith,
        That sounds like a fun workshop! You used the term “Transformational Grammar.” What does that mean? Could you give us some examples?
        Best Regards,
        Brad Bennett

    2. Hi Maureen,

      When you say you’re “opening a haiku walk” does that mean you’ve created a walk with haiku posted along the way? Are you also teaching a haiku workshop? It sounds intriguing.

      Brad Bennett

Comments are closed.

Back To Top