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ABSTRACT: With so many hundreds of thousands of haiku being written in Japan and abroad, one way to classify a certain percentage of them is to create a genre or sub-genre called “riddle haiku.” Here, the first section (typically two lines) sets forth what readers can understand as a question, while the ending offers a surprising yet satisfying reply. Riddles have been a significant if seldom-studied form of world literature, usually requiring two different participants. Riddle haiku, however, are unusual in unifying the entire process. Examples can include even single-line haiku; the crucial factors are the (often implied) question and an unexpected but convincing answer.


by Stephen Addiss


There are millions of haiku extant. Even considering only those which have been published, the total doubtlessly reaches into the hundreds of thousands. How are they to be classified? In Japan, this is often done by the season, sometimes with a fifth category of New Year’s poems. Haiku in English, however, are less often clearly seasonal, leaving the basic issue of categories open. One might consider geographical location, era, or gender of the poet, but although these are helpful, they have the weakness that the information may not be known.

There are some categories that are explicit in the poems themselves, such as whether a season is suggested, whether the poems follow a 5-7-5 syllable count, and whether they are presented in one line or three (or even two or four). Other classifications that are based on the content of the haiku include a three-part division: those about nature, those which contrast nature with human issues, and those completely in the human realm. In Japan, this latter category might be considered senryū, but in English-language haiku we usually consider senryū as humorous or ironic, so other human-centered haiku may need their own category. An interesting classification method is a two-part division between more narrative poems and those that are firmly based on contrast between two images, called by Jim Kacian “context-and-action haiku” and” haiku of juxtaposition.”1

All of these are useful, but in addition to very broad basic classifications, would it be convenient to have some smaller categories? If so, a modest suggestion that would cover a certain percentage of haiku is a category or sub-category that could be called “riddle haiku.” Here, the first two lines or segments set up a kind of question, usually indirect so that it occurs in the reader’s mind rather than explicitly in the poem. The final segment of the haiku then functions as an answer, preferably with a surprise that also seems “just right.”

In the scholarly world, riddles have been important in folklore studies because they contain significant elements of the beliefs and value systems of tribes and groups. Riddles seem to have occurred in almost every culture and time period, from ancient Babylon to the tenth-century Exeter Book, from Samson’s riddle to the Philistines2 to the three dangerous riddles in Puccini’s opera Turandot, and from Norse mythology to contemporary Africa.3

In present-day America, riddles are often considered child’s-play, (Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven ate nine), but they often have had a much more serious function that is being studied by scholars in different areas of expertise.4 In one essay, for example, Elli Konfgras Maranda wrote that riddles “always consists of two parts: the riddle image, that is the riddle as posed, and the answer . . . the riddle image is always conceptually a question, be it syntactically interrogative or not.”5 In another study he added, “riddles are one of the most strictly regular poetic forms . . . [both] the image and the answer . . . are pre-established, coded . . . and the fact that one and the same image may receive many answers does not mean that the answer is arbitrary.”6

In almost all situations, riddles require two different participitants, one to ask the question and the other to answer it. In “riddle haiku,” however, the poet takes on both roles, as does, sequentially, the reader.

Here is an example by Issa:7

tōyama ga   medama ni utsuru . . .

distant mountains
reflected in his eyes . . .

Does this raise a question? Do we wonder “whose eyes?” Issa’s “answer” comes in his final segment: “tombo kana” (a dragonfly).8

Two further examples are first by Buson and then by this author, beginning with the opening segments:

utsukushi ya   nowaki no ato no . . .

so beautiful
after the late autumn storm . . .


hoisting their burdens . . .

Do these raise questions? What is so beautiful, who are hoisting burdens? Here are the originals:

utsukushi ya   nowaki no ato no   tōgarashi

so beautiful
after the late autumn storm —
red peppers


hoisting their burdens —

In a private correspondence, Lee Gurga has pointed out that a surprise in the final line doesn’t necessarily create a riddle haiku. There needs to be an implied question, followed by an answer that is both unexpected and inevitable. Of course, a riddle haiku may be many other things as well, this term does not designate a single-definition poetic form. For example, here is a well-known haiku that can be defined, or at least described, in several ways.

late to the office
my desk already piled high
with zucchini
      — Charles Trumbull9

There is certainly a surprise in the last line, all the more because the first two suggest something less interesting (like paperwork), and so this final line stays in the memory. As a riddle haiku, the form is 2-1, but Trumbull’s poem can also be considered to have a 1-2 structure, with the break (and pause) after the first line. As in many other cases, both readings are possible, depending more on the reader than the poet.

Here are several more traditional Japanese examples of riddle haiku, ending with two from modern poets:

yasu-yasu to   idete izayō   tsuki no kumo (1691)

easily easily
then seeming to hesitate —
the moon in the clouds
      — Bashō


te no yakko   ashi no norimono   hana no yama (1810)

without servants
or palanquins —
mountain blossoms
      — Issa


koromogae   kono hi mo yama to   ko yabu kana (1810)

today they too
wear new summer clothes —
the mountain and the little grove
      — Issa


utsukushiki   tako agerikeri   kojiki goya (1820)

rising from the beggar’s hut —
a kite
      — Issa


kagerō ya   sobaya ga mae no   hashi no yama (1823)

simmering heat —
in front of the soba-noodle shop
a chopstick mountain
      — Issa


yuki mo yoi   yuki ni narenai kōjō   chitai no kemuri

this snow no longer good snow —
factory smoke
      — Santōka


kuchi mageshi   sore ga akubi ya   chō no hiru

twisting its mouth
into a yawn —
butterfly at noon
      — Kiyosaki Toshio10


Gekkō-bosatsu   isshi yori   kumo tarasu

Moon Bodhisattva —
dropping from one finger
a spider
      — Fujii Wataru11

Sometimes the “riddle” aspect of a haiku comes from an unusual use of a word or two, often a verb. This can cause a sense of paradox:

meditation hall
an ant carries away
my concentration
      — Stanford M. Forrester12

This poem can take us into the world of Zen, the influence of which upon haiku has occasioned some spirited debate. Going to the source, here is a haiga by the major Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), relating to the happy go-lucky monk and god of good fortune Hotei.13

There are many other haiku and paintings of this popular subject, but in this case he is shown here only by attributes: a round fan, a staff, and a cloth bag — so where is Hotei himself? The haiku give some clues:

Neta uchi wa   kami ka hotoke ka   nonobukuro

while sleeping
a Shinto god? A Buddha?
      — just a cloth bag

There are several puns here: the name Hotei can mean “cloth bag,” “neta” can be either “sleeping” or “lying down,” and “uchi wa” as two words is ”while” or “during,” but as the single word “uchiwa,” it means “round fan.” Also, “bukuro” is a cloth bag, while “nonobukuro” is baby talk for “Mr. Nono,” a god or Buddha. So the haiku could also be translated:

laying down his fan —
a Shinto god? a Buddha?
Mr. Nono!

As Maranda wrote, “The surprise aspect of riddles is often based on devices such as pun and paradox . . .[as] an objection to a ‘truism,’ a commonplace, commonsense truth generally held to be valid. [They] pierce holes in such truisms, to show [their] one-sidedness and short-sightedness.”14 To make it more complicated, the “answer” may be closely related to, or even part of, the “question,” making clear that at least in some cases, “the riddle image is a question which contains the answer.”15

it’s winter now
people have stopped saying
it’s winter
      — John Stevenson16


frog eggs
size of
frog eyes
      — John Martone17

Here are three further examples of riddle haiku “questions” in English from well-established poets, with the complete haiku to follow:

day moon
a fresh tattoo rises . . .


icy rain
at the bottom of the lake . . .


about this moment . . .

— if you pause here, what would you imagine the final lines to be?

The poets wrote:

day moon
a fresh tattoo rises
out of her jeans
      — Ron C Moss18


icy rain
at the bottom of the lake
a door to yesterday
      — Fay Aoyagi19


about this moment
barks the dog
      — Jim Kacian20

So far, these have all been three-segment haiku, which raises several issues. As noted, most riddle haiku are characterized by a 2-1 structure with two lines that suggest a question, and then a third that serves as an answer. But is it possible that a single-line poem can be a riddle haiku? Here is a haiku by Lee Gurga without the final three words:

between wound and weapon . . .

Just reading this much, what might come next? Is this a form of riddle? Gurga gave it a surprising ending that fits very well:

between wound and weapon the milky way21

Furthermore, one of Gurga’s most celebrated haiku has the same final line; is it more or less a riddle haiku?

from house
to barn:
the milky way22

This certainly suggests a two-line implied question (what happens between the house and the barn?) and then an evocative answer.

It is clear that one feature of riddle haiku is temporal; they often create a pause between what serves as a question and its answer. This is clear in three-line riddle haiku, but Gurga’s previous one-line poem also creates a rhythmic counterpoint between its unified structure and an implied pause after the first four words. When people read this haiku, either out loud or just to themselves, they probably pause at that point, and yet the single line form is visually continuous. Instead of a single interpretation, how engrossing the counterpoint can be when two rhythmic possibilities co-exist!

Another single-line haiku, first temporarily pausing after the “riddle:”

vibrating in her breast pocket . . .

What is vibrating? A cell phone? No, the ending is much better than that:

vibrating in her breast pocket the estranged husband
      — Ruth Holzer23

This classification of certain poems as “riddle haiku” brings up many interesting questions that poets may wish to consider. For example, in riddle haiku, is the structure the same when seen as a riddle as when experienced simply as a haiku? This poem by the author breaks into a 2-1 form as a riddle with the shortest possible “answer:”

morning mirror
the stranger becomes —

but as a haiku it might be read:

morning mirror—
the stranger becomes

This opens up a world of haiku analysis, studying the different readings and meanings in a single poem, that goes well beyond the scope of this essay.

Most riddle haiku are more singular in their implied structure, such as a famous Japanese haiku by the early haijin Moritake (1452 – 1549):

rakka eda  ni kaeru to mireba   kochō kana

watching the falling blossom
return to its branch —
a butterfly

This poem, both in Japanese and English surely sets up a question, and then offers a charming answer. Our broader question to consider is whether “Riddle Haiku” is a useful sub-category of the millions of poems being composed in more and more countries and languages. If so, what other such sub-categories can be discovered?


  1. Kacian, Jim. How to Haiku. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2006.
  2. Judges 4: 5-18.
  3. Akíntúndé Akínyęmí, Orature and Yorùbá Riddles (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015).
  4. One of the major scholars and compilers of English-language riddles has been Archer Taylor in his books The Literary Riddle before 1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948) and English Riddles from Oral Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951).
  5. Elli Konfgras Maranda, “Theory and Practice of Riddle Analysis,” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 331, 54.
  6. Elli Konfgras Maranda, “The Logic of Riddles” in Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, Philadelphia 1971, 8.
  7. In the romaji of these Japanese poems, extra space is given between each of the 5-7-5 segments.
  8. Translations are by the author.
  9. Quoted in Lee Gurga, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. Lincoln IL.: Modern Haiku Press, 2003,  95.
  10. Koko Kato, ed., A Hidden Pond; Anthology of Modern Haiku. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1997, 58. (New translation by the author.)
  11. Ibid., 95.
  12. Stanford M. Forrester, the toddler’s chant. Windsor CT: bottle rockets press, 2009, 71.
  13. For more on Hakuin and Hotei, see Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss, The Sound of One Hand. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2010, 205-228. The Zen koan is sometimes thought of as a form of riddle.
  14. Maranda, “The Logic of Riddles,” 14.
  15. Ibid., 8.
  16. John Stevenson, Frogpond XXXVII.2, 2014, 139.
  17. John Martone, Ksana. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2009, 84.
  18. Ron C Moss, The Bone Carver. Ormskirk, Great Britain: Snapshot Press, 2014, 19.
  19. Jim Kacian et al., eds., where the wind turns. Winchester, VA.: Red Moon Press, 2009, 134.
  20. Jim Kacian, Six Directions: Haiku & Field Notes. Albuquerque NM: La Alameda Press, 1997, 64.
  21. Modern Haiku 43.2, 2014.
  22. Lee Gurga, In and Out of Fog. Foster City, CA: Press Here, 1997.
  23. Jim Kacian et al., eds., evolution. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2011, 35.
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