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New to Haiku: Adjectives and Adverbs in Haiku

It may seem strange for a poetic form that requires such precise imagery, but haiku poets tend to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, if at all. With the space constraints that haiku forces on poets, it makes sense to eliminate any words that aren’t absolutely essential. As Lee Gurga writes in Haiku: A Poet’s Guide:

“[I]f a haiku feels overstuffed, it is likely the adjectives and adverbs that are responsible.”

So how do we use these parts of speech effectively in haiku? If you include adjectives or adverbs, use them for maximum effect. They should be words required for the haiku to function.

roadside diner
a shade too brown
for service
Jonathan Roman, in Haiku Dialogue, May 13, 2020

This poem of Jonathan’s hinges on the sole adjective “brown,” packing a wallop about racial discrimination. But the use of brown also sets the scene here: the day feels hot and dusty; our family of travelers, weary. It’s as if they’ve stepped back in time into a world tinged in sepia. When a single descriptor covers this much ground, you know it’s a word to keep.

In the next haiku, by Issa, an adverb sets the stage for the two lines that follow. But if you reverse the order of the lines, the poem isn’t as effective:

he critiques
the eclipse
audaciously

When “audaciously” falls on the third line, it lands heavily and doesn’t provide much visually. I imagine an old man, alone, yelling at the sky after the eclipse is over. It is as if the poem has ended before it began.

But this is how the haiku was actually written & translated:

audaciously
he critiques
the eclipse
Kobayashi Issa, tr. David G. Lanoue

With this reading, the scene unfolds slowly, much like an actual eclipse. I imagine the same man now droning on and on with an assembled crowd trying to ignore him, perhaps for the entirety of the eclipse. This is a more nuanced, dynamic, and amusing take on events. Precise placement of your adjectives and adverbs is crucial in haiku.

The following poem uses an adjective to create a twist in the third line:

 the Christmas
after we told them
artificial tree

— Joe McKeon, Third Place in HSA’s Harold Henderson Haiku Award, 2014

Limiting your haiku to a single modifier can have a powerful impact. But the haiku poet needs to take care in how things are described. In How to Haiku, Jim Kacian writes:

“[T]here are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader . . . In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.”

Adjectives and adverbs often impose judgment on the scene at hand: a person is ugly or beautiful, the portrait artist draws crudely or tastefully. In general, a haiku poet should steer away from judging words in favor of descriptive terms. A haiku may evoke feelings of judgment in the reader, but rarely will the poet tell the reader how to feel. (Of course, there are exceptions to this, as shown by the Issa poem above!)

In his essay, “Haiku Diction: The use of words in haiku,” Charles Trumbull makes an important distinction about the poet’s choice of words when writing haiku versus other kinds of poetry:

“Poets writing mainstream poetry select words for their intrinsic and resonant beauty. Haiku poets strive for precision of meaning and appropriateness of diction.”

This “tell it like it is” aspect of haiku stems from the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Haiku poets strip down their subjects to their essence, accepting and describing imperfections and the passage of time as things which impart a timeless beauty.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando begins his definition of wabi-sabi in this way:

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabisabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered—and it reveres authenticity above all . . . It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet—that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabisabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.”

Doesn’t this description sound like modern English-language haiku?

age spots
the marks left by a life
well lived
Mona Bedi in Haiku Dialogue, September 29, 2021

finally bending
under my jacket’s weight
the rusty nail
Bryan Rickert in Haiku Dialogue, September 22, 2021

the frayed edges
of his walking cast—
summer’s end
Julie Bloss Kelsey in A Hundred Gourds 1:3, June 2012

For more reading:

Ando, Tadao. (undated). “What is Wabisabi?” at Wabisabi Hawaii. Accessed at https://www.wabisabihawaii.com/php/what-is-wabisabi.php on April 17, 2024.

French, Terri L. (2021). “New to Haiku: The Elements and Craft of Haiku,” at New to Haiku, The Haiku Foundation. Accessed at https://thehaikufoundation.org/new-to-haiku-the-elements-and-craft-of-haiku-terri-l-french/ on April 18, 2024.

Gurga, Lee. (2003). Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. Modern Haiku Press.

Kacian, Jim. (2006). How to Haiku. Red Moon Press. Accessed at https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/164 on April 17, 2024.

Trumbull, Charles. (2015). “Haiku Diction: The use of words in haiku,” in Frogpond 38.2. Accessed at https://poetrysociety.org.nz/affiliates/haiku-nz/haiku-poems-articles/archived-articles/haiku-diction-the-use-of-words-in-haiku/ on April 18, 2024.

What are your thoughts on adjectives and adverbs in haiku? Let us know in the comments!

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. For a brief discussion of the overuse of adjectives in some earlier translations of English-language haiku, read page 7 of the following chapbook published in 1969:

    Amann, Eric W., “The Wordless Poem,” The Haiku Foundation Digital Library, accessed April 23, 2024, https://thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/748.

    Adjectives are hard to avoid, however, and are sometimes necessary. On page 27 of this same chapbook, for example, note the adjective used in the following translation of a haiku by Kikaku:

    In the coolness
    of the empty boat:
    the shell of a crab!

    It can’t be just any boat. It has to be an empty one (even though it contains a shell!). The emptiness of the boat mirrors the emptiness of the crab’s shell. Both reflect the emptiness of [fill in the blank].

    Reading Kikaku’s haiku is similar to the effect of being part of the eternity of reflections seen in a barbershop with mirrors on facing walls.

  2. I just looked through all 13 of the new places I’ve been published this year. Every single poem has adjectives and some even have 3 in one poem! I do not claim to be so proficient a haikuist that each one is absolutely necessary, but I do struggle to understand why they are so harshly judged (by some).

    Thank you for providing all these points of view, Julie. I’m going to keep a keen eye out for my favorite haiku and see if I write what I like or if I’m missing this.

    Issa’s ‘but slowly slowly’ is from my favorite haiku so I can’t help but admire a poet’s perfect use of adverbs.

    1. Hi Eavonka,

      Sometimes we have to hold back from ‘over-embellishment’ and ‘enthusiasm’ 🙂

      Are THREE adjectives completely necessary, for instance, in this example, extreme as it is, to showcase?

      a loud train whistle
      the sable feathered blackbird hops
      along its melodious notes

      Do we need all of this, or instead:

      train whistle

      a blackbird hops

      along its notes

      Alan Summers

      First publication credit:
      Presence #47 (2012)
      https://haikupresence.tumblr.com/tagged/Alan%20Summers

      Features:
      THF Per Diem: The Elements (September 2012); tempslibre (2013)

      Article:
      Kala Ramesh The Heart of a Haiku: The Cut (Kire) 2016
      Pune newspaper (India); Contemporary Haibun online (USA); British Haiku Society

      Anthology credits:

      naad anunaad: an anthology of contemporary international haiku
      ed. Shloka Shankar, Sanjuktaa Asopa, Kala Ramesh (India, 2016)

      Last Train Home, an anthology of haiku, tanka and rengay
      ed. Jacquie Pearce (2020)

      Feature:
      Interview with Japanese teacher, translator and haijin, Geethanjali Rajan

      Various translations including:
      Swedish; Malayalam; French; Tamizh; and Hindi etc…

      .
      By ‘honing’ into the nouns, the concrete images, I capture more rather then less, of the actual incident:

      train whistle
= sound
      blackbird = subject
      hopping action = movement
      along its notes = more sound

      Whereas the adjectives, possibly fine in an extended free verse or circular formal poem, almost fog up the plain capture of the bird and the train whistle:

      train whistle

      a blackbird hops

      along its notes

      Alan Summers

      1. Hi Alan. Ha! I count 5 adjectives prior to the edit. Yours is a fantastic example of pruning to the bones to allow the reader in. I’ll try hard to remember it (especially because I am prone to over-enthusiasm).

        1. Thanks Eavonka! 🙂

          The blackbird haiku is a direct experience, and it would have been all too tempting to over-explain within the haiku. The bird was literally keeping time with the train hoots/whistle, keeping musical time. Train stations can be great places to spot things, especially outside rush hour, or even within rush hour:

          .
          rush hour the train station cornea by cornea

          Alan Summers
          2nd Prize, The Australian Haiku Society Spring Haiga Kukai: Non-Seasonal, 2017
          judge: Ron Moss

          Feature/Interview:
          Tete-a-Tete: Alan Summers (Wise Owl literary journal, April 2022)

          article:
          whiptail monoku series:
          “Reading One-Line Haiku with Kat and Robin: Blurring the Boundaries”
          (THF New to Haiku series, March 2023)

          .
          At least two adjectives, yikes! 🙂

          And who knows what else, too! 🙂

          Alan

    2. Hi Eavonka, Well, for every “rule” we discuss here in New to Haiku, there will be wonderful poems that deviate from it. And haiku continues to evolve. Some facets have changed a lot over time — for example, early English-language haiku were often heavily punctuated and written like sentences. This has largely fallen out of favor today, at least in haiku-focused circles. Keep writing & thanks for the comment!

      1. Hi Julie. You’re so right. I suppose I was just noticing the difference already occurring in this regard in some journals. But again, my thanks for the reminder because I’m certain I often leave too much in my poems.

  3. I haven’t been able to dig out any adverbs, they are a rare breed for haiku, at least in mine.

    Adjectives for specificity are less rare of course, unless we want to continuously say tree, bush, plant, flower, fly, wasp, bee, dog, and cat.

    EXTRACT:

    .

    “The Adjective Test: When to, when not to . . .”
    Part 1 by Alan Summers (2021-2024)

    Example one:
    Name your cats?

    .
    the calico cat
    we talk about isolation
    or at least I do

    Alan Summers
    Writers House — Nick Virgilio Haiku Association (October 2020)

    .

    Did I need to use an adjective?

    It was a calico cat, this time—there are many in and out of our immediate neighbourhood—and I have a collection’s worth of cat haiku, where mostly I just say ‘cat’ so why not use its actual ‘human’ given adjective?

    “Calico cats are also referred to as “tricolor” or “tortie-and-white” and sometimes even “piebald”! Why? Because calico cats have the same black and orange color as a tortoiseshell cat but with white, too! This is the main difference between a calico cat and a tortoiseshell cat.”
    https://www.thesprucepets.com/calico-cats-photo-gallery-4031810

    .

    Here I didn’t use an adjective, and after all, I have various visiting cats! From black and white, all black, ginger cats etc…

    .

    a cat says hello
    the glass between us
    holds our breath

    Alan Summers
    Writers House — Nick Virgilio Haiku Association
    (January 2021)

    .
    Next, one adjective is obvious

    i.e.

    ‘colour’

    The second adjective is less obvious. Is it an adjective, as in it’s a marmalade cat:
    “a cat with orange fur and darker orange markings.”
    https://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-marmalade-cats.htm

    Or is it because this is at breakfast time and there was an open jar of marmalade that got accidentally or deliberately added to the colour scheme of the artwork?

    .

    colour book the cat marmalade

    Alan Summers
    .
    One line haiku
    .
    First publication:
    Right Hand Pointing issue 95 ed. Eric Burke (haiku edition, February 2016)
    .
    Second publication:
    The cat driven haibun “The Ninth of Never”
    hedgerow journal #120 (the Summer print issue, 2017)
    ed. Caroline Skanne

    –––––––––––––––––The Adjective Test: “When to, when not to…”©Alan Summers 2021-2024–––––––––––––––––

      1. Julie,

        There’s no link, these are articles, or photo-articles I make up on the spot for Call of the Page courses. Some make to places such as Sandra Simpson’s site, HSA newsletter, or Blithe Spirit etc…

        I do tend to compile a number of them publically at some point, but too busy creating new ones for ongoing haiku and haibun courses. 🙂

        Some appear at Area 17 and Haiku Basecamp, Blo͞o Outlier Journal and Pan Haiku Journal of course. 🙂

        Alan

  4. In the Issa, it may be that to use an adverb is the translator’s choice alone, as is the selection of “audacious.” The dictionary gives for Issa’s opening 僭上 the noun “audacity; forwardness; effrontery; impertinence .” The latter two meanings would give a different shade to the verse (and one I like to think Issa intended): “How dare…!” or “the cheek of…!” What do other translators give?

    More generally, I think that like any other word or part of speech, nothing is to be ‘ruled out:’ an adverb in English language haiku has to earn its keep, add something essential to meaning (or to music), and preferably be as plain and simple as can be found.

    (For me the ten cent word ‘bold’ would be preferable to the ten dollar word ‘audacious’ anyhow).

    1. Issa does use the adverb そろそろ (slowly, gradually) for his snail climbing Mt Fuji.

      1. Hi Keith: Like Alan said, I had a hard time tracking down haiku with adverbs too. They definitely leave an outsized impression when they are used! As for translation, I remember the first time I read a page of like 100 different translations of Bashō’s old pond/frog poem. I was amazed at how many different ways people had interpreted such a tiny poem! It definitely left me with a greater appreciation for the difficult work of translators.

        1. If you include adverbial phrases there are loads of EL haiku with such phrases as “one by one,” for example (which is also a device to indicate a continuing situation as contrasted with ‘a single moment’).

          I think it’s not adverbs per se that are to be criticised, but rather adverbs and adjectives that do too much explaining? Or those that are simply dressing things up in a hifalutin’ way, as if Walter de la Mare were writing haiku…

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