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New to Haiku: What is Haiku?

“The shape of haiku is in the blank spaces.”
Ellen Compton, author of Gathering Dusk

 

For such a small poem, you would expect there to be a simple definition for English-language haiku. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. The Haiku Foundation doesn’t endorse an official definition of haiku in English.

In the United States, most people learn about haiku in grade school. American children are taught that haiku is a Japanese poetry form written in three lines: 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 syllables for the third. While this definition does provide a starting point for discussion, it is simplified and far from complete. There are other facets to haiku that are more important than syllable count.

Haiku scholars have attempted to define English-language haiku with varying levels of success. In his book, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, poet and author Lee Gurga included these two definitions:

“(A) haiku is an up to a breath-length poem in which two, rarely three, objects in a now-moment of awareness are juxtaposed so that each enhances one’s appreciation of the other and together they evoke a felt depth, insight, or intuition of the suchness of things.” Robert Spiess, notable haiku poet and editor

“Haiku: A poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature. Usually a haiku in English is written in three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables.”Haiku Society of America [from 1973-2004]
[As noted by Bill Deegan in the comments below, the Haiku Society of America’s definition of haiku was revised in 2004. This post was amended to include the current official definition, which follows:]
”A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”
– Haiku Society of America [from 2004-present]
Beautiful as these definitions are, they can be confusing. The next one is more succinct.
“Haiku are short imagistic poems about things that make the reader feel connected to nature.”  William J. Higginson, in his essay “Guidelines for Writing Haiku in English.”
You could even shorten this definition further, and say that haiku are poems that make the reader feel connected.

One of the best ways to learn about haiku is to read it widely. Here at The Haiku Foundation, we have collected thousands of English-language haiku which are available to read:

We plan to explore different facets of the beginning poet’s haiku journey in a new series of blog posts entitled “New to Haiku.” If you have questions or topics that you would like to see us delve into for this feature, please let me know in the comments below or contact me directly. We are glad that you are here.

How do you define haiku? Tell us in the comments!

Julie Bloss Kelsey
THF Education Committee

 

“A haiku is created from two ingredients: an experience and an expression of that experience in words after it has passed through the poet’s heart.” — Lee Gurga, Haiku: A Poet’s Guide

Julie Bloss Kelsey

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 book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Gentle Julie,

    I think we could say that haiku is the poetry form nearest to not visible part of life and to the its essence in its various realities and situations, but this it’s only a consideration a not a definition, as the fact that haiku is the poetry form that puts in motion various mind levels of the reader (conscious and inconscious) as no other form of poetry do: the most active poetry form for the reader or the listener

    Instead of searching a definitive and exaustive definition for haiku -provided that it is possible- I think today may be more useful define what a haiku isn’t and doesn’t contain : affirmation, concept, idea, judgement, redundancy, orientering the reader, define in some way right-wrong, beautiful-ugly, correct-uncorrect, and and aspects similar to these inside the text, and so on
    Without forgetting to make real clarity about some rethoric and not necessary parts: 5-7-5, obligation to kigo, zen presence…

    1. Hi Toni – What a lovely and thoughtful comment. As I was reading it, I found myself murmuring, yes, yes and these words came to mind: Haiku does not tell you what to think or feel, but rather guides you through an experience.

      1. Thanks Julie for your words,
        and in synthesis:

        ” Haiku does not tell you what to think or feel, but rather guides you through an experience.”

        and doing this with not manipulative images : does exist a better way to understand?

        a haiku – one
        or two little brush strokes
        with the painting inside

        P.S…yugen, what a deep dimension…the unfathomable that the human mind can perceive, grasp, but not explain in words

  2. Lovely article, Julie! I love this by Ellen as well, Alan!

    ““The shape of haiku is in the blank spaces.”
    — Ellen Compton, author of Gathering Dusk”

    Haiku is a lot like yoga, nirvana, blissful life, love, peace that arrives in the space between thoughts, to quote Eckhart Tolle. beautiful, Ellen!

    This reminds me of one of my recent verses.

    “total eclipse of the sun
    I tiptoe the space of I
    between thoughts

    Michelle Beyers
    Copyright © 12/14/20

    Cheers to all!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Michelle. I’ve never thought of haiku as the gentle joy in the space between thoughts, but I love it. That is where the magic happens in haiku, where the aha! connection forms, where the reader takes the hand of the haiku poet.

  3. The Haiku Society of America’s definition cited above was revised in 2004.

    The current official definition is:
    ” A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

  4. Lovely page!

    I love this from Ellen Compton and it’s close to my heart too.

    “The shape of haiku is in the blank spaces.”
    — Ellen Compton, author of Gathering Dusk

    It’s the sort of quote I’d love to appear on my negative space article that does get updated from time to time!

    Negative space in haiku:
    https://area17.blogspot.com/2014/03/negative-space-in-haiku-writing-poetry.html

    I change my definitions about haiku (and senryu) each time I’m officially approached, as these haikai genres are like the wind, you can’t really contain them!

    “Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it.”
    Hiroaki Sato: Author; Columnist; and Editor of “One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg”

    “There are as many descriptions of haiku as there are stars in the night sky: this is mine.”
    Alan Summers – Recipient, Japan Times Award for haiku

    An English-language haiku is often written in three short lines and read out loud in about six seconds.
    They’re written in the present tense, in ordinary language, and work well as two different images that rub off each other.

    It’s good to include one or more senses such as sound, smell, taste or touch, and not just what we can see.

    Haiku don’t tell, or merely describe, they allow the reader to enter the poem in their own way.

    Haiku are ideal for non-fiction observations as a kind of short-hand for remembering events or incidents.

    They can be therapeutic and they exercise both the right and the left side of the brain.

    Traditionally haiku are rooted in natural history and the seasons, and make us conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we’ve even put pen to paper.

    Oh and by the way… “haiku” is not actually subversive like “senryu”, or is it? It’s certainly still as clean a blade of poetry, and a watchword as you might get in six seconds, or less, flat!

    I feel as soon as Shiki developed haiku it was always going to move away from other haikai verses such as hokku, written by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni etc…

    Haiku takes a little from the Basho/Classic era of hokku/haikai verses, and a little from the ever technologically advanced society we have engaged in. Ever since the Industrial revolution, with its trains and factories, towns growing into cities, cities growing into one vast metropolis, haiku has grown to serve our need to communicate change, which is as much about nature in the larger scope of the animal domain, as it is within the smaller human animal territory which is ever expanding.

    Haiku is where old hokku (Matsuo Basho’s stamping ground), as a form, meets a genre, and cannot be controlled by the appointed authorities within and without.

    What is senryu?
    “There is always an exciting and ongoing debate about that, and whether it is even a separate genre. I certainly see the senryu approach as a useful reminder that, as beautiful as haiku can be, we often need a short sharp verse that highlights questionable aspects in and of society, and can act as checks and balances, within our current state of affairs. And it should be gentle, or ruthless!”

    Adapted from my pieces at “With Words” now known as “Call of the Page”, and my President’s commentary regarding The “AHA” Haiku/Senryu Contest (Annual Hortensia Anderson Memorial Awards) Results.

    Alan Summers
    co-founder, Call of the Page
    President, United Haiku & Tanka Society
    founding editor, Blo͞o Outlier Journal

    1. Alan, thank you for such lovely commentary! You’ve listed several online resources and provided definitions in your post that are wonderful for new haiku poets. I look forward to reading the first issue of your new journal – I’m sorry I missed the submission window.

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