Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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Feature: Michael Rehling "For the Beginner—What is Haiku?"

What is the proper form for haiku in English? Well, a simple definition might be a poem that captures a ‘moment in time’, usually involving nature, and as perceived or experienced by the poet. It is recorded in less than seventeen syllables, usually in three lines, and usually with the center line longer than the others, sometimes with a seasonal reference, or ‘kigo’. Although many times a 5-7-5 pattern is prescribed as a ‘firm’ rule in rudimentary definitions of haiku this is not supported by research, translation, or history, even in Japanese haiku.

One component that does appear critical is a ‘break’, 'cutting word', or 'turn', which usually occurs between the second and third lines, but can occur also in the second line, but a ‘break’ or shift of perspective that juxtaposes the other images in the poem is considered by many as an important aspect of haiku. There are many ‘schools’ of haiku, both in Japanese and English, and there always have been. In fact Basho, considered by most scholars to be the Father of the modern haiku, told his students to: “Learn the rules, so that you can break the rules”. Today three lines, two lines, single line, and ‘Zip’ poems all offer the sincere student of this poetic form realistic options to pursue in finding their personal approach to haiku.

Haiku has long been associated with Zen Buddhism, but it has always stood apart from any religious or philosophical bent, and so maintains its universality. Perhaps the association with Zen can best be explained by the fact that both place high value on the ‘present moment’, and human interactions with nature. In any case a knowledge of, or practice of Zen is unnecessary to understanding or creating fine haiku.

A close cousin to the haiku is the senryu, which has many of the same goals, but deals humorously or even sarcastically with ‘human nature’, and does not require a reference to nature or seasonal reference. In point of fact, the lines between senryu and haiku are consistently blurred, and most scholars and poets do not consider one form higher than the other.

This is a very basic overview and definition of haiku/senryu, and it is hardly an all encompassing discussion of the form or its origins. There is no single expert in haiku, and the masters sometimes broke their own rules with little more comment than a shrug of the shoulders. It is at once a highly disciplined form, yet one that remains flexible, and has continued to evolve; particularly the English version of this Japanese poetic form, that itself is thought to have evolved from far older Japanese forms; Tanka, Sedoka, and Renga.

In pursuit of knowledge about haiku a true ‘haijin’, or ‘haiku poet’, is nothing more than a lifetime student, and what Bob Dylan once said is highly relevant advice in pursuing an understanding of haiku; “Don’t follow leaders. Watch your parking meters.” Don’t let any Basho wannabe, or self appointed ‘expert’ crush your enthusiasm with their ‘rules’, but rather continue to search, study, and refine your work ‘in the present moment’.

There are numerous web sites that discuss various nuances, definitions, and preferences of technique in the creation of Haiku. Reading that I'd recommend includes books by Robert Haas, William J. Higginson, R. H. Blyth and Jane Reichhold. I would also recommend that you visit the online haiku websites, including Modern Haiku, The Heron's Nest and The World Haiku Review.


Recommended Reading:

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Tokyo, The Hokuseido Press, 1949-1952, 1960, 1968, 1970, 1982, 1997.

Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (New York: Ecco, 1994) xii-xvi.

William J. Higginson, Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, Kodansha International (JPN); Reissue edition (February 1, 1992), ISBN: 4770014309.

Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku, Kodansha International (JPN); (February 1, 2003), ISBN: 4770028865.


Michael Rehling resides in Southern Michigan, living with his wife, dogs, cats, and, as he puts it, "many tall pines".

His interests include haiku, senryu, and other 'short forms' of poetry.

He also follows in his father-photographer's footsteps and often presents photos to accompany his haiku.

He is the webmaster of Haiku Hut, an Internet Haiku Resource; he was creator/editor of Short Stuff, a haiku e-journal; he is the new web designer/master for the World Haiku Review; And, he creates photo-haiku webpages such as Big Sur Memories.