Why Haiku?

phone photo of ducks 2Haiku happen all the time, wherever there are people who are in touch with the world of their senses, and with their own feeling response to it. ~ William J. Higginson

My attempts at writing haiku bring me a lot of pleasure. I love the intensity of the initial experience and the inner stillness, serenity and focused, centred composure required at the capturing stage. I love the restrictions of haiku and the way they comfort yet inspire me, and I love how the process reminds me to be aware of the beauty and ‘lifefulness’ in everything, from flowers and birds to cityscapes and domestic details.

I’ve read hundreds of haiku that are astonishingly beautiful in their simplicity and vast in their scope, like this one by Lee Gurga:

from house
to barn
the milky way

But in addition to the pleasure I’ve had in reading haiku, I discovered a while back that adopting a haiku mindset is a talisman against the stresses, anxieties and overwhelm that so often accompany western lifestyles. Writing haiku requires a level of engaged awareness in the present that wards off the fears and Shoulds and But what if…?’s that live in the future, and the grief, regrets and If only’s that so often haunt the past.

Writing haiku is also a wonderful way to journal, and our notebooks can provide rich material for inspiration or word gifts, or become a legacy for our loved ones.

Experimenting with haiku expanded my love of life and my awareness of the essence of every living thing, but learning to make word-sketches also improved my writing.

The following paragraph, taken from The Empty Jug, evolved from one of my attempts at haiku. In haiku, every syllable and the sound of every word earns its place. What you want to say has to be pared down, and every syllable justified. I wrote this haiku (the linked part shown in mauve) in response to a creative stimulus I gave folk on a haiku post last year. It was only when I read it that I realised how aptly it described my sense of isolation and my despair at being separated – by something unseen – from the inspiration I need to write and fill my life to overflowing.

I stood at the kitchen sink, robotically washing dishes. I paused, my gaze landing on a hand-painted jug on the window ledge, raindrops running down the glass. I clung to the sink with soapy hands, hunched forward, eyes clenched shut, terrified that I might miss another deadline, that I’d never have another moment of revelation, the inspiration that flows in and fills me up then spills over into my writing and my online coaching.

‘Proper’ haiku

As with all forms of poetry, there are divisions and differing beliefs among experts, with regard to form, subject manner and approach, but as a rough rule of thumb, when I say ‘traditional’ haiku, I mean those written by the Japanese grand masters, or written  by devotees who have studied the masters and are experts in Japanese culture, language and aesthetics. My personal favourite haiku were actually written by North Americans. I love how they took the ball and ran with it. I also love urban haiku, and the grey area where haiku meets senryu, the poetry that focuses on human nature.

Essence, awareness and compassion

A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe…a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. ~ Albert Einstein

Haiku, real haiku, help us see into the life of things, to become more spiritual, compassionate and aware. Traditionally, haiku are direct, sensuous and real, and they centre us in the eternal NOW, even if they also allude to a literary heritage or recognised seasonal representations. If we write a haiku, we don’t tell the reader how we felt, or  how they should feel, we simply paint the perception, in all its fresh immediacy, and let them experience it themselves. In haiku, something is what it is.

The aim of every haiku is to recreate the poet’s experience in the reader, and then ripple outwards like the ripples from a pebble in a pond, as the reader adds their own life experiences to the emotion conveyed by the poet. In some ways, the best haiku are invisible, because in reading them, we are taken directly to the emotion the poet was experiencing, and in that way are connected to something universal and eternal.

We write haiku to keenly perceive –  and then re-create  – what we experience in Nature;  in that way, our awareness is strengthened, and we are reminded that we are part of the life force that is in all things.  In traditional haiku, human nature is secondary to what’s referred to as Greater Nature.

Haiku are deceptively simple. Although writing them requires a sharp eye, an accute inner ear, deft use of simple but vivifying vocabulary and skillful juxtaposition of carefully chosen images, they’re not  full of poeticism, abstract anthropocentricity, intricate personal symbolism, figurative language, complex poetic devices or intellectual cleverness; nor are they puzzles or simply word games that seem like a great way to introduce beginners to poetry. For many people, haiku are a form of Zen meditation, a mindset and a way of experiencing life with heightened awareness, compassion and empathy for all creatures.

dead cat…
open mouthed
to the pouring rain                                          ~ Michael McClintock

In their purest form, they capture concisely, in a flash of awareness, the essence of something in Nature, or one of life’s fascinating dramas or everyday occurences.

at dusk hot water from the hose                      ~ Marlene Mountain

That one reminds me of how, in my friend’s seaside home in Greece, I always washed off the sea salt with an outdoor hose after swimming in the sea. The loops and coils of the hose lay spread out in the dusty yard all day, the water in them warming in the sun.

Haiku don’t have to describe the beautiful, but they do need to convey some kind of life essence.

The very best haiku alter our perceptions and change the way we see things.

On nearing the surf,
every footprint  becomes
that of the sea…                                       ~ James W. Hackett

They can also help us connect two seemingly disparate things and often seemlessly merge details with the universal.

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

I love the poignancy of  this one by Eric Amann, and its gentle power to take us beyond the graveyard to issues of life, memory and death; nature and the passing of the seasons claim us all as equals in the end.

In the following poem, not only is the image beautiful, but when I read somewhere later that the author, Richard Wright  is an African American, it added an extra, though not necessary, dimension.

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white

In writing haiku, we learn to love the details of our lives and treasure our own experiences as life-filled beings in the grand scheme of things.


My next post will be focusing on the How (the form) of haiku and will probably present an analysis of a few of my favourite haiku before we have our next  wee poetry writing flurry!

Until then, here are a few places to read some wonderful haiku. Why don’t you share a few of your favourites with us and explain why they touched you.

  • Check ot a variety of haiku and other work by the fabulous Al Pizzarrelli.
  • Get a library or second hand copy of  Fresh Scent by Lee Gurga.
  • If you’d like to learn how to write, share and teach haiku, please help me send my kids to college by buying Higginson’s definitive book on haiku from my bookshop. 😉
  • This interesting essay is full of examples from The Haiku Anthology, which is also for sale in my bookshop.


    1. You always write short comments that manage to be insightful and compassionate yet never squander words, so it doesn’t surprise me that you have, in my humble, unprofessional opinion, a real talent for haiku. This was brilliant and ticked haiku boxes, not just great wee poem boxes.
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

    1. Thanks Barbara – for the wow! and the poem. I must track down your post. I probably missed it when I went AWOL in December and January. Reading your lines, Hilary’s and Lori’s inspired me; these just landed…

      blogger at a screen
      shuts the laptop with a click
      in the cold dark room

      the cursor pulses
      in the empty comments box
      migrating birds
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

  1. Hi Janice .. my education is poor – I’d never heard of Haiku .. until Davina posted in December .. and now it keeps popping up. It’s so interesting to have the history and hear about ‘senryu’.

    Life’s a tease
    on spring breezes
    we have to sneeze

    My English was awful too – but something got through somewhere along the years! Not sure the above is too eloquent .. but it’s appropriate for the time of year and weather we’re having!

    Have a good week – excellent post and information – loved it! Your pond or lake looks cold with the mallard, but a love reflection of dabbling life .. Hilary & hugs from the south ..
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Spring Cleaning and Passion …. =-.

    1. I’d never hear it said from anyone that your education is poor! You have such an exuberant love for learning – from others, from life, from books – I’d say your eclectic education is an example to us all! I enjoyed your wee poem and as you mentioned senryu, I’m wondering if you found out about it? It’s one of the genres that encourages human observation and humour, and I can tell from the fun in your poem that you’d enjoy it! Thanks for getting into the spirit of all this – I didn’t expect any poems this time so I’m delighted. I’d really love to do an online creative writing session someday. Would you be game?
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

      1. Hi Janice .. my teachers did think so .. there’s that bit between information and the brain .. = a sieve??? Mine at that stage must have been terrible .. but I know now – it wasn’t .. it’s just you get put down and so it goes on .. everyone now says you must have been brilliant, sailed into Uni .. etc .. well no!! Complete donut .. anyway it can all be stitched back up again for another chance late in life!! So here I am.

        Re Senryu .. yes I did have a quick squizz at Wiki .. and jotted it down as I’d like to do an article on doggerel, nonsense poems (loved those), malaprops, spoonerisms, clerihews .. etc – a cousin of my Ma’s brought up Clerihews when I sent her some of my blogs – Persian Palettes … William de Morgan connections –
        http://positiveletters.blogspot.com/2009/11/what-is-persian-palette-turquoise.html Innis sent us lots of his art as postcards and Mum loved talking about them .. etc

        The article will happen when my brain is in gear ..

        Re your question .. yes but I have some challenges for a few months .. if you email me .. my full name no hypehns at gmail.com .. then I’ll explain. At some stage I’d love to come up and barney with you .. well chat and learn .. again in the future .. a few things to do first .. cheers and from a soggy Eastbourne (no other way to describe it?!) & chilly! .. Hilary
        .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Spring Cleaning and Passion …. =-.

        1. Hi again, Hilary.

          Well, I think your teachers would be smiling now, or humbled. Everything happens in its time. I’ll look out for your post. They always have such intriguing titles!

          I hope the challenges don’t take too much out of you and that you feel you have the strength to cope with anything that comes your way and to thrive. You have been very active and suportive in the blogging world for a long while, so I hope you’re taking good care of you, too.
          .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

  2. Hi Janice,

    Everything about this post was beautiful. I learned so much about Haiku and I so loved the quote from Albert Einstein. Thank you.

    Anything that looks simple usually is not and I think the awareness that you discussed is vital for making the most out of being alive. No matter where we go, we are constantly surrounded with inspiration for a poem, a story or whatever. Life is constantly in motion and it is awareness that helps us to recognize all that is happening.

    I look forward to the next post and by the way, I love how you have your own bookshop. May you achieve what you desire!
    .-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Passion…It’s A Way of Life =-.

    1. Thanks, Nadia. I thought you’d enjoy this, because of all the connections haiku have with Buddhism, the Tao and Zen. Have you ever written any? I know you write poetry and you often write long posts based on flashes of observation, but I’m curious about whether you’ve ever dabbled in the realms of short poetry.

      Thanks for the blessings on my bookshop, too. It’s been there since the blog launched, but I’m afraid it’s been sadly neglected because it was my husband who learned how to upload things into it and I never really got adept. I had such dreams of it being the wee card, music, book and gift shop at the corner of our café and at one point, I wanted to investigate ways of giving folk the option of lisening to music as they read, to make it feel more like a café. Sadly, my techie skills aren’t as developed as my imagination!
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

  3. I really, really, REALLY, enjoyed this post today, Janice. It was so simple, so beautiful, so straightforward: a haiku in prose, if you will.

    I look forward to the next installment in this series, The ‘How’ of Haiku, as this has re-awakened in me my love of poetry and the deceptively simple form of the haiku. You have caused me to hunger to both write and read some haiku of my own!

    I like these lines you have written: If we write a haiku, we don’t tell the reader how we felt, or how they should feel, we simply paint the perception, in all its fresh immediacy, and let them experience it themselves.

    This is the sentiment with which I write my blog and craft my blog posts. It was lovely to see it echoed here.

    I also loved the way you just threw in “the pebble” haiku right there in the middle of this post like the hidden toy surprise in the Crackerjack box. Tricky, very tricky. 🙂

    Beautiful post, Janice. Just beautiful.
    .-= Chania Girl´s last blog ..Two Lists =-.

    1. Thank you!! I was hoping you’d catch this one, as I know from your beautiful writing that you live and capture moments in the way I described. I was really worried about this post, thinking I risked sounding either didactic or foolishly inadequate at summarising a genre with hundreds of years of history and devotees who literally argue with each other about syllables, but the lovely comments I’ve received have strengthened my resolve to trust myself more.

      I love writing lyrics and poetry, but I’m just as passionate about passing on my love of poetry to folk; despite a background in translation and language teaching, I’m little more than a lovestruck amateur. But maybe that’s good; I hate to hear all the immediacy and beauty of poetry being intellectualised out of it as people analyse a billion layers of meaning; great if that’s what the poet hoped for, but I love the immediacy and no-nonsense life in haiku. They mesmerise and invigorate me at the same time.

      I do hope you’ll share your word-sketches with us sometime.
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

    1. Hi, Tess.
      I hope you will pop back and read the mini-series to trigger off some more haiku writing days; I loved the creative writing you did around your farm memories here last year, and you of all people have a fondness for juxtaposing powerful images and thoughts – think Tess lists!

  4. Oh, Janice, I knew if I came here I’d feel better. These days of tedious scoring and tearless mourning have left me feeling wretched. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen you do is point out the window ledge haiku embedded in your prose. That really gave me a lift, and a reminder of why I enjoy your writing so much.

    Breath of life comes in
    goes out, stops — rises to clouds
    set in baby blue
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..You Were Loved =-.

    1. Hi Brenda,
      I’m glad this helped a wee bit, but I wish I could do more. Tearless grieving is so painful. It makes the heart and the head as well as eyes feel heavy with unshed tears.

      I loved your poem, felt the stillness and the life in it. I may have read too much into it, but it felt like a hymn to the life spirits of loved ones that never really leave us, but simply reconnect to the life force and the love and light that we all came from and return to.

      I’m thrilled that you appreciated my wee jug haiku. Here’s another time I embedded a poem into a piece. If I learn how to do screenshots with ease, I’ll post a photo of the original poem, as I do a lot of concrete poetry:

      Cradling a coffee to my lips like a prayer in a begging bowl, I sat alone, half hidden behind a pillar and a potted palm. The owner of the hotel, a friend, kept throwing me reassuring glances. The lights on the huge Christmas tree twinkled and raucous laughter and the smell of beer drifted in from the public bar next door.

  5. Hi Janice.
    When your commenters start contributing their haikus this feels like a lot of children playing in the sandbox 🙂 So much fun!

    I appreciate the analogy about haikus simply “painting a perception”. That is brilliant. It feels to me like less of an opportunity for the inner critic to interfere. A perception IS simply a perception. I think writing haikus would be a good exercise to turn to when writer’s block sets in.
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..On the First Day of Spring =-.

    1. Thanks, Davina. I love that folk feel they can play here; I always had a dream of doing occasional creative writing get togethers in a corner of our ‘café’. You all raise my game. You’re right; haiku definitely is an antidote to writer’s block, but it’s also great therapy for creatives, too, and it always works for me when I go through sad spells.

  6. Hi Janice,
    What a fabulous post. Beautifully written – you are so articulate – and I learned a lot. And the quotes you’ve chosen are just stunning. The Albert Einstein and Higginson ones particularly.
    You’ve articulated beautifully the way writing, and writing poetry specifically, and perhaps Haiku even more specifically call us to the moment, and can wake us up to everything that is waiting for our gratitude and loving attention.
    For me, writing changes everything. It fills me up with peace and calm and appreciation and joy. What magic.
    Love, Tara
    .-= Tara Mohr´s last blog ..Reclaiming Lost Loves =-.

    1. Thank you so much, Tara. The last time anyone called me “articulate” was in an argument, and they spat it out as an insult. Your comment has balanced that out! I genuinely don’t know much about haiku compared to the afficionados I’ve studied, but I believe with all my heart that it’s an art form that can calm and heal as well as inspire. I guess it appeals to the life coach in me as well as the writer

      I don’t know if you’ve read my post called “Quote-hunting”, but I’m a total addict: I love finding and sharing quotes that sing out to me. Those two got sticky notes on them as soon as I saw them. I think the Higginson one sums up every single person who reads my posts or visits these boxes.

      And I agree with what you say about writing; whether I’m composing lyrics or responding to comments, I become totally absorbed and engaged in the process and so much more connected to life and aware.

    1. Hi, Vered.
      I get the sneaky feeling you’d be another one of those folk who’d discover a gift for it. There are so many finely observed objective yet compassionate life sketches embedded in your writing and you have no problem with waffly over-lyricising like I have!

  7. Hi, Robyn.
    I hope you do give it a try and share some with us some day. I remember your post about the importance of novelty to the creative mind, and it’s been an inspiration to me to get out there and try new things and see new places. My next post will look – very briefly, in case it scares folk! – at the form of haiku.
    .-= janice´s last blog ..Why Haiku? =-.

  8. May I recommend reading “Becoming a Haiku Poet” online? Go to http://sites.google.com/site/graceguts/essays/becoming-a-haiku-poet, or see other guidance on haiku at http://sites.google.com/site/graceguts/essays. Remember that putting something (such a blog posts) into either a 5-7-5 syllable pattern or even in three lines does NOT make it haiku. A haiku also needs objective sensory imagery (generally avoiding commentary and judgment about the images), and needs a two-part juxtapositional structure (Japanese haiku use a kireji, or cutting word) and a season word (kigo).

    Haiku are fundamentally emotional poems — conveyors of feeling. Paradoxically, however, haiku are never written about feelings. Instead, they are best written about what caused your feelings. That makes all the difference.


  9. Hi Michael,
    Firstly, may I just say that I enjoy your work. Anyone who took my advice and bought The Haiku Anthology will have found your wonderful haiku by now.

    Thank you taking the time to comment here, for sharing your links with us and for presenting such a succinct, authoritative summary. I’m not really sure, though, who your comment was addressed to.

    If it was addressed to me, I think it ought to be fairly obvious from my post that I’m a wee bit beyond the stage of needing to be told what a haiku is. I know three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables don’t make a haiku. I do know, however, that many folk have developed a love and understanding of ‘proper’ haiku by using that form as a starting point.

    If your comment was addressed to my commenters, good folk who are having fun exploring and learning, practising and encouraging each other in a safe environment, then I suspect maybe you’ve completely misjudged the ethos of the blog in which you’ve left your comment. Its upper case NOT your air of didactic detachment make a pointed contrast to the love, compassion and empathy that characterise this blog community. You couldn’t possibly know that two of those smart, loving commenters above are caring for elderly relatives and another is mourning the recent sudden death of a loved one.

    I am well aware that there are folk here writing short poems which aren’t haiku, nor have I even referred to any of them as haiku, but this post is not only part of a mini-series, it’s delivered by a someone who has built trust and would never adopt a didactic or supercilious tone.

    No-one will leave the final post of this mini-series without having had their appetites whetted by a brief introduction to haiku; nor will they leave feeling embarrassed that what they have been calling haiku are actually small poems, or “poemlings”, an affectionate word I use to make the point that the majority of us do not achieve real haiku, even if we think it’s worth striving for.

    If people leave my posts feeling comforted, connected, cared for or inspired to learn more and write better, to become more aware and engaged, then I’ve done what I hoped to do.

    It saddens me that you have neither acknowledged the efforts of a person whose only aim is to encourage folk to enjoy haiku, nor read my post with the attention to detail I would expect from a writer of your calibre. May I suggest you read my post and comment responses more carefully, and you’ll find the following:

    My next post will be focusing on the How (the form) of haiku

    My next post will look – very briefly, in case it scares folk! – at the form of haiku.

    You’ll also find in the body of the post, if you read it carefully,

    If we write a haiku, we don’t tell the reader how we felt, or how they should feel, we simply paint the perception, in all its fresh immediacy, and let them experience it themselves. In haiku, something is what it is.

    The aim of every haiku is to recreate the poet’s experience in the reader, and then ripple outwards like the ripples from a pebble in a pond, as the reader adds their own life experiences to the emotion conveyed by the poet.

    If there’s anything in this post that you think is wrong, misleading or harmful, I’d be more than happy for you to tell me. I have never claimed to be an authority; if you read my responses above, you’ll have seen that I come from a place of love. A word of encouragement from someone of your stature and talent would have meant a lot to me.

    I love writing lyrics and poetry, but I’m just as passionate about passing on my love of poetry to folk; despite a background in translation and language teaching, I’m little more than a lovestruck amateur.

  10. Hi Janice .. I’ve loved finding a little about Haiku – actually being introduced to poetry and enjoying the writing .. at least I am trying and enjoying the process – not being a natural writer. So I’ve loved your stories and letting us know things .. I saw your note about coming posts and thought that will be great to know a little more about this style of Japanese poetry .. gives me a flavour of Japan too – good to learn about other areas. Love your lovestruck amateur status .. and please carry on with your posts and stories ..

    Look after yourself in this snow storm coming .. with hugs and thoughts – Hilary
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Chess, one of 100 objects, Northern Sea Trading Routes, India and Persia … =-.

    1. Thank you, Hilary. I’m guessing you’re subscribed to this post’s comments. I’m really pleased you’ve been enjoying this paddle in new waters; it makes me very happy to be able to share a corner of my café with folk who love connecting, learning and having old fashioned fun as much as you and the others do. Sorry if I worried you by sounding uncharacteristically chilly, defensive or protective mother hen-ny in my comment to Michael. He’s actually one of the world’s best loved and respected writers of haiku in English, and one of my personal favourites. Under other circumstances, I would have loved a friendly dialogue with him, the chance to discuss one of my life’s passions, but I felt – rightly or wrongly – that his tone sounded critical and might discourage others from having fun dabbling here. His advice is excellent, though, and his links go to his own site which is packed with goodies, so I approved the comment and let it out of moderation. Ah well, never mind….nothing like shooting myself in the foot, then eating the foot, then knocking out the teeth that ate the foot then starving to death! I don’t do things by halves 🙁

  11. Hi Janice .. I just happened to be here .. and thought a positive would be a good idea .. so popped one in .. hopefully he’ll be back to read .. and I thought when you started out all was ok – then saw .. not .. but life is life .. I’ve made mistaken comments here and there .. wish I hadn’t – but we all do ..

    Go well – sounds like loadsa snow – so does this winter .. not do things by halves! Hugs – Hilary
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Chess, one of 100 objects, Northern Sea Trading Routes, India and Persia … =-.

    1. We’re snowed in again today, and I was outside in the snow at midnight, sweeping the snow off the trees and bushes that made it through the last freak snow days intact. I’m SICK of snow this winter!

      Thanks for the prompt reply and reassurance, but please don’t worry about my comment. I do tend to enjoy rolling around in my imagery a bit. I don’t regret saying what I did; I could simply have deleted Michael’s comment or mine, but it would have felt out of integrity. It was afterwards that I felt the slight draught of a door closing. The haiku competition community is very tight knit, as are the haiku publications and societies. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what the consequences of my response to him might be, except that I won’t be able to refer to his poems in future pieces, and I’ll have to be more careful when I use the odd haiku to showcase other folks’ work.

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