Friday, March 14, 2014

Notes from a Haiku Workshop

Last April, I became a student of haiku when decided haiku would be a good way to encourage more people to write poetry. I posted a blog about how to write haiku and was astonished at the interest shown, judging by the number of hits that blog post received. As a result, I decided to begin a new feature on my blog called “Saturday Haiku,” in which I write and post a new haiku each week. My first Saturday Haiku was in May of 2013. Though I have been posting haiku for ten months now, I am still a student of the art – which is why I was excited when I heard about a haiku workshop coming to my hometown.

The haiku workshop was held in Birmingham, Alabama last Saturday and was led by Terri French, who is Regional Coordinator for the Southeast Region of The Haiku Society of America. The workshop was hosted by the Birmingham Public Library as part of the city's Sakura Festival and lasted from 10:00 a.m. until noon. In that short time I learned how much I do not know about haiku. Indeed, much of the information that I shared last year from other sources on that original blog post about writing haiku was very basic and did not include later developments in the writing of English-language haiku.

The first surprise for me was that the “5 – 7 – 5” method for allotting syllables in the three lined poem is no longer considered the standard. In the Japanese language, on is the sound unit comparable to the English syllable.  However, in the English language, a seventeen syllable span is much longer than seventeen on  in the Japanese language. One source states that thinking in terms of 3 – 5 – 3 is more comparable to what the Japanese language does in 5 – 7 – 5. The Haiku Society of America considers that 12 syllables in English would be comparable to 17 in Japanese.

A Brief History

Ms. French gave a brief historical review of haiku, beginning with its origins in Japan. Matsu Basho, who lived from 1644 to 1694, is considered the father of haiku. Yosa Buson (1716 – 1784) was a painter as well as poet, and would sometimes combine a painted image with a haiku. From Buson’s influence came the “haiga” which is a combination of picture and haiku in which the image compliments (rather than illustrates) the poem. Kabayshi Issa (1763 – 1828) is considered to be the most beloved of haiku poets. Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703 – 1775) was a female haiku poet of some renown.  As the haiku continued to develop in Japan, Musaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902) elevated haiku to a literary status.

Haiku influenced several English language poets in the Imagist Movement before World War II. Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Amy Lowell are some of the writers associated with that movement whose poetry  was short and haiku-like.  In the post WWII period, Harold G. Henderson came to be considered the “godfather” of American haiku. He translated Japanese haiku for English-speaking audiences.

R.H. Blyth, who lived from 1898 to 1964, brought the Zen movement into the writing of haiku. Blyth influenced the Beat Poets and the Beat Poets in turn influenced American haiku. Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder are examples of Beat poets who made use of haiku in their writing.

Terri French enlightened the workshop attendees with information about influential modern haiku poets. She made special mention of women pioneers in contemporary haiku including Jane Reichold, Alexis Rotella, and Anita Virgil. She told us about Nick Virgilio, a modern poet who greatly influenced contemporary haiku and who was a member of the Haiku Society of America. I did a little more research on line and found that, according to an article in Wikipedia, Virgilio “experimented with the haiku form, trying several innovations that were adopted by many other American haiku poets, including dropping the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count in favor of shorter forms. He included rhyme in his haiku along with the gritty reality of urban America.” The article further notes that Virgilio’s published collection of haiku “has been called one of the most influential single-author books in English-language haiku.”

What is Haiku?

The official definition of haiku used by the Haiku Society of America 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.”  

In the workshop, Ms. French elaborated on some aspects of haiku: 
  • Japanese haiku makes use of kigo, the “season word” which identifies the season to which the poem relates
  • There is the use of juxtaposition
  • There is the use of kireji, the “cutting” word which in Japanese serves as a verbal punctuation
  • There is the “aha moment,” or the epiphany of new realization 
In closing, she gave a few haiku “guidelines” (Ms. French does not like the term “rules” when it comes to haiku): 
  • 17 or fewer syllables
  • Three lines
  • No rhyme
  • No end punctuation
  • There is no capitalization except for proper nouns
  • Haiku are not titled
  • No use of overt metaphor, simile, or personification
  • Use concrete nouns rather than lots of adjectives to convey seasonal imagery
  • Make use of comparison

The Take Away

In two short hours I learned much more about haiku than I ever knew before. In addition, we also had time for hands on practice in writing haiku. As a student of the art of haiku, I hope to carry some of my new knowledge into my own writing as I continue my weekly practice of haiku on the Saturday Haiku feature of this blog site. Rather than being forever wed to the 5 – 7 – 5 format, I will pay more attention to the spirit of haiku, trying to say more in fewer syllables. 

The primary corrections I will make in future haiku writing will be to eliminate punctuation, capitalization and overt use of metaphor. In one of my early haiku, I said that the thin crescent moon with its arc of light was “like a door ajar.” Ideally, I would have carried that imagery without the overt metaphor. I love metaphor and simile, but I will need to learn to restrict its use to poetic forms other than haiku. It may be that haiku will help me make better use of the concept of metaphor and simile without resorting to overt “like” or “as” phrases even in my other poetry.

I hope that interested readers will continue to follow my Saturday Haiku offerings, but more than that, I hope that more of you will take an interest in actually writing haiku. The purpose of my initial post in writing haiku last year was to encourage people who probably do not consider themselves to be “poets” to find in the haiku an accessible avenue for poetic expression.  As you may note, I have been writing haiku for almost a year with only a little bit of knowledge about the art. Even so, having the discipline of a very simple weekly practice has helped me to pay more attention to my surrounding world. I probably try for that Zen approach” that Blyth introduced to American haiku, though it should be noted that haiku does not have to be about anything Zen. Having listened to an experienced teacher in Terri French, I am even more interested in pursuing the art.

For further reference: 

Picture: A portrait of the poet Basho, with his most famous poem "An old pond - a frog jumps in -" (c.1820) by Kinkoku, Yokoi (1761-1832)
Public Domain
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



  1. Thanks for sharing this Charles.
    I so enjoy haiku but have written only 2 poems in haiku.
    This will help me a great deal if I want to try my hand at it.

    1. Thanks, Margie. It was an inspiring workshop -- I'm glad my notes were helpful!


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