fragmented thoughts on haiku

The other day I tagged yet another post as ‘haiku’. Later, in the comments, I admitted that the description was probably inaccurate, and it occurs to me that any reader who clicks to read other haiku posts on the blog might infer that I don’t actually know what the word means.

There are plenty of factors that may be taken into account when defining a haiku, including number of lines, syllable count, subject, kigo (season word), kireji (cutting word) etc.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever written 5-7-5, natural-world poem that juxtaposes two images to produce an “a-ha!” reaction in the reader. That approximately sums up my understanding of the strictest definition of the form, but I happily ignore any or all of the elements when I’m writing.

There are plenty of interesting pages on-line that talk about what is and isn’t a haiku, and plenty that discuss the importance of the different elements of the form when writing in English. I think, though, that there is still some debate about what does and doesn’t class as a haiku in English and I’m aware that I’m using the term ‘haiku’ as a sort of place holder.

What I’m writing would often be more accurately described as ‘imagist fragments’ or ‘short nature poetry’, but I don’t think those are very useful tags for blog-posts. (Often, too, I’m not writing about nature: it’s more like English-language senryu.)

bath taps & shower fitting
Over on the ‘Bureau of Public Secrets’ website there’s a piece Thirty-one translations and one commentary about Bashô’s pond and frog, one of the best known of all haiku.

The following is certainly not a haiku in any recognised sense of the word. But that won’t stop me tagging it as one.


lavender-scented bubbles
office worker steps in

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

8 thoughts on “fragmented thoughts on haiku”

  1. I loved your interpretation of haiku. I publish other people’s work in a literary magazine and was admonished by a haiku ‘expert’ after publishing a number of haiku that she thought weren’t true haiku. I agree, she is probably correct and my knowledge is limited to schoolhood 5-7-5 lessons and countless writing group/workshop sessions where tutors/instructors etc passed on their equally limited or misguided knowledge. Thus, since the ‘expert’s’ email, I have a morbid fear of using haiku in case I use a ‘bad’ one :( I did ask her to write an informative article to help those of us struggling with the form and she said she would think about it but a year on, I guess she has decided ‘no’.
    My thoughts were that although the ‘haiku’ in question were by no means perfect/ideal/true, they were the efforts of people learning the craft and having a go, and that’s what I’m about. Of course, we should all be striving for our best but along the way…
    It is a lot easier to get away with a short story or free poem that is less-than-perfect; haiku a a bit more technical and yet, perfect simplicity at their very best!
    Sorry, I’m up on my high soapbox here. Thank you for your thoughts, I really liked them.

    PS – When I say ‘expert’, I mean it with utmost respect and acknowledgement of her expertise in the field. I do understand the ‘purist’s’ passion for their work and she was very polite about it all and understanding of my reply/thoughts.


    1. Firstly, congratulations on keeping a small press mag running for over ten years!

      I remember being told as a child that haiku were 5-7-5, but I suspect that was the only point most non-poet primary-school teachers were capable of assimilating back then, not to mention the fact that haiku was still a relatively ‘new thing’ in the west and I doubt most of them had access to much more in-depth info.

      Since then, I have learned far more about phonology, and the whole idea of counting syllables in a stress-timed language like English bothers me tremendously. Each of the other ‘haiku factors’ seems more important to me now than syllable count.

      Have a look at this article on the British Haiku Society page for some comprehensive – and ‘expert’! – thoughts. And try and get hold of some back numbers of their magazine Blithe Spirit to see the variety of what is accepted as haiku by them.

      As for what you publish, I’d say that if it’s good poetry, it doesn’t matter if it’s a haiku or not.

      “A little learning is a dangerous thing” and we are all eager to paste labels where they may not actually belong, but the fact the label doesn’t quite fit doesn’t invalidate the writing. (Unless it’s for a competition where the judge has defined their criteria precisely, in which case it’s a waste of time arguing.)


  2. As someone with a background in education in the areas of Eng. Lit, Media Studies, and Sp.Ed., I can understand the “purists”, but language and communication is in flux. It changes and evolves. Spenser & Shakespeare did not stop at the Italian Sonnet, they invented a new form to fit their language & culture. Haiku in English is what it is . You create your own work. Great post ! :)


    1. Thanks!
      I just found an old article I wrote where I said that “A haiku is defined as having 5-7-5 syllables, and it seems unnecessary to argue with this. If your poem is 4-9-4, it may still be a wonderful poem, but why insist on calling it a haiku?”
      I totally don’t agree with that anymore. (Not only is language in flux, but so are my ideas!)


      1. There were a number of Japanese haiku experts who said that English attempt to follow the syllabic structure of the original missed the point, because English was so different. It is possible in Japanese to compose a denser “single ” sentence than it is in English. Also there is a whole set of Haiku in Japan devoted to computer error messages, not too traditional . :)


      2. I think the 5-7-5 idea persists because it’s so easy to grasp and it’s kept alive by people who don’t read or write poetry. None of the other factors can be defined so simply, so they tend to be treated as if they were secondary.
        I’ve seen computer error haiku in English, but thought they were mostly as tongue-in-cheek as the “fukyu” form (
        I’m sure, though, that if Basho had had a computer, he’d have written about it in a haiku-like form. As you said before, things change, and that includes both form and content.


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