Haiku Lessons

by Alison Williams

This article was first published in Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005, pp. 30-31, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

Alchemy is sadly missing from the curriculum, and so it is possible that you may not be aware of something called prima materia. Prima materia is said to be the original pure substance out of which everything was created, and is so easily overlooked that only a master alchemist recognises it as the vital ingredient of the Philosopher's Stone.

I think that haiku could be the prima materia of poetry. Outwardly they appear simple, even trivial, but the best of them touch on the very essence of things. Due to their apparent simplicity they are frequently looked down on, made light of, or - by the more charitable - given to children as exercises in nature poetry.

However, the humble haiku can provide some lessons that would do any poet, or indeed any writer, no harm at all to learn and practice - and I don't mean syllable counting!

What lessons can haiku teach?

Don't waste words. There may be disagreements about exactly how short a haiku can or should be, but everyone would agree that brevity and concision are vital defining features. There is no room for superfluous words. In a longer form it may be easier to get away with a few wasted words here and there, but only at the risk of trying the patience of both editors and readers.

Hone your editing skills. All but the briefest of notebook sketches will need to be pared down to make a haiku. Haiku writing is usually an exercise in cutting out and cutting back to the absolute essentials - but no further.

Every writer needs to be able to edit his work, and the constraints imposed by this short form help to build skills that can be usefully applied to longer poems or even prose.

Be clear and precise. When so few words can be used all of them must be well chosen to convey meaning as precisely and clearly as possible, to create the right tone, and to carry the appropriate associations or allusions. They must also be chosen and combined with a view to the overall flow, rhythm and sound when read aloud.

Evening wind:
water laps
the heron's legs
       - Buson

Focus on the image. Too much reliance on generalities and abstract concepts - love, loneliness, beauty, sorrow - earn enthusiastic but inexperienced poets many rejection slips. Haiku is image based, its business is with the real and specific. Not freshness, not even flowers, but this daisy, here on my lawn, still sparkling with this morning's dew.

Use the power of juxtaposition. Many haiku rely on the effect of juxtaposing images without explanation or direct comparison, often by means of a break in syntax. They are the poetry of unsaid things at one and the same time as they are simple and direct on the literal, surface level. By juxtaposing images the poet encourages the reader to engage with the poem and complete it by connecting the images for themselves. Juxtaposition of images is a subtle technique related to the more commonly used poetic devices of metaphor and simile.

Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end -
tonight's moon


Trust your reader. In longer pieces it is possible (but not advisable) to elaborate and explain everything, leaving nothing for the reader to discover or contribute for themselves. You can't do that in a haiku, you have to trust your reader to get the point.

Show, don't tell. Haiku rarely declare an emotion explicitly, although the best have a depth of emotional tone powerfully implied by the imagery they use. Often they draw an unspoken parallel between the external world that provides the images and the internal, personal experience of the poet that has found resonance in those images.

A crow
has settled on a bare branch -
autumn evening

       - Bashō

Use your senses. To find the fresh images needed to write haiku you need to be actively aware of the world around you with all your senses. The words may be jotted down while out and about, or they may not come until later, but they will be grounded in directly experienced physical sensations. A boat emerging from the mist; birdsong in the forest; the roughness of tree bark under your hand; blustery wind in your hair on reaching a hilltop; the smell and taste of freshly baked bread. This helps to give immediacy and appeal to any writing.

Observe. Because of the focus on the senses writing haiku can help to sharpen your observation skills. The fact that haiku are concerned with the specific rather than the general may lead you to learn more about your particular local environment. I have often heard newcomers to haiku say that since taking up the form they have s tarted to notice details of the world around them that they had overlooked before.

In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
look cold

       - Bashō

Draw on common experience. All effective communication depends upon there being a common ground of experience that both parties share. A haiku-like focus on everyday things, presented in straightforward language, can help to engage readers who have become disenchanted with more complex and abstruse poetry, where the common ground of experience is not so readily apparent.

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish

        - Issa

Share your work. Haiku has a long tradition of being a social activity, with writers meeting for renku (linked verse) writing sessions or for ginko (haiku walks). Taking part in writers' groups and workshops can help to provide feedback on work in progress and to motivate new writing.

Be prepared to learn humility. There is no such thing as a rich and famous haiku poet!

I hope haiku writers will be encouraged to apply their skills to other forms of poetry, and other types of writing. For anyone reading this who has not attempted haiku before, I hope you might decide to give it a try. You just might find you've been overlooking something of value.

Alison Williams is the librarian of the British Haiku Society.

© Copyright Alison Williams