The Definition of Haiku - by Alexey Andreyev

The Definition of Haiku - by Alexey Andreyev

NOTE 1: this Definition was already posted on Shiki List, playing the
role  of  FAQ. Every  time I'm about to  post it, I revise it and add 
something new. Now many changes are  made again (so it  already looks 
like a PhD theses :))
This is not  a set of instructions to follow, but rather a collection
of  short notes similar to  those that  students take during lectures. 

Most of  the examples  used  here are by Shiki List  members including 
myself. It's done on purpose: I don't want to teach, just to show that 
all these ideas have already appeared on Shiki in some form, so every-
body  can learn  these  things  by  themselves, right  here  on  Shiki,
as long as they are interested in haiku (as I was, taking my notes).

Comments welcome: lexa (snail)

copyright (c) 1996 by Alexey Andreyev

--------------------THE  DEFINITION  OF  HAIKU----------------------
last time revised: November 1996


     1. Number of Lines
     2. Number of Syllables, and Kireji
     3. Season Word (kigo)
     4. Images
        4.1. Juxtaposition and Two-Element Scheme
        4.2. "Unfinished Bridge" Effect (on metaphors,  similes, an-
        4.3. Outsider Effect (on using 'I' and 'myself')
        4.4. Cultural References
     5. Other Formal Tricks
        5.1. Rhymes
        5.2. Visual Effects
        5.3. Minimalism
     6. Tanka, Renga, The Origin of Haiku
     7. Haiku Philosophy
     8. Humor in Haiku
     9. Other Sources for Haiku Info: Some Hints (books, WWW sites,
        haiku in different languages, magazines on paper)


I'll omit historical notes for brevity and will talk about the haiku
form only. There are some levels in this art; I'll go from the simpl-
est "external" to the most difficult "internal" level gradually.

     1. Three lines.

     Usually haiku  are written in three lines.  It's possible to do
haiku in 2 lines though,  as well as in one line  or  in  more  than

                along the graveyard fence
                a little girl picks daisies

                                             Paul Mena

      However, there  is  more  "internal"  reason  for three lines,
which is defined (mostly) by the structure and the average length of
the unit of Japanese speech (and thus in poetry), and by the stuctu-
re of haiku-images. Look at the sections below.


     2. 5-7-5 syllables in 1st-2nd-3d lines.

     Also optional:  firstly,  even Basho broke that rule. Secondly,
we don't write in Japanese -- the average Japanese syllable has dif-
ferent length and bears the different "amount of meaning" as  compa-
red to those of other languages;  thus "holy 17" can't be  saved  so
formally. When  poets  write  or translate haiku into their language
they try to save haiku spirit, and somehow imitate the Japanese form
(the length  of  the lines,  the breaks) - but at the same time they
take into account the common patterns of their own language so  that
it sounds natural.  This way most of Russian translations of classic
Japanese haiku have about 20 syllables;  on the other hand,  a haiku
in English, according to W.Higginson's "The Haiku Handbook", is bet-
ter when it's about 12 syllables:

                        old pond...
                         a frog leaps in
                        water's sound


See, there is no need to stuff it with more syllables; everything is
clear and reads well.  Besides,  the use of cutting word (kireji) is
demonstrated. Kireji is a special word in  Japanese  that  indicates
the pause,  the end of the clause. It's not translated into English,
but can be imitated with punctuation ('...', '--', ':', '!') or with
proper  line  breaks  (usually  kireji splits haiku  into two parts,
the pause occurs at the end of the first or the second line).


     3. Season word, (kigo).

     Most haiku contain a special season word:  it introduces a cer-
tain background in which "a haiku event" takes place.  It may be di-
rect naming ("winter night") or something that gives a hint:

                   under the desk light
                        the buzz of a spinning moth
                           on a half-empty page

                                     Ron Hahn

Here "moth"  says it's supposed to be summer.  Winter can be implied
under "icicle" or "scarf". Sometimes it's rather difficult to undes-
tand what season is meant in haiku;  especially when the word is as-
sociated with some old tradition.  Here  is  a  haiku  published  in
R.Hass's selection with no comments:

                Year after year
                on the monkey's face
                a monkey face


        At first sight,  it looks like a cute aphorism rather  than
"a moment of life". However, if the translator knew about the tradi-
tion connected to this image (the tradition in old Japan to enterta-
in people on the New Year Day,  putting a monkey MASK on the face of
a real monkey and walking around with this monkey)  he'd  understand
what day of the year is meant; and the first line would probably re-
ad "this year again..." (speaking of a particular  holiday)  instead
of general "year after year...".

     I would also present the notion of "environmental word" instead
of "season word":  this allusion on the time and the  place  of  the
event can be broader than merely "season"; it can be "my office", or
a part of the day, for example:

                   evening sky --
                   over the city lights
                   stars hardly seen

                                     Alexey Andreyev

     In our  modern world we could be rather far from Nature as well
as from "the feeling of season";  besides,  "moth" could be a summer
word  for one country and a winter word for another country (in Rus-
sia,  there exists a kind of moth that eats woollen clothes, and wo-
ollen  clothes  is  winter  stuff).  "Environmental word" would work
anywhere; although traditional haiku do use  season  allusions  (see
also 4.4.)

 (Here stops the common and simplified definition of haiku,  as it's
given in some poetry courses and dictionaries  Then  goes  something
that's usually hidden under mysterious words "zen philosophy".  I'll
try to go further in my short analitical "vivisection").


     4. Image.

     Every haiku is a sort of little picture,  an interesting image.
Two main ideas about these images:

    A) They come from direct experience;  certain bright moments  of
life  you  managed  to  catch with your "internal camera":  wonders,
strange coincidences, funny situations; sceneries that resonate with
your current "soul state" or even change, shock you suddenly, giving
you a moment of sadness or another sensation YOU COULD'T EVEN NAME.

    B) This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep fe-
elings in readers, too; this is really difficult -- not only to pre-
sent  the experience in words but to do it such a way that it  could
be effectively reflected in someone's mind.

    The art  of  haiku  (as  I see it) is a dance on the sharp blade
between these (A) and (B):  you can write about what you saw but  it
won't  grab your reader as you write merely "there are leaves on the
tree" - extreme (A);  on the other hand,  going to the extreme  (B),
you  can  make up a fancy abstract construction but it'll be too far
from the immediate perception;  this artificial fake will be visible
and will impress no one.

    Virtually, this "dance on the blade" is the essence of all poet-
ry and Art in general. Haiku art uses its own special ways to do it,
here are some hints about these ways:

     4.1. Juxtaposition and Two-Element Scheme

     A great number of "haiku images" are  based  on  juxtaposition.
Usually there are two things that happen to be somewhat  "together",
and haiku presents the very essence,  the very dynamics of their re-

                  shadow's hand
                     grasping the ant
                     then losing it

                                       Dhugal Lindsay

                  on every icicle's tip
                  a drop
                  of sunlight

                                       Alexey Andreyev

     This two-element  scheme  can be split further into subschemes,
sort of "haiku skeleta":  we can place "something new around  somet-
hing old"  or  "a little thing by a big thing".  It's interesting to
see how  poets  manage  to evoke different sensations using the same
haiku skeleton, for example, the latter:

the old pond + a jumping frog  ==> splash  (Basho)
the bell + a sleeping butterfly ==> silence, calmness (Buson)
Mt.Fuji + a snail ==> slowly, maybe senseless, but - climbing (Issa)

  On the other hand,  it is very appealing to write a haiku in which
some common elements are involved in a new type of relationship, mo-
re complicated than simple two-element juxtaposition:

                daffodils open
                around my mailbox
                but no letter

                                       Karen Tellefsen

                a supermarket:
                in someone's cart -- beef, beer,
                flowers and a child

                                       Alexey Andreyev

                spring breeze--
                the pull of her hand
                as we near the pet store

                                       Michael Dylan Welch

     4.2.  "Unfinished Bridge" Effect

     Metaphors and similes are not common for haiku.  Not  that it's
prohibited,  but haiku itself is a different poetic tool.  Every me-
taphor or simile gives a reader two things  and  the  explicit  link
between them:  we  may compare ("the years like dust") or substitute
one thing for another ("diamond dust in  the  night  sky").  In  the
first case we have the connection "DUST<-->years", in the second ca-
se "DUST<-->stars".  Haiku doesn't give a reader  such  a  pre-built
link: the connection (we may also call it "reflection", "resonance")
should happen in reader's own mind:

                  snowflakes -
                  dust on the toes
                  of my boots

                                 Penny Harter,
                                 from "The Haiku Handbook"

     Here "dust" stands for real dust, not for years or stars. Howe-
ver, seeing this dust makes us feel/sense something, so we can desc-
ribe the effect of haiku as  "DUST<-->..."  or  "DUST<--...-->snow"
(snow helped to see the dust that wasn't so noticible otherwise).

     Imagine youself  walking  by the river and seeing an unfinished
bridge: maybe, just a half of the bridge from one side to the middle
of the river,  or some pillars stuck in the bottom,  or even ruins -
an old cement block on one side and a similar one on the other. Any-
way, there's no bridge, no connection now, you can't reach the other
side of the river - yet you can finish the bridge in your  mind  and
say where exactly it starts and ends. This is the way the unfinished
links in haiku work (see also sections 7 and 8).  One can reread the
examples given in this essay trying to catch these "hidden bridges".

    Back to writing: here is an example of a great image for haiku:

                 maple tree
                 red cut leaves cirling --
                 fingers on keys

                                     Richard MacDonald

    However, the connection used (cut leaves <-->  fingers)  is  too
straight; besides, we don't see how these things, connected in a po-
em,  are connected in reality, so it looks almost like a simile wit-
hout the word "like". We can try to make it more "haiku-like"; maybe
something like this:

                street musicians resting -
                red maple leaf
                lands on the keyboard

     As a  special  case  of metaphor I'd also mention anthropomorp-
hism, so common for western poetry: some human features are attribu-
ted to inanimate things ("crescent moon smiles", "angry wind"). Eve-
rything said above about metaphors can be applied to this poetic de-
vice, too: it is AVOIDED in haiku.

     4.3. Outsider Effect

     Another (possible) implication of the "excluded links" idea  is
that  the figure of the watcher/poet is also excluded from the scene
(usually):  instead of saying "I feel" a poet gives a natural  image
that makes  others  feel the same way.  However,  I (and not only I)
think that *I* and *myself* can be used in haiku; for instance, when
you consider yourself not as a watcher but as one of the images;  as
if you looked at yourself "from outside",  like at  another  natural
phenomenon, playing a role in the picture:

                 Sick and feverish
                 in the gleam of cherry blossoms
                 I keep shivering

                                    Akutagawa Ryunosuke

                 Huge sandhill
                 ever sinking as I climb

                                    Dhugal Lindsay

                 stray dog
                 starts following me again
                 after I look back

                                    Alexey Andreyev

     4.4. Cultural References

     Classic haiku often refer to some well-known elements of natio-
nal culture.  In  this case,  a word or two can provide some sort of
unseen context,  which helps to fulfill one of the main requirements
for good haiku:  it should say a lot in just a few  words  (see  the
"monkey face" example in section 3).  Among common allusions of this
kind we can find:  quotations from older poems and songs;  names  of
places,  rivers, etc - they may bear some extra meaning in their li-
teral translation (Ausaka -"Mount of Meetings") or in the images as-
sociated with the place (Florida - warm place,  ocean, beaches); na-
mes of clothes, dishes, plants; elements of myths, rites.

                    Winter. On my wall
                    Hokusai's "Great Wave" hangs

                                 Alexey Andreyev

                    Tompkins Square --
                    an old man teaches Tai-Chi
                    to a crowd of pigeons

                                  Paul Mena (from "NYC Haiku")


      5.  Other Formal Tricks

      5.1. Rhymes.

      Classic haiku do not rhyme.  However, rhymed haiku are possib-
le. Some modern poets tend to claim that rhymes (pace, alliteration,
etc.) are "unnatural". I consider such people immature and LAZY; and
usually I reply that correct spelling is also "unnatural",  not even
talking  about writing "from-left-to-right" which is "unnatural" not
only for left-handed people and Arabs but also for  the  very  haiku
inventors, ancient Japanese, who wrote their texts "from-top-to-bot-

       So, my  point is that poetry is honesty with a fluent langua-
ge; good eyesight plus a good-working tongue. Thus, if you have keen
eyes  -- fine!  If you also speak "the higher language" where rhymes
appear as naturally and fluently as correct spelling -- it won't ma-
ke  any harm but only some benefit;  and rhymed haiku will be "haiku
plus something", not "haiku minus something":

                   wolf's howl --
                   fat and lazy by the fire
                   lap dog growls in reply

                                       David McMurray

                   night rain --
                   some lights far away,
                   some drops on the pane

                                       Alexey Andreyev

                   always the wind
                   only sometimes the chime

                                       Laura Young

There also exists an interesting Brazilian rhymed haiku style -- see
Rodrigo's Haiku Page below.

     5.2. Visual Effects

     Sometimes poets  use some unique format for placing thier poems
on paper. It's not odd for haiku, too.  Real Japanese haiku are writ-
ten  in  Japanese  characters.  Each character-word is also a little
picture;  seeing "how-it-looks" is a part of "how-it-reads"; special
callygraphy may be used to make characters look more impressive. Sa-
me effect can be imitated in other languages:

                  left upper corner of the envelope
                  the only part of your long letter


                                            Alexey Andreyev

     5.3. Minimalism

     Haiku is short,  and sometimes people make it as short as  pos-
sible. In such cases,  there is a danger of misunderstanding and am-
biguity, as the poem looks too abstract. Below included is an examp-
le with a reply. I think that having the reply is very important he-
re: it means this minimalist's haiku is still understandable:


                            Alexey Andreyev


                            Kent Dorsey


     6. Tanka, Renga and The Origin of Haiku

     Tanka is a 5-line Japanese poem, much older than haiku. It flo-
urished a big way in Heian time (794-1192).  Usually we can see  two
parts  in tanka - the first 3 (2) lines gave a natural image,  while
the second part talks about human feelings:

                        headlights passing by -
                        shadows of trees
                        brush my bedroom window;

                        your wet hair
                        touching my face

                                            Alexey Andreyev

      There existed a game popular among people who liked tanka: one
person  would  give a first (second) part of the tanka,  and another
would write  the  rest (see perfect examples in "The Pillow Book" by
Sei-Shonagon).  This technigue is also demonstrated in the anthology
edited by R.Hass:

                       somber and tall
                       the forest of oaks

                       in and out
                       through the little gate
                       to the cherry blossoms


     It also shows that the images are not always from the human li-
fe.  What is more important: "the shift of the scene" is provided on
each step,  and at the same time there is  some  connection  between
every two parts (as if it were seen by one person  who  just  turned
his  head).  Later  this  game turned into making long 3-2-3...-line
chaines (renga), where every link could read as a part of two tanka:
"upper" and "lower":

                       your wet hair
                       touching my face;

                       sound of waves
                       even here, far away -
                       fallen leaves

     To offer  a  good first 3-liner (hokku) for haikai was very im-
portant.  They were selected, discussed, and later, mostly with Bas-
ho's help, the writing of individual hokku became a new style of po-
etry (haiku).  It is interesting to look at haiku from "tanka  point
of  view":  tanka  is  often called a lyric poem for its second part
which links the scene from Nature to a human feeling;  it's almost a
simile,  only without direct "linking words" ("like", "as", "similar
to").  Haiku, as "unfinished tanka", makes "a simile without the se-
cond element",  so to say.  It's supposed to convey the feeling, not
naming it explicitly (see also section 4.2).

     By the way,  if we look at some old western  poems,  we'll  see
that  many of them begin with hokku-like natural images;  but then a
poet starts "explanation",  linking the image to his own  (or  other
people's) state,  which is not always necessary if the first picture
was well done.

     On the  other  hand,  a lone haiku sometimes looks too "naked".
Perhaps, Basho saw this,  too:  he put a lot of his impressions in a
form of  haibun,  another interesting type of writing in which haiku
are surrounded by diary-like fragments of prose.  Each fragment pro-
vided the background, while a following haiku worked as an effective


      7. Philosophy

      I won't ramble around with different aspects of  zen-buddhism,
taosism and other eastern schools, but will point out two ideas that
I feel are relevant to the haiku art.

     a) Experience.  There are many things that can't be learnt from
books or teachers (even from the great ones), but can be only perci-
eved,  "lived" in our own personal interactions with the  world.  It
means that along with education (studying words, forms, styles, his-
tory) a poet should get "a full contact" with the world,  developing
his  own point of view,  his own poetical eyesight.  "It's better to
see once rather than to hear hundred times", the Russian proverb sa-
ys. One can argue that, from this point of view, the best pupil who-
uld be that one who discards all old formalities;  who, for example,
reads this article and says "it's crap!" Well,  I agree,  but with a
little addition:  to discard this article,  he has to write his  own
article, a better one, with a bunch of better haiku-examples.

     b) Unity and Harmony. According to the ancient Chinese traditi-
on,  all pieces of our world are connected among themselves;  moreo-
ver, they  stay  in  spontaneous  universal Harmony with each other;
every part of this great Unity is significant for the others.  Thus,
the  Nature  and human beings are tightly connected and dependent of
each other.  It's reflected in poetry.  Firstly,  "season words" are
used to show these relations.  Secondly, the very style of haiku po-
etry without similes,  metaphors and other elaborate poetic  devices
demonstrates this.  As poet Wlodzimierz Holsztynski noticed,  "there
is no need for similes and metaphors and word games  (puns)  because
both the deep and the subtle emotions can be evoked by juxtaposition
of elements from Nature and from the human life.  This is a pure way
to induce emotions in readers without giving readers "chewed food".

     Considering these ideas,  one can see the art of  haiku  poetry
not  as the art of making up fancy and impressive relations in a po-
em, but as the art of seeing the relations that already exist around
us, and the art of making other people see them, too.


     8. Humor in Haiku

     Sometimes it's said jokes are met not in haiku but in  senryuu,
a special haiku-like style, consided to be of lower quality than ha-
iku. In fact,  there are different kinds of humor.  Humor in senryuu
may  be  called "destructive":  it points out some absurd,  negative
phenomena, and  these  puns  (or even anekdotes,  aphorisms) lead to
ironic,  even sarcastic smirk.  On the other hand, humor in haiku is
non-negative. I don't want to say "positive" because one can imagine
"too positive" things,  some wild joy etc.  No.  The haiku humor  is
close to "zero-emotion" level; it's an invisible smile of a sage who
sees some hidden connection between  things  (spontaneous  Harmony).
This state of awareness, like Nature itself, is neither positive nor
negative. But the moment of catching of this hidden gem results in a
gentle, may be a bit sad, smile.

     Other differences between haiku and senryuu  are  connected  to
these different kinds of smiles: senryuu lack season words, they are
often written on current affairs (where is the absurd if not in eve-
ryday changes of our life?!).  On the other hand,  haiku talks about
more durable things and are understood in  different  countries  and
different  times,  showing  the eternal lows of the Universe:  frogs
jump and snails climb despite all the wars,  earthquakes  and  total
computarization :-)

     Sometimes it's not easy to tell what kind of joke in implied in
a poem  (and to tell haiku from senryuu),  because our perception of
the world  is  not so "binary" and differs from person to person.  I
tried to show two kinds of humor in the examples below.  They are on
the  same  theme,  and  I don't want to call one of them senryuu and
another one haiku;  however, the first one makes a pun (referring to
Whitman's famous poem); the second one is warmer:

                  country of lawnmowers,
                  did you leave any
                  leaves of grass for me?

                  on the grass cutter's shoes
                  plantain seeds --
                  bon voyage!

                                          Alexey Andreyev


     9. Other Sources of Haiku Info: Some Hints

     9.1. I'd recommend to find and read some different translations
of the same haiku. Look, for example, how Issa's famous snail-ku was
translated by different people:

 O snail,           Climb Mount Fuji,    Snail --
 climb Mount Fuji   o snail --           it's about time you climbed
 with no hurry      but slowly, slowly   Mount Fuji

     Among books in English,  The Haiku Handbook by William J.  Hig-
ginson is the most comprehensive and comprehensible. Recently he got
published two international anthologies "The Haiku Seasons" and "Ha-
iku World" where many interesting things about Japanese culture,  as
well as many haiku from different countries, can be found.

     I also found helpful for understanding haiku  to  read  classic
Japanese prose of X c. (like "The Pillow Book" by Sei-Shonagon).
     Most of the books on Zen,  however,  make me fall asleep  after
first 5 pages :)

     9.2. Haiku on WWW and Modern Haiku Writers

      There are some good Haiku Pages to see on the Web  (and  links
from them, as well as books mentioned over there). I should warn you
though: now there exist many sites that have "haiku" in their titles
but have  nothing to do with haiku (perhaps,  the most idiotic among
them is the one called "Spam Haiku").

     Here are my favorites among REAL Haiku Pages:

The Shiki Internet Haiku Salon (Japan)
Dhugal J. Lindsay's Haiku Universe (Japan)
Kei Toyomasu's "HAIKU for PEOPLE!" (Norway)
Rodrigo de Almeida Siqueira's Haiku Page (Brazil)
John Hudak's "Chaba" - an electronic haiku journal (USA)
Jane Reichhold's AHA! Poetry Page (USA)
Paul Mena's Page (USA)

     9.3. Haiku in other languages. On the WWW you can find haiku:

in Japanese - on Dhugal's and Shiki Haiku Salon Pages (see above)
in Russian - on Alexey Andreyev's Page:
in French - on Andre Duhaime's Page:
in Spanish - on Rodrigo's Page (see above).

     9.4. Modern haiku journals and haiku magazines  on  paper:  you
can  ask Dhugal Lindsay ( about the magazi-
nes in Japan,  or Michael Welch ( about the magazines
in the USA.

     9.5. The  other people whose works were quoted here are members
of Shiki Mailing List (except for Basho and Akutagawa who  were  ex-
pelled  for  their  bad behavior :) so they can be found somehow via
The Shiki Haiku Salon Archive; see the Home Page address above. Some
of  the  author's poems presented here appeared first in "Woodnotes"
and "Frogpond" magazines,  also in his books  of  poetry  "MOYAYAMA:
Russian  Haiku Dairy",  A Small Garlic Press,  1996 (in English) and
"Pesenka Shuta", Effect Publishing Inc, 1996 (in Russian).


   o   Alexey V. Andreyev
  <^>  Russian Haiku Magazine "Lyagushatnik":

  "for knowledge add a little every day
   for wisdom erase a little every day"

                                        Lao Tse

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