begin haiku

is a place to take apart what we know about haiku, examine it closely, and put it back together again.


has had the privilege to host the Shiki Monthly Kukai since September of 2002. A Kukai is a haiku contest where the participating poets vote for one another's poems. Sometimes beginners need some help learning what a haiku is. Other times a poet will fall in love with an image, but just can't seem to get the haiku shaped right to appeal to others. In both cases the result is the same. Zero Votes!

kukai tune-ups

is intended to help just such poets. If you have a poem that earned Zero Points in the kukai, and would be willing to let us work with it, we might be able to learn something together as we analyze your poem and try to find ways to improve it. We are not claiming to be haiku masters! Just more beginners interested in learning together.

Let's Begin!

kukai tune-up #2

Bats plume towards the Cheshire smile
Of the Crescent moon
While the Blackbird sleeps

Please remember that we both know you are a beginner and I'm trying to be helpful! I'm not sure how to be nice on this one. Its a pretty poem, but it certainly doesn't look like haiku. This is hard for many beginners to hear, especially if they are accomplished poets of free verse. To begin, we have to agree that we would like to write haiku, and then we attempt to make the things we write more like haiku. What is haiku? I am tempted to emulate Justice Potter Stewart, who said "I shall not today attempt further to define pornography . . . but I know it when I see it." A good rule of thumb is that if other haiku poets say its haiku, then its haiku. I'll share with you some thoughts along those lines today. They are *my* thoughts. Some have a more free and open definition of haiku, but we'll stick to the mainstream definitions today.

A few problems stand out:

Structure: 7/5/5 - having such a long first line gives the poem an unbalanced feeling. Also, while seventeen syllables can sometimes make a good haiku, in English one finds that the use of seventeen syllables means that we have too many images.

Repition: "Cheshire smile" has already told us that the moon is crescent. Telling us again wastes some of our precious and limited haiku space!

Showing us what we can't see: "while the blackbird sleeps" -- Even if we allow that one might see a blackbird sleeping, we need to have a consistent set of images in our poem. It should be conceivable that each of the images we use in our poem could have been observed in a single moment by the poet. The bats rising in a plume could easily be thought of as a single moment with the crescent moon, but it would be hard to observe all three "in a moment". (Its very dark outside during a crescent moon!)

Overuse of metaphor: Physical metaphor is rarely (but occasionally) used in haiku. Metaphysical metaphor should be avoided. Having the bats appear as a plume AND having the Cheshire smile is too much for a single poem to bear. What do I mean by "physical" and "metaphysical"? A metaphor explaining that one observable tangible thing appeared to the poet to be another observable tangible thing -- such as the bats rising from the chimney appearing to be a plume of smoke -- is a "physical" metaphor. "Cheshire smile" would border on the metaphysical. Can the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland be observed? No. It is an allusion to a mythical being. This would be one of many types of "metaphysical" metaphors.

Too many images: You have two images already (bats / crescent moon), you don't need the third (blackbird).

Capitalization: The capitalization of Blackbird is very Edgar Alan Poe, but really has no place in haiku. Haiku is simplicity. A return to nature. Not grandizement and embellishment.

So what could we try to do with these images? At the heart of it, we do have a great pair of images. The bats, which struck the poet as being like a column of smoke, and the crescent moon, which reminded the poet of the Cheshire Cat's smile.

bats stream
to the Cheshire smile
of the moon

As mentioned above, I would really prefer not to use the Cheshire Cat. If you really like the "plume" image, lets try making a "noun" of it rather than the active "plumes" above. I'm going to throw in a chimney, here, taking a bit of license.

a plume of bats
rises from the chimney
a crescent moon

Although some would still accuse us of metaphor, I would be happy to stand beside you and say that does not make this a "non-haiku".

Your fellow beginner,


See More Kukai Tune-Ups

begin haiku has the following sections:
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Articles for beginners. Submit poems for critique. Links to other helpful sites.