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

Our featured article for September 2003 comes to us from William J. Higginson . . .


William J. Higginson

Prefatory Note: I first wrote the following article as the “Judge's Report” of the Haiku Section for the 1993 International Poetry Competition of the New Zealand Poetry Society, Inc. Shortly after that, it was reprinted in Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society, in a slightly different form. However, I have retained the original form here, so that it reads as it was first intended, for an audience of haiku poets, many of whom were unsuccessful in their attempts to win or place in a contest. Thus, the piece shows how this particular judge sorted the best haiku from those with defects of one kind or another. All the examples in this piece are my own compositions, but they were constructed along the lines of poems submitted in that contest, with completely different images, to demonstrate the structural problems encountered in several of the almost-but-not-quite-successful entries.

Judging the entries for this year's haiku section of the New Zealand Poetry Society's international competition was a very pleasant experience, for many of the entries were excellent. Reading them gave me an opportunity to reflect on the broad implications of calling something a 'haiku'. As I selected what I thought were the better pieces, two themes ran through my mind: Does the author have a good sense of the haiku genre—its range and depth? Does the author have a sense of the English language—its possibilities and limitations?

A genre of literature has characteristic forms, contents, and techniques. A serious poem lamenting the deaths of one's comrades will not seem like much of a limerick, no matter what the form. Similarly, it may be possible to write engagingly in three lines about such abstractions as love, hate, environmental destruction, or heavenly bliss, but without a clear image or two creating the primary meaning such a poem would not seem much like a haiku to those who have a sense of the genre. Without a focus on images, such short poems often fall into the pit of sentimentality, or at the best become exercises in wit, rather than vision.

Of course there is more than this to haiku content. Other sources go into such matters as nature and the seasons, the 'haiku moment', and so on. But unless we start with words naming the objects of physical sensation we cannot begin to discuss these areas.

Given a focus on images, a prospective haiku needs to be more than a picture. Commonly we call this quality 'depth'—some timeless universal reality in the momentary action of a small object or event. Depth cannot be stated, but is found in the specifics of the poem: the things it speaks of and the way the language works with them. Image centered poems lacking depth, perhaps I would even call them 'haiku', soon land in the stack of forgettable 'so whats'. Here personal taste, experience, and appreciation come in. Judging art of any sort is subjective; one wants to be personally moved.

Having put aside those pieces which do not seem like haiku in their failure to address concrete experience, and sorted out those which do no more than present an image, at least for me, the next level often depends on how the language of the poem makes the experience manifest and memorable. One important aspect of this, often overlooked by budding haiku poets: The language itself must be accurate not only to the experience, but to the needs of the language. Perhaps because of the difficulties of translating, especially from Japanese to European languages, certain habits have crept into English language haiku. Those who have tried to adhere to a syllable count form usually pad their work with words that add no meaning ('the cold winter wind', for example). But as a shorter haiku in English has gained ground, the opposite extreme brings with it 'telegraphese' that hardly resembles normal speech or writing. Such phrases as 'sit on warm bench' would grate on the ear much less with a strategically placed 'the'.

Translating brings up another problem that seems endemic in our haiku today. The desire to pack as much as possible into the fewest words tends to result in dangling participles, mainly the '-ing' kind. Sometimes this results from a desire to omit a person—especially the writer—from the poem. In Japanese haiku such words as 'I'/'me'/'my' rarely occur, so translators have often resorted to leaving them out of English translations and using just the '-ing' form of the verb, creating dangling participles in the process.

[Let me add here, June 2003, that first-person pronouns occur rather rarely in common speech in Japanese. No one need take their apparent absence in haiku as indicating some superior form or objectivity or dedication to Zen principles. The problem does not come up that way in Japanese at all. Rather, Japanese has other strategies for indicating the grammatical first-person. The long and the short of it, for haiku composition in English, comes to this: Use I/me/my when appropriate and natural, but avoid overusing them. At the same time, do not avoid using them when they seem natural and needed for simplest possible grammar or clarity.]

Most English words ending in '-ing' are either nouns or partial verbs, called 'present participles'. Such nouns seem relatively rare in haiku, as they usually suggest an abstract level of thinking. The last word of that sentence is a good example of the '-ing' form as noun; grammarians call it a 'gerund'. When a gerund does show up in a haiku, it had better have an article in front to prevent it from being understood as a verb:

evening fog . . .
whispering of mothers
quiets the children

Can't you just hear the fog going around whispering about mothers? Simply putting 'the' before 'whispering' would eliminate the problem. (See what telegraphese does to a haiku?)

A present participle can get a haiku in trouble. The worst are participles without grammatical subjects (and therefore 'dangling'). Since participles can appear before—and change the meanings of—nouns, one lacking a subject before it normally refers to what follows. A penchant for omitting subjects often yields ludicrous results, of which the modest author may be quite unaware:

choking, coughing,
the moon shining over
the quiet lake

Heard the moon cough lately? Much better to give the action to a third person, and put the verbs in the plain present tense:

he chokes and coughs . . .
the moon shines over
the quiet lake

[Continuing our 2003 thread on pronouns: Note that often the writer may easily shift the grammar of the verse to third person, he/she/it, to avoid first person. It is a simple and useful trick.]

In many haiku, participles show up without the 'helping verb' needed to make a complete sentence. This does not usually result in great confusion, but can create an awkwardness that gets in the way of taking in the meaning on first reading. How much better to simply use the plain present tense verb. Then ambiguities, unconscious or intended, become clearer to the writer, and might lead to further improvement. Compare:

the dusty corral
a breeze wafting gently
the hum of bees

the dusty corral
a breeze wafts gently
the hum of bees

Ah, now I see that 'the hum of bees' can—and perhaps should—be the object of 'wafts'. Also, 'breeze' and 'wafts' and 'gently' all contain the idea of 'gentle', a redundancy to be avoided in haiku. How about:

the dusty corral—
on a midday breeze comes
the hum of a bee

Note also that in this instance removing the redundancy allows adding more visual information, and making it one bee eliminates the thumping rime while bringing the experience a little closer to the reader.

Of course, there will be times when one wants the sense of continuing action which the present participle can provide. Some poems will sound better without adding the auxiliary verb that would make a complete sentence. Examples appear in a number of the poems I selected. But generally it is better to avoid using the present participle in haiku, especially without a clear grammatical subject.

Finally, I selected as best those haiku which I felt had something a little unusual going for them. The sheets that pleased me most demonstrate a range of approach, and some daring as to form, subject matter, and technique. Some of these haiku are among the best I've seen.

[Final note: ‘Sheets’ in the last sentence refers to the entries, which were each a page containing a number of haiku. In this contest, the highest prize went to the best sheet of haiku.]

Copyright © 1993, 2003, William J. Higginson. All rights reserved.

William Higginson, considered the foremost American authority on haiku, is greatly sought after as translator, speaker, judge, and coach. Though still most famous as co-author of The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku and author of Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac and The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World he is also active on the Internet: