Essential Characteristics of Haiku

Dear Icebox contributors and readers,

You are invited to take part in a poll (displayed in the righthand side-bar below the  ‘Blogroll’ links) on what you feel to be the three DEFINITIVE characteristics of haiku in English – or at least what they should be! Choose only three from the list, please. The system does not allow the same person to vote more than once, by the way. After voting, whenever you click ‘View Results’ at the bottom of the poll, you will be able to see the number/percentage of votes cast for each category as they build up. Divide by 3 to get the number of voters so far.

I put the same poll up on the British Haiku Society’s online forum site a while back, and have so far attracted about 60 votes (20 people) over there. Once we have collected a worthwhile number of votes here, I intend to begin a dialogue on both sites. Where do you stand? It is a hard choice!

Tito, in Kyoto, at Doll’s Festival (3.3.11)


18 Responses to “Essential Characteristics of Haiku”

  1. John Dougill Says:

    That’s a very interesting and exhaustive list! How did you arrive at it?

  2. That’s an interesting list. I shall study it some more before answering . . .
    before I do, do you have a hint of what you describe as ‘zen’?

    • Imbued with Zen attitude or perspective. Please don’t ask me what that is! If you do, I will be forced to howl at the moon.

      • Now that we’d like to hear – something we understand.

      • Indeed. Let us not try to unpack the word ‘Zen’. I do not wish to incite Tito to lycanthropy, either. However, I note in this list the absence of any category relating directly to metaphor or symbolism, with which haiku is replete, from Basho’s ‘furu ike’ onwards. Is this meaning included in ‘distinctive connotations’, or is that such things as ‘season words’? I’d venture to call the latter ‘signs’, whereas the Old Pond, etc. can have a symbolic significance on a more purely ‘intellectual’ level. So, does that bring us back again to ‘Zen’? Our participant’s question remains legitimate.

      • If there’s metaphor in haiku, I would say they largely occur in the *interpretation* of the poem, and not often overtly in the poem itself. In fact, I would say that haiku tends to *avoid* overt/intrinsic metaphor and simile (in general), but that one of their greatest rewards is how we can *interpret* these poems in metaphorical ways (the metaphor is therefore extrinsic to the poem). Of course, metaphorical interpretation is one of the sources of each haiku’s reverberation. So when a haiku is said to be metaphorical, I think it’s important to note *where* that metaphor takes place — in the haiku itself (relatively seldom) or in the reader’s interpretation (perhaps common). And the evidence of most haiku seems to show that the haiku themselves don’t often have overt metaphor.

  3. Hi Stephen, that’s an intriguing little poll! After my votes you’ve had either 60 people, or 60 votes (20 people), not sure which; but I did notice that one of my votes was the first on that particular choice.

    Looking forward to reading your analysis :-)

  4. Says:

    couldnt find the poll

  5. Interesting to see ‘real experience’ winning so far… did basho see or hear the frog? :))

    Excellent list though.

  6. William Sorlien Says:

    I’ve been checking my visitor log and it seems I have had several hits recently from Sendai, Miyagi. as recently as Fri. noon, Japan time.
    Of course I am concerned, yet especially so for contributors and the creator of the Koyomi renku form we are practicing at this moment.

    Our thoughts, concerns, and best wishes are with you.

    • Thanks, Willie. Hailstone Haiku Circle is based in Kansai (Western Japan), so we are OK over here, but of the group in Sendai, we do not know – for we have never had any contact. Chances are that some of their members will be in the midst of hardship.

  7. I was surprised not to see something like “objective sensory imagery” on the list. As for “real experience,” I think the poem should be perceived by the reader as seeming to be real. While real experience is a good origin for haiku, the “experience” in the haiku doesn’t have to have happened. After all, Buson’s wife was very much alive when he wrote about stepping on his dead wife’s comb. Also, I think it doesn’t help the vote when you have juxtaposition as a separate item from cut/leap. They’re essentially the same thing, or so close, that they really should be added together.

    At any rate, my sense of haiku is that it should be thought of as having “targets,” and that any given haiku may choose to aim at particular targets but not others, depending on the needs of the poem. This poll presents a good list of targets. A few of them I would practically never aim at (if ever), and I would aim at more than just three in many haiku too.

    My own working definition of haiku is online at


    • Thanks, Michael – especially for the point about juxtaposition. I will consider adding these together later at review stage. Having to reduce to just three the number of ‘targets’ when voting in this poll is indeed a challenge to all. Why three? 5-7-5, season-word, and a cut (kireji) are so often stated to be the three essential characteristics of Japanese haiku. That was at the back of my mind at inception of this poll.

      • Yes, I would agree on the top three requirements for haiku in Japanese. In English, since we don’t have a set form that’s equivalent to 5-7-5, “form” is less stringent a requirement. As a result, in English-language haiku, I would say that cut/juxtaposition, season word, and primarily objective sensory imagery are the top three essentials. And thank goodness haiku doesn’t stop there.

        FYI, at the very first Haiku North America conference, in 1991, one of the main panel discussions was on this subject — what is essential to haiku. I recall the panelists were me, Bill Higginson, Geraldine Little, and two others, perhaps David Wright among them. Such discussions went on long before then. And we’re still discussing it.

  8. For those who may struggle with this poll, it may (not) be comforting to know that even the best-known authorities are inclined to define more emphatically what haiku is *not* rather than what it is. Here is R.H.Blyth from his Preface to ‘Japanese Life and Character in Senryu’: ‘[…]the Way of Haiku, which is the purely poetical (non-emotional, non-intellectual, non-moral, non-aesthetic) life in relation to nature.’

    Blyth was described (by James Kirkup in ‘The Genius of Haiku’) as ‘modest and self-effacing’. I suspect he effaces himself too much in this assessment, as (re)cognition, affective response, and the aesthetic sensibility surely all play their parts in the haiku experience, however veiled and transubtantiated their rôles are in the outcome. They are as necessary for the writing of haiku as is a pen or a word processor, but are still subservient to observation. ‘Yoku mireba’ (‘If I look carefully…’) should be our watchword.

    On another point: given the above quotation from RHB, it should be no surprise that he distinguishes ‘Haiku no Michi’ clearly from Zen, though he does not imply that the one may not influence the other. They certainly did with him, along with – in his own words – animism, mysticism, and existentialism.

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