School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Ten
Haiku Techniques

In the early years of English haiku writing, the accepted prevalent credo being espoused on how to write haiku was, sometimes implied and occasionally expressed, as being: if the author's mind/heart was correctly aligned in the "proper" attitude, while experiencing a so-called "haiku moment," one merely had to report on the experience to have a worthy haiku

One reason for rejoicing in the acceptance of this view, was that it by-passed the old 5-7-5 barrier crisis. Another advantage of this system of defining a haiku was that it bestowed near-religious honor on the author of an acceptable haiku. No one knew exactly why a particular haiku was good but it was clear from the haiku that the author had experienced a moment of enlightenment (or satori for the Zen inspired). If the moment was holy and the form fit in with the group's philosophy publishing the verse, the haiku was said to be an excellent one.

Another plus for this viewpoint was it allowed endless articles to be written for magazines on the Zen aspects of haiku writing, and even fuzzier articles of how to prepare for, find, recognize, and advertise one's haiku moments. Books were even compiled around this semi-religious idea.

However, many persons recognized that haiku moments were very much like other flashes of inspiration which, when transported into other media, became paintings, stories, dreams or even new color schemes or recipes.

And many others shared the frustration of having a truly life-altering moment of insight and then never being able to write a decent haiku that expressed the wonder and majesty of that moment. They would ask, what was wrong with me? Was I not spiritually prepared enough? Was I too common? Too inattentive? Too word-numb? Maybe too many of my own religious beliefs kept me from the Zen nirvana of haiku?

The truth is: probably all of the above can change one's ability to write good haiku. Ouch, that hurts. However, I felt a sense of rescue when I came across the little booklet, Aware – a haiku primer written by hand and illustrated by Betty Drevniok, who was at the time she wrote the book, in the early 80s I am guessing as it has no date in it, was president of the Haiku Society of Canada. Among the many great tips for writing haiku, and obtaining the questionable Zenniness of Zen, was her precept: "Write [haiku] in three short lines using the principle of comparison, contrast, or association."

On page 39 she used an expression I had been missing in all the other discussions of haiku when she wrote: "This technique provides the pivot on which the reader's thought turns and expands." Technique! So there are  tools one can use! I thought joyfully.

And I practiced her methods with glee and relative, to me, success and increased enjoyment. Suddenly I could figure out by myself what was wrong with a haiku that failed to jell as I thought it should. I could ask myself if there was a comparison, a contrast or an association between the images and if this relationship was clear and understandable for the reader.

Slowly, over the years, I found by doing my own translations of the old Japanese masters and the haiku of my contemporaries, that there were more factors than just these three on which one could build a haiku. However, there seemed a disinterest in other persons wanting to study these aspects which I call techniques. Perhaps this is because in the haiku scene there continues to be such a reverence for the haiku moment and such a dislike for what are called desk haiku.

The definition of a desk haiku is a verse written from an idea or from simply playing around with words instead of a direct result or experience. The idea was that if you don't experience an event with all your senses it is not valid haiku material. A haiku from your mind was half-dead and unreal and very likely to be intellectual. An experienced writer could only smile at such naiveté, but the label of desk haiku was the death-knell for a haiku declared as such. This fear kept people new to the scene afraid to work with techniques or even the idea that techniques were needed when it came time to write down the elusive haiku moment.

At the risk of leading anyone into the quasi-sin of writing dreaded desk haiku, I would like to discuss and illustrate some of the haiku writing techniques which I have recognized and used.

Bear with me, I know we covered these earlier, but they are so vital, allow me to present them again.

The Technique of Comparison - In the words of Betty Drevniok: "In haiku the SOMETHING and the SOMETHING ELSE are set down together in clearly stated images. Together they complete and fulfill each other as ONE PARTICULAR EVENT." She rather leaves the reader to understand that the idea of comparison is showing how two different things are similar or share similar aspects.

                        a spring nap
                        downstream cherry trees
                        in bud
            What is expressed, but not said, is the thought that buds on a tree can be compared to flowers taking a nap. One could also ask to what other images could cherry buds be compared? A long list of items can form in one's mind and be substituted for the first line. Or one can turn the idea around and ask what in the spring landscape can be compared to a nap without naming things that close their eyes to sleep. By changing either of these images one can come up with one's own haiku while getting a new appreciation and awareness of the function of a comparison.

The Technique of Contrast - Now the job feels easier. All one has to do is to contrast images.

                        long hard rain
                        hanging in the willows
                        tender new leaves
            The delight from this technique is the excitement that opposites create. You have instant built-in interest in the most common haiku moment. And yet most of the surprises of life are the contrasts, and therefore this technique is a major one for haiku.

The Technique of Association - This can be thought of as "how different things relate or come together." The Zen of this technique is called "oneness" or showing how everything is part of everything else. You do not have to be a Buddhist to see this; simply being aware of what is, is illumination enough.

a handful of moonlight
the owl’s wing

The main association is between ‘hand’ and ‘wing’ with a minor one between ‘owl’ and ‘moonlight’. The several ‘o’ sounds also add to the associations.

In addition to Betty's techniques I also have discovered and named these.

The Technique of the Riddle - this is probably one of the very oldest poetical techniques. It has been guessed that early spiritual knowledge was secretly preserved and passed along through riddles. Because poetry, as it is today, is basically the commercialization of religious prayers, incantations, and knowledge, it is no surprise that riddles still form a serious part of poetry's transmission of ideas.

                        where do they go?
                        these flowers on a path
                        by summer’s passing

            The trick is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. What can one say that the reader cannot figure out the answer? The more intriguing the set-up and the better the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work. Here, As in anything, you can overextend the joke and lose the reader completely.
            Oh, the old masters’ favorite tricks with riddles were “is that a flower falling or is it a butterfly?” or “is that snow on the plum branch or blossoms?” and the all-time favorite – “am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man or a man dreaming I am a butterfly?” Again, if you wish to experiment, you can ask yourself the question: if I saw snow on a branch, what else could it be besides blossoms? Or seeing a butterfly going by you ask yourself what else besides a butterfly could you have caught in the corner of your eye?

The Technique of Sense-switching – This is another old-time favorite of the Japanese haiku masters, but one they have used very little and with a great deal of discretion. It is simply to speak of the sensory aspect of a thing and then change to another sensory organ. Usually it involves hearing something one sees or vice versa or to switch between seeing and tasting. Some persons have this ability naturally – for them it is called synesthesia. The most famous example of this is Bashô’s “old pond” haiku:

                                    old pond
                                    a frog jumps into
the sound of water

Here, the frog does not jump into the water but into the sound of water. The mind puzzle this haiku creates is how to separate the frog from the water, the sound of water from the water, the frog from the sound it will make entering water and the sound from the old pond. It cannot be done because all these factors are one but the reader arrives at this truth through the jolt of having the senses scrambled.

The Technique of Narrowing Focus - This is a device the Japanese master, Buson used often because he, being an artist, was a very visual person. Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line and zoom in for a close-up in the end. It sounds simple, but when done well it is very effective in bringing the reader’s attention down to one basic element or fact of the haiku.
                  the whole sky
                        in a wide field of flowers
                        one tulip

The Technique of Using a Metaphor - I can just hear those of you who have had some training in haiku, sucking in your breath in horror. There IS that ironclad rule that one does not use metaphor in haiku. Posh. As you can see, Bashô used it, and used it perfectly, in his most famous "crow haiku".

on a bare branch
a crow landed
autumn dusk

What he was saying in other words, not with the brevity of haiku, was that the way darkness comes down on an early autumn evening is the way it feels when a crow lands on a bare branch.

I never truly understood this hokku until late one day I was leaning against the open door of my tiny writing hut. Lost in thought I was so still I excited my resident raven's curiosity causing him to fly down suddenly to land about two feet from my cheek on the thin,  nearly bare, pine branch. I felt the rush of darkness coming close, as close as an autumn evening and as close as a big black bird. The thud of his big feet hitting the bare branch caused the tiny ripple of anxiety one has when it gets dark so early in the autumn. In that moment I felt I knew what Bashô had experienced. It is extremely hard to find a haiku good enough to place up against Bashô's rightly famous one, so I'll pass giving you an example of my haiku. But this is a valid technique and one that can bring you many lovely and interesting haiku. Haiku is poetry and it does use another of poetry’s oldest tools – the metaphor. Feel free to use metaphor in your haiku – just use it the way the Japanese have taught us to do - by placing images next to each other..

The Technique of Using a Simile – Usually, in English, you know a simile is coming when you spot the words "as" and "like." Occasionally one will find in a haiku the use of a simile with these words still wrapped around it, but the Japanese have proved to us that this is totally unnecessary. From them we have learned that it is enough to put two images in juxtaposition (next to each other) to let the reader figure out the "as" and "like" for him/herself. So basically the unspoken rule is that you can use simile, which the rule-sayers also warned us against, if you are smart enough to simply drop the "as" and "like". Besides, by doing this you give the reader some active part that makes him or her feel very smart when he or she discovers the simile for him/herself.

                        another red tongue
                        on mine

The Technique of  the Sketch or Shiki's Shasei - Though this technique is often given Shiki's term shasei (sketch from life) or shajitsu (reality) it had been in use since the beginning of poetry in the Orient. The poetic principle is "to depict the thing just as it is." The reason Shiki took it up as a poetical cause and thus, made it famous, was his own rebellion against the many other techniques used in haiku. Shiki was, by nature it seemed, against whatever was the status quo – a true rebel. If older poets had over-used any idea or method it was his personal goal was to point this out and suggest something else. Which was followed until someone else got tired of it and suggested something new. This seems to be the way poetry styles go in and out of fashion.
      Thus, Shiki hated associations, contrasts, comparisons, word-plays, puns, and riddles – all the things you are learning here! He favored the quiet simplicity of just stating what he saw without anything else having to happen in the haiku. He found the greatest beauty in the common sight, simply reported just as it was seen. And 99% of his haiku were written in his style. And many people still feel he was right. And there are some moments which are perhaps best said as simply as it is possible in his way. Yet, he himself realized in1893, after writing very many haiku in this style, that used too much, even his new idea can become lackluster. So the method is an answer, but never the complete answer of how to write a haiku.

                        waves come into the cove
                        one at a time

The Technique of Double Entendre (or double meanings) - Anyone who has read translations of Japanese poetry has seen how much poets delighted in saying one thing and meaning something else. Often only translators knew the secret language and got the jokes which may or may not be explained in footnotes. In some cases the pun was to cover up a sexual reference by seeming to speaking of something ordinary. There are whole lists of words with double meanings: spring rain = sexual emissions and jade mountain = the Mound of Venus, is just to give you a sampling. But we have the same devices in English also, and haiku can use them in the very same way.

touching each other
at the river

Here the ambiguity of the haiku can be taken as the reality that “when hills touch it is at a river” or one can think “out in the hills at the river a couple are touching each other” or “on the hills of their bodies, a couple are touching each other in the wettest places.”

The Technique of using Puns - Again we can only learn from the master punsters – the Japanese. We have the very same opportunities in English but we haiku writers may not be so well-versed as the Japanese are in using these because there have been periods of Western literary history where this skill has been looked down upon. There are still writers whose faces freeze into a frown when encountering a pun in three lines.

                        a sign
                        at the fork in the road
                        "fine dining"

The Technique of Word-plays -  Again, we have to admit the Japanese do this best. Their work is made easier by so many of their place names either having double meaning or many of their words being homonyms – sounding the same. Still we also  have so many words with multiple meaning there is no reason we cannot learn to explore our own language. A good look at many of our cities' names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay,  Ox-ford, Cam-bridge. Especially the descriptive names of plants, animals and things have opportunity for haiku in them.

                        yellow sticks
                        writing a desert poem
                        pencil cholla

The Technique of Verb /Noun Exchange - This is a very gentle way of doing word play and getting double duty out of words. In English we have many words which function as both verbs and nouns. By constructing the poem carefully, one can utilize both aspects of such words as leaves/going away, spots/sees, flowers/blossoms, sprouts/pushes out, greens/leafy vegetables, fall/autumn, spring/coiled wire, and hundreds more. You can use this technique to say things that are not allowed in haiku. For instance, one would not be admired for saying that the willow tree strings raindrops because it personifies something of nature, but one can get away with making it sound as if the strings of willow are really the spring rain manifested in raindrops. This is one of those cases where the reader has to decide which permissible stance the writer has taken.

                        spring rain
                        the willow strings

The Technique of Close Linkage - Basically this could come as a sub-topic to association but it also works with contrast and comparison so I like to give it its own rubric. In making any connection between the two parts of a haiku, the leap can be a small and even a well-known one. Usually beginners are easily impressed with close linkage and experiment first with the most easily understood examples of this form. They understand it and feel comfortable using the technique.
                        winter cold
                        finding on a beach
                        an open knife

The Technique of Leap Linkage - Then as a writer's skills increase, and as he or she reads many haiku, either their own or others, such easy leaps quickly fade in excitement. Being human animals we seem destined to seek the next level of difficulty and to find new thrills. So the writer begins to attempt leaps that a reader new to haiku may not follow and therefore find the haiku to espouse nonsense. The nice thing about this aspect, is when one begins to read haiku by a certain author, one will find some of the haiku simply meaningless. Years later, returning to the same book, with many haiku experiences, the reader will discover the truth or poetry or beauty in a haiku that seemed dead and closed earlier. I think the important point in creating with this technique is that the writer is always totally aware of his or her truth. Poets of the surrealistic often make leaps which simply seem impossible to follow - an example would be the work of Paul Celan, where the reader simply has to go on faith that the author knew what he was writing about. This is rare in haiku. Usually, if you think about the words long enough and deeply enough, one can find the author's truth.

   a fish opens a door
in the lake

The Technique of Mixing It Up - What I mean here is mixing up the action so the reader does not know if nature is doing the acting or if a human is doing it. As you know, haiku are praised for getting rid of authors, authors' opinions and authors' action. One way to sneak this in is to use the gerund (-ing added to a verb) combined with an action that seems sensible for both a human and for the nature/nature to do. Very often when I use a gerund in a haiku I am using a shorthand to refer to an action that I have taken. This device minimizes the impact of the author’s person but allows an interaction between humanity and nature.

                        end of winter
                        covering the first row
                        of lettuce seeds

The Technique of Sabi – SAH-BEE - I almost hesitate to bring up this idea as a technique because the word sabi has gotten so many meanings over the innumerable years it has been in Japan, and now that it comes to the English language it is undergoing even new mutations. As fascinated as Westerners have become with the word, the Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Some call sabi – beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia." Suzuki maintains that sabi is "loneliness" or "solitude" but that it can also be "miserable", "insignificant", and "pitiable", "asymmetry" and "poverty". Donald Keene sees sabi as "an understatement hinting at great depths". So you see, we are rather on our own with this! A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not is how I think of it. As a technique, one puts together images and verbs which create this desired atmosphere. Often in English this hallowed state is sought by using the word "old" and by writing of cemeteries and grandmas. These English tricks wear thin quickly.

                        listening ears
                        petals fall into
                        the silence

The Technique of Wabi – WAH-BEE - the twin brother to sabi that has just as many personas can be defined as poverty or beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve. Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more haiku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

                        parting fog
                        on wind barren meadows
                        birth of a lamb

The Technique of Yūgen - another of these Japanese states of poetry which is usually defined as "mystery" and "unknowable depth". Somehow yūgen has avoided the controversy of the other two terms but since deciding which haiku exemplifies this quality is a judgmental decision, there is rarely consent over which verse has it and which one does not. One could say a woman's face half-hidden behind a fan has yūgen. The same face half-covered with pink goo while getting a facial, however,  does not. But still haiku writers do use the atmosphere as defined by yūgen to make their words be a good haiku by forcing their readers to think and to delve into the everyday sacredness of common things.

                        a swinging gate
                        on both sides flowers
                                    open – close

The Technique of the Paradox - One of the aims of haiku is to confuse the reader just enough to attract interest. Using a paradox will engage interest and give the reader something to ponder after the last word. Again, one cannot use nonsense but has to construct a true – connected to reality, paradox. It is not easy to come up with new ones or good ones, but when it happens, one should not be afraid of using it in a haiku.

                        waiting room
                        a patch of sunlight
                        wears out the chairs

The Technique of The Improbable World - This is very close to paradox but has a slight difference. Again, this is an old Japanese tool which is often used to make the poet sound simple and child-like. It demonstrates a distorted view of science – one we know is not true, but always has the possibility of being true – as in quantum physics.

                        evening wind
                        colors of the day
                        blown away

The Technique of Using Humor - This is the dangerous stuff. Because one has no way of judging another person's tolerance for wisecracks, jokes, slurs, bathroom and bedroom terminology, one should enter the territory of humor as if it is strewn with land-mines. And yet, if one is reading before a live audience nothing draws in the admiration and applause like some humorous haiku. Very often the humor of a haiku comes from the honest reactions of humankind. Some people will find you have left the realm of haiku to enter the questionable gutter of senryu if there is any hint of humor.  So choose your terms carefully, add to your situation with appropriate leaps, and may the haiku gods smile on you.

                        dried prune faces
                        guests when they hear
                        we have only a privy

The Technique of “As Is Above: Is Below” – Though this seems to be using a religious precept, yet this technique works to make the tiny haiku a well-rounded thought. Simply said: the first line and the third line exhibit a connectedness or a completeness. Some say one should be able to read the first line and the third line to find it makes a complete thought. Sometimes one does not know in which order to place the images in a haiku.  When the images in the first and third lines have the strongest relationship, the haiku usually feels balanced.  For exercise, take any haiku and switch the lines around to see how this factor works or try reading this haiku without the second line.

                        the horse’s head bowed
                        straight down

The Technique of finding the Divine in the Common – This is a technique that seems to happen mostly without conscious control. A writer will make a perfectly ordinary and accurate statement about common things, but due to the combination of images and ideas and what happens between them, a truth will be revealed about the Divine. Since we all have various ideas about what the Divine is, two readers of the same haiku may not find the same truth or revelation in it. Here, again, the reader becomes a writer to find a greater truth behind the words.

incense unrolls




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