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The Definition of Haiku

© Copyright 1996 by Alexey Andreyev

last time revised: November 1996

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:


  1. Number of Lines
  2. Number of Syllables, and Kireji
  3. Season Word (kigo)
  4. Images
    1. Juxtaposition and Two-Element Scheme
    2. "Unfinished Bridge" Effect (on metaphors, similes, anthropomorphism)
    3. Outsider Effect (on using 'I' and 'myself')
    4. Cultural References
  5. Other Formal Tricks
    1. Rhymes
    2. Visual Effects
    3. Minimalism
  6. Tanka, Renga, The Origin of Haiku
  7. Haiku Philosophy
  8. Humor in Haiku
  9. Other Sources for Haiku Info: Some Hints
    1. Different Translations
    2. Haiku on WWW and Modern Haiku Writers
    3. Haiku in other languages
    4. Modern haiku journals and haiku magazines on paper
    5. Modern haiku journals and haiku 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 simplest "external" to the most difficult "internal" level gradually.

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 three:

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 stucture of haiku-images. Look at the sections below.

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 different length and bears the different "amount of meaning" as compared 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 better when it's about 12 syllables:

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

- Basho

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).

Season word, (kigo)

Most haiku contain a special season word: it introduces a certain background in which "a haiku event" takes place. It may be direct 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 understand what season is meant in haiku; especially when the word is associated 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

- Basho

At first sight, it looks like a cute aphorism rather than "a moment of life". However, if the translator knew about the tradition connected to this image (the tradition in old Japan to entertaing 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 read "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 Russia, there exists a kind of moth that eats woollen clothes, and woollen 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").


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

  1. 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.
  2. This image, being written down, should evoke certain deep feelings in readers, too; this is really difficult -- not only to present 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:

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 relationship:

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 something 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:

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, more 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

"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 metaphor 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 case "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. However, 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. Anyway, 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 poem, are connected in reality, so it looks almost like a simile without 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 anthropomorphism, so common for western poetry: some human features are attributed to inanimate things ("crescent moon smiles", "angry wind"). Everything said above about metaphors can be applied to this poetic device, too: it is AVOIDED in haiku.

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

Cultural References

Classic haiku often refer to some well-known elements of national 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 literal translation (Ausaka -"Mount of Meetings") or in the images as- sociated with the place (Florida - warm place, ocean, beaches); names 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")

Other Formal Tricks


Classic haiku do not rhyme. However, rhymed haiku are possible. 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-bottom"!

So, my point is that poetry is honesty with a fluent language; 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.

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 written 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. Same effect can be imitated in other languages:

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


- Alexey Andreyev


Haiku is short, and sometimes people make it as short as possible. In such cases, there is a danger of misunderstanding and ambiguity, as the poem looks too abstract. Below included is an example with a reply. I think that having the reply is very important here: it means this minimalist's haiku is still understandable:


- Alexey Andreyev



- Kent Dorsey

Tanka, Renga and The Origin of Haiku

Tanka is a 5-line Japanese poem, much older than haiku. It flourished 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

- Basho

It also shows that the images are not always from the human life. 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 important. They were selected, discussed, and later, mostly with Basho's help, the writing of individual hokku became a new style of poetry (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 second 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 provided the background, while a following haiku worked as an effective detail.


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.

  1. Experience. There are many things that can't be learnt from books or teachers (even from the great ones), but can be only percieved, "lived" in our own personal interactions with the world. It means that along with education (studying words, forms, styles, history) 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 says. One can argue that, from this point of view, the best pupil whould 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.
  2. Unity and Harmony. According to the ancient Chinese tradition, all pieces of our world are connected among themselves; moreover, 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 poetry 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 poem, but as the art of seeing the relations that already exist around us, and the art of making other people see them, too.

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 haiku. 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 everyday 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

Other Sources of Haiku Info: Some Hints

Different Translations

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
with no hurry


Climb Mount Fuji,
o snail --
but slowly, slowly


Snail --
it's about time you climbed
Mount Fuji

Among books in English, The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson is the most comprehensive and comprehensible. Recently he got published two international anthologies "The Haiku Seasons" and "Haiku 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 :)

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:

Haiku in other languages

On the WWW you can find haiku:

Modern haiku journals and haiku magazines on paper

You can ask Dhugal Lindsay ( about the magazines in Japan, or Michael Welch ( about the magazines in the USA.

Other Sources

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).

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

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

                                        Lao Tse

Links: Imprint, Back to my Homepage.

Thomas Bätzler,