09:04 pm
29 May 2023

The essence of a Haiku

I find the essence of haiku to be universal, and therefore, susceptible to become adapted to the different cultural variances of peoples other than the Japanese. The axis on which it lies is what authors call sensitivity or sensibility towards life in its multiple manifestations. From there, the task of the poet begins. The first step to depict on the poem is the impregnation of that characteristic of Japanese art and culture, what has been called ‘the spirit of haiku’, that element that is so evanescent to conceptualization and that is the essence of this poetic genre. As for me, I would dare to define it by saying that haiku is to discover the extraordinary on the ordinary of everyday life.

There are many recommendations given by poets and scholars, as keys to describe a haiku. To name them all would be overwhelming to the reader in a way that would leave him confused and with the impression that writing a haiku is more difficult than climbing the Everest. So I have made a selection which, as all selections are, is arbitrary, and avoids the fact that if we gathered all the keys provided by different scholars, we would find, in the end, that some contradict others, which would make us conclude that the Universe is a giant tautology… To avoid such an outrage, I will try to find the common denominator in all of them. And in this case, I will again make use of a cooking metaphor, friendly and accurate, as in the same way as with a cooking book, in a way, it is all a matter of measurement…

Certain suggestions to write traditional haiku as per its modern reformulation in the Western world.


  • Focus on “what is happening in this moment and this place” (Basho)
  • Use the common direct language
  • Avoid the use of metaphor or other rhetoric resources
  • Be concise in the use of language
  • Take into account that it is flexible and therefore a source of creativity and innovation
  • Avoid the use of adjectives and adverbs, if possible
  • Suggest, more than explain
  • Conclude each line following the natural pauses of speech
  • Achieve an adequate fluency between lines
  • Observe nature and daily life with receptive attention
  • Be sensible to the natural environment (which includes the human), and its manifestations
  • Avoid direct self-reference with the use of personal pronouns, except when fully integrated to the haiku’s scene
  • Use simple lingering images, which are not artificial or sophisticated
  • Avoid rationalization, abstraction, and moralization
  • Leave incomplete (in the sense given by Paz), that is to say, leave the haiku open if possible, in a way that it enables the option to be recreated by the reader from a meaning
  • Stick to the rules when beginning the task to learn to write haiku
  • Do not make rules from “clichés” nor “clichés” from rules
  • Be free to modify rules boldly and with talent, maintaining the poetic quality of haiku, once mastered

In case you want to stick to the ancient traditional school, make use of the kigo. And do not use the scheme of 17 syllables; maintain concision.

Haiku is seemingly very easy to create, especially when the poet is not adhering to the 17 syllables scheme, and the use of kigo. But in this apparent simplicity lays it weakness. As when the composition of a haiku does not adhere to any formal requisites, or poetic quality, it becomes something else: poor taste. As even inspiration, without due technique, is only bad grammar. Therefore, when starting to write haiku, it is convenient to be very strict and self-demanding, respecting a set of rules, whatever they are. To begin with the classical ones is to travel the same path that those who have made of haiku a poetical expressive instrument of the highest artistic achievement. The form may seem limiting and artificial at first, but once it is mastered, it is an unparalleled ordering element, from which the ultimate freedom is possible. Daisetz Suzuki, the master exponent of Zen, used to say that the greatest spontaneity is attained after having practiced the greatest discipline. And as we have pointed out, Ibero-American language and poetic tradition are prone, as none other, to the formal scheme of traditional Japanese haiku.

Matsuo Basho wrote: “Learn the rules, and then forget them”. All the great masters have broken one or more rules in countless opportunities, but they have done so after a long exercise in the basic principles of the art of creating haiku. Therefore, when beginning to write, it is a good practice to have them present and exercise with them. Little by little, the creative freedom will come, that which knows no rules but uses them as landing track to fly limitless. Glenn Gould, the Canadian musician and thinker, used to say that when we want to learn any art, we need to start by imitating the great creators. Then, our own voice and style will come. Personally, I believe that it is a unique challenge, as writing a haiku is the art of dancing in one squared inch…

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