Haiku in English – A General Guide to Genre Distinction

Richard Gilbertby Richard Gilbert, January 2016

A new definition
One of the persistent questions is “what makes a haiku a haiku”? In English, as can be seen from the 1000’s of examples housed in the Living Haiku Anthology, and in noted haiku journals, excellent haiku have long done away with syllable counting, and rather incorporated creative metrical styles of rhythm, which in various ways well-articulate (and generally emulate) haiku sensibility, as found in Japan, particularly when the entire oeuvre, contemporary to feudal, is considered. As well, there are a number of reasons — cultural, linguistic, historical, etc. — for exploring and utilizing the creative potency and power of the languages and literary contexts evolving from within each locale haiku arrives. That is, haiku in English (in this case) is not likely to achieve excellence by merely copying an imported formula. At the same time, it’s necessary to articulate the difference between haiku and epithet, haiku and the nonce phrase, haiku and a quaint, if exotic image with a touch of pathos, and the like.

While the subject of “genre” elides with sensibility and style (for instance “traditional,” “nature oriented” and “radical,” are kinder terms seen), in taking a broad-minded perspective, Haruo Shirane offers an expansive connotation of haiku, meant to benefit poets creatively:

Echoing the spirit of Bashō’s own poetry . . . haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history. . . . this definition is intended both to encourage an existing trend and to affirm new space that goes beyond existing definitions of haiku (Shirane, 2000, p. 60).

In the above “definition” one is struck not only by what is new, but also by what is left out: no haiku “moment,” no Zen attributes, no specific linguistic preoccupations. Of particular import here is the phrase, “the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history.” Shirane not only situates the haiku genre within the context of modernity; the limiting sensibility of haiku as a naturalist-realist image-poem is contravened. This new definition of haiku does however present a conundrum: what might be the difference between the haiku and a short, contemporary poem, in English? While it’s impossible to draw a precise line in the sand, examining a large number of notable haiku, all of them play with two broad mutual attributes: disjunction (disjunctive styles), and reader-resistance. In the following excerpt from the book Disjunctive Dragonfly, four ideas are advanced: 1) a poem (or prose phrase, or epithet) lacking disjunction cannot be considered haiku, 2) poems possessing weak disjunction can be excellent haiku, 3) poems possessing strong disjunction can be excellent haiku, and 4) generally the stronger the disjunctive aspect, the more resistant to reader-comprehension the haiku will be.

Disjunction in The Haiku Genre - Strong And Weak

Disjunctive modes
One of the questions that has arisen concerning disjunctive modes has to do with their relationship with “traditional” or “mainstream” haiku. . . . The accepted definition and acceptable range of published haiku in English in the postwar era has generally been delimited by what has come to be termed “traditional haiku”: a poem of objective realism composed of two primary, juxtaposed images, associated with nature, normatively represented in three lines. The terms “traditional” and “mainstream” have increasingly found their way into parlance as a reaction to the burgeoning of disjunctive approaches to haiku over the last decade. As disjunctive concepts are not wedded to syntactical, imagistic or concrete (layout or lineation) concerns, experimental permission is implicitly offered.

      [Here it is suggested that] it is the force of disjunction acting on the reader’s consciousness which is the primary motif impelling successful juxtaposition. . . . From this perspective, all haiku possess disjunction. That said, does it follow that strong disjunction necessarily makes for a strong haiku? And conversely, can an objectively-realist haiku possessing weak disjunction also achieve formal excellence?

Haiku Exhibiting Strong Disjunction
The following examples present “one-image” haiku exhibiting the three genre-types of disjunction (explained in detail in Disjunctive Dragonfly) in a strong sense — each was published in a Modern Haiku Journal (MH) issue within 2011-12. (The parenthetical numbers indicate syllable-counts per line.)

back from the war
all his doors
swollen shut

Bill Pauly, 2011, MH 42:1; HIE 158 (4-3-3)

the scent of paradise a dead bird in my hand

Lee Gurga, 2011, MH 42:2 (6-6 | 6-3-3)

even, if, because
plum blossoms
in the courtyard

Miriam Sagan, 2011, MH 42:2 (5-3-4 | 2-1-2-3-4)

Note that in those examples with multiple metrical permutations (syllable-counts), alternate meanings may be divined, as the metrics determine to an extent how the phrases are semantically parsed by the reader.

In Pauly, observe the dual, mutually exclusive layers of literal versus psychological implication of “doors swollen”; in Gurga, the strong paradox of “paradise,” contrasted with the intimate, tragic touch of the dead bird; and in Sagan, the playfully ambiguous linguistic postulations concerning something having to do with those “plum blossoms” of spring.

sap rising he imagines me completely

Melissa Allen, 2011, MH 42:3 (3-8 | 3-5-3 | 8-3)

sore to the touch his name in my mouth

Eve Luckring, 2011, MH 42:3 (4-5)

a word that takes time defoliation

Johannes S. H. Bjerg, 2012, MH 43:1 (5-5)

In Allen, there appears her notion of his notion of her, and her notion of the situation altogether, presented within a scenario of erotic drama — the ku leaves much to the imagination, inviting misreading; Luckring presents a complex texture of perceptual near-synesthesia, as pain (mixed with bliss?) combines with touch, metaphor and identity — also within an intimate context, yet one given ambivalently, as it may be read with multiple (and mutually exclusive) readings. Bjerg sets up readers by breaking the “fourth wall,” addressing us directly from the poem — then caps the set up with multiple implications (linguistic, sociopolitical, ecological) of that single, final word “defoliation”: indeed, also a mouthful.

raven shadow clinging tightly to my victim story

Michelle Tennison, 2012, MH 43:2 (4-10 | 8-6 | 4-4-6 | etc.)

in tune with its obstacles, rain

Eve Luckring, 2012, MH 43:3 (7-1 | 2-5-1 | 3-4-1)

quietly in the 21st century
           dark places
         on a full moon

Gary Hotham, 2012, MH 43:3 (11-3-4)

Tennison begins with an unusual collocation, “raven shadow” and plays with misreadings of syntax, as the haiku can be read “raven shadow clinging tightly,” “raven shadow | clinging tightly,” and in further alternatives, according to its metric options — this metrical multiplicity invites misreading as meaning. Potent and disturbing emotions are evoked, yet paradoxically, as an artwork this haiku is a talisman of clarity and healing, possessing psychological concision. A sense of musical analogy and aural space inhabits Luckring’s ku, with the sound of rain shaping the sense of what those obstacles may be: physical, emotional, psychological? The disjunctive paradox of “in tune” offers notions of harmony. Hotham evokes the era by presenting most of what is absent (darkness, silence) as a presence, offering the reader a vision of what lies behind or apart from the noise, whether in a serene or an abandoned sense. This strongly disjunctive aspect propels the sense of reader-paradox, concerning meaning and perception.

Haiku Exhibiting Weak Disjunction
Next, several examples of notable haiku that exhibit weak disjunction are presented, taken from three major haiku anthologies illustrating historical influence: Haiku in English, 2013 (HIE), The Haiku Anthology, 3rd ed, 1999 (THA), and Haiku Moment, 1993 (HM):

Just enough of rain
To bring the smell of silk
From umbrellas

Richard Wright, c. 1960; HIE (5-6-4)

 in morning sun two white horses      the autumn aspen

Elizabeth Searle Lamb, 1985; HM (8-5)

the fingers of the prostitute cold

Bob Boldman, 1981; THA 15 (5-9)

Richard Wright’s haiku seems to possess almost no disjunctive aspect. It is a puzzle haiku however, with the subject last, and the setup of “just enough” creates psychological suspension, within which develops a cascading contrast from rain, to silk, to umbrellas. Each next noun is unexpected in relation to the previous. The poem offers a nuanced observation that plies language with delicacy. The first line also presents unusual or irruptive grammar. Yet if the poem were read as a sentence within a novel (as a narrative muse), most probably wouldn’t blink. We know Wright was a long-term expatriate living in Paris, and the umbrellas were indeed made of silk and colorful. “Just enough” here means a mere sprinkle, and one imagines the fashionable women of Paris out on the sidewalk, having suddenly in near-unison opened their varicolored canopies. Wright, a deeply principled man, was around this time justifiably paranoid: “The CIA and FBI had Wright under surveillance starting in 1943, [and he was] blacklisted by Hollywood movie studio executives in the 1950s” (Wiki). Wright lived the last years of his life under “extraordinary pressure” (ibid). He sickened in 1957, and in 1960 died in Paris at the age of 52. Biographical knowledge adds sociopolitical and psychological complexity to the objective presentation here. (See his poem, "The FB Eye Blues," which contains the lines, “Each time I love my baby, gover'ment knows it all . . . Woke up this morning / FB eye under my bed”).

      In E.S. Lamb is found a minimal application of concrete disjunction (the spatial gap between the two parts), and a profound sense of quietude is evoked. The elegantly phrased and rhythmically paced description is painterly. An entire mountain valley seems present in its fall season, a nip in the air, the golden aspen quivering in the merest breeze, and shining white horses — offering that rare echo of remembrance: the perfection of a day, an expansive sense of peace extending through paddock, fields and woods. A Rocky Mountain or Sangre de Cristo ku of the rugged American West.

      Boldman begins with what seems like a newspaper headline in all caps. A new year's haiku, traditional as to “season,” yet by contrast, a strongly urban haiku as well. As he passes, are her fingers a raw, red-white or even a little blue, ungloved; and he seems to be hanging out in a ratty part of town (or, is the knowledge of cold fingers communicated through touch — a proposition implied?). The headline scans like an announcement read on a newspaper when passing a newsstand, probably at night, perhaps even New Year’s Eve, after midnight; waiting on the street mid-winter for a john. Concerning disjunction, “semantic register shift” (newspaper headline-to-internal observation) is utilized; however, contrast and topic rather than disjunctive effect provide the main poetic force. This is a haiku of social consciousness, presented in a unique style.

The last example is by William Higginson, 1970; HIE  (3-3-3):

I look up
from writing
to daylight

There is surprise in the disjunctive aspect of overturning expectation, and misreading (writing-to-daylight is also a shift of semantic register). Yet for a writer, it's likewise a normative, perhaps familiar, experience. This haiku feels real and exact to the author as a being. A poem of “makoto (verity)”: it’s so honest.

      These four different styles of excellent haiku each exhibit weak disjunction. Perhaps only the Wright would be considered most “traditional,” with its objective realism, three-line form, and genre-median short-long-short syllable count; yet it also has a degree of unusuality in its lack of fragment/phrase. In fact, this technical form was once labeled as the dreaded “one-image” haiku — a haiku lacking two separated imagistic segments. E.S. Lamb's haiku is presented in one line, with a gap, so it’s not in a traditional form; the Boldman has all caps and a prostitute; and Higginson presents a big fat capital “I” as a first word, and is focused on self-experience (said to be a traditional no-no — though it’s common enough in Japanese haiku, literally or by implication). As with Wright, Higginson’s haiku is likewise a “one-image” poem. Each of these works evokes a delicately nuanced world, and intriguing feelings; each possesses originality and a degree of formal uniqueness. The form (including perceptual disjunction, compression, and surprise as an overturning of semantic expectation) also helps each achieve its poetic power; all are poems of objective realism.

Critical Usefulness — Terminology
     What can be drawn from these brief examples is that so-called “non-traditional” haiku do not necessarily equate to poems possessing strong disjunction, or highly unusual genre-deformative experiment; nor must excellent haiku possess strong disjunction, though they must possess intrinsically the three genre-types of disjunction to be considered haiku, in my opinion. While it is true that varieties of genre-specific disjunction (perceptual disjunction, overturning semantic expectation and misreading as meaning, etc.) can be observed, their presence is weak or mild in the examples just above, more of a background effect. Instead, contrast, image, topical surprise, and compression create the more potent, foregrounded effects.

      Generally speaking, depending upon which examples are selected, it seems possible to locate continua which thread through “traditional” and “non-traditional” haiku. It may be that the simplistic duality of “traditional” versus “non traditional” has outlived its critical usefulness, in terms of language characteristics and descriptions of haiku style.

      For those fond of realism in haiku, who may eschew language play, metaphor, modes of disjunction and the like, where should these four examples of weak disjunction be placed in the haiku pantheon? Is “traditional” more a matter of weak disjunction, than a hewing to realism? Is there an objection to the use of “I” in Higginson’s signature haiku, or the one-line-with-gap “single-line” (monoku) haiku of Lamb? The all-caps and urban theme of Boldman? The lack of fragment/phrase in two of the above examples? It can be noted that the Wright haiku was first anthologized in the significant, posthumous book-length collection, Haiku: This Other World (1998), and Bill Higginson was arguably the most significant 20th century critic and scholar of English-language haiku.

      Within Japan, similar experiments and topics to those presented above may be found, some from the haiku masters of yore: Bashō, Chiyo-jo, Buson, Issa, and additional works penned by the early 20th century masters. Each of these haiku have certain, so-to-say, “traditional” elements, and avoid strong disjunctive action. Yet upon close examination, these examples as a group depart from the overly restrictive formal requirements once considered a sine qua non of ELH in the 20th century: juxtaposition, the two-image poem of fragment/phrase, seasonal reference, kireji (an overt “cut” between parts of the haiku), etc.

      When comparing and contrasting haiku plying strong versus weak disjunction, qualitative differences of style and presentation are evident — yet in the above examples, similarities seem to outweigh differences. These examples present a range of variation, rather than exclusive conceptions of haiku as a genre. Innovation is the lifeblood of this art form, and upon close examination excellent haiku of every stripe exhibit innovative disjunctive elements.

The Living Haiku Anthology
Disjunctive action, as an aspect of reader-resistance, is seen a sine qua non of haiku in English, and thus provides a means for determining genre-distinction, applying the broadest possible brush. By taking into account  the aspects of genre-definition provided by Haruo Shirane, and the applied concepts of disjunction (articulated at length in The Disjunctive Dragonfly, 2013) as observed in all excellent haiku, it is possible to delimit the scope of the haiku genre within the Living Haiku Anthology, and it is from this inclusive critical perspective that LHA editors shall consider submissions for inclusion.


Gilbert, R. (2013). The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Approach to English-Language Haiku. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2013.
Shirane, H. (2000). “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths.” Modern Haiku, 31:1, pp. 48-63.