Haiku: A New Appreciation

leaves encased in ice

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form that many Americans admire. However, I have found very few adult Americans attempting to write it. Many of us learned about haiku in grade school English classes. We were taught the proper haiku form:

  • Three lines
  • Seventeen syllables
  • Broken into 5-7-5 syllable lines
  • Has to contain a ‘season’ element, indicating spring, summer, winter, or fall

Writers who do tackle haiku are challenged by the constraints of the form, like those who enjoy writing sonnets, or quatrains. Many other writers don’t like the constraints, and therefore, prefer to admire haiku from afar.

I recently read two books about writing haiku by experts in the field: The Heart of Haiku, by Jane Hirshfield, and Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To, by David G. Lanoue. They have each translated thousands of haiku from Japanese to English.

I read Hirshfield’s book first. She focuses mainly on using the work of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), the poet who developed the haiku form in the late 1600s. He gave it the 5-7-5 form. Hirshfield says that Bashō elevated the form from simple playful verse into something more substantial. Hirshfield says that “he wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.”

Interestingly, I noticed that very few haiku translations from Japanese to English seem to follow the 5-7-5 pattern. This Bashō haiku on aging is a great example:

growing old:

eating seaweed,

teeth hitting sand


The line pattern in this translation is 3-4-4. However, how could one change this without changing the conciseness of the piece? Without disrupting the elegance?

Later in the book, Hirshfield quotes Bashō as saying, “If you have three or four, or even five or seven extra syllables but the poem still sounds good, don’t worry about it. But if one syllable stops the tongue, look at it hard.”

Even the guy who created the form tells us not to stress over the precise form, but to go for the poetry of the language.

Lanoue’s book focuses on the work of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), who built upon the artistic base that Bashō had started. Lanoue also includes many contemporary haiku written in the Issa style. Another important part of the haiku style is that “the most important part of the poem isn’t stated outright but gently implied,” as in this contemporary example by Greg Longenecker:

abandoned farm

the dandelions make

their own wishes


The elegance in this piece is in what is implied, not in what is directly stated. At the abandoned farm, there is nobody around to pick the dandelions and blow the seeds into the air and make wishes on them. The tone seems melancholy to me, and is implied rather than stated.

I realized that there is far more going on with haiku than I had ever been led to believe.

I discovered that Lanoue has a haiku website. At this website, I think Lanoue gives us the best definition of haiku for English speakers based upon what Bashō and Issa wrote in their haiku, and what they wrote about haiku. Lanoue defines haiku as “a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” When he discusses the 17 syllable, 5-7-5 form, he says,

“Japanese words for the most part are polysyllabic, consisting of multiple syllables. English, in contrast, has loads of one syllable words (“spring,” “rain” and “duck” for instance). For this reason, most haiku poets writing in English don’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule. Seventeen syllables of English could potentially add up to seventeen separate words, making the “haiku” too long, lessening its intensity.”

Lanoue also says that the reason haiku is taught in the 5-7-5 form so emphatically in our grade schools is because at that stage of learning, they are used in English-speaking schools to teach the concept of syllables to children. For some reason, I believe that our knowledge and appreciation of haiku never advances beyond that understanding, and so haiku is very misunderstood and underappreciated in America today.

I think I have a better understanding of the potential of haiku after reading these two books. Much thanks to Jane Hirshfield and David G. Lanoue for showing us the way.

And now that we have been shown the way, why don’t we all take a shot at using the loosened haiku guidelines suggested by Lanoue? Work on three concise lines. Remember the goal is “a one-breath poem that discovers connection.” Focus on that. If some of the lines have five, or seven, or five syllables, great…but don’t force it.

Feel free to post your haiku in the comments, or you can send them to me at writersforumeditor@gmail.com for compiling into another post in a month or so.

I’ll start. Here is a haiku I wrote one cold morning after seeing some dead oak leaves trapped in ice in a puddle.

fallen brown leaves
yesterday swimming
entombed this morning


Let’s see what you can do!


George T. Parker

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Poetry Lessons…and Healing

The program for last Saturday’s Writers Forum meeting was how to Jump Start Your Writing With Poetry. WF member and published author Linda Boyden shared with the group some techniques she has learned for writing poetry that also give us great tools for other types of writing as well.

One of those techniques was called writing a Sensory Poem.

The first step in writing a sensory poem is to pick a topic. Then you brainstorm words and phrases for that topic from each of the five senses. For instance, suppose you pick the topic A Winter Day. You would brainstorm words and phrases that describe sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings that you would associate with a winter day. When you have collected a good number of words, grab a few from that list and shape them into a poem.

The beautiful thing about these techniques is that the rules are few. “How many words do you need to write write down from your brainstorm?” Enough to give yourself a good selection of words to choose for your poem. Some people might write ten words and then see a poem in them. Some people might write thirty or forty words and still have to play around with them like letter tiles on a Scrabble rack to find a poem. “Do you have to use all of the words that you brainstorm?” Only if you want to. That might be a fun challenge, but don’t feel like you have to. “Can I only use words from my list?” No, the words on the list are the bricks you will use to build your poem. You still need mortar to connect them and make them solid, right?

Don’t feel like you should be obligated to spending a lot of time on this, either. Think quickly and write, and then move on. This is, after all, intended to jump start your other writing projects. Once you have your creativity flowing with a poem, hopefully it will be easier for you to move onto your other writing projects with a fresh dose of creativity. It works for me!

Here is a poem that was written at the program by WF member Carolyn Faubel. Carolyn drew upon intense images from the devastating Carr Fire. Writing poetry about the disaster might be one way to help ourselves heal.


The Carr Fire

By Carolyn Faubel



Perfect black leaves are floating down into my back yard,

A strange snow of destruction.

Gentle and persistent, ashfall is silent,

Unless you count the dogs howling as fire trucks and police cars go screaming by.


Stinking yellow smoke moves from piney campfire to burning plastic,

And other smells that must not be named.

Everywhere, sharp unforgiving branches spray out, their protection

Blasted off by the monster’s breath.


From the dun dry fallen leaves, a soft

Sooty fragment of upholstery fabric

The size of a moth

Balances delicately.

When I pick it up, the light shows through the thin weave of

Carbonized black thread.

And when I stroke the tufts of

Black velvet,

It crumbles and disappears in the breeze.

Was it your couch?

I am sorry.


If you attended the program and would like to share your poetry from the poetry program, or even if you would like to try the exercise now and write a new poem, please send them to Writers Forum at writersforumeditor@gmail.com for posting in the future.




Reminder about Happy Spot…

What puts you in your writing ‘happy spot’?

The Newsletter Editor challenged members to relate or take a pic of their Happy Spot for writing or reflecting.

We are about to open the topic to our Facebook followers. Send us a description or a photo of your happy spot (reading/writing nook, under a favorite tree in the garden), and we can share it here with everyone.

Send it to writersforumeditor@gmail.com, and see it in the next newsletter. If you prefer good ol’ snail mail send it to Editor, c/o PO Box 492282, Redding, CA 96049-2282.

Special Writers Forum Workshop…

Writing for Children: Anyone Can Do It, Right?

Special Writers Forum Workshop: Saturday, March 12 from 10:30-2:30 (1/2-hour lunch break at noon) $10 for members, $15 for nonmembers

If you have ever read a book to a child and thought, Hey, I can do that…how hard could it be? then this four-hour special program presented by Writers Forum is for you. A skilled and accomplished panel of speakers representing the genres in children’s literature will share insights, experiences, and advice from their journeys as authors and illustrators.

Discussion will include what differentiates children’s literature from other types of literature; tips on pursuing a career in this rewarding industry; and an introduction to the premiere organization of the children’s book world, SCBWI, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The program will include audience participation as attendees are divided into groups to practice writing a query letter to an editor or agent, how to deliver an elevator pitch for your work-in-progress, or how to write a clear synopsis for your manuscript. Each group will be moderated by one of the panelists.

Presenters are Jessica Taylor, Elizabeth Stevens Omlor, Ellen Jellison, Cynthia Saye Kremsner, and Linda Boyden. To cover expenses for our speakers, there will be a minimal charge of $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers. Our customary refreshment table will be available; however, attendees are welcome to bring a brown bag lunch if they desire.

Pre-registration is not required. Attendees may pay at the door. The event takes place at All Saints Episcopal Church, 2150 Benton Drive, Redding, CA 96003. For further details, contact Writers Forum Program Chair.

Is Your Story Short???

Rcvd this as email this morn…


Fellow writers,

One of the best ways to gain credibility as a writer and build your writing resume (especially if your publishing credentials are currently thin) is to win a credible writing competition. And right now, through Writer’s Digest you can do that with just 1,500 words of fiction.

That’s right—Just 1,500 words! Here’s how:

It’s time to enter our 16th Annual Short Short Writing Competition. Whether it’s a story you’ve been working on for years or one you write tonight, all you need is a short work of fiction that is 1,500 words or fewer to submit it right away. It’s that easy. Prizes for the winner of this competition include:

  • $3,000 in cash
  • Your short story title published in Writer’s Digest magazine’s July/August 2016 issue
  • A paid trip to the ever-popular Writer’s Digest Conference (where I’d love to meet you)!
  • A copy of the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection
  • A copy of the 2016 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market
  • And more!

Plus, all entrants will receive access to our February 23, 2016, webinar “Short Story to Story Collection: How to Craft a Collection of Short Fiction That Gets Published and Sells,” a $49 value at no extra cost.

I’ve helped judge this competition for years and, I admit, it’s one of my favorites to read through. Being able to write a good short (short) story can be a challenge, but if you have a fun idea and run with it, who knows what can happen. But you can’t win unless you enter. The deadline for this competition is January 15, 2016, so enter now before it’s too late!

Take care of yourself and your writing,
Brian A. Klems
Senior Online Editor, Writer’s Digest

To enter visit: http://www.writersdigest.com/writers-digest-competitions/short-short-story-competition


Note: There is a $25 entry fee.