Regarding Poetry : The Shape of the Song

WHR November 2001

Guest Speakers Column

From time to time, WHC’s forums invite guests to present lessons or essays, and to judge kukai. World Haiku Review is pleased to announce a new Feature Article, “Guest Speakers’ Corner”, christened by Peggy Willis Lyles. A member of World Haiku Club, Peggy was invited by WHCschools’ Hibiscus School instructor, Ferris Gilli, as a Guest Speaker to give a lesson in September 2001. Peggy invited members to “kansho” (appreciate) a haiku by Mrs. Gilli. The results of the kansho may be found in the WHCschools Hibiscus Petals Column.

Regarding Poetry: the Shape of the Song
Peggy Willis Lyles
Georgia, US
Members of The Hibiscus School understand that there are many differences between haiku in English and most other Western poetry. In fact, on March 3, 2001, Ferris sent you a message that included this directive:

Regarding poetry. Folks, when you start to write a haiku, forget everything you know and have ever been taught about Western-traditional poetry. Haiku is not like any other form of poetry, and it is dangerous to think “poetically” or to even consider using poetic words or phrases when you are ready to write a haiku.

Some of you probably found yourselves writing better haiku the minute you began taking that advice. Others may remember an earlier time when you recognized the need to set aside poetic and figurative language–and preconceived notions in general–so that you could meet haiku face to face and begin writing effectively about your discoveries.

Assuming that you are well-grounded now in the attitudes and techniques that lead to good haiku of the Hibiscus School, I believe there may be some value in looking again at basic discussions of English-language poetry and giving a little thought to how English-language haiku fits in. In the Preface to his 1997 award-winning haiku collection Endgrain, published by Red Moon Press, Dee Evetts wrote, “Fundamentally, haiku is a literary genre. For all its brevity, it must ultimately be assessed by the same standards as all other literature. That is, by its aptness, wit, accuracy, felicity of language, and by its lack of sentimentality and moralizing. The future of English-language haiku is unknowable, but there is no escaping that such criteria will continue to apply.”

I have been thinking recently about the place in Twentieth-Century British and American literature of what we call “The Haiku Movement.” It is much more significant, I believe, than literary scholars have yet recognized. In pursuit of this thought I have considered many anthologies of twentieth-century poetry and also reviewed some standard Introduction to Poetry textbooks, especially various editions of Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama by X.J. Kennedy; Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by John Frederick Nims and David Mason; and Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine The latter, my favorite, is also included in Perrine’s more comprehensive Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.

Much of what the various texts say about good poetry in general is applicable to haiku. The language of poetry is compressed. Poets and readers of poetry must pay close attention to the denotations and connotations of words. Poetry relies on sense images to convey its meaning, and that meaning is more a matter of the poem’s total experience than something that could be summed up or paraphrased. The dictionary meanings of a poem’s words plus connotations that collect from past experiences with them plus the immediate experience of sense images and the complex associations they touch–all these things and more contribute to the meaning of a poem–and a haiku. Haiku along with other poems deserve more than one reading. If possible, they should be read aloud. While they often spark immediate recognition and appreciation, they give up their full meanings more slowly. They are, in fact, the most compressed of all poems. I like to think that means they are charged with extra energy and vitality. Certainly, they engage the reader as a co-creator. All good poetry is selective, leaving much unsaid. As Yoko Sugawa tells us, “In order to say ten things a haiku presents only two.” Those two, though, are so carefully selected, simply and clearly presented and so interwoven with rich textures of suggestion and association that the receptive reader, willing to enter the poem and do his part, has what he needs to find the other eight things and possibly even more!

Western poetry often introduces additional sense imagery through figurative language. In his valuable essay “Toward a Definition of the English Haiku” George Swede examines various criteria or “rules” governing haiku and concludes that the one which insists it “usually avoids poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, etc.” is unnecessary; Global Haiku:Twenty-five Poets World-wide, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks, Mosaic Press 2000, and on-line at:

Why, then, are newcomers to haiku writing urged to avoid simile, metaphor, personification and other traditional tropes? There are many good answers, I think, but the most important is that haiku poets, certainly those who follow the guidelines of The Hibiscus School, place high value on the creatures and things of this world just as they are, each unique in its essential nature and worthy of unobscured attention. Comparing one thing to another often seems to diminish both. Consider Speculation 813 by Robert Spiess (Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXII, No 2, page 89): “Although simile occasionally occurs in Japanese masters’ haiku, it is rather rare. Perhaps for us the main reason that good haiku seldom use simile is exemplified by the proverb ‘Comparisons are odious.’ Haiku is the comparison-less poetry of Suchness.” On March 24, 2001, Christopher Herold addressed The Hibiscus School directly concerning “Poetics and Personification in Haiku.” Here is part of what he said: “The haiku is capable of taking us to a place of simplicity and thusness that cannot be even closely approached with the use of flowery Western poetic devices. For the most part I find that those devices, used as lavishly as we tend to use them, block our reaching to the very crux of an experience. Simile, personification, overt metaphor, personal pronouns, narrative constructions, all tend to be jeweled fingers. We gaze at them rather than the moon towards which they point.”

Please don’t get carried away, though, and start drafting a strict RULE prohibiting figurative language in Hibiscus-worthy haiku. Instead, let’s look at a delightful haiku by Ferris Gilli herself:

night rain
the small serrated song
of a frog

The Heron’s Nest
Vol. II, No. 1
January, 2000

The nine words tell me enough that I can recreate the essence of the experience. Can you? I can imagine it as either an inside or outside moment. I am conscious of darkness and of the sound of rain, and perhaps the sight, touch, and smell of it, too. Then the frog song starts–small in the context of night and the rain, but this is not a weak sound. Not a smooth one either. I would like the haiku if it read “night rain/the small song/of a frog.” I like it ever so much better because Ferris has included the figurative adjective “serrated.”

How can a song be serrated? It is not a thing with saw-like teeth or sharp projections. A frog doesn’t even sound much like a saw. Besides, don’t we usually trim adjectives from haiku whenever we can? I happen to know that Ferris counts this among her personal favorites. Both the experience and the words to record it came simply, clearly, and naturally as true haiku gifts. How do you “see” the haiku? How do you “hear” it? Thoughts of patterned roughness, and of ability to cut slowly, expand sensation and meaning. What other associations do? What does the haiku say about nature and the poet’s response to it? How do you enter the poem and participate? What do you find there?

I invite you to write a brief kansho (appreciative commentary) about this haiku and send it to me at:

I will save your notes until midnight eastern time on Monday September 10th and then collate them to post to The Hibiscus School. I will include your name or not according to your instructions. It should be interesting and informative to compare the responses. As you are considering “night rain” and collecting your thoughts, please have a look at this award winner which also suggests more than it says:

June breeze
a hole in the cloud
mends itself

The Heron’s Nest
Valentine’s Awards 2001

Ferris’s essay about it might help you decide how to approach an appreciation of “night rain.” Even if you don’t need that sort of model, reading an’ya’s haiku and Ferris’s commentary side by side will be a fine experience. You will find them here:

Now let’s think a little more carefully about the figures of speech we would want to use sparingly, if at all, in haiku. Perrine describes them clearly and well: “Metaphor and Simile are both used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The only distinction between them is that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems; in metaphor the comparison is implied–that is the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term” (Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, fifth edition, Laurence Perrine with Thomas R. Arp, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1988, page 565. All page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition).

Personification gives “the attitudes of a human being to an animal, object, or concept” (568). An apostrophe “consists in addressing someone absent or dead or something nonhuman as if that person or thing were present and alive and could reply to what is being said” (569). Probably you are already thinking that you would not want to waste valuable words setting up a formal simile in a haiku.

Maybe you are thinking, too, that juxtaposition in haiku sometimes calls attention to similarities between two essentially dissimilar things. That is a much more compressed and efficient way of doing so, isn’t it? It seems to show more respect for the reader, too, letting her draw her own conclusions instead of directing or spelling things out.

Are you also thinking about Issa’s use of personification and apostrophe? Maybe you have some specific examples in mind from other haiku masters, too. There are many of them. Such tropes are seldom used in contemporary English-language poetry, though, except perhaps to create humor. Most of us would feel awkward and a bit silly using them. That’s probably just as well because our readers would be likely to find direct address to an owl, lily, or moose pretty far out.

Perrine says, “a symbol may be roughly defined as something that means more than what it is ” (585). Then he goes on to clarify various figures of speech in a passage that I find especially relevant to haiku:

“Image, metaphor, and symbol shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In general, however, an image means only what it is; the figurative term in a metaphor means something other than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more, too. A symbol, that is, functions literally and figuratively at the same time. . . . Images, of course, do not cease to be images when they are incorporated in metaphor or symbol” (585).

We know the importance of sensory experience to the perception of haiku and the value of concrete images in presenting those perceptions to readers so that they can recreate the experience and share the feelings it evoked. We know too that words and images stir associations in perceptive readers and suggest more than the haiku says. Some simple words, “home,” for instance, or “forest,” or “snake” may call up deep images with associations that touch the universal or archetypal. Colors often mean more to us than we can explain. Tastes and smells are powerful in raising memories. Some haiku mean what they say and nothing more. If they recreate a given time and place in clear sensory detail so that readers can go there again and again–and continue to find value in doing so– that is certainly enough. I don’t think good haiku mean something different from what they say. Haiku have a way of being honest and true. They don’t mislead us. Most, though, mean what they say and more as well.

Let me say that again: most good haiku mean what they say and more as well. Take season words, for example. Frogs, herons, chrysanthemums, and snowstorms mean what they are in haiku, but they also enrich the poems with a whole context of the season they represent and whatever the poet and reader may associate with that season. Spring suggests youth and beginnings; autumn ripeness and completion–and we could write pages and pages about the connotative, suggestive, associative, and symbolic possibilities of each season.

We often hear comments about the metaphorical qualities of kigo. According to Perrine’s definition we would do better to think of them in terms of symbol. For those who know traditional Japanese literature, season words stir memories of earlier haiku, too. Sometimes a haiku alludes to a well-known earlier one that uses the same kigo. Image, metaphor symbol, allusion? There is little to be gained by quibbling over definitions and distinctions. What matters is that season words can expand the meaning of a haiku and deepen its emotional resonance.

Please have a close look at another exceptional haiku:

a curtain billows
before the rain
scent of roses

Ferris Gilli
The Heron’s Nest Award
Volume II, Number Eight
August 2000

Beautiful, isn’t it? I feel the motion, sense the coming rain, smell the roses. If there were nothing more to the haiku than that, it would be a gift and a pleasure. The specific details create a strong sense of anticipation, too. Pleasant anticipation. “a curtain blows” means what it says . . . and much more. Christopher Herold’s appreciative Heron’s Nest Award essay presents a fine reading of it. You will find it here:

For enjoyment and to learn more about good haiku, I recommend all the Heron’s Nest essays. The haiku discussed are of high quality and are varied in subject matter and technique. The essays underscore many ways that haiku can succeed and excel.

Other excellent resources are the Kansho Column features at WHCacademia. Susumu Takiguchi posted an especially fine one on July 26, 2001. It discusses Yamaguchi Seishi’s superb 1944 haiku about winter wind blown out over the sea and unable to return, a poem of deep imagery and profound sadness. That universal, perhaps archetypal, sadness of winter and loss deepens almost unbearably as we realize the poet was thinking of young Japanese airmen flying toward their deaths at sea. They were given enough fuel to reach their targets but none for return or escape. I agree with Susumu that this may be one of the best haiku ever written. Please find and study the Kansho if you haven’t done so already. There is, in fact, considerable value in each of the Kansho postings so far. I intend to go back to them often and to watch eagerly for new ones.

Haiku thrives world-wide. It can be both accessible and profound. It celebrates moments of human life and establishes bonds among poets and between poets and readers. For many, it is at least as much a way of life as a form of literature. There is every reason to believe it will become even more popular in the twenty-first century and that among the millions of haiku composed and shared there will be many that should be recognized as great literature.

Is it safe, then, for haiku poets to remember some of what they know about Western poetry and even, perhaps, to have a fresh look at its characteristics? I think so. If Hibiscus poets keep the school’s basic criteria firmly in mind, they are not likely to go astray as they consider the many ways that haiku communicate experience and the many levels on which some of them can be read. It won’t hurt us either to review ways we can make sound reinforce meaning. But that is a topic for another time. For now let me go on record as one who will continue to use figurative language and other poetic devices sparingly if at all while concentrating on openness, participation, and discovery. At the same time, I believe that genuine haiku are likely to be multileveled and not easily exhausted. I would expect perceptive observation, deep feeling, and fresh insight to result in images that mean what they say–and much more. English-language haiku is a valuable part of world literature with an audience capable of nurturing great poets.

Peggy Willis Lyles has been contributing haiku to such journals as Frogpond and Modern Haiku for more than twenty years. Her work appears in a number of anthologies, including The Haiku Handbook, 1985, by William J. Higginson, with Penny Harter; and Haiku World, 1996, edited by William J. Higginson; The Haiku Anthology, 2nd and 3rd editions, 1986 and 1999, edited by Cor van den Heuvel; A Haiku Path, 1994, the Haiku Society of America; and Global Haiku, Twenty-five Poets World-wide, 2000, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks; Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross; and several Red Moon Anthologies. She was a grand prize winner of The Heron’s Nest Readers’ Choice Awards 2000, and a grand prize winner in the 2000 Einbond Renku Competition. Peggy’s chapbook Thirty-Six Tones was published by Saki Press in 2000 as a Virgil Hutton Haiku Memorial Award winner.

This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 1-3 November 2001 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Make a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s