Haiku Lessons part 2

May 2001

Hibiscus Petals

WHCschools Traditional Western Haiku School
Ferris Gilli, Instructor

Part II   Juxtaposition in Haiku

Traditionally, a haiku is in two parts (components), combining two or more different topics, and most often presenting a pair of images that contrast or that are apparently unrelated.  Working together, the two parts evoke mood and emotion.  Ideally, there should be a caesura between them—a clear pause that is dictated by the sense of natural speech and sometimes indicated with punctuation.  It is the juxtaposition between these two parts or components that creates an effect beyond the initial impact.

Bashô taught that we should think of the haiku as something that combines:

Those who are good at combining or bringing together two topics are superior poets.  (Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô, 1st ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University)

A poem that focuses on only a single topic and does not employ juxtaposition of apparently unrelated topics is sometimes called a single-image haiku.  While a skilled and accomplished poet can achieve resonance in a poem that does not contain a combination of unrelated images, I advise beginners to first become proficient with juxtaposing dissimilar images.

A comparison between related images within only one component often fails to give the haiku resonance.  It is difficult to create resonance if there is no real juxtaposition, if the haiku lacks internal comparison of two seemingly unrelated images.  It is this combination that allows haiku poets to write many different haiku on the same subject and yet, present a new discovery with each one.

When juxtaposing, we have to be careful that the components are not obviously similar or connected, that they do not fit together too well–or the resonance will be lost.  And when we compare two very different things to show how they are alike in unexpected ways, or how they are connected, we do it subtly so that readers can discover the similarities or connection for themselves.

Sometimes the reader’s discovery is immediate and profound, occurring the instant the poem is read.  But sometimes the discovery takes a little longer; this unwritten question lies in the space between the two dissimilar parts of a haiku:

What is the connection?

So, the reader reads between the lines.  Resonance is created when the reader’s imagination lets him or her discover the connection between the parts.

The explanation of the difference between a two-part poem and a single-image poem may seem complicated at first, and one poet may draw a finer line between the two than another poet draws.  I hope to make the difference clear with a few illustrations.  This is an example of a single-image verse:

in its tail
the kitten sleeps

There is one object, one image– a kitten sleeping in the curl of  its tail.  This is the same kitten in a two-part haiku that juxtaposes another element with the sleeping kitten:

rising wind–
the kitten sleeps
curled in its tail

I consider this to be a single-image haiku:

in a blue bowl
fresh lemons

A nice image but nothing to evoke a sense of new awareness, nothing beyond the initial impression of a pretty picture.

Some of you are probably wondering how this can be single-image when we are clearly seeing two things here.  True, there are literally two different objects presented in the verse, but they are both within the boundaries of one topic–things in a container; things in a bowl.  There is an obvious connection between lemons and bowls, lemons and baskets, etc.  Now I add another component or element:

cloudless sky
fresh lemons gleam
in a blue bowl

By combining the cloudless sky with the lemons in a blue bowl, I hope that the implied comparison of the sun in the great blue sky–with the small “suns” against the blueness of a bowl—will touch a chord in readers.  Although the sky and lemons in a bowl are vastly different things, readers may be struck as I was with the beauty of the sky being repeated in small, earthly objects combined in the poem.

This haiku by Peggy Willis Lyles, winner of the 1999-2000 Virgil Hutton Haiku Memorial Award*, resonates through the juxtaposition of dissimilar or unrelated images:

noon whistle
icicles dripping
splintered light

The last two lines present a beautiful image, but there is much more to this haiku than the initial perception of beauty.  A whistle and icicles are unrelated images, yet because of their combination in this haiku, I get a sense of the very air shattering when that noon whistle blows.  We are familiar with the ordinary howl of a factory whistle and most of us have seen icicles melting.  Now, through powerful juxtaposition, this whistle threatens to shatter my eardrums, and I feel as if its wail has splintered light itself.  I know, of course, that the glitter of sunlight in drops of water from the melting ice gives the impression of splintered light.  But I will never again hear a noon whistle without thinking of this one that shatters air and light.  What splendid reverberation!

This poem by Peggy Willis Lyles* begins by focusing on the absence of sound:

wind chimes hushed
a stirring from within
the chrysalis

As soon as I read the first line, I feel the silence.  Then, a faint sound . . . something stirring . . . ahh, the chrysalis!  Life is stirring within it; and now, in the quiet after the wind dies, I hear it.  This haiku is an example of perfect focus —  focus that causes me to be still, to almost stop breathing so that I can hear the stirring of a small creature preparing for rebirth.  Wind chimes and a chrysalis — neither has anything to do with the other; one object man-made, the other pure nature.  But placed in juxtaposition, they work together to bring the reader right into the moment to share the author’s discovery — and beyond.  It’s as if Mother Nature stopped the wind so that the creature inside the chrysalis could continue its metamorphosis without the distraction of chimes tinkling and clinking. And the author just happened to be there at the right moment.

*Lyles, Peggy Willis; Saki Chapbook #8: Thirty-Six Tones (Saki Press; Normal, IL, 2000)

A sidebar (The Pretenders) to this lesson discusses four devices that appear to be part of juxtaposition but are not:

1.  Explanation — one component of the poem explains the other part.  Explanation weakens resonance in haiku.

For example:

cats in love–
thumps and yowls
beneath the porch

The first line explains the last two lines.  There’s no real juxtaposition.  The author is simply describing cats in love, and there’s no comparison of images.  This is more interesting:

Valentine’s Day
a mating cat yowls
beneath the porch

(Yes, a double kigo, but allowable when both images are important to the haiku, and if the kigo are not confusing or in conflict.)

2.  Cause and effect — one part of the haiku is the effect or consequence of the other part. For example:

long drought
sand sifts through cracks
in the dry birdbath

Again, no real juxtaposition. (Did you catch the redundancy of dry? If sand is sifting through the cracks, then we can infer that the birdbath is dry.) We all know what happens during a drought — water shortage, sometimes water rationing, ponds and lakes can dry up. And we know what causes a birdbath to be dry without having it explained to us:  lack of water. True, it can be interesting and even moving to be given information that there is a drought, along with a description of one of the consequences of the drought; many similar haiku have been published and probably won contests.  But if you’re trying to create strong resonance, sense of discovery, or new insight for the reader — if you want the reader to share a sudden intuitive realization with you, cause and effect is not   the best way to do it. Look at the difference between long drought and this haiku:

sultry noon –
a bobwhite covey
melts into the brush

Harry Gilli

Haiku Light (Elizabeth St. Jacques, Editor; 1999)

In this poem, we first learn that it is a hot summer day. Then, we see the bobwhite covey as it melts into the brush. The action of the bobwhites is not related to the fact that it’s occurring at noon on a sultry day. This is what bobwhites do, it’s a bobwhite thing. Now look at the juxtaposition of sultry with birds melting into the brush. Melts reinforces the sense of heat that I get from the first line; it also reminds me of those wavery mirages we see on sun-baked highways, disappearing as we draw near. The haiku wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if the author had written this instead:

approaching car–
a bobwhite covey
melts into the brush

A nice image, but . . . Sure, birds move out of the way when a car approaches, but so what?  This fragment simply tells what caused the birds to disappear; readers can’t read between the parts to make an intuitive connection because there’s only one part! The words you see are what you get with no room for sudden realization or insight.

3.  Verbal phrase at the beginning of a haiku, when it serves only to modify the subject or to extend the main image or scene, and is really part of the main component rather than another distinct image:

Participial phrase—in this case, an adjective modifying woman:

jogging home
the woman passes
my Ford jalopy

Again, a single-image poem. Adding another distinct element would create resonance:

first day of layoff
the woman jogger passes
my Ford jalopy

4.  A prepositional phrase at the beginning of a haiku when the phrase serves only to extend the main image or scene, and is really part of the main component rather than an unrelated image:

on the lawn–
spider eyes reflect
a flashlight beam

I do think that’s an interesting image. If you’ve never gone spider shining, you should try it some night. Their eyes reflect the beam of a flashlight, and may appear as tiny red or green sparkles in the grass. One way to tell if it’s really eyes or only a dewdrop is to watch and see if the sparkle moves or disappears. Spiders don’t like the light in their eyes and will usually turn away from it.

But there’s no real juxtaposition in the poem, no contrast or comparison of images. In spite of the dash, this is really a single-image poem:  spider eyes on the lawn, reflecting light.  On the lawn merely tells where the spiders are, and doesn’t add to the meaning or help readers to have a moment of insight.

starry sky
the sparkle of spider eyes
in a flashlight beam

Now, there’s something for comparison.  The starry sky is an image that has nothing to do with spiders or their eyes; but there is much to be found in the space between the two components.  There is a connection between the starry sky and the sparkle of spider eyes, and for me, more than one level of insight.


As part of the same lesson, school members were invited to submit
haiku for feedback.  The following poems are selected from submissions
that demonstrate the authors’ clear understanding of juxtaposition and
its power in haiku:

cancer clinic
we park between
two limos

john bird

stressful day –
on a blanket of duckweed
a coot’s high nest

Arnold Vermeeren
Fuyoh/Rose Mallow
(Edited by Dhugal J. Lindsay and Yoko Sugawa;
Issue #46; Winter 2000)

shifting winds
the tree stump’s shadow
reaches the gate

Laurene Post

manicured lawn —
the old man dresses
for his monthly party

gop (Patrick Gallagher)

home from the hospital
a button missing
from his winter coat

Cindy Tebo

a white cup
in the lamplight –
haiku talk

Alison Williams

rainy spell
the cat’s shape flattens
into deeper sleep

Debi Bender

Part 1

Part 3



This entry was posted in Article Series, Haiku, Lessons, Vol 1-1 May 2001 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Haiku Lessons part 2

  1. Pingback: Rohini Gupta's Blog

  2. Pingback: How to Learn Haiku « Word Skies

  3. tokyoaaron says:

    Reblogged this on tokyoaaron's blog and commented:
    I’ve just started taking an online class with Allegra Wong on writing haibun and haiku. While doing some Internet surfing (Do the kids still say “surfing”? Do they still say “Internet”?) I came across this very useful blog post by Ferris Gill about Juxtaposition in haiku…

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