How to Compose Haiku

August 2001

WHCschools Traditional Japanese School

Lesson 4: GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku
Susumu Takiguchi, Instructor

It was over four years ago that I wrote a list of “tips” for haiku composition under the title of Guidelines: How to Compose Haiku. (see below) This was later printed in my book, Kyoshi – A Haiku Master1. It was not a set of rules as I do not believe in rules as such, or at least I had not reached any rules I could advocate without any shadow of doubt. Since then, I have walked farther in my eternal journey of learning the form. Above all, it is the kuyu (haiku friends) whom I am supposed to be teaching, that have taught me most at WHC.

I believe that everything man does needs to be re-examined and reassessed every now and again to see if it still works or not. Here, I apply the methods inspired by those of Socrates and Descartes. They may be termed as “constructive doubt and challenge”. They could, however, be a dangerous route, for behind everything man does, lie men and women (far more the former than the latter) whose vested interest, narrow-mindedness, mad conservatism, rivalry, jealousy and all manner of destructive forces which could wreak havoc on what would otherwise be a normal endeavour. One wants to avoid having to drink hemlock.

Thus it is that in this Lesson 4, I wish to exercise “constructive doubt and challenge” to the Guidelines and, by reviewing them critically, to revise or improve on them as necessary. If it is myself who is doing the doubting and challenging to something of my own creation, it is unlikely that I would be stabbed in the back by myself or be drinking hemlock. I will do so by asking you all, as the exercise of Lesson 4, to submit at least one haiku poem (you may submit as many as you wish) which you will write anew, strictly according to these Guidelines (no other conditions are imposed). If your works satisfy all 12 Guidelines, fine. If not, try to satisfy as many of them as possible. Put those numbers of Guidelines which you think your work has satisfied in brackets. If you cannot produce such work anew, then search from your past poems which you think would satisfy the Guidelines.

GUIDELINES: How to Compose Haiku

Some useful guidelines can be gleaned from the various teachings and advice given by three centuries of haiku masters and practitioners, from Basho to Kyoshi.

1) Try to write a haiku only about what actually happens to you (i.e. avoid fictitious, or imaginary renderings).

2) Try to write a haiku, only when you have been deeply moved, strongly inspired and poetically touched by the subject matter (i.e. do not “fake” poetic feelings).

3) Try to write a haiku immediately after the haiku feeling has hit you and do not leave it for too long. Alterations and changes are an essential part of haiku-writing process, but do not linger or elaborate. If it does not write easily, leave it and do something else.

4) Try to reject clichés, hackneyed expressions and words, or even deep feelings if they have been used time and time again by countless haiku poets.

5) Try not to use embellishment or “lay it on thick”, even if you have hit on a brilliant idea. Be honest, simple, clear, straightforward and modest.

6) Try not to “explain”. Haiku is not science and should need no explanation if it is good.

7) Try not to “conceptualise”, “intellectualise”, “philosophise”, “moralise” or “theorise”.

8) Try not to “report”. “Express” it.

9) Try not to be “clever”, gimmicky, over-witty, artificial, presumptuous, too precious, mysterious or esoteric. Just be “natural”.

10) Try not to express your raw and subjective feelings, such as being “happy”, “sad”, “lonely”, or “glad” in so many words. Express them by presenting some concrete action, object etc. (e.g. “Even coughing, I do all alone.”, Ozaki Hosai) and let the concrete image speak for itself.

11) Try to keep some detachment, even in the most dire circumstances, and preserve always a sense of humour. Haiku is not in the business to be cold or unkind, but it is not about wallowing in raw sentiments in misery either. Always remember that haiku originated from haikai no renga (or, comic renga), and the sense of humour remains a prerequisite of the haiku spirit.

12) Try not to explain the minutiae, but keep to the essentials and leave the rest to the readers’ imagination. If your haiku feeling is deep, your haiku will be deep, i.e.,  if you are deep, so much more will be your haiku. Good haiku comes from your whole being like a good singing voice from the singer’s whole body, and from his mind, and from his entire life.

1. Kyoshi – A Haiku Master Father of Modern Japanese Haiku, Susumu Takiguchi, Ami-Net International Press, England, 1997, pp 104-105.

This entry was posted in Article Series, Haiku, Lessons, Vol 1-2 August 2001 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to Compose Haiku

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