The Way of Haiku

Do's | Don'ts | Techniques | Haiku

The Don'ts of Writing Haiku

[NOTE: For all the poets whose poems are featured in this article, I apologize beforehand for my criticism. Thank you for being brave enough to publish your work for others to see.]

As simple a form as haiku seems to be, writing strong, engaging, and memorable haiku is actually very difficult. Because of its apparent ease and simplicity, beginners tend to make common mistakes when composing haiku. They throw out convention or simply use the form to express their own feelings.

This page is dedicated to identifying and correcting these mistakes. Below are the top five don’t’s of haiku. The source of these mistakes is usually overemphasis on expression and underemphasis on sharing. Check these don’t’s out to see if you’re committing them in your own haiku.

Don’t #1: Don’t use haiku to describe an idea, story, or feeling

Many beginning haiku poets use haiku as a clever and short way to express their thoughts and feelings or to describe a story or concept. They see haiku as a short-hand way of expressing something complex. For example, take a look at this poem:
And he was perfect.
Makes me smile, giddy, happy.
He was never mine.

This poem focuses simply on how the poet feels and thinks about another person, highlighting an unrequited love. Although the concept may be interesting, the poem itself is not engaging because it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.

The purpose of haiku is to share a brief moment or event so that the reader can bring to life in his or her mind (and thus experience the same feelings) without having to physically experience what the author is expressing in the poem. The poem above, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on getting the reader to feel the same way as the poet does, but rather focuses on simply expressing the poet’s own feelings.

This mistake is probably the biggest one of all haiku mistakes and is also the most common. Don’t focus on your feelings or ideas: focus only on a singular moment or experience that you want to share with your reader.

Don’t #2: Don’t use direct figures of speech

Another mistake beginning poets do is take poetic devices they’re used to using in other forms and put them in the haiku. The most dangerous one for haiku is a figure of speech. A figure of speech is any word or phrase that uses language in a non-literal way, and includes metaphors, similes, and hyperboles.

Generally, there are two kinds of figures of speech: direct and indirect. Direct figures of speech directly engage the reader’s imagination. When the reader reads it, he or she focuses on the figure of speech itself. In haiku, using direct figures of speech can be risky because they distract the reader from imagining the experience shared in the poem by provoking him or her to think intellectually about the connection between the different images in the poem. Consider, for example, the following poem:

Without you I am
Like the tree in the winter
withered all alone

Although the poem is very interesting, the explicit simile here pulls us away from the experience itself (if there is one), provoking us to think about the relationship between how the poet feels and the image of the tree, instead of allowing us to actually feel what he feels. Again, this haiku focuses mainly on expressing how the poet feels rather than provoking a special connection between him and the reader.

Indirect figures of speech, on the other hand, can be strong devices. An indirect figure of speech doesn’t directly engage the reader’s imagination, but rather enhances it. Many haiku, for example, mention singing crickets, cicadas, frogs, and birds. Consider this famous poem by Basho:

an old temple
shelter for the night –
a Nightingale sings

With this poem, we don’t need to engage or think about the image of a Nightingale singing in order to imagine the experience. Even if we don’t know the Nightingale’s song, we can easily substitute the sound with our own idea of birdsong. Rather, the image of the Nightingale singing helps enhance our experience of it, making it easier to imagine the scene: the poet, reaching an old temple, deciding to take shelter there, hearing a Nightingale chirping in the background.

To summarize then: avoid using direct figures of speech, since they distract the reader from engaging with the experience, and consider using indirect figures of speech in your haiku.

Don’t #3: Don’t use vague, ambiguous, difficult, or wordy language

A common mistake beginning poets commit with haiku is either using complex or unstimulating words to describe an experience or describing something that is itself complex or vague. Either way, the end result is usually confusion. Consider, for example, this poem:
forest green gleaming
a night’s hidden warrior
against the evil one

It’s possible that the content of this poem has depth to it, but the image described is so unclear that it’s difficult to say what this poem is about. What is meant by “hidden” here? Does forest green “gleam” in the night? What is meant by “the evil one”? The poem leaves too many gaps open in an attempt to sound poetic.

The purpose of haiku is to be easily accessible to the reader. The reader should be able quickly to imagine the experience expressed in the poem. Haiku poets of old did this by referencing seasons or the sounds of certain animals in their poems. Since everyone was familiar with the seasons and with these animals, the imagery was very relatable.

This is not to say, of course, that vagueness and ambiguity are not tools that can be used in haiku. For instance, take this haiku by Shiki:

autumn clear –
the smoke of something
goes into the sky

The difference between the vagueness in this poem and the vagueness in the “forest green” poem is that the vagueness in the Shiki poem is part of the experience to be imagined. We can relate to seeing smoke in the sky, but not knowing what is producing it. It is much harder to relate to “night’s hidden warrior” or “the evil one.”

Essentially, in haiku, you must focus on using words that touch upon the senses. These words are the most accessible to our imagination. Avoid words that require too much thinking and contemplation.

Don’t #4: Don’t use unnecessary details

Another common error that beginning haiku poets make is wordiness and redundancy. Some poets repeat themselves to reinforce a certain image. This is fine if the repetition adds a different effect to the poem, but if it is meant to communicate a detail that’s already known, then it becomes excessive. Consider this haiku:
bright sun fall morn
smiling faces-friendly chats
fall leaf tumbles on

Is the second “fall” (before “leaf”) necessary here? Isn’t it mentioned already in “fall morn”? Indeed, if we leave the word “leaf,” wouldn’t that already eliminate the need for having the word “fall” in the poem at all? Likewise, can we not also assume that friendly chats – at least when we imagine them – involve smiling faces? Reducing the redundancy in this poem, we can perhaps re-write it this way:

bright morn:
friendly chat
as a leaf tumbles on

This new version does not try too hard to give the reader a sense of the scene. That is a key feature of every haiku: effortlessness. A haiku becomes too weighed down if there are too many words and images in a poem. Avoid wordiness and redundancy at all costs.

Don’t #5: Don’t make haiku too long

Beginners love to adhere to idea that haiku should follow a 5-7-5 syllable count. But essentially the 5-7-5 syllable count is a misinterpretation of the traditional Japanese haiku. In traditional Japanese haiku, a poem is broken up into three parts. The first part has 5 onji, the second has 7, and the third has 5 again.

However, an onji is not the same as a syllable. An onji is simply a single phonetic sound. This could be a syllable, but it could also be shorter than a syllable. Think of the digraph “ch” in English. “Ch” in Japanese would be considered an onji, but for us, “ch” would not be a syllable. I can, for example, say “change,” and would not consider the sound “ch” as a separate syllable. But in Japanese, the sound “ch” would count as a separate onji. Onji aren’t necessarily spoken as distinctly as a syllable, but they are counted, and they can be much shorter than an English syllable.

In other words, the Japanese requirement for 5-7-5 onji count is much shorter than the 5-7-5 syllable count. Most of the time, the 5-7-5 syllable count is too long.

The correct requirement for haiku, in both Japanese and English, is that the haiku, when spoken, should be sayable in one breath. This shows us that haiku is meant to be absorbed quickly, as long as it takes to take notice of an unusual or singular event.

So don’t make your haiku too long. Don’t try to fit 5-7-5. Simply keep the flow of the poem smooth and short enough to say in one breath.