A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

font size:  a  a  a

Patience is key.

The beauty of haiku often becomes the bane of impatient writers: capturing a single moment, movement, or experience in its entirety, in three lines totaling 17 syllables or less. The masters of the form spent years of traveling, wandering, observing, contemplating, and writing to refine their craft into the timeless literary flashes that populate haiku collections and anthologies today.

The patron saint.

Without question, the patron saint of haiku is Matsuo Basho, the Japanese wanderer-poet with a strong knowledge of Chinese classical poetry. Basho wrote in all Japanese lyrical verse forms, plus narrative travelogue, but he set up most of his work with hokku, now considered by many the greatest haiku ever written. Note the precise focus with which he conveys a moment:

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Autumn moonlight –

a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

Old pond

a frog jumps
the sound of water

Carrying the torch.

After Basho’s passing, the poet who best carried his torch was Kobayashi Issa, who coupled natural observation with the subtle precision of Zen, as seen in these poems that elevate ordinary movements of nature to a sacred status:

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Autumn wind –

mountain’s shadow

Don’t weep, insects –

Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.

Inserting the observer.

While Basho and Issa wrote splendid haiku either independent from or as introductions to longer poems, haiku was not known as a specific form in their lifetimes. In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki created haiku as we know it, albeit with stripped-down, agnostic content clearly different than that of his esteemed predecessors. He also identified himself as the observer – a development that has defined most haiku since:

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

In the coolness

of the empty sixth-month sky...
the cuckoo’s cry.

the tree cut,

dawn breaks early
at my little window

Differences in substance and style.

By the late 1950s, American poets practiced haiku regularly. Some brought the ultra-precise, Basho-influenced Zen mentality to their written observations, while others sought to incorporate modern themes, objects, sense of time, and issues to their works. Note the difference between these haiku by Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright, in both substance and syllable count:

From Book of Haikus
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Snow in my shoe

Sparrow’s nest
From Haiku: This Other World
Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Whitecaps on the bay:

A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.
Kerouac’s poem closely followed the Japanese measure (when translated into Japanese, the haiku has a precise 5-7-5 "on" count), while Wright wrote in the popular 5-7-5 syllable style.

Natural yet mystical.

Another proponent of the Japanese measure, Nick Virgilio, published his famous "lily" and "bass" poems in American Haiku, influencing many haiku writers to count in "on," rather than syllables. Virgilio’s two haiku and those by American Haiku editor, Don Eulert, illustrate how refined, natural, and mystical these poems are, and how each sound is vital to the experience:

From Selected Haiku
Nick Virgilio (1928-1989)


out of the water
out of itself


picking bugs
off the moon
Don Eulert (1933-)

quail excited

in dirt turned up
by a gopher

ground squirrel

balancing its tomato
on the garden fence

A Western addition.

Many poets are able to embed themselves into haiku, a distinct Western addition to the form but one that certainly enhances its popularity in the 21st century:

From After an Affair
Alexis Rotella

Just friends:

he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.

From HSA Newsletter

Michael Dylan Welch (1962- )

meteor shower

a gentle wave
wets our sandals
Robert Yehling (1959- )

A little boy sings

on a terrace, eyes aglow.
Ridge spills upward.
In these poems, we share the experiences of the poets, all of whom wrap themselves into moments that could be expanded into vignettes or even short stories from the glimpse we receive – another trademark of good haiku.