Category: Haiku

Workshop at Sakura Con, Seattle, WA – April 20, 2014

Carmen Sterba, former secretary and vice president of the Haiku Society of America and an editor for haijinx, an Online journal.

Writing a successful English-language haiku has a lot to do with resonance because the reader’s enjoyment of the haiku depends on subtle or common associations and uncommon expressions. The poet hopes to compose a haiku that will not be forgotten.

First of all, there is flexibility in the form of English-language haiku. Though Japanese haiku are written in 5-7-5 short Japanese sounds, English syllables are often longer and may bog down the brevity and lightness of haiku. Poets often say a haiku should be read in one breath with one pause between the two parts. What all haiku poets can agree on is that it is preferable to compose haiku of less than 17 syllables.

Consequently, after 100 years of haiku being written in English and other languages, haiku has fanned out into three styles: contemporary, traditional and innovative. Within contemporary, the three-liner has evolved into one to four lines with approximately an average of five to twelve words. The Traditional style continues the three-line structure only and keeps the strict form of 5-7-5 syllables of the Japanese haiku, though it might be 2-3 syllables short. This style has clarity, which is relatively easy to understand. The innovative style is more radical than contemporary, just about anything goes and it does not look like traditional haiku. In fact, in extreme cases, it might be considered merely haiku-like.

The late British poet Martin Lucas suggested to create a poetic spell with “words that chime, words that beat, and words that flow.” He gave high praise for the following contemporary one-liner by Stuart Quine:

Sharpening this night of stars distant dogs

Who or what is sharpening that night? The stars? The dogs? Most likely the stars and howl of the dogs are colliding in the reader’s senses by juxtaposition, the contrast of two images. Our sharpened focus on the stars pierces through us as we hear the dogs howl and at the same time there is a heightening of the connectivity of the vastness of the star-studded night.

Former Modern Haiku editor, Robert Spiess, wrote a series of ‘Speculations’ on haiku, which includes the following: “Juxtaposition of entities in haiku cannot be simply the throwing together of just anything, the poet must have the intuition that certain things . . . have a resonance with each other that will evoke a revelation when they are juxtaposed in accordance with the time-tested canons and aesthetics of haiku.”

a speedboat slices
our lake in half

Carmen Sterba The Heron’s Nest, 2009

A common sound heard in the summertime in the Seattle area is speedboats. The engine evokes a hint of bravado and recklessness as the waves powerfully rock other boats. In this contemporary haiku, the movement and sound of the boat transfers in our memory to the sight and sound of lapping waves, which continue to reverberate. And the word ‘slices’ may cause the reader to feel danger lurking there.

heat lightning –

all the way into Mexico

the mountains rise

Michael McClintock, The Heron’s Nest, II:5

At night, flashes of light transform a landscape temporarily. When each flash of lightning strikes, the silhouette of the mountains is reveled in an instant. This repeats again and again. Without the word Mexico the mountains would still rise in the flash, yet the addition of a direction in which to move increases the power of this haiku. It is 15 syllables; close enough to be a traditional haiku, which will never age.

pig and i spring rain

marlene mountain, Frogpond II:3-4

In this innovative haiku, there is a relationship between the pig and the poet because both depend on each other in some ways. After all, the pig is most likely a pet, or at least a prospective blue ribbon winner. The addition of the key word (kigo) ‘spring’ unfolds a variety of associations for the reader. The open-ended style allows room for the reader to complete the haiku.

As a former editor for the Online journal haijinx, I found out how important it was to read each haiku several times before selecting individual choices for publication. I needed to evaluate each haiku on various levels, but the bottom line always remains whether the elements of the haiku collide in a fresh but appealing way and hold the possibility of stirring up the reader’s memory. This may involve both juxtaposition, a careful choice of words, resonance and so many other possibilities that would entail many more workshops.

Haiku Hints

• seasonal word (optional)
• present tense for immediacy
• two parts (images)
• subtle emotion
• open-ended, room for the reader
• musicality, alliteration
• allusions
• one, two, three or four lines
• less than 17 syllables

Haiku Cautions

• not a sentence
• show, don’t tell
• not a chance for a bully pulpit


Lucas, Martin. Stepping Stones: a way into haiku, British Haiku Society, 2007.

Mountain, Marlene. “’The Japanese haiku’ and so on,” Haikumainia, 2004.

Spiess, Robert. A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, Madison, WI: Modern Haiku Press, 1995.

The Haiku Foundation.“HaikuNow! Contests.” 2014, retrieved from


Why is haiku so alluring to each of us who enjoy reading and writing it? For haiku lovers, writing what one considers a successful haiku is likely to create a cathartic response. Once again, the poet hopes to compose a haiku that will not be forgotten.

We often hear that juxtaposition is a key to successful haiku. The contrast of two images in haiku is most often instrumental in creating resonance. Robert Spiess, the beloved editor of Modern Haiku, had this to say in A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, “Juxtaposition of entities in haiku cannot be simply the throwing together of just anything; the poet must have the intuition that certain things, albeit of ‘opposite’ characteristics, nonetheless have a resonance with each other that will evoke a revelation when they are juxtaposed in accordance with the time-tested canons and aesthetics of haiku.”1

As an editor for the online journal haijinx, I found out how important it is to read each haiku several times before making individual choices. I need to evaluate the haiku on various levels, but the bottom line is whether the elements of the haiku also allow the reader to relate to a new way of seeing. This may involve both juxtaposition and an open-ended style, besides a careful choice of words. Here’s some contemporary haiku that are subtle or surprising in their juxtaposition. The first is an example of how juxtaposition creates synesthesia by combining more than one of the senses. 

night of stars

all along the precipice

goat bells ring

– an’ya 2

On an especially clear night with bright stars overhead, mountain goats move along the mountain trail with their heavy burdens as their hooves come dangerously close to the precipice. Each goat bell rings and the stars seem to ring, also. This is an excellent example of synesthesia.

full moon mist 

from my whisper on her
silver earring

– William Cullen Jr. 3 

This haiku is visually provocative in a refined manner. As the wee circular puff disappears (in imitation of the full moon) the repetition of i and s in the words mist, whisper and silver adds to the sense of intimacy and creates a delicate synesthesia.

the piano hammers

barely moving …

night snow

– John Barlow 4

Instead of a focus on the music, the poet zeros in on the hammers of the piano. The tempo of the hammers, and thus the unmentioned tune, is gently transferred to the tempo of the falling snow. Barlow’s control of the technique of transference is exquisite. I have noticed this to be true in many of his haiku.

sunlit jar

the beekeeper’s gift 

on the doorstep

– Carmen Sterba 5

First, one imagines an empty jar filled by the sun, but the mention of a beekeeper suddenly fills this jar with fresh honey in this example of transference.
If Gallagher had chosen a different first line, how different this haiku would be. The act of love reverberates in the bite of the cherry tomato. It is all so succinct and evocative.

after love 

the sweet burst

of cherry tomato

– G. Claire Gallagher 6

If Gallagher had chosen a different first line, how different this haiku would be. The act of love reverberates in the bite of the cherry tomato. It is all so succinct and evocative.

heat lightning – 

all the way into Mexico

the mountains rise

– Michael McClintock 7

At night, flashes of light transform a landscape temporarily. When the lightning strikes, the mountain seems to move towards Mexico. Without the word Mexico the mountains would still rise, yet with the addition of a place name, the poet gives the mountains a direction in which to move, and that extends the movement. 


we wade into the current

of a great river

– Kirsty Karkow 8

Karkow’s coupling of honeymoon with a great river adds the exhilaration and the weight of a major commitment. This particular river changes into a river of life and lends substance to the haiku for each reader to reflect on in their own way. This is a successful transference link. All these haiku are examples of some of the techniques that the English-language poets have learned from the translations of Bashô’s different techniques for juxtaposition.

Basho said: “The hokku has changed repeatedly since the distant past, but there have been only three changes in the nature of the haikai link. In the distant past, poets valued word links (kotoba-zuke). In the more recent past, poets have stressed content links (kokoro-zuke). Today, it is best to link by transference (usuri), reverberation (hibiki), scent (nioi), or status (kurai).”9

In Bashô’s time, these kinds of links were used in haikai no renga (popular-style linked verse) which is now called renku. All the techniques mentioned above are used in renku today. However, transference, reverberation, and scent link techniques are the most useful and effective in haiku juxtaposition. 

I have focused on the techniques of transference and reverberation in this article. A status link requires using words that give a clue to the class of people or places. This is appropriate in renku, but not common in English-language haiku. Examples of scent link are those with a typically quiet, meditative and lonely mood (sabi). It is a popular style in contemporary haiku in all languages. 

Another method that Bashô used at the end of his life is the technique of lightness (karumi). This implied the “recovery of youthful playfulness, spontaneity, naturalness, and a fresh perspective . . .”9 This kind of lightness is definitely alive in English-language haiku.

Lastly, a word about haiku with one image: marlene mountain pointed out that though juxtaposition is a technique, “non-juxtaposition is not the opposite and needn’t be compared” for it is “a technique too. 10 And Bashô and his disciples would have agreed, though they called it a “single-object” poem.

Basho said: “A hokku that moves smoothly from the opening five syllables to the end is a superb verse”.
Kyorai said: If a poet composes by combining separate things, he can compose many verses and compose them quickly. Beginning poets should know this. But when one becomes an accomplished poet, it is no longer a question of combining or not combining.”9

In the hands of a highly skilful haiku poet, one-image haiku can be exquisitely successful. Nevertheless, experimenting with different types of juxtaposition may add the depth that creates a memorable haiku; one that does not fail to reverberate again and again.

1: Spiess, Robert. A Year’s Speculations on Haiku, (Modern Haiku Press) 1995.
2: The Heron’s Nest, II:2.
3: Frogpond, XXIX:1.
4: Robert Speiss Memorial 2006 Haiku Awards, Second Place.
5: The Heron’s Nest, III:6; sunlit jar, 2002-5.

6: How Fast the Ground Moves, 2001.
7: The Heron’s Nest, II:5.

8: The Heron’s Nest, IV:2; Water Poems: Haiku, Tanka, and Sijo, 2005.

9: Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and Poetry of Bashô, (Stanford University Press) 1998.

10: mountain, marlene. “the Japanese haiku and so on,” Haikumainia, June 16, 2004.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Simply Haiku Vol 5:3, Autumn 2007 and has been revised by the author in June 2011 for Haiku NewZ.

Carmen Sterba lived in Japan for 31 years before returning to the US in 2004. She is a founding editor for haijinx (relaunched in 2010), former haiku columnist for The Haiku Foundation’s Troutswill Blog and for the North American Post, a Japanese-American newspaper in Seattle. She has previously servied as both secretary and first vice-president of the Haiku Society of America. Carmen’s haiku appeared in A New Resonance 4, Emerging Voices in English-language Haiku in 2005 and her chapbook, sunlit jar was first published in 2002. Locally, she is active in Haiku Northwest and is a co-founder of Commencement Bay Haiku in 2012.

“Half a century has passed since that June breath I took at rising dawn. I know I must give it back.” — hortensia in The Plenitude of Emptiness

The Plenitude and Emptiness — hortensia Anderson

                             a review by Carmen Sterba


In hortensia’s book The Plentitude of Emptiness, the lyrical quality of hortensia’s haibun (prose with haiku) is outstanding, to say the least. There is a unity that relies on cycles of plenitude and emptiness rotating throughout. First, there’s an ebb and flow of playfulness and nostalgia. Next, specters of loss appear until the cyclical movement repeats itself.

From what I know of hortensia’s continual struggle with health issues, I wondered if her book would be dark and morose. It is not. It shimmers in the dark and lives large in the light. It’s a celebration of life and shows an unexpected acquiesce towards infirmity. There is no rage. Perhaps, the act of writing is her choice once her emotions become overwhelming. She has taught herself to learn from her suffering and bounce back time and time again. Between her words is an indomitable strength.

As words follow words, the first section is filled with phrases like “froth and foam of mimosa” and “purple-blue fog of wisteria”.  Odors appear like “cedar and sandal,” “night hyacinth” or “bergamot and rose”.  Less that half way through the book, “the clouds blacken and shred against a golden sky” and the mood becomes chilly. Such a mood lasts through many haibun, until there’s a recurrence of lightness when the acrobatics begin again and hortensia’s crescendo continues until it becomes introspective again. Where does she get this hard resiliency? How has she learned to make roses out of ashes?

There is laughter as well. The reader may laugh at “the narcissus’ by the reflecting pool remain in love with themselves” or at the incident in “Blue” when a clueless but polite guy remarks on her art piece:

“So with these origami you have?” he asks, delicately. “These are crumpled blue tissues I say.”

 Spring rain –

a flock of birds

loses their shape

Next, hortensia becomes introspective about the wonders of nature in “Ume”: “As one blossom drops by my hand and onto the paper, I wonder how it knows to let go.”

And, she soars in “The Way Back”

 Swingset –

I try to flip

over the sky

Near the end of Plenitude of Emptiness is the haibun “Tea Bowl” which contains a kernel of her philosophy:

potter’s wheel –

the essence of emptiness

taking shape

These pages contain a gifted poet’s poetic prose and haiku that deserve to be read again and again. For some readers, a glossary of Buddhist terminology may have been helpful; nevertheless, the way hortensia weaves these terms into her writing, points naturally to her beliefs.

Hortensia Anderson’s collection of 115 haibun, The Plenitude of Emptiness, has been published by Darlington Richards. You can purchase it for $10.73 on the website at

Basho Meeting Two Travelers by Taiso Yoshitoshi

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