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 http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/