What is the essence of modern American haiku?

It’s mind boggling how much there really is to learn about haiku. The majority of haiku practitioners agree at this point that the 5/7/5 syllable count doesn’t translate into English. Take that away and you could get haiku like this from Arizona Zipper:






or this from Marlene Mountain:


the puddle:



Many people come to haiku from a certain kind of esthetic that includes Eastern spiritual practices or an appreciation for nature. Nature’s role in the art has long been a focal point. But even this has come into question with modern haiku poets. Loosen the stipulation that haiku revolves around nature images and you get haiku like this from Nicholas Virgilio:


my dead brother…

hearing his laugh

in my laughter


What do they all have in common? Is there an essence left?

In my mind, what it boils down to is minimalism and a revelation about the moment. I think Basho, Buson and Issa would approve. It’s important to remember that the reason we talk about their work as being still viable today is that they also walked the line between tradition and breaking tradition.


Don’t worry, spiders,

I keep house


–Issa trans. Robert Hass


There are so many “rules” for haiku: length, person, tense, images (kind of images and how they interact), number of images, the functions of the lines, the function of the poem, the payoff of the poem, tone, subject matter, punctuation, types of phrasing, context…and that is just off the top of my head.


It’s a far cry from just sticking a frog in a pond in three lines. Does any other poetic form have as many requirements? It’s a bit like playing harmonica. Anyone can grab one in the right key and think they can play it. But to get to the instrument’s real potential…to play the notes that don’t seem to physically be on there…that is a different story altogether! Isn’t it?


  1. Thomas says

    This all page is for nothing that are not HAIKUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    And wholy change these page it is so bad and all it is not true!!!
    Dont be sick and fix it to real Haiku!!

    FIX IT —–!!!

  2. Anna says

    That is a fabulous write Gene, I esp like the ku–> Marlene Mountain.

    I don’t know why I am drawn to haiku, whether it is a spiritual preference or the way it makes me dwell on the words, Eastern or Western styles of writing. I have only read translations in English, and translations are influenced by culture.

    I have to agree that the web has been a great help. I am not American. However, I have been reading a lot of American and Canadian haiku. I haven’t got to reading up the articles in the links, but I have to say this: American is not just the geographical location, it is the literature, the style of writing, the way of thinking. It is not so much a culture as a literary genre perhaps, … and whether there is a specific essence to the way Americans approach Haiku is something I find very very interesting, autodidact as I am with respect to cultural intelligence.

    Thank you for sharing

  3. Robert D. Wilson says

    The essence of haiku is an understanding of Zoka as it meant in the Yamato language instead of the modern Japanese Japanese language. Read Basho then read today’s haiku from Japanor the Anglo-West. Which is more memorable and relevant and why?

  4. says

    “What about Canada?”

    When I began “Essences” column in Troutswill in 2010, my intention was to cover the North American “Haiku Movement” because Canadian poets worked so closely with American poets from the beginning in the sixties and seventies. After I finished a year of columns, I hoped to hand the “Essences” baton to an Australian, one of the British, a Canadian or a New Zealander haiku poet to write about the beginnings of their EL haiku movements from their perspectives to broaden the conversation on THF. I still hope that will happen.

    At the Seattle HNA, we heard from our Canadian friends about how American haiku poets (in general) tended to be more conformist than Canadians. That kind of input also is revealing in discussions about American Haiku.

  5. says

    Good points…I was thinking of the American poets that I enjoy….and The Norton Anthology…but of course, you could easily reply, What about Canada? Of course, I could then say, Oh! I meant North American! But I would just be playing a slippery word game. Truth is, I wasn’t as exact with my title as you were reading it!
    Thanks for the keen eye!

  6. says

    What does the word American mean in the title of this forum? My reply didn’t go any further tha it did because the prompt said nothing about American. But it is implied that haiku in the US — we should limit the discussion to the states — would differ in form. The genius of haiku is in its non-symmetrical form. A very short part acknowledges the vertical depths of human consciousness, while the larger part presents an evocative scene. Read together, the two parts create a further non-verbal “image” that provokes interpretation and other responses, like jumping up and down.

  7. says

    The “moreness” of the haiku can be got at analytically. There’s something “expressed” which means that the poet participated in some cognitive structures that comprise his persona. Weak haiku, like all weak art, lacks conceptual richness (see Richard Eldridge, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art). In addition to the temporal/social constructs that allow the poet to express herself, there is her humanity, her life in a body in history, which also has a structure. Haiku criticism should not be afraid to comment on this “metaphysical” aspect of the art. A historical note: Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology, A Book of Luminous Things, amusingly documents the great poet’s final submission to the charms of haiku. It is also part of the story that Milosz introduced American poets of his time to metaphysics. There’s a dissertation here!

  8. says

    Dear Gene,

    Wow, I love your article! As someone new to haiku, I struggle with the different rules and conventions and opinions about what makes a haiku a haiku. Personally, I like to understand the moment the author is trying to convey easily and simply without a lot of “effort.” I like that you don’t have to work hard to appreciate haiku. I hope I don’t sound lazy.

    However there are exceptions to this personal rule and now and then I find a haiku that is rich with layers and I love getting lost in them.

    For me a perfect haiku is one that gives me a little burst of joy when I first read it and then lingers beyond that moment.

    I found each of the poems that you shared to be perfect.

  9. Merrill Ann Gonzales says

    Hi, Gene, So glad to catch your Column. To me all poetry is that leap into an awareness. I feel that the reason why we can find haiku in poets who didn’t intentionally write it seems to me the essence of all poetry… Eastern, Western, Haiku, Minimalism, etc. ad infinitum. We have learned a few lessons from the origins of haiku in Japan, but bringing it into our own language and consciousness requires English Language Haiku to find it’s own way… discover it’s own path. I look forward to many more of your Columns to explore that path.

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