What is the essence of modern American haiku?

by Gene Myers on September 24, 2011

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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?


Carmen Sterba October 19, 2011 at 1:18 am

Dear Gene,

You can find the 9 Essences’ columns at: http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/category/essences/ including a three part interview with Cor van den Heuvel and an essay by Rod Willmot, or scroll down “Select Category” on the Troutswirl blog page itself.



Gene Myers October 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Hi Carmen,
I missed that one! But it sounds very interesting, and of course, you are right. Have any links I should checkout?

Robert D. Wilson October 3, 2011 at 4:51 am

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?

Carmen Sterba October 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm

“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.

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