What is American haiku?

My idea of American haiku largely comes from a Norton anthology, as well as the practices of modern American haiku writers.

The 5/7/5 doesn’t translate into English. Take that away and you get haiku like this:

– Arizona Zipper

or this:

the puddle: moon
— Marlene Mountain

The image of nature also comes into question. Loosen that and you get haiku like this:

The park bench seats two summer dreams — Gary Hotham

or this:

my dead brother..
hearing his laugh
in my laughter
— Nicholas Virgilio

What do they all have in common? Is there an essence left? What it boils down to is minimalist lines, plain language and some sort of revelation about the moment.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

While I think Basho, Buson and Issa also walked the line between tradition and breaking tradition, it must be pointed out that since I originally posted this I’ve learned more and more.

Alan Pizzarelli (one of the poets featured in the haiku anthology above and co-host of the Haiku Chronicles podcast) has pointed out to me that haiku that is missing that image of nature really should come under the umbrella of senryu!

More on senryu later!

Meanwhile, here is the link for Haiku Chronicles:


And here is the link to Al’s site:


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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12 Responses to What is American haiku?

  1. eebrinker says:

    i become so disappointed by what most people call a “haiku”……as if simply hanging the exact number of syllables makes it so. what is missing is “some sort of revelation” or maybe the “revelations” are none too revealing. plus there is such focus on counting, that any rhythm becomes non-existent. i have no idea who has taught all these people to write haiku that aren’t haiku….

    do you know, that the examples you have listed here are the first real haiku i have read since writing on the internet? 4 or 5 years now in the myspace writing community and back and forth on wordpress….and you see them titled all the time…..”this is my haiku about how i take a bath” this is my haiku on my dog’s favorite place to crash. this is my haiku on how music makes me dance…..mostly i am seeing bad examples and then more do the same. myself, have never attempted haiku, because one must be sure of ones philosophies. and the fire has to burn low and warm….not hot and aggravated….

    anyway….thanks for the examples and explanation. good to see….

    • genemyers says:

      “the first real haiku i have read since writing on the internet?” Wow! Yikes! and Thanks! PS, I’ll send you some web sites!

  2. bird of time says:

    wandering by – but why is it a haiku can’t be a haiku, Christmas just Christmas. If one wants something different, then call it something different. a non-rose called a rose is still not a rose.

  3. Angelika (haikushelf) says:

    “…Basho, Buson and Issa would approve. They also walked the line between tradition and breaking tradition…”

    So true!

  4. bird of time says:

    perhaps for different forms there could be some designation like AmHaiku – American or whatever. I really don’t know the different forms – which I rather gather is a very loose designation of whatever you want.

    I’m always disappointed when the elements fall flat.

    It’s a bit like poetry for me – count me a conservative, I guess. I won’t accept that some of the stuff I see is poetry, although there is little I can do but sigh or complain.

    If poetry is just a bunch of harsh sounds like atonal music, well– whatever.

  5. Miriam Sagan says:

    Thank you–thought provoking. My blog Miriam’s Well is looking to publish haiku–check out http://miriamswell.wordpress.com and see “about” for submissions.

  6. Oleg K. says:

    An element of haiku that often seems to be forgotten by neophytes is that there are usually two parts traditionally separated by a cutting word (kireji), which in English usually translates to a dash, colon, comma, or ellipses. Occasionally, there will be poems without an outward sign of pause (punctuation etc.) but when reading the poem, it’s pretty clear.

    All of the examples except for the Arizona Zipper poem can be broken down into two parts:

    the puddle: // moon

    The park bench seats two // summer dreams

    my dead brother.. //
    hearing his laugh
    in my laughter

    Don’t worry, spiders, //
    I keep house

    The other element of haiku that is often forgotten by school teachers is that it Must have an image — concepts or ideas may only be implied by the image (i.e. “I hate / cleaning / the house” is not a haiku for several reasons, but mostly because there is no image.)

    When you say haiku anthology, I keep thinking of Cor Van Den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. If you don’t own a copy yet, get it.

    • genemyers says:

      Great comments! Thank you so much! And…yes, that is the anthology I was referring to! More later… Gene

  7. Bill Bowling says:

    It is true that to write haiku in Japanese language terms you have to think in a way outside of what we call syllables. The reliance is on a unit of phonology called a mora. One of our syllables could contain one or more mora, depending on sound and stress. That’s great but the problem lies in the fact that English and Japanese are two distinct languages, and in that light I suppose a traditionalist would cringe at the 17 syllable things that we call haiku. But, by the same token, to call all of those attempts bad is to not do justice to those haiku. Point of fact, a lot of wonderful works have come out of that 5-7-5 format. I do not pretend to know how to write haiku in the traditional sense, but I have tried my hand in the format that I best understand; they are not Basho by any means, but Idon’t think they were totally awful just because they were written in the English style. Just saying.

  8. Don says:

    Shouldn’t a poem fulfill the demands of *both* form and content?

  9. Bill Bowling says:

    Form is a fluid thing, and is not cut in stone. Since its cultural translation into the western world, the haikai form has evolved into a few offshoots that have become recognized over time; two that I can think of are the shadorma,
    which is a 6 line poem of 26 syllables broken into 3-5-3-3-7-5, and the lune, which has two varieties; one counts words–3-5-3–and the other counts syllables–5-3-5. There are more, and they all owe at least a little to haikai. Another great resource is the old–I mean old–but wonderful four volume set, The History of Haiku by R. H. Blyth. I own two of the volumes and they are among my cherished books. They were published in around 1949 or so; you’d have to search awhile to find a set. The library is probably the best bet at this point.

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