f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

May 30, 2007

haiku’s essence: “show ’em, don’t tell ’em”

Filed under: — David Giacalone @ 8:07 am

– The best haiku follow the literary guideline “show them, don’t tell them.” Here are the thoughts of several commentators on this subject, including some of the genre’s best thinkers and practitioners. [For further discussion, see “too many “tell-ems”: psyku lower haiku quality” (June 3, 2007)]

BrooksRandy Randy Brooks wrote the following in his essay What Is Haiku?:

“The best haiku capture human perception—moments of being alive conveyed through sensory images. They do not explain nor describe nor provide philosophical or political commentary.”

GurgaLee Lee Gurga‘s article “Writing and Revising Haiku” (Haiku World, June 2003, a chapter from Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, 2003) says:

“Write about whatever you experience. This includes what is going on inside you as well as what is going on around you. Senses include what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch as well as what stimulates your mind. You can write about what you are experiencing at the moment or memories of past experiences may trigger other images.”

“Think in images rather than evaluations. Show, don’t tell, is the haiku way. Haiku approach the subjective through the objective.”

GurgaPoetsGuide “Avoid half a haiku. Can you identify two full images in your haiku? Maybe the haiku is merely a single image chopped into three lines? Have you tacked a comment or title onto one sole image? Have you come up with a great image, then merely added a ‘date-stamp’ to serve as your second image? Is your haiku an equation, with one line nothing more than the sum of the other two — i.e., a + b = c? Does one image simply explain or interpret the other?”

In discussing types of perception, Gurga says (at 93) “We must distinguish between finding things in nature and projecting our feelings onto the world.” He notes that “Michael McClintock has coined the term ‘subjective realism’ to characterize haiku that go beyond the simple recording of experiences. The poet’s response to the scene is neither objective nor subjective but involves a third type of perception.” After giving a few examples of haiku that display subjective realism, Gurga muses (diplomatically):

“When we record or subjective responses in haiku, are we being receptive or merely projecting our wishful thinking? Are we being sensitive or merely presumptuous? The search for answers to these questions can engage poets for a lifetime.”

THNLogoG Christopher Herold presents at The Heron’s Nest “some qualities we find essential to haiku,” incuding:

“Implication through objective presentation, not explanation: appeal to intuition, not intellect.”

HigginsonWJ William J. Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku (1985) said:

“When we compose a haiku we are saying, ‘It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the event that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own’.”

“. . . We know that we cannot share our feelings with others unless we share the causes of those feelings with them. . . Stating the feelings alone builds walls; stating the causes of the feelings builds paths.”

“In the rest of this book the word ‘image’ means words which name objects or actions that cause sensations from which we form mental images, or the mental images themselves.”

“If a writer captures the images of an experience that produced emotion, then the reader — if comprehending and sympathetic — will have a similar emotion based on experiencing the images provided by the writer. The haiku is the quintessence of this kind of writing.

KacianSelf Jim Kacian‘s Haiku Primer (as presented first at f/k/a), offers many insights. It states:

“Typically, a poet who chooses haiku to express his moment strives to place his reader directly at the scene, not so that he may tell of the experience, but so that the reader may experience it directly for himself. The attentive reader will find all the input to recreate the moment–a setting, the conditions of the moment, the senses fired, the action, the entire packet of information–so that, through the act of close imagining, the reader may actually relive the moment, and arrive at the realization himself. The poet’s reality is mapped onto the reader’s, like an overlay, and when there is a sufficient overlap, the experience is shared.”

Kacian explains: “Haiku is a poetic form, and does hold some things in common with other poetry. However, it has developed, over its 400 and more years of practice, techniques specific to itself, a sense of how language best works within it, and several theories of poetics. We will examine these elements which make haiku unique among all the poetic forms of the world.
. . . . [W]e will want to acquire an understanding of what haiku has been, but also what it is becoming, and what it might look like in the future.” As for definitions:

RMPLogoN “Definitions are made not to burden us with restrictions, but to make it possible to have at the ready information which will help us know what to look for when considering haiku.

” . . . On the other hand, a definition can be useful and inspiring. It is an arrow, aiming us towards a target, indicating a direction that we may follow. It can be vital. It can inspire. It can open more than it closes.”

“A haiku is a poem . . . which records an experience . . . Haiku always begin with an experience. . . .

“[W]hile haiku may explore interior space, they are not by nature personal. Haiku are not poems we write about ourselves, not another form of confessional poetry; in fact, they are moments when the poet loses his own self-consciousness because of an identification with his subject.”

. . . “So, finally, what is the content of haiku? Haiku are about all the things we encounter in the world each day, and what they tell us about the world, and ourselves. They contain some reference to nature, but nature in the broadest sense. And they are about the present moment, the moment in which we are capable of experiencing new revelations.”

checkRed “But there are some things which do not constitute haiku content: they are not about the poet, what the poet feels about or how he interprets the content of his poem. These are the greatest dangers to writing good haiku, the urge to interpret, to think logically, to draw conclusions: to interpose our selves and our words between the experience and the reader. It takes faith to let the images of our moment stand on their own, and to let the reader come to these images and intuit his own understanding. But this is exactly what we must do. Because, at the last resort, it is not the content of haiku which is essential to us: it is the growth in feeling, perception and connectedness which the content permits us to experience. And so we must not interfere with the things which allow us this growth. In the end, we are best advised to let things speak for themselves, and they will speak well for us.”

LanoueSelf David G. Lanoue offers many insights About Haiku at his Haiku of Kobayashi Issa website, including:


How should it be read? Issa, a master of the form, invites his readers to partake not of abstract ideas but of experience—palpable, wondrous encounters with life: a swallow flying out the nose of a great bronze Buddha, cows moo-mooing in thick autumn mist, a butterfly resting on a dog curled to sleep. One does not read such poetry in a greedy rush to understand a theme, a point, or a concept. Rather, we do best by Issa if we open ourselves to each haiku with the same non-grasping attention we might pay to a bird warbling in a tree. After all, the poet insists, birdsong is haiku:

like warbling pure haiku

Like a bird twittering one-breath improvisations deep in the summer cedars on some shady, fathomless Japanese mountainside, Issa creates vivid, non-intellectual expressions of life on a living planet. The haiku moment awaits the reader who patiently allows words on the page to register as deeply felt reality.

ReichholdWriting Jane Reichhold, in Writing and Enjoying Haiku (2002), said:


    1. “Your five or six senses are your basic tools for writing haiku. Haiku should come from what you have experienced and not what you think.”
    2. “[I]nstead of presenting the idea of a thing or using the concepts of what something means to us, the author simply presents the thing as it is.”
    3. “Haiku do not tell the reader what to think, but show the things that will lead the reader along the path the author’s mind traveled.”


In her 1996 essay “Another Attempt To Define Haiku,” Reichhold explains: “By being concrete — using only images of things we can see, smell, taste, touch or feel — the haiku writer avoids those traps of Western poetry: abstract ideas such as love, hate, sadness, desire, honor, glory, of which we have had enough. Haiku demands you use your bodily senses instead of your intellect. Forget what you have been taught; write of what you experience with your body. Check your haiku. See if you can draw a picture (at least in your mind) as result of reading each line.” She also describes “the real challenge of haiku”:

To express an image or two so well that the reader “sees” them in his/her mind and then! you add another image that demands a leap or twist so the two previous images are seen in a new relationship (maybe even your metaphor, if you are lucky). An additional twist is to have images plus leap which reveal some deep philosophical truth or ideal without having to speak of it. Poetry is written vision. You have to show new ways of seeing things to be a real poet.

She notes that the tanka form “allows the addition of your subjective feelings and emotions. Accept that different poetry forms grew out of different situations and therefore have a built-in stance or spirit or uprightness. Be aware of what you are feeling and chose the proper genre for it.” Reichhold concludes:

“Writing haiku is a discipline and if you are interested in haiku you are seeking more discipline in your life. Go for it. Make rules for yourself and follow them exactly, or break them completely, outgrow them and find new ones. We are all students and no one ‘really’ knows how to write a haiku. That, however, does not stop us from trying…”

SwedeGeorge George Swede‘s “Towards a Definition of English-language Haiku” (originally published in Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks, Mosaic Press, 2000), states: “There is as yet no complete unanimity among American poets (or editors) as to what constitutes a haiku in English—how it differs from other poems which may be equally short. In other words, haiku in English are still in their infancy.” Nonethless, “haiku involves a number of compositional guidelines with which an aspiring haiku poet must become thoroughly acquainted.” While “This does not mean that all the guidelines have to be slavishly obeyed . . . there are a number that are essential—the brain, heart and lungs of the haiku’s existence.” Swede concludes that “Only Five Criteria Remain Essential”, including:

The Haiku Is a Poem which Involves Sense Images; It Does Not Involve Generalizations: This characteristic is also essential, but because it follows inevitably from criterion four, many definitions do not bother to mention it. Nevertheless, from my experience giving writing workshops, I have found that stating this criterion outright seems to provide a necessary focus for many students.

. . . “Readers require definite objects juxtaposed in a believable manner otherwise they cannot extrapolate effectively from the depicted event to their own existence.” . . .

checkedBoxS Charles Trumbull, judging the Scorpion Prize for Roadrunner Haiku Journal‘s Vol. 6:1, said:

So many haiku that I read these days fall short of realizing the full potential of the genre because they concentrate on elaborating a single striking image. The way a haiku gains depth and resonance is through the interaction of two images. It is this dynamic that is so often missing.”

vandenHeuvelCor Cor van den Heuval said in The Haiku Anthology (3rd Ed. 2000):

“A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. . . . The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness.

WakanHaiku Naomi Wakan offers the following advice in her book Haiku: One Breath Poetry (1993):

“If, however, you just describe what you see and not what you think or feel, you will find that there is nothing separating you and the [subject].”

“A haiku poet looks at the subject that has caught their interest with great concentration and focuses on the reality that he or she sees.”

. . . “if you put a description of what your senses are telling you into haiku form, you will have written a haiku.

“If, however, you just describe what you see and not what you think or feel, you will find that there is nothing separating you and the [subject].” “A haiku poet looks at the subject that has caught their interest with great concentration and focuses on the reality that he or she sees.” . . . “if you put a description of what your senses are telling you into haiku form, you will have written a haiku.

“If, however, you just describe what you see and not what you think or feel, you will find that there is nothing separating you and the [subject].” “A haiku poet looks at the subject that has caught their interest with great concentration and focuses on the reality that he or she sees.” . . . “if you put a description of what your senses are telling you into haiku form, you will have written a haiku.

. . . .

WelchMD Michael Dylan Welch gives this explanation at Haiku Begin (April 2003): “The most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature. Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it.” In his Ten Tips for Writing Haiku, Michael includes:

4. Write about common, everyday events in nature and in human life; choose events that give you a moment of understanding or realization about the truth of things around you—but don’t explain them.
6. Create an emotional response in the reader by presenting what caused your emotion rather than the emotion itself.

checkedBoxS Kathy Lippard Cobb offers ten Helpful Hints for writing haiku at Shadowpoetry. Here is the last one:

10) Show don’t tell. This is confusing to many writers. It certainly was to me. We all know that the English language, or ANY language, TELLS. I have never heard of a “story shower.”

However, what it means to show don’t tell, is that instead of saying that you are sad, lonely, or that you love someone, try to show it.

Instead of telling your emotions, show it by using concrete imagery.

checkedBoxS In Southsea offers materials for teaching haiku, including a lesson plan called Show Don’t Tell, which notes: “Poetry works through images, not explanations. Let us identify images and explanations. . . . You know what explanations are. Here is a working definition of ‘images:’ An image brings some scene, object or observation alive, and presents it to your imagination, so that you can picture it, or feel as though you experience it.” . . .

The image SHOWS, and the explanation TELLS.

All forms of imaginative literature, including drama and film, follow the same principle, which can be summed up in the slogan, “Show, don’t tell.” . . .

Poetry also works through images. In the case of haiku, the images are not “imaginative” in the sense of invented, fantasised or fictionalised. They are usually closely observed aspects of nature. They are real experiences. They are images in the sense that they give the reader pictures (and sounds, textures and smells) with which to recreate the experience as a whole. They show the experience, in the vivid present; they do not tell about it, reporting on something that has passed and summing up the judgment to be made about it. The reader is in the middle of it, not being told about it second hand.

Thoughts and ideas: If mental events are the subject matter of a poem, then they are expressed through the strong feelings they arouse, or through images or experiences, not baldly, as thoughts. Essays (in philosophy or journalism, for example) are the right forms for the direct expression of thoughts, ideas, analysis and judgements. Creative writing is different, and works the opposite way.

VCBFlogo The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival provides a “basics of writing haiku” section, which states:

A haiku is a poem that captures a scene or experience in just a few words, suggesting the depth and intensity of the moment. Haiku use concrete images to capture this moment of intuition. Above all, haiku try to imply the emotion of the poet’s experience without stating it.

checkedBoxS Alistair Scott‘s essay “Writing Haiku,” at Worldwide Freelance Writer, states:

‘s essay “,” at , states:


    1. Do not tinker with ideas or ideals. Haiku should arise from genuine feeling and should be written without being aphoristic, didactic or judgmental.
    2. [A sample poem by Buson] is a traditional haiku which takes a moment, an incident or a scene, observes it with clarity and sets it down with the minimum of fuss. Two images are placed side by side, without comment, giving the reader the opportunity to compare, reflect and share an emotional experience.
    3. Is this [sample haiku] an statement of love? Another emotion? Or something else altogether? Individualism? That is for the reader to decide. Haiku is one of the purest expressions of the well-known writers’ aphorism, ‘Show, don’t tell’.


HSALogo Haiku Society of America‘s latest definition of haiku was promulgated in 2004 and states:

Definition: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.


1 Comment

  1. Nicely done, David.

    You didn’t say anything, but the message is loud and clear.

    Comment by Yu Chang — May 30, 2007 @ 4:49 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress