Saturday, July 24, 2021

Prompt #370 – Choice or Chance


In looking back at some of the prompts from years ago, I came across this one (based on a Robert Frost poem) that I thought might be interesting to revisit during these hot July days. We've all made decisions in our lives that we either bless or regret. Frosts's "The Road Not Taken" is about the process and the repercussions of making choices. I’ve always loved this poem for its symbolisms, accessibility, and universal appeal. This one of the best known and most often quoted of Frost’s poems. There is, of course, much more to this poem than a surface understanding reveals.

For this week’s prompt, “The Road Not Taken” will be our inspiration poem. Before beginning, please give it a read.  
As you read, note that one of the poem’s fascinations is its archetypal dilemma. Be sure to note that it is later in his life that the narrator looks back, reflects upon the meaning of choice and chance, and marks this decision as a defining moment in his life.


Frost’s poem is about actual and figurative roads, and the fork in the path is an extended metaphor for making choices.

1. Write a poem about a metaphorical road that you didn’t take. Not the choice you made, but the one you didn’t. “Forks in the road” and “roads” seemed clichéd today, so be sure to create other symbolisms and metaphors for making choices that are fresh and new.

2. Write a poem about a “road not taken” in your life? Have you ever had to make a decision and then wondered much later how making the other choice might have impacted your life? Do you have any regrets?

3. Some analyses claim that Frost’s poem is about lost opportunities. Write a poem about a lost opportunity in your life?

4. Write a poem about the complexities of choice making. How do you feel about choice and chance?

5. Write a poem about a time that you had no choice.

Other Examples: 


Choices” by Tess Gallagher

The Decision” by Jane Hirschfield

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Guest Blogger Yvonne Zipter "Healing the World, One Poem at a Time"

For this post, I'm very happy to introduce you to poet Yvonne Zipter. I first encountered Yvonne's poetry when I saw the cover of her book Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound and knew that I had to read the poems inside. Her publisher, Diane Lockward of Terrapin Books (, kindly sent me a review copy, and I was immediately struck by Yvonne's skill and spirit. Here's a brief except from the review I wrote (Tiferet, Autumn/Winter 2020): 
“It isn’t often that a book cover is so visually stunning that a potential reader is immediately captivated. Sometimes, however, a book’s contents don’t measure up to the cover. In this case, Yvonne Zipter’s poems do not disappoint! Her work is extraordinarily rich in metaphor and meaning and skillfully crafted in language that is both compressed and compelling. The poems in this collection come to bear on love, loss, and grief—things the poet has been forced to learn about herself, things we are all, ultimately, required to learn.”  
Yvonne is the author of the poetry collections Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound (, The Patience of Metal (a Lambda Literary Award Finalist), and Like Some Bookie God. Her poems have appeared in numerous periodicals over the years, and her published poems are currently being sold individually in Chicago in two vending machines to raise money for the nonprofit arts organization Arts Alive Chicago. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Diamonds Are a Dyke’s Best Friend and Ransacking the Closet and the Russian historical novel Infraction. She appears in and provided some narration for the documentary A Secret Love about All-American Girl Professional Baseball Player Terry Donahue and her long-time partner Pat Henschel. Retired from the University of Chicago Press in 2018, where she was a manuscript editor, she lives in Chicago with her wife and their former racing greyhound.  
Healing the World, One Poem at a Time 
I have long suspected that poetry is healing. As long ago as forty years, after my mother died at age forty-one when I was twenty-four, I started processing my grief through poetry. A lot of it wasn’t good poetry, but even those lousy poems gave me some place to put my pain and figure out how to move on. It was also a way of keeping my mother alive for myself in some small way—our happy moments together as well as the tough ones, when she got sick—and a way of sharing with others what a wonderful woman she was. But mostly, especially in the beginning, it was a way for me to find comfort in the face of unthinkable loss. To put it another way, writing poetry can create a sense of control or order over what otherwise seems like chaos. 
It’s not only writing poetry, however, that can be healing for the psyche, but reading it can be as well. Anecdotally, I once had a young college student write to me that a poem of mine about incest helped him realize he was not alone in that experience. Therapists Phyllis Klein and Perie Longo echo this experience, saying, “When we read a poem that speaks to our experience, there is a shift, a click within. Someone has understood our darkness by naming their own. We feel less alone.”  
The National Association of Poetry Therapy actually publishes an entire periodical devoted to research on the use of language arts in a therapeutic capacity: the Journal of Poetry Therapy. At the association’s website, there is a short history of poetry therapy, in which the unnamed author points out that it was not uncommon for witch doctors and shamans to chant poetry during religious rites intended to promote well-being. But my favorite bit of the history given there—or should I say bite?—is that, “in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible.” To the best of my knowledge, no one has physically ingested one of my poems!  
Poetry isn’t just helpful in dealing with psychological trauma. It can also help with physical pain. Psychiatrist and poet Robert Carroll writes about research that has shown that expressive writing can result in a reduction of symptom complaints by patients and can decrease physiological stress. Physician and poet Rafael Campo says that one of the ways that poetry can heal “is through the rhythms in poetry. There’s actually some science to back this up. Much like meditation, when we hear rhythmic language, when we read poetry aloud, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize. So just as meditation might be beneficial for certain health conditions, the same can be said of poetry.” 
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, writing or reading poems is far from being a cure-all. Obviously, writing a poem is not going to fix a blocked artery or get rid of a malignancy. But even with psychological issues, poetry writing can only do so much if those issues of very deep (think: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Nevertheless, poetry can be very helpful in a variety of ways, as indicated above.  
Poetry also makes for better doctors—which can make for better medical outcomes. McMaster University, some years ago, created a literary companion for pediatric residents there. In the introduction to the list of recommended readings for doctors, they say that “exposure to creative works allows for development of skills essential for the practice of medicine, especially empathy.” (As an aside, I’m proud to say that the list—which is divided into different areas of medicine—includes a poem of mine: “Osteosarcoma: A Love Poem.”)
Rafael Campo concurs that poetry can make for better doctors, saying: “I don’t think of poetry as an irrelevant diversion. I think it’s central to how we can best treat our patients. How we can heal. We doctors, who deal with life and death every day, who look into the eyes of people who are in pain, who are dying, or who are giving birth and having one of the most joyous experiences of their lives, need the humanities to help us make meaning of those experiences for ourselves, and for our patients. That to me is what being a healer truly is.” Campo so strongly believes in the healing power of poetry that he edits the “Poetry and Medicine” section of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  
Books on the subject of poetry and both physical and psychological healing abound, with literally thousands of books on the subject listed at Amazon, including collections of poems that address varying medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, as well as other stressful occurrences. One such collection, for example, Poetic Medicine in the Time of Pandemic: A Collection of Poems from around the World, sought to gather poems from various countries in “an international effort to unite humanity in a fight against Covid-19.”  
The pandemic has without a doubt been a traumatic health crisis for many worldwide, inflicting both physical harm and psychological pain. But what has had me thinking lately about poetry and how it can heal has been my own personal journey during the latter half of 2020. Smack dab in the middle of the pandemic, I ended up developing a partially collapsed lung from pneumonia and being diagnosed, as well, with early-stage ovarian cancer. Through two hospital stays over twelve days and through most of my time during chemotherapy treatments, my wife was not allowed to visit because of Covid precautions, making a scary series of events even more difficult.  
Certainly, the kindness and competence of my many doctors and nurses eased some of my anxiety. But I feel confident saying that I was able to deal with all that I had to go through because I was writing poetry through much of it. I also strongly suspect that I had an easier time with chemo than many people do because I could pour my fears, my confusions, and my small moments of victory into poems. And the poems, in turn, let me share with friends and family what my experience was like, and in a more profound way than I could have if I’d only provided them with the facts. From the procedure to implant a port in my chest (for the delivery of the chemo into my veins) to the procedure to remove it, months later, I documented nearly everything—including probably far too many poems in which I fixated on losing my hair and getting it back!  
While some of the poems were written directly on the heels of whatever they addressed, letting me poetically vent about the good and the bad of it all, others have needed months to take shape, the PTSD of some things requiring time on my part to process them. For instance, surgery for the cancer took place in August of last year, but there were no poems specifically on that topic until I wrote “Valedictory for My Womb” in December. And the pain of two or more blood draws every day for my eight-day hospital stay in July for the collapsed lung wasn’t documented until I wrote “Night Nurse” in April of this year. The point is, even when it takes months or years to be able to write a poem confronting an event, the work they do in terms of bringing some closure is no less powerful.  
As social worker Phyllis Klein says, “Because a poem has a border, a frame, or structure, as opposed to prose, the form itself is a safety net. Strong emotions will not run off the page.” This holds true for the poet no matter her skill level, as well as for those who read the poems, looking for comfort, for understanding, for shared experience.


Robert Carroll, “Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2, no. 2 (June 2005): 161-72,

Harvard Medical School Community, “Imagination and Healing,” March 27, 2019,

Phyllis Klein and Perie Longo, “The Therapeutic Benefit of Poetry,” nd,

McMaster Paediatric Residency Literary Companion,” nd,

History of NAPT,” nd,



To order a copy of Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound



Monday, June 21, 2021

Prompt 369 – This Is Not Grand Theft Poetry!

Hi Everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly. An aged iMac (15 years old) has had a lot to do with that. Happily, I’m now working on a refurbished iMac that belonged to a former college professor and friend. When he and his wife got new computers, he had this one fixed up for me, and it’s a joy to work on. Of course, there are things I still have to learn, and I don’t have Office on this machine. As you will note, I'm still not completely adept at formatting yet. I’ve been plodding along but figuring things out at the same time. 


Sadly, two very dear poet friends, Vincent Tripi and Laura Boss, passed away recently. Neither had Covid, but the losses, coming during the pandemic, have been disturbing. I haven't written much in the last few months, and I just happened to remember a form called the Cento. We’ve worked with it before on the blog, and just “playing” with a few cento poems helped me to recharge enough to write a couple of new (not cento) poems. 


Sometimes, it’s fun to revisit an old post and try it out in a new year. This year, with Covid’s specter looming over all of us, has been both challenging and frightening. Finding inspiration isn’t always easy but, often, another poet’s words can be a rich source of inspiration. Cento derives from the Latin word for patchwork (as in a patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is a kind of collage poem made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be lined, prose poems, or any form that strikes your fancy. Though some poets adapt this form to include borrowed lines from other poets’ work along with lines of their own, a true cento is composed only of lines from other sources.


Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).


Historically, the cento is ancient. Early Greeks built poems from such works as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Roman poets composed centos taken from the works of Virgil, and Renaissance poets worked with lines from Petrarch and Cicero. Modern cento forms include variations (i.e., a single borrowed line that’s echoed throughout a poem), and today’s centos are often witty or ironic. 


One of the things that appeals to me about the form is that reading poetry by other poets is part of the process, we read and write all within the space of a poem.


Remember, this isn’t a prompt about “grand theft poetry”—it’s a prompt about how other poets’ writing can inspire your own.




1. Centos are reasonably easy to “put together.” For this prompt activity, create a cento based on a particular idea or theme (don’t simply collage randomly—start with a subject idea in mind). Using a poetry anthology is one way to get started. Read some poems and write down any lines that particularly strike you (be sure to include the poets’ names and the titles of the poems in your notes so you’ll know the poems and poets from which the lines you use in your cento originated). Alternatively, the Internet offers many poetry sites at which you can look for poems by poets or by titles and themes. Another place to look for inspiration might be in any copies of poetry journals that you have handy.


2. At some point, be sure to read “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” (a cento by John Ashbury that takes its title from Edward Lear and includes lines from poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Lord Byron, (, and "Ode: Salute to the New York School 1950-1970" by Peter Gizzi,


3. Next, read some poems by other poets (time-honored or more contemporary).


4. Let yourself be inspired gently—take whatever suggestions the poems you read might have to offer, but don’t be locked into anything. 


5. Spend a lot of time, “playing” with the ideas you gathered from other people’s poems. Where do they lead you? What moments of inspiration do they bring? How can you “piggy back” from these ideas into something spectacular of your own?


6. Be sure to reject anything that doesn’t fit the poem you begin to write and make sure that each line you use is taken from a different poem.


7. Remember that, although you’re assembling a selection of lines from various poems, your poem must make sense. This is important!


8. Keep your poem short, don’t ramble.


9. After you’ve written a draft, look for “lifeless” parts of the poem and delete or rework them.


10. In the end, your new poem should bear little or no resemblance to any of the poems from which you’ve borrowed lines. 


11. Be sure to list each poet’s full name and the name of the poem from which you’ve borrowed. this can be done at then end of your cento (see the example below for one way to do this).


1. Think of poetry at the line level.

2. Work on associative thinking and making connections among various poems.

3. Pay attention to tone, syntax, and mood.

4. Think about context, arrangement, and form in writing.

5. Examine how art can be disassembled and reassembled to create new works of art. 


That Was by Adele Kenny

That was the real world (I have touched it once),

which, though silent to the ear,

licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

where wings have memory of wings…

Ah, sweet! Even now in that bird’s song,

even now I may confess,

we are what life made us, and shall be –

more glory and more grief than I can tell.

All pleasures and all pains, remembering –

(I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret).

These are the years and the walls and the door.

Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,

(long after the days and the seasons)—

better by far that you should forget and smile.

I lift my eyes in a light-headed credo,

then let you reach your hat and go.


Line 1: (Edwin Muir, “The Labyrinth”)

Line 2: (Percy Busshe Shelley, “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici”)

Line 3: (T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

Line 4: (William Butler Yeats, “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation")

Line 5: (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Blessed Damozel”)

Line 6: (Alexander Pushkin, “I Loved You”)

Line 7: (Algernon Charles Swinburne, “At a Month’s End”)

Line 8: (Emily Bronte, “Stanzas”)

Line 9: (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”)

Line 10: (Dylan Thomas, “From Love’s First Fever To Her Plague”)

Line 11: (Elizabeth Bishop, “Visit to St Elizabeths”)

Line 12: (William Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence”)

Line 13: (Arthur Rimbaud, “”Barbarian”)

Line 14: (Christina Rossetti, “Remember”)

Line 15: (Seamus Heaney, “ Remembered Columns”)

Line 16: (Hart Crane, “The Bridge”)

Perfect (a cento)

By Wendy Rosenberg

I put you into my memories on purpose –

a balm for the nerves –

the notion of some infinitely gentle thing.

You do not have to walk on your knees

like a willow swept by rain.

Beauty is momentary in the mind,

conceived in a wordless encounter

by means of a searching pause.

We all have reasons for moving –

I never knew survival was like that.

I would like to be the air –

more like a memory of heaven

and certain certainties.

Your face sounds like that.

Let me hear every perfect note.


Line 1: Julia Cohen “In the Dark We Crush”

Line 2: Alberto Rios “Coffee in the Afternoon”

Line 3: T. S. Eliot “Preludes”

Line 4: Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”

Line 5: Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince at the Clavier”

Line 6: Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince at the Clavier”

Line 7: Naomi Mulvihill “Poetry”

Line 8: Naomi Mulvihill “Poetry”

Line 9: Mark Strand “Keeping things Whole”

Line 10: Ada Limón, “Before”

Line 11: Margaret Atwood: “Variation on the Word Sleep”

Line 12: Li-Young Lee “Discrepancies, Happy and Sad”

Line 13: T. S. Eliot “Preludes”

Line 14: Julia Cohen “In the Dark We Crush”

Line 15: Jonathan Wells “Love’s Body”

From Whatever Happens (Tiferet, 2016). Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.



Saturday, March 27, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

Established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month begins on April 1st and runs through April 30th. The largest literary celebration in the world, this month-long celebration of poetry is held every April “to widen the attention of individuals and the media to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern.” During April, poets, poetry lovers, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and schools throughout the United States celebrate poetry.


One of the challenges of NPM is to read and/or write a poem every day. So ... in the spirit of the observance, as I’ve done for the past several years, I offer you a prompt re-visit that I hope will be inspirational for each of April’s thirty days.




1. Each day, think about the key word (in caps next to the date).


2. Then click on the link and read the poem—one each day of the month. Let each day’s poem inspire you.


3. After thinking a bit about the content of the poem you read, identify something in that poem that “strikes a chord” for you.


4. Working from that “chord,” try to write a poem of your own that somehow incorporates the key word (doesn’t have to be exact) and which may or may involve content similar to the example poem.


5. I’ve deliberately made some leaps in the ways my key words sometimes differ from the content of the poems to which I’ve matched them—take some leaps yourself!




1. Don’t feel compelled to match your content to the examples’—in fact, do just the opposite and make your poems as different as you possibly can. The inspiration titles and the example poems are only intended to trigger some poetry-spark that’s unique to you, to guide your thinking a little—don’t let them enter too deeply into your poems, don’t let their content become your content.


2. Let your reactions to the key words and poems surprise you. Begin with no expectations, and let your poems take you where they want to go.


3. Give the topics your own spin, twist and turn them, let the phrases trigger personal responses: pin down your ghosts, identify your frailties, build bridges and cross rivers, take chances!


4. Keep in mind that writing a poem a day doesn’t mean you have to “finish” each poem immediately. You can write a draft each day and set your drafts aside to work on later.


5. Whatever you do this month, find some time (a little or a lot) to enjoy some poetry!




“If You Forget Me” by Pablo Neruda




“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams



April 3—AGING

“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats




“Where the Mind Is Without Fear” by Rabindranath Tagore




“Echo” by Christina Rossetti



April 6—MUSIC

“I am in Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop




“A Golden Day” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar




“Alone Looking at the Mountain” by Li Po




“A Moment of Happiness” by Jalal al-Din Rumi



April 10—LOVE

“April Love” by Ernest Christopher Dowson



April 11—BIRDS

“Birdhouse” by Diane Lockward




“Patterns” by Amy Lowell



April 13—RAIN

“The Rain” by Robert Creeley



April 14—BOREDOM

“Dream Song 14” by John Berryman



April 15—NAMES

“The Naming of Birds” by Edwin Romond



“Twilight” by Henri Cole



April 17—ROMANCE

“The Romantic” by Gerald Stern




“The Risk of Listening to Brahms” by Michael T. Young



April 19—CHANGES

"The Moment I Knew My Life Had Changed" by Maria Mazziotti Gillan



April 20—WAKING

"Why I Wake Early" by Mary Oliver (Audio)




“Failure” by Philip Schultz




“Family Promises” by Laura Boss




“Fists” by Joe Weil



April 24—LIFE

"The Yellow Brick Road" by Donna Baier Stein


April 25—FAITH

“Breakfront” by Bob Rosenbloom




“To the Next Centuries” by James Richardson



April 27—SPRING

“Spring” by Christina Rossetti




“Dear Magnolia Blossom” by Grace Marie Grafton



April 29—ANIMALS

“Hedgehog” by Paul Muldoon



April 30—MORNING

“On The Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou




Happy National Poetry Month!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Prompt #368 –Txt Msg Poems

With all the social distancing we currently practice because of the Covid pandemic, it's logical to assume that our forms of communication have become largely device-driven. This prompt is a re-visit of one from many years ago that I hope you'll enjoy, particularly in view of how we communicate other than in-person.


Text-based communication (including mobile text messaging, instant messaging, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter) has resulted in a new text language tailored to the immediacy and compactness of popular communications and is widely used. There are thousands of texting abbreviations (also known as shorthand), and hundreds of strange expressions have emerged: ty (thank you), yw (you’re welcome), omg (oh my God), w/e (whatever), and lol (laughing out loud) are among the thousands. Upper case is allowed for emphasis, but a whole message in upper case is considered shouting and therefore rude. For the uninitiated, this new "written language" might appear as gibberish or perhaps an abbreviated form of Jabberwocky.


Text messaging, or texting, involves composing and sending brief, electronic messages between two or more mobile phones, or fixed or portable devices over a phone network. The term originally referred to messages sent using the Short Message Service (SMS) but has grown to include messages containing image, video, and sound content (MMS messages). The sender of a text message is known as a texter, and this week, you will be a poet-texter.


Interestingly, Carol Duffy, who became Britain’s first female poet laureate in 2009, has made connections between poetry and texting and was quoted in an interview with England’s Guardian, “The poem is a form of texting ... it’s the original text. It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We’ve got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future—and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It’s a kind of time capsule—it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form.”


If you do any texting yourself, you’re well aware of texting shorthand, which facilitates brevity and immediacy, you probably know many of the most popularly used shorthand abbreviations. For this prompt, the challenge is to write a poem in the form of a text message. Your topic may be anything, but your language must be text message-based and the poems should contain numerous text abbreviations.




1. Write a poem in which you use text message shorthand for some of your words. Don’t attempt to write the whole poem in text message lingo, just use some of the better-known symbols.


2. An alternative idea might be to take a short famous poem and rewrite it using text message shorthand. Or, you might take one of your already-written poems and rewrite it using some text message abbreviations.


3. If you’re not well versed in texting shorthand, you can visit these sites for help.





1. Keep your poems short—no more than 10 or 12 lines.

2. Avoid less commonly used or known abbreviations to ensure that your readers will understand.

3. A humorous approach might work well for this prompt, but certainly isn’t required.

4. In keeping with the spirit of text messaging (brevity and immediacy), keep your lines short and perhaps limit yourself to one stanza—stichic form).

5. Try writing a text message parody of a famous poem.




This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams


I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.



A Texting Parody of  “This Is Just To Say”


This is jst 2 say

I ate ur plums

that were in

the icebox.


w/e u

saved them 4

I do not care.



pls understand

I am not sorry, LOL.

Go to Dunkin Donuts

TY and TTFN. 




Saturday, February 13, 2021

Prompt #367 – A Short Form of Poetry for the Shortest Month


February is the shortest month, and I thought it might be a good time to revisit a very short form of poetry (one that we’ve worked with before)—haiku. Haiku, despite its brevity, always has a freshness and a richness that we can come back to.


Haiku’s origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a kind of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today. A minimalist form of poetry, haiku has been popular among modern poets since the 1960s, when a western-world haiku movement generated increased interest in the form. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Paul Muldoon have written haiku, and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary greats as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Richard Wright. Although something other than “mainstream” poetry and very much its own genre, haiku is a unique and demanding form to master.


In traditional Japanese, the haiku is typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each haiku contains seventeen sound symbols. However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that Japanese sound symbols were equivalent to syllables in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7, and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still regarded as “haiku format” by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines with a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, and syllable count varies


Traditional haiku contain a kigo (season word) to indicate the season or time of year in which the haiku takes place, along with two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. Normally, one idea is presented in the first two lines and then a switch occurs in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. The shift is achieved with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. The kireji is a kind of caesura (and similar in theory to the volta in a sonnet) that signals a pause in the poem’s “thought” and suggests a parallel to the preceding phrase, the following phrase, or provides a “dismount for the poem that offers a finely tuned sense of closure. 


Haiku is, in a sense, an art of detachment in which the poet is removed enough from the subject to write without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, with a sense of both inward and outward direction. The best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious, spontaneous and unpretentious but entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound.


Note: The word haiku forms its own plural – haikus is incorrect.




1. Haiku describe things in a very few words – they never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme.


2. Haiku is more than a simple genre or form of poetry—haiku is a way of seeing, a way of capturing experience, a kind of “aha” moment or instant when something in the ordinary captures our attention and leads us to a closer, more concentrated look at its connection to nature, and human nature.


3. Haiku don’t have titles, although haiku sequences do.


4. Brevity is key, along with a sense of immediacy (written in the present tense) and often a sense of relationship between nature and human nature. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be read in a single breath. Most will agree that a successful haiku is characterized by crystal-cutting clarity and in-the-moment presence.


5. Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human- and natural-world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.


6. Compact and direct, haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, but their writing requires careful reflection and discipline—haiku may even be considered a kind of meditation. Finely-tuned powers of observation reveal the haiku moments that happen continually in the world around us.


7. Don’t be bound by any notions of 5,7,5 syllable structure—focus instead on use of season words, two-part juxtapositions, and objective sensory imagery.




1. Bashō said that each haiku should be “a thousand times on the tongue.” Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud, and listen deeply.


2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience you’ve had.


3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a word or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shorted days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that as much about nature as it is within nature.


4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action.  Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech (similes, metaphors), and keep things simple.


5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Remember that haiku often present one idea in the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku without making too obvious a connection between the parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must reveal the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate without stating them overtly.


6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.


7. Spend time working on punctuation. In poems so brief, punctuation is important. Read some of the examples and see how other haiku poets make punctuation work for them in their haiku.



Questions to Consider When Editing and Refining Your Haiku


How many lines have you written? It’s easy to over-write a haiku. Longer than 3 lines isn’t really a haiku. Haiku can be 1, 2, or 3 lines, but not more.


Is your writing simple and clear?


How long are your lines? Sometimes, we write too much in each line. Think about what you can take out if your lines seem long. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but good haiku usually contain about 20 syllables or less.


Did you focus on a single moment (detach from everything else) and recreate that moment in as few words as possible?


Did any figures of speech creep into your haiku (similes, metaphors, etc.)? If so, remove them along with anything that seems forced or contrived.


Did you include a season word (kigo)?


Did you include a shift between the two parts of your haiku (did you create a two-part juxtapositional structure)?


Have you taken out take out any words that aren’t essential to the haiku; for example, there are many times when you can delete words such as “a,” “and,” and “the.”


Have you worked toward economy of language? Very few, if any, adjectives?


Have you avoided prepositional phrases?


Instead of writing “the brightness of the starts,” take out the prepositional phrase and write, “the stars’ brightness.”


Another example: “the depth of the water” can become “the water’s depth.’


And another: “the vastness of the ocean” can become “the ocean’s vastness.”





From the Japanese Masters


Winter seclusion –

Listening, that evening,

To the rain in the mountain.


— Issa


My life, –

How much more of it remains?

The night is brief.


— Shiki


Over the wintry

forest, winds howl in rage

with no leaves to blow.


— Soseki


No one travels

Along this way but I,

This autumn evening.


— Bashō



Contemporary Haiku From Modern Haiku magazine


Contemporary Haiku from Frogpond (Journal of the Haiku Society of America)


Frogpond 37.1 • Winter 2014

Frogpond 36.3 • Autumn 2013

Frogpond 36.2 • Summer 2013

Frogpond 36.1 • Winter 2013

Frogpond 35.3 • Autumn 2012

Frogpond 35.2 • Summer 2012

Frogpond 35.1 • Winter 2012

Frogpond 34.3 • Autumn 2011

Frogpond 34.2 • Summer 2011

Frogpond 34.1 • Winter 2011

Frogpond 33.3 • Autumn 2010

Frogpond 33.2 • Summer 2010

Frogpond 33.1 • Winter 2010

Frogpond 32.3 • Autumn 2009

Frogpond 32.2 • Summer 2009

Frogpond 32.1 • Winter 2009

Frogpond 31.3 • Autumn 2008

Frogpond 31.2 • Spring/Summer 2008



And, by way of sharing, a few of my own:


migrating geese –

once there was so much

to say


(1st Place Henderson Award, 1984,



between the moon

and the billboard,

a jet liner rising


(42nd Street Art Project, displayed on the Rialto West Theater Marquee, NYC, 1994.)



a flurry of bats

and then

the Milky way


(Haiku Quarterly, First Prize, Autumn 1989)




at the edge of the words,

we listen


(From Castles and Dragons, 1990)



through darkness

churchbells on the cusp

of the hill


(From Questi Momenti, 1990)