Saturday, July 28, 2018

Prompt #319 – The Art of the Moment (Haiku & Haibun)

The Art of the Moment: 
Haiku and Haibun 俳文 

Over the years, I've posted several prompts about haiku and haibun, and I thought this summer might be a good time to revisit these two forms. Enjoy. 

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What Is a Haiku?

Although you’ll find many descriptions of haiku online, there are a few specific elements of the genre that hold true in most cases:

1.     Most haiku  are characterized by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them. The kireji is a kind of verbal punctuation mark that signals the moment of separation between the two images or ideas and adds meaning to the way the juxtaposed elements are related.

2.     Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae though often loosely (and mistakenly) translated as "syllables"), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 on, respectively. Modern Japanese haiku (現代俳句 gendai-haiku) are increasingly unlikely to follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of juxtaposition continues to be honored in both traditional and modern haiku. There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences.

3.     A kigo (seasonal reference) is usually included (this needn’t be the name of a season, although it may be).  A kigo may be some element of a season, even the smallest detail commonly associated with a particular time of year.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while haiku in English usually appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku.

Haiku Background

Although something other than “mainstream” poetry and very much its own genre, haiku are compact and direct, and are usually written in the present tense with a sense of immediacy (a sense of being “in the moment”). The natural world and our responses to it are integral to haiku. While haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, their writing requires profound reflection and discipline.  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.

Despite the brevity of its form, haiku inspire detachment. That is, detachment from self-interest or self-absorption. The best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious. They are spontaneous and unpretentious but are entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound. Through haiku, both the writer and the reader are invited to reflect upon minute details that lead themselves to larger realities.

The haiku’s origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a form of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Bashō and his contemporaries. Bashō infused a new sensibility and sensitivity to this form in the late seventeenth century. He transformed the poetics and turned the hokku (first link in a renga) into an independent poem, later to be known as haiku in the sense that we understand the term today.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each contained seventeen on or sound symbols. The on were usually divided into 3 sections, with the middle one being slightly longer than the others, and often with a pause at the end of the first or second section to divide the haiku into two thoughts or images. These thoughts or images contrasted or pooled to create a sense of insight or heightened awareness and usually involved nature. A kigo (season word) was used to indicate the season or time of year.

However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that an on was equivalent to a syllable 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 accepted by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines having a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, although less frequently. Typically, haiku contain two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning, and successfully experimental haiku of a single word have been written. A structural feature of the haiku is the kireji, or “cutting word.” In Japanese, kireji is a word used as punctuation, often signifying a question or an emotional subtext. It also signifies a break or pause at the end of a line. In English, cutting words are generally replaced by punctuation like exclamation marks, question marks, and dashes, or less often, commas or ellipses, depending on how sharp a “cut” the author wishes to achieve.

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, nor do they have titles. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be reading in a single breath. (Note: The word haiku forms its own plural; haikus is not correct).

How To Write Haiku

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.

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

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a work 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 (shortened days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that is not necessarily about 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. Use only the most absolutely necessary words. Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech, and keep things simple.

5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Many haiku present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else 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. A Japanese haiku achieves the shift with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku. Creating a haiku’s two-part structure can become a balancing act because it’s difficult to create just the right equilibrium without making too obvious a connection between the two parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must work toward sparking the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate.

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. In a nutshell:

focus on a single moment (detach from everything else); recreate that moment in words,

write simply and clearly,

forget about 5,7,5 syllabic structure (start with about 10-20 syllables in three-line format),

include a season word,

make sure you create a two-part juxtapositional structure,

include a shift between the two parts of your haiku,

avoid figures of speech, rhyming, anything forced or contrived.


Haibun is a prosimetric (written partly in prose and partly in verse) literary form that originated in Japan, which combines prose and haiku. The range of haibun is expansive and often includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal.

Interestingly, haibun offers an approach to the way a poem situates itself without being fully entrenched. It also offers both writer and reader a way to travel without getting lost. It’s almost as if haibun give writers and readers a new a refreshing perspective on an experience while focusing  strongly on nature and landscape.  

Described simply, haibun combine prose (what may be considered a prose poem) with a haiku. Most often, a haiku brings a piece of prose writing to closure as a kind of insightful postscript. Another way of looking at the form is to think of haibun as highly focused witness to, or recollection of, a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful whisper (a haiku). What the writer hopes to achieve is an elegant and insightful block of prose (usually a paragraph or two) that concludes with a relevant haiku.

There is endless room for experimentation in haibun. Traditionalists suggest that the haibun must precede a single haiku, but other “configurations” may be used.

Here are some general (but not written in stone) attributes of haibun:

1. Detachment from, and even a complete absence of, the speaker, that is, avoidance of using any personal pronouns such as “I” or first-person possessive adjectives (“my” and “mine”).

2. Concentrated use of sensory detail.

3. Use of a seasonal word or phrase—something that suggests a time of year without overtly stating it.

4. Incorporation of a “turn," or a sudden change (when included, this is sometimes found in the third line of the prose section.

5. Unlike haiku, haibun typically have titles.

How to Write a Haibun

The haibun is the combination of two poems: a prose poem and haiku. The form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

The haibun usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Think of subjects relating to either a physical or a spiritual journey to write a traditional haibun. Many haibun begin with the prose section first, with one haiku following it, but as with most poetic forms you can write your haibun however you choose.  For your first try, though, work with the prose followed by a single haiku format.

1.  Remember that a haibun is not a short story—it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end in the way that we understand short stories. A haibun relates a journey, whether the travel is a physical exploration of the world or an internal journey of spiritual and/or emotional discovery. It should take the reader somewhere—from here to there.

2.  Begin by thinking of a time in your life when you experienced a journey of some kind. This may be an actual trip or it may be the simple narrative of a special moment in your life. Like haiku, haibun often begin in everyday events—minute particulars of object, person, place, and/or action. Haibun are usually autobiographical and personal, and most often written in present tense. You may choose to write in the past or present tense.

3. The haibun prose should be similar in appearance to a prose-poem, usually presented in block form.  When typed, a paragraph with justified margins followed by a double space and then a haiku.

4. Both the prose and haiku should be image-centered. Trim the language in the prose section to its essence. The prose portion can be written in sentence fragments or complete sentences.

5. There is no set length to a haibun. It can be one paragraph with one haiku, or several pages with haiku interspersed throughout. However, most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. (Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose.)

6. The haibun’s haiku do connect to the prose, but in the best haibun, the haiku do not directly continue the narrative. Nor do the haiku explain the prose. Instead, they relate in theme, mood, or tone. Inserting the haiku into the haibun is like throwing a stone into a pond—causing ripples of association. The connection may not be immediately obvious, but that’s okay.

7. Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun, the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse.


Don't accept the first haiku that comes to you after writing the prose. Find a word or image in the prose to expand.

Haibun prose is best if kept to a single theme with sensory detail, the haiku crystallizes the experience.

Make each word count in the prose text, as you would in a prose poem (your prose part should be tightly constructed), and remember that the prose is not an explanation of the haiku.

The juxtaposition of prose and haiku is important.

The prose should add to the depth with which we experience the haiku: the haiku is not a linear (sequential) continuation of the prose, so avoid the linear in your capping haiku: take a right angle turn. Haiku should link to but not repeat what the prose has said.

Use symbolism in your haibun to deepen the emotional impact.

End with a surprise, not a narrative resolution.


A chattering wind brings down the leaves. Remnants of bagworm and chestnut lie in the tangle. After long highway miles, I return to the mountains and the trees, to the old house that waits, tucked asleep, in an arm of the Adirondacks. Abandoned now, overgrown with bracken and vines, it sits sideways beside the creek, facing the forest instead of the road. After years of wandering through ruins I should have been prepared for this, but I never expected the tumbled chimney, the broken windows, the foundation shifted and cracked, the piece of clapboard that hangs at the side of the house like a broken arm.

the empty mountain house

falls into


The air turns colder. Like a hard breath blown through God’s lips, it strikes a tamarack’s stringed tongue. The tamarack trembles and moans. I shiver. I can hear the creek as it stumbles over stones, a tired tenor losing its voice. In the open field near the house, wild geese wake. In a sudden rush of wings, they remember the victory of flight.

between the stars

and the mountains,

a vee of migrating geese

There is nothing to reclaim here. Everything changes, but memory is holy. Tonight I celebrate the past as I walk to the cusp of our hill where an old iron bridge crosses the water. Somewhere on the edge of the night sky a small light begins to shine. It will gather momentum and fill the dark places. Forever is there, a glass bell that time rings through.

October mist—

only a stranger crossing

to the other side of the bridge 

(Excerpted and adapted from “Only a Stranger” by Adele Kenny, 
first published in Journey to the Interior, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 
Edited by Bruce Ross, 1998)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Prompt #318 – Feeling Anaphoric

Summer always seems a good time for “re-runs” when I like to revisit some of the older posts from years past. I sometimes add ideas or guidelines for your enjoyment.

This prompt goes back to October 1, 2011 and deals with anaphora, a literary device based on repetition. Like a good bassline in a song, anaphora can drive the rhythm of a poem.

Anaphora, also called epanaphora, derives from the Greek for “a carrying up or back” and is characterized by repetition of single words or phrases. In poetry, anaphora occurs when several lines or successive clauses begin with the same word or phrase. 

Anaphora, arguably the oldest literary device, has its roots in Biblical Psalms used to emphasize certain words or phrases. Gradually, Elizabethan and Romantic writers brought this device into popular practice. Take a look at the following psalm:
 “O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
    Have mercy upon me, O LORD; for I am weak: O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed.
    My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long?”

The repetition of the phrase “O Lord,” creates a spiritual sentiment. This is anaphora.

In poetry, there are times when using a word or phrase more than once weakens its impact; however, anaphora can raise the bar for repetition to create parallelism, enhance rhythm, intensify emotion, and strengthen sonic impression.

A good example of this is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” in which ten lines begin with the word “and.”

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac'd,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac'd,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly – doctor-like – controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir'd with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone. 


1. This week, try to write a poem in which you use anaphora. 

2. For starters, you may want to limit the poem to fifteen lines or less. 

3. With good anaphora the poet creates a kind of tension that is released into “wisdom” with a “punch” at the dismount.


1. Clearly, anaphora effects a poem’s sound and how it is read, sometimes creating a kind of chant or litany effect. There is, however, a fine line between heightened effect and boring reiteration—the trick is not to overdo. Very often less is more.


1. Emily Brontë’s "Remembrance" in which the opening phrase, “Cold in the earth” is repeated.

2. “The Tyger” by William Blake (repetition of “what”)
“What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”

3. “Birds of Passage” by Walt Whitman (repetition of “O”)
“O you daughters of the West!

O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!

Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,

Pioneers! O pioneers!”

4. Whitman used anaphora extensively in his poems. Here’s an example:


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Prompt #317 - Diminishing Metaphor by Guest Blogger Joe Weil

As a follow up to prompt #316 by our guest blogger Joe Weil, 
I'm happy to share with you another post by Joe.

Diminishing Metaphor by Joe Weil

All metaphors and similes, as Robert Frost pointed out in an essay I read long ago, are inexact. Initially, their “just so-ness” (my clumsy term) seems infallible. With time, they grow dull, lose their power, start to unravel or even fade into common usage to such an extent that we are no longer aware of them as metaphors (for example I just mixed two metaphors and you probably didn’t notice). Metaphors and simile draw their power by pointing out the “correspondences” in essentially unlike things. Now how about diminishing metaphor?

A diminishing metaphor is a horse of a slightly different color in that it draws its effectiveness by being incongruous and slightly imprecise from the start, yet losing none of its evocative power. It is the metaphor of evocation beyond correspondence.

We know the diminishing metaphor (or simile) is a little off, but the inaccuracy seems just right. It’s as if Goldilocks had come to the porridge and said: “this porridge contains a weird ghost of nutmeg , but somehow that makes it just right.”

Such imprecision from the onset promotes a whole situational universe that can be, as with all incongruities, comic, ironic, or full of further, yet suggested rather than overt meaning. This is why the metaphysical poets used oxymoron, paradox, but more importantly, diminishing metaphor (John Donne’s “The Flea” is a case in point) as one of their main devices to build up the intellectual and mystical power of their poetry. This is a major part of modernity, of the darkly comic, of the ironic and, most of all, the surreal. Surrealism is not possible without incongruity—without laying unlike things side by side, and then letting the reader’s subconscious make the connection or, rather, the fruitful “disconnection” In fact, diminishing metaphors, what might be called the accuracy of the near miss, increases in potential force because of its slightly off kilter and incongruous nature. It is often a species of extended metaphor (meaning an action or situation built into the metaphor and carried on as an almost sub-form that parallels the text):

Let us go then you and I
when the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherized upon a table

This is the classic example of diminishing metaphor, and it does a lot of things that more congruent yet less suggestive metaphors can do. First, it introduces the main theme of T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (enervation or, what was then called “neurasthenia”) into the body of the poem via a subsidiary form (the extended simile). Second, it challenges “poetic” simile by associating evening (one of the favorite times for poets) with something surgical, drugged, etherized (contrast this with Wordsworth’s evening). This creates what the definition of diminishing metaphor calls a discrepancy between tenor (tone) and vehicle (the actual situation). There is something a little absurd and even ridiculous to all metaphor if truth be told, but diminishing metaphor heightens this slightly off kilter feeling. That’s why metaphors wake us up—the good ones at any rate, and why diminishing metaphors can lead us down a whole new trail of thought (a sort of necessary digression) that opens the poem out to varied ontologies. This is the power of perspectives by incongruity that Kenneth Burke mentioned. Most metaphors hide the incongruity by privileging the correspondence between tenor and vehicle. Diminished metaphor actually plays the incongruity up (the flea sucking the blood of the two lovers as a sign of them being one—a  flea!). You can get comical with this:

Her kiss is rain, not that cloud burst kind
but that all day steady pour that
keeps you curled up in the green light of the
living room, watching old movies,
one hand tucked between your knees,
the other on remote.

Yes, this is extended or Homeric metaphor but it is also off just enough to make it a diminishing metaphor. Her kiss becomes a day isolated and in doors—a day of perhaps contented indolence. It’s all a little fuzzy, but it seems to increase the understanding of her kiss and the power of it. Surrealists use diminishing metaphor by heightening the inaccuracy to the point of the inaccuracy having the irrational just so-ness of a dream. Paul Eluard:

The world is blue as an orange
No error the words do not lie
They no longer allow you to sing
In the tower of kisses agreement
The madness the love
She her mouth of alliance
All the secrets all the smiles
Or what dress of indulgence
To believe in quite naked.
The wasps flourish greenly
Dawn goes by round her neck
A necklace of windows
You are all the solar joys
All the sun of this earth
On the roads of your beauty.

“Sing in the tower of kisses, dress of indulgence, wasps flourish greenly” (Eluard). All these phrases are lovely, even beautiful without adding up to any precise or determined meaning. They are evocative rather than correspondent. One could just as easily call diminishing metaphor, evocative metaphor to distinguish it from those metaphors that emphasize correspondence. Note that these lines by Eluard are not extended similes or metaphors. Diminishing metaphors need not be extended. They just tend to be extended. The world is blue as an orange might make a child laugh: “An orange is not blue, silly!” But by saying this, we get a whole arc of color from blue to orange. We also get the delight of a more evocative inaccuracy. The hyper literal child might become furious that the world is blue as an orange. We must not be too literal and we must calm that child because if we allow that child too much free reign to be a hyper literal tyrant, poetry might lose its ability to miss the mark, and thereby, hit the bull’s eye.


1. Write a poem that does not worry so much about correspondence as evocation. Lean on an incongruity. If you can’t come up with a metaphor or simile, try to put unlike things together as in the following example.


War Poem

The sea whispers to the chefs at midnight.
Stars fondle their kite strings in the dark
The minstrel takes his fork and stabs
the yellow vegetables: squash, carrots,
Turnips. The yams sing songs he can no longer
utter. What strangled his voice—our voice?
We—the minstrels who do not sing,
seas that no longer whisper.
chefs who no longer cook.
Or perhaps, there was something in us:
Like a doll left in a child’s pool
at the end of the day—one leg missing
the other pointed at the moon risen
above the abandoned hospital.
Who knows?
Something in us left behind made crooked
—floating with the grass,
the whole of the sky reflected there.
And where have the children gone?
Home to eat or to the graveyards where their
mothers have become struck tuning forks
they ring on and on—one note, pure beyond all breaking.
Not a single glass shatters.


1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. As you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés. Strive for originality (especially in your metaphors for this poem). Don't be afraid to take chances. (A bit of the surreal can be fun.)

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking metaphors.

6. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.


Thanks again to Joe Weil!