Haiku and the Art of Play- Clark Strand

Every art form has its basics—those fundamental principles, forms, or techniques that must be set in place before you can learn the finer points of the craft. Watch children in any beginning ballet class, and you’ll see them learning the same five positions. Art classes the world over invariably begin with the line.

Haiku also has its basics. But there is a difference. The art of haiku lies in sticking to the basics rather than using them to develop larger, more complex expressions of the art. There are no Swan Lakes in haiku. No Sistine Chapels. The greatest haiku ever written are still simple. Still basic. Still only 17 syllables long.

The depth of a haiku—what makes certain poems so memorable that they endure from one generation to the next—is found in the “turn of thought” that is captured, much like a butterfly or a firefly, within the 17-syllable net of its form. That turn of thought can be funny or sad, provocative or deadpan, philosophical or topical. There really is no limit on what it can express or contain. Come up with a rule to limit what can be said in 17 syllables and five minutes later someone will have proven you wrong.

This dynamically open-ended quality of haiku has led me to conclude, after more than 40 years of writing them, that the only truly accurate definition of haiku where style and content are concerned is…“Whatever you can get away with in 17 syllables.”

This is the slogan for our monthly Gathering of Fireflies haiku circles. Each month we will study some new angle on the basics of FORM, SEASON, and THE TURN OF THOUGHT—but the aim is not to get beyond them. Each month, using those basic elements of haiku, we will strive to express what is in our hearts by writing a truer, deeper kind of poem.

For today, let’s start at the beginning…

Haiku evolved in Japan from an earlier form of poetry called haikai-no-renga (‘haikai’ for short). Haikai was a collaborative art form in which a group of poets took turns improvising stanzas (called “links”) to one another’s verses in such a way that each successive link gave a satisfying, sometimes surprising, twist to the meaning of the verse that immediately preceded it.

The result of all this improvising—conducted on the spot at a verse-writing party—was a freewheeling, kaleidoscopic journey through the seasons in 36 verses. The haiku form as we know it today is basically just the hokku (or “opening verse”) of a haikai-no-renga, composed as an independent poem with no other verses to follow it.

The ‘hai’ of haikai means “light or playful.” Thus, haiku means, literally, “playful verse.” But playful in what sense exactly? What does the “hai” of haiku really refer to?

Let’s take a famous English language haiku as an example:

A bitter morning:

Sparrows sitting together

Without any necks

—J.W. Hackett


This poem won the Grand Prize out of 41,000 entries for the Japan Air Lines National Haiku Contest in 1964, just as haiku was beginning to gain traction as a popular art form in American culture. Alan Watts was the judge.

And yet, Hackett’s haiku is hardly a “whatever you can get away with” kind of verse. It is simply a very good classical Japanese haiku that happens to have been written in English. The sympathy for small creatures. The memorable phrasing. The delightful “turn” of that final image. I love it. Most people who read it instantly love it. But what we love about it is how well it colors within the lines. How well it fulfills our expectations of what a classical haiku is or should be. How well it expresses a norm.

Hackett’s poem doesn’t mesh in any significant way with his life or personality. Its turn of thought could as easily have been captured by a camera as by a haiku poet. Sure, it’s a great haiku. But that’s all it is. As we delve more deeply into the art of “playful verse,” we will learn to expect a bit more.

Let’s compare this haiku to a poem selected at random from the work of African-American expat novelist Richard Wright, who spent his last years in Paris producing the first body of significant haiku poetry by a major Western writer.

Wright, too, wrote many haiku that “color inside the lines” of the classical Japanese tradition. But in Wright’s case these seem to have been part of his learning curve rather than a lasting predilection.


Like a fishhook,

The sunflower’s long shadow

Hovers in the lake.


The form of Wright’s haiku is slightly irregular (4-7-5 rather than 5-7-5), but in all other respects it fulfills the classical form in much the same way as Hackett’s: the clear seasonal reference, the break in the rhythm between the first and second lines, and the effective use of imagery.

But in Wright’s haiku there is so much more to the turn of thought. The menace of the opening image gets a “twist” in the second line when we realize that the “fishhook” is, in reality, the shadow of a sunflower—a relatively cheerful image overall. But the use of the word “long” in the second line and “hovers” in the third convinces us that our initial impression was correct.

Beautiful as the sunflower is, there is something vaguely threatening about its shadow invading the water of the lake. Being insubstantial, that shadowy hook can’t actually catch anything. Nevertheless, it feels expressive of more generalized or pervasive threats. Could its shape be meant to recall the “crook” used to pull an actor off stage? Is it perhaps even a bit like a scythe?

Wright spent much of his later life under surveillance by the FBI because of his Civil Rights activism and his connection with the communist party. He also died at the relatively young age of 52. And so it is easy to read the poem as self-expressive, or even deeply personal.

There is, additionally, the subtle symbolic suggestion that the quest for happiness itself might conceal some hidden peril. The cheerfulness of the sunflower has a shadowy darker side.

And yet, all of this is handled very “playfully” with the use of figurative language in the poem.

Is that same level of play at work in Hackett’s poem? I suppose his neckless sparrows huddling together in the bitter cold could be expressive of the human condition—our need for community in the midst of hardship. And the neck of any creature, animal or human, is a particularly vulnerable place. Necks can be severed, broken, or choked. So the phrase “without any necks” carries undertones of mortality. But this is all quite universal. The poet isn’t really there.

Real playfulness—deep or profound playfulness—is always relational, requiring some level of presence on the part of the poet. That is the challenge of writing haiku. Using the barest of images, and only 17 syllables of verse, we have to express the fullness of our being. It’s endlessly challenging, but profoundly rewarding—both for the poet and the reader alike.



Whatever You Can Get Away With In 17 Syllables: An Introduction to Haiku




Clark is an ex-Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and a former senior editor of “Tricycle: The Buddhist Review”. His books include Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and The Wooden Bowl: Simple Meditation for Everyday Life, as well as the recently published Way of the Rose, written with Perdita Finn. Clark leads HAIKU—The Master Class and sponsors a popular Weekly Haiku Challenge on Facebook.

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