Bill Waters ~~ Haiku

Haiku + Tanka, Haibun, Rengay, Shahai, & More

Archive for the category “Poetics”

Reblogged: Why “Just write” isn’t exactly sophisticated advice, by Miriam Sagan

My “virtual guest-blogger” today is the wise and wonderful Miriam Sagan, who provides thoughtful insight into why “Just write!” — a common bit of writing advice — isn’t the universal writers’ panacea that many suppose it to be.  ;- )

Miriam's Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond

Why “Just Write” Isn’t Exactly Sophisticated Advice

Although I’ve benefited from this advice—and no doubt given it—I’m starting to think it isn’t specific enough. And that’s because advice could be more tailored to who the writer is:

1. A professional or well-trained writer who feels “blocked.”
2. A person who has “always wanted” to be a writer.
3. Someone suffering from writing anxiety.

I have no idea how I learned to write. I can create a romantic version of my experience—dyslexic failing elementary school, strict but kind teacher, discovering poetry, etc. etc. But this may all be hindsight.

And so, “just write” may be good for the person who knows how to write but just can’t at the moment. This approach tends to the quick and spontaneous, to overriding self criticism, and to productivity. However, as a person who “wrote” at least three failed novels, I can say that filling…

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What is haiku?

What is haiku? Here is a concise answer that I particularly like:
Originating in Japan, haiku is brief, objective and sensory – a literary snapshot of a moment in nature. Most haiku take longer to think about than to read. In this way, haiku are written not just by the poet, but also by the reader who brings his or her own set of experiences to the poem, allowing it to blossom differently for each person.
This explanation comes from The Holden Arboretum, where their Seasons of Haiku woodland trail, which uses QR codes to share seasonally themed haiku, garnered an outstanding 1,436 unique scans during its first month.
If you’d like to learn more about the Arboretum’s haiku trail — a very cool example of poetry in public places! — check out this link:  :- D
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Reblogged: 12 radical reasons to write poetry, by Kelly Belmonte

Returning for an encore, my “virtual guest-blogger” today is Kelly Belmonte with another thought-provoking, poetry-related list! :- D

All Nine

For most of the first two decades of my business career, I bifurcated my interests between “professional” and “creative.” In retrospect, this was a big mistake and a root cause of much unnecessary tension in my life.

I am a poet and a business professional, and only recently have I realized the benefit of crossing these streams. Now I am a shameless and impassioned advocate for the poetic voice as an integral player in an integrated life. Even those who think they are incapable of writing more than a text message might benefit from a little mingling of right brain and left brain.

Here I would like to offer just a few of the best reasons to give a go at writing a poem every now and then.

1. Brevity

Poetry, in most cases, is a shortened form of expression. What may take pages of prose, you attempt to do…

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Reblogged: 12 practical excuses for reading poetry daily, by Kelly Belmonte

My “virtual guest-blogger” today is Kelly Belmonte, an insightful poet who shares 12 very good “excuses” for making poetry a part of your daily life! :- D


All Nine

For many busy professionals, reading poetry is not up on the daily to do list. And if it is, it is somewhere down in the “nice to do” part of the list, around number thirty-seven perhaps, somewhere after “take out trash” and “file nails.” Even if you like poetry (or love it, as I do), it may be more of a guilty pleasure than a “must do.” It is on your vacation list, your beach book list, your when-work-life-balance-gets-sorted-out list. If that is the case, the “12 Most Practical Excuses for Reading Poetry Daily” list is definitely for you. Here you will find all the excuses you might need to respond to those inner or outer critics who do not understand why you would want to make poetry one of your everyday “to do’s.”

1. I’m working on the brand called me

A book of Basho’s haiku casually placed on…

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Fortune cookie message for…writers?

Of all the bits of humor and wisdom I ever thought I’d get from a fortune cookie, I never expected a précis on writing that applies beautifully to Japanese-style micropoetry. LOL!

Fortune Cookie for Writers

Fortune cookie message for writers!

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We need a word for that!

Bill Waters ~~ Haiku is more than only haiku, as it says in the blog’s heading: haiku and senryu, tanka and kyoka, shahai (photo-haiga), and haibun. There’s even a bit of poetics. But are my shahai really…shahai?

For the most part, not exactly — at least not in the traditional sense. In fact, I think they may fall into a new category that has yet to be defined.

Shahai are not poem-captioned photos

As I understand it, a shahai requires the integration of three components: a photo, a haiku, and a harmonious font (an equivalent to the calligraphy component of haiga). Beyond that, there’s a crucial relational tension between the photo and the haiku.

As Michael Dylan Welch states in his blog Graceguts, “the real poetry in haiga” — and this applies to photo-haiga as well — “lies in the relationship between the image and the poem.”

If the image shows clouds in a sky, then don’t say “cloudy sky” in the poem. The context of the image already shows us that, therefore to say so causes you to miss an opportunity to say something else, offering a tangential hint that creates something larger than the sum of the haiga’s parts. The poem might name or mention some aspect of the image, but most of the poem, in general, should not do so. … Indeed, the poem should shift away, at the same time linking to and leaping away from the image it is paired with. (

So there we have it: (1) a working definition of what shahai are composed of and (2) how the elements of a shahai should be crafted to interact. But the above-going comments presuppose that the image / poem combination is constructed “from the ground up” rather than (to pursue the metaphor) a “retrofit job”.

When you yourself are the creator of the image and the poem, you’re in complete control; a little less so, perhaps, when it’s a collaborative project between a photographer and a poet. But not all things called shahai are created in either of these ways — or for the same purpose.

So what are poem-captioned photos?

There I am, reading my Facebook news feed, and…omigosh, I see an intriguing photo and it inspires me to write a haiku! In essence, the picture is a photo prompt, and I write the poem — a stand-alone haiku that more-or-less reiterates the image in words — and post it as a comment. Can I call that poem, written in relationship to that image, a shahai?

I’d better consult my shahai checklist:

  • Photo: Yes!
  • Haiku: Yes…but it’s pretty much a caption
  • “Calligraphy”: Not applicable, since the poem isn’t typed on the photo

[Yes] + [Yes But] + [N/A] simply doesn’t add up to a shahai. And considering the poem’s application as a comment on a photo, maybe it isn’t one.

Brick Wall, by Jennifer Thompson.

Photo (c) Jennifer Thompson.







flaming ochre, burnt orange — / weathered bricks / in a worn-out wall

And what are sign-generator photos?

How do sign generators such as fit into the picture? I’ve used them to integrate haiku and senryu into photographs with fonts that complement the image. Can I therefore call those creations shahai? Speaking from a gut feeling, almost certainly not. But if not, then what?

After Dinner

Calling all wordsmiths…

Image / poem combinations not of the traditional shahai variety — earnest or playful, crafted with care — exist in abundance, so let’s not shoehorn them into our current conception of shahai. I think we need a new term for these creations.

What would you call them? I’d love to hear your thoughts! In the meantime, I’ll have to keep calling my “non-shahai shahai” shahai, for lack of a better word.  ;- )

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When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 2)

For many years, I’ve called all of my three-line Japanese-style micropoetry “haiku”, knowing full well that a certain proportion of it must certainly be senryu. When I began this blog, though, I decided to finally step up and start distinguishing between the two forms as an exercise in better understanding senryu and…well, because I think a writer should know what the heck he or she is actually writing.  ;- )

Senryu from the top down

In a previous post, I offered as a touchstone Michael Dylan Welch’s broad definition of senryu, which suggests distinguishing senryu from haiku mainly on the basis of tone and intent. Personally I find this useful because it explains not how to build senryu from the ground up, but how to recognize them when you see them already written. Now when I sift through my “haiku” database I can say, with a measure of confidence, “Nope, that one’s a senryu.”

Senryu from the bottom up

Poems matter; classifying them — despite this blog post — not so much. Still, when you’re sending what you think are senryu to a senryu journal for possible publication, you want to assure yourself that what you’re sending actually are senryu. And if that journal is doing a theme issue on a topic for which you have no senryu on hand, you want to be able to write some.

To Michael Dylan Welch’s definition of senryu I therefore add the following by the outstanding, long-time poet Alan Pizzarelli because it sheds light specifically on the mechanics of senryu.

Senryu is a short poetic genre which focuses on people. Men, women, husbands, wives, children and relatives. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind. Even when senryu depict living things such as animals, insects, and plant life, or when they depict inanimate objects, they are portrayed with the emphasis on their human attributes.

The senryu can make use of poetic devices such as simile, personification, and metaphor. It can also employ puns, parody and satire. Unlike haiku, senryu are not reliant on a seasonal or nature reference, but they DO occasionally use them. When they do, it is secondary to the human comedy or drama underlying the poem.

Senryu are not all strictly intended to be humorous. Many senryu express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity. (

Falling through the cracks

While the definitions articulated by Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Pizzarelli — the one, conceptual; the other, mechanical — complement each other nicely, they nevertheless do not overlap 100 percent. Nothing says they have to, of course, but they leave me with a question: how should I categorize poems that focus on people yet meet the broad criteria for haiku?

For example:

frozen puddle —

school kids lining up

to slide

Based on the poem’s tone, I can view it as a haiku. I can also view it as a senryu in that it offers insight into the psychology of being human. So what’s a poet to do?

Reading between the lines

The answer, I think, is to put aside for now the question of definitions and just enjoy the poem. Haiku and senryu are living poetic forms, and as such they have been evolving over time and across boundaries of country, culture, and language. Is it any surprise, then, that their definitions don’t necessarily agree on every single point?

I’ll keep on researching senryu to fill in the gaps of my understanding because that’s the kind of person I am. But my ultimate goal isn’t to create a comprehensive composite definition; it’s to increase my confidence in my own judgment as a writer and a reader. Ultimately I have to decide for myself what is or is not a senryu, knowing that some people will agree with me and some people won’t.

Please feel free to join the discussion! How do you define senryu?

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The wabi-sabi aesthetic

An understanding of wabi and sabi are essential to appreciating the Japanese aesthetics that underlie haiku and tanka. I once read a definition that boiled these concepts down to a mere 5 words each:

  • Wabi: the beauty of imperfection
  • Sabi: the beauty of impermanence

These definitions are a useful shorthand because they cut through the metaphysical “clutter”.

Not all complexity is clutter, though. For a more nuanced description of these terms, I offer the following passage from a charming little book called Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life, by Diane Durston:

Wabi has been defined variously in English as: tranquil simplicity; austere elegance; unpolished, imperfect, or irregular beauty; rusticity; things in their simplest, most austere, and natural state; a serene, transcendental state of mind.

Likewise, sabi has been interpreted as the beauty that treasures the passage of time, and with it the lonely sense of impermanence it evokes. It has also been defined as the patina that age bestows, or as that which is true to the natural cycle of birth and death. (Preface, page xi.)

Writers more experienced than me can be quite decisive about what has wabi-sabi and what doesn’t. Me? Even with these excellent definitions, I’m not 100% sure, so I tend to look for wabi-sabi in everything. I may not find it, but I start from the position that it may be there, if only I study an object with enough thought and insight.


wabi? sabi?

I scratch my head

and eat some wasabi

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When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 1)

When it’s a senryu! Although haiku and senryu are closely related, distinguishing between them can be tricky.

In an earlier blog entry, I posted the following poem: cricket lullaby — / cicada soprano / makes her shrill debut. I’ve always thought of it as a haiku, but might it actually be a senryu? Well…that depends on who you ask.

Over the years, I’ve come across a number of simple formulas that would supposedly help a reader tell haiku from senryu. Here are three of them:

  • If it’s serious, it’s haiku. If it’s funny, it’s senryu.
  • If it has no people in it, it’s haiku. If it has people in it, it’s senryu.
  • If it’s about nature, it’s haiku. If it’s about human nature, it’s senryu.

By these tests, “cicada soprano” is senryu (funny), haiku (has no people in it), and both (about nature, but implicitly about human nature too)!

The problem is…

The problem is that the formulas, though well-meaning, frame aspects of haiku and senryu as direct opposites, when in practice those aspects overlap. Either poetic form may display humor (playfully, in haiku; ironically, in senryu); either may have people in them (as a part of nature, in haiku; as apart from nature, in senryu); and either may reference human nature (in a secondary or implied capacity, in haiku; front-and-center, in senryu).

If good fences make good neighbors, then haiku and senryu are difficult neighbors indeed, since the boundaries between the two forms — so concrete when viewed from a distance — are blurry when looked at up close.

Plan B: agree to disagree

Yes, distinguishing between haiku and senryu can be tricky, and even experts on the subject are not in universal agreement about specific distinctions between the two forms. For myself, I’ve chosen to use as a touchstone a broad definition put forward by Michael Dylan Welch, a renowned figure in Japanese short-form poetry, who boils it down to mainly a matter of tone and intent.

[I]t is usually tone that differentiates haiku and senryu. Haiku tend to celebrate their subjects (even if dark), whereas senryu tend to have a ‘victim,’ and may or may not be humourous. Haiku typically treat their subjects reverently, whereas senryu do so irreverently. Haiku try to make a feeling, and senryu try to make a point. And if haiku is a finger pointing to the moon, senryu is a finger poking you in the ribs. (

“Cicada soprano”, therefore, is, by this definition, a senryu. I’m totally convinced of it…I think.

For more discussion of senryu, please see part two of this post:

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