modern haiku


Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award
"Best Book of Criticism" for 2004

Haiku: A Poet's Guide
by Lee Gurga

with a forward by Charles Trumbull

"Wow! Breath of the Buddha!"
                              —Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Haiku: A Poet's Guide by Lee Gurga. Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2003. Foreword by Charles Trumbull. 170 + xiv pages. 5.25 x 8 inches, perfectbound. ISBN 0974189405.

Third printing, with edits, completed!

Modern Haiku Press
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Champaign, IL 61825

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Editorial Review:

Here is the complete guide to writing haiku—from inspiration and word-sketching in the field to the poem's final draft on the page. A major American haiku poet, Lee Gurga, shows what it takes to write a successful English-language haiku—a genre only recently introduced into our literature and one that is finding a rebirth in English. Like a laptop computer, a haiku is a miracle of compression. Gurga reveals the layers of meaning and emotion, and the philosophical and spiritual implications, that lie in each of these short, concise, suggestive, yet simple poems.

Going beyond the usual dos and don'ts, Gurga gives us the whys and hows, the whats, wheres, and whens of haiku creation. He details the differences and similarities between this new incarnation and the traditional Japanese haiku. Using examples of the best haiku being written today, he breaks each poem down into its components—both material and spiritual—to show all the pieces that make the poem work, and then shows how they were put together.

This is an important book.
        —Cor van den Heuvel
        Editor, The Haiku Anthology

 •  •  •

Book review published in FROGPOND 27.1
by Carolyn Hall

Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet's Guide (Modern Haiku Press, Lincoln IL 2003). ISBN 0-9741894-0-5. 170 pp., 5.5" x 8", perfect softbound. $20 postpaid.

This morning on "Car Talk" (the most widely broadcast radio show in the U.S.) I heard Click and Clack, "the Tappet Brothers," reciting car haiku submitted by listeners. Some were quite amusing and clever. Our local newspaper sometimes runs movie review haiku (the plot in three lines and seventeen syllables). Haikus for Jews have made the internet rounds, as have Zen-like computer error messages. So it is no great surprise that Lee Gurga, distressed by the proliferation of what he calls "pseudohaiku" (or zappai) begins the first chapter of this excellent new book with an explanation of what haiku is not (i.e., any short poem written in three lines comprised of 5 then 7 then 5 syllables).

One might wish that a book on how to haiku would start with what haiku is, rather than what it is not. And why a novice might want to engage in this particular art form. In the preface Gurga does, in fact, invite newcomers to join in the fun. "[Haiku] can change the way we see and think," he says. "It can even change the way we live." (vii) But the opening chapter presents an unembellished history of haiku from Basho to the present and continues with a cursory overview of the basic elements of haiku—perhaps at a level beyond the ken of the novice. Poems are presented as examples of seasonal awareness before introducing the idea of kigo, followed by classical Japanese haiku in translation that (it seems to me) a novice would be unlikely to comprehend.

But do not be discouraged. All of this takes place in the first twelve pages of the book. By page thirteen Gurga has hit his stride, and the next 140 pages are chock full of useful information, articulately presented and copiously illustrated. "A haiku is created from two ingredients," Gurga says, "an experience and an expression of that experience in words after it has passed through the poet's heart." (141-2) In the long sections on "The Art of Haiku" and "The Craft of Haiku" he expertly takes his readers down the path that will lead to adroit expression of experience.

Both beginners and those who found their way by reading haiku and related books and journals (educating themselves by example, without benefit of instruction) will find this book a welcome addition to their collections. Gurga himself came up the "hard way." He picked up Blyth in high school, fell in love with the subject matter, struggled completely on his own for 20 years, till at last he found Higginson's The Haiku Handbook.* Since then he has come a very long way, indeed. With the recent passing of Bob Spiess, Gurga assumed the mantle of editor of Modern Haiku. He is in perfect position to pass on his wisdom and guide young (metaphorically speaking) haiku poets.

The strength of this book lies in Gurga's articulate definitions and explication of the principal elements of haiku: form, season, the haiku moment, the "cut" or caesura, and internal comparison—as well as the various aspects of haiku craft and aesthetics. Nowhere will you read a clearer explanation of the differences between Japanese and English with regard to the use of 5-7-5 syllables, or of Blyth's 2-3-2 stress form. Gurga borrows wisely and selectively from the wisdom of Kuriyama, Yasuda, Henderson, Blyth, Higginson, Spiess, and Robert Lowell. But there are more than enough fresh insights to assume that Gurga, himself, will be quoted in future books on the subject. To his credit, he has gone to great lengths to provide an example from the current canon of English-language haiku to illustrate each technique he describes. (He has done his homework, collecting 195 poems by 126 contemporary poets.)

Repetition is key in the acquisition of a new skill. Gurga's teaching technique employs enough repetition to drive home the point, but never feels redundant. A single idea may be approached from several different angles or presented in several different contexts. Using fictional examples of "bad" haiku to make a point, as well as showing unsuccessful early drafts of what turn out, in the end, to be fine haiku, a student is taught how not to as well as how to haiku. If you are like me, you may find yourself occasionally scratching your head, trying to figure out how a particular haiku illustrates a particular point. But those instances stand out by dint of their rarity.

Gurga has strongly held beliefs (such as the importance of season words). "Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that." (24)

Because it can link the experience of a single moment to the universal forces of change and renewal, the seasonal reference . . . enables the poet to invoke the whole of the natural world with a single image. . . By relating a single instant of time to the season in which it occurs, the poet can suggest a mood that would otherwise be impossible to create in so short a poem. (25)

As may be expected, the importance and use of season words is thoroughly examined and liberally illustrated with examples of "explicit," "implied," and "indirect" reference to season. But even in this firmly held belief Gurga is open to expansion of the form. ". . . haiku conventions such as the Japanese season word will surely be objectionable to some," he writes. "They may seem arbitrary and can lead to misuse and poetical ossification . . . We Western poets may not find a use for specific culture-bound Japanese terms, but must bow to the power of the seasonal references in Japanese verse. We should develop a corpus of season words of our own; it will make our haiku—and our lives—richer."

Skillfully and effectively juxtaposing images in haiku is an elusive art, especially difficult for beginners, but often a stumbling block for seasoned poets as well. The sections on juxtaposition, internal comparison, and caesura, are particularly strong and illustrate the various kinds of interaction between images—echo, contrast, and expansion— as well as the unexpected associations of images.

The primary poetic technique of the haiku is the placing of two or three images side by side without interpretation . . . . A space is created between the images in which the reader's emotions or understanding can lodge and grow. (38-39)

Gurga is at the top of his form when discussing simile and metaphor in haiku. Re simile: "The genius of haiku . . . is that it is about how things are rather than what they are like." And "If a thing is like something else, then best to talk about that other thing in the first place." (84)

The subject of metaphor is, of course, more complicated. As Gurga says, "The technique of juxtaposition inevitably likens one thing to another or invites some comparison between images. That counterpoised elements can be interpreted metaphorically as well as literally adds depth and resonance to many of the best haiku." (84) He warns, however, against figurative language.

In using figurative language, the poet does all the imaginative leaping, leaving the reader nothing more to admire than the poet's virtuosity. . . By presenting the scene without interpretation—and all figurative language is interpretation—the poet co-opts the reader into making the imaginative leap, and, in the process, become a co-creator of the poetic moment. This link between poet and reader dramatically distinguishes haiku from other kinds of poetry." (50)

It is not enough simply to record what one has seen (though Gurga acknowledges that there are some who feel this is the only way to write "genuine" haiku). The chapter on "The Craft of Haiku" is replete with descriptions and examples of the beneficial (or detrimental) application of rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia, and rhythm in haiku. I was pleased to find a section which pays close attention to the importance of the look, and particularly the sound, of haiku. . . confirming that Gurga is of a mind that haiku is indeed poetry.

Because the haiku was introduced to the West as a Zen art and generally presents a single satori-like instant of awareness, many would say that the poem itself must be written in a instant of inspiration. This puts a premium on spontaeity and insight and downplays the role of craft in writing. Some would even go so far as to say that a haiku is not a poem, but merely a brief record of awareness. The opposite view is that a haiku is surely a poem and as such is subject to evaluation by the same standards as any other poem. This means that revision is as important a part of haiku writing as it is for any other genre. (60)

The look of haiku on the page is also given full attention, with discussion of lineation, enjambment, titles, capitalization, and five pages devoted to punctuation, as well as techniques of Japanese poetry that can be applied to English-language haiku (e.g., cutting words, pillow words, and pivot words or swing lines.) The section on Haiku Grammar covers the use of verbs, modifiers, articles and possessive pronouns. The section on Poetic Devices again covers simile and metaphor, unresolved metaphor and symbolism, synesthesia, personification and the pathetic fallacy, and allusion. Gurga addresses humor and wit and Basho's aesthetic principle of karumi or "lightness." ("Heaviness results from the use of ponderous, clotted language that impresses the reader into service rather than opens a window to experience." [96]) There is a discussion of truth and poetic truth ("Falsification occurs when the poet inserts preconceived notions into the poem" [98]), accuracy, and freshness. There is enough in this one chapter to engage a novice writer for months, if not years. Seasoned writers will appreciate it not only as a refresher course on haiku basics but also as an opportunity to enjoy Gurga's clean prose and refreshing insights.

The chapter on "Writing and Revising Haiku " is addressed primarily to the beginner and presents a useful typology of haiku (story in a sentence, cause and effect, context and action, etc.) as well as guidelines for editing and advice on publication.

It is a tricky business deciding where to begin a book. If you throw your reader headlong into the philosophical and historical meat of the matter, will you scare off the more timid comers? It is a possibility. But anyone who picks this book off the bookshelf, or orders it because of its title, has already shown an interest in haiku. The greater fear, therefore, is that by presenting the mechanics of haiku before establishing the mindset necessary to employ them wisely may encourage newcomers to pen just the kind of soulless haiku the author warns against. So if there is one flaw in this book, it is the decision to leave to the end the detailed history of haiku, as well as the thorny question of whether the values of classical Japanese haiku can be successfully exported to English and other languages. Gurga maintains that it is as important today as in Basho's time to embrace haiku aesthetics. Regarding contemporary haiku: "Whatever its status as literature, haiku requires a special state of mind, not necessarily Zen satori, but a mindset that impels poets to go outside of themselves to achieve an understanding of the 'suchness' or essence of things." (128) Gurga reminds us early on that even experienced poets are still "beginners," so for them as well as novices, it would have been best, I think, to begin at the beginning.

Having said that, the penultimate chapters are both engaging and informative.

Gurga clearly agrees with Harold Henderson's* assessment that haiku in English "cannot differ too much [from Japanese haiku] and still be haiku." In Gurga's words, "One may accept or reject [the aesthetic principles that have informed the genre since the time of Basho], but one's posture must be based on a knowledge of them." (14) Toward that end, he spells out some of the aesthetic principles which had infused literature in Japan by the seventeenth century and which became a significant part of the "Basho revolution" (and which, he says, continue to make haiku a viable literary form today). Among them are wabi and sabi, as well as hosomi ("slenderness") which "allows the poet to paint the scene, then disappear" (126) and shibumi ("astringency") which "gives haiku its tang—the flavor of persimmons rather than peaches." (126)

The wabi ideal of loneliness and poverty, of standing apart from the crowd, and the sabi appreciation for what is undervalued and time-worn have made it possible for haiku to be seen by some as a way of life or spiritual quest, the 'way of haiku.'. . . Hosomi and karumi have helped mold haiku into a genre of poetry that is capable of great depth but at the same time capable of the restraint necessary to achieve this without overwhelming the reader. . . . Pure perception allied with restrained expression are the ideals upon which haiku is founded." (127)

Blyth* identified thirteen characteristics of the state of mind that is needed to create and appreciate the kind of Zen haiku Basho wrote. Gurga revisits Blyth's Zen-based aesthetic principles, illustrating them with the haiku of contemporary English-language haiku poets. A few examples:


casting stones
into the ocean—
empty winter sky

               — Stanford M Forrester


A gust of wind—
the falling leaf
spirals upward

               —Lori Lambert-Smith


idle summer day
sucking meat
from a fig

               —Michael McClintock

Whether you believe there is, or is not, a relation between Zen and haiku, these carefully chosen poems paired with Gurga's succinct descriptions of the principles ("Real freedom is not doing what you want but wanting what you do," and "Materiality shows that the real truth is in objects rather than in ideas") is, in my opinion, one of the most instructive passages in the book.

In the final chapters Gurga expresses his personal philosophy and attitudes toward the writing of haiku and its potential to "replace the ennui that dominates so much of our culture."(142)

It is in cultivating spiritually exalted states of mind . . . that haiku offers us something that is available nowhere else in our culture. . . . Haiku offers humankind some alternative to the postmodern anthropocentric, narcissistic culture of our times. (132)

Quoting critic James Johnson Sweeney who says, "the only genuine art contribution of any epoch is . . . one that supplies what the epoch lacks," Gurga replies: "Haiku can do that." (132)

The book ends, appropriately, with a look ahead. Followed by an extensive list of resources, including books; North American and British haiku print journals (including editors' names and addresses); online journals, other online resources, and North American haiku organizations; as well as a useful index.

There is nothing else out there that is quite so accessible a tutorial as Haiku: A Poet's Guide. For any and all who have decided to venture into the haiku world, they would be well advised to take this volume along on the journey.


1. Higginson, William J., with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1985.

2. Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki. Garden city, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1958.

3. Blyth, R. H. Haiku. 4 vols. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.



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