Like many people, I was taught that haiku were poems that followed a 5-7-5 syllable count. In fact, I taught haiku that way for years myself. I’ll even own up to the fact that I used haiku as my "special lesson" on days when I was being observed. There was something so satisfyingly tight about the form and my observers (read: my bosses) left the room thinking actual learning had taken place. And, in fairness, maybe a little learning did occur – but a few years later, under the patient tutelage of a kind magazine editor named Robert Speiss, I learned that modern English language haiku is a much richer form than I had ever imagined.

I cracked up when I first heard there was a journal dedicated to haiku – Modern Haiku, in Madison, WI. (Of course it was Madison -- the Berkeley of the Midwest!). Having taught 5-7-5 haiku for a few years I thought I was an expert. So, I thought I would do the journal a favor and send out my first ever submissions. When Bob Speiss, the editor, rejected all of my submissions, I took the rejection as a perverse challenge and tried again. But he rejected the next two batches as well. (My students love this story, by the way!) In his extra-ordinary capacity as a teacher-editor, though, Bob always wrote an encouraging comment by hand with each rejection.

Most helpfully, Bob told me to read great haiku poets – Japanese masters (Basho, Issa, Buson), American poets who made forays into the field (Kerouac, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder) and some less celebrated contemporary poets creating some wonderful haiku right now (among my current favorites are Fay Aoyagi, Yu Chang, and Lee Gurga). He also led me to a more meaningful definition of haiku than mere syllable counting. Haiku, he said, are short, unrhymed, poems (usually no more than 17 syllables) that juxtapose two images to capture a moment of insight about the world or about oneself. (Since the haiku “moment” is so key – let me recommend a great little 4-minute video called “Moments” I just watched from WNYC’s Radio Lab).

So, I quickly subscribed to his journal and to other little journals and read as much as I could. When Bob suggested that haiku are not so much written as lived, I thought of Keats’s line that “Poems must come as easily as the leaves to the trees else they had not come at all.” But I really began to understand when I wrote – or should I say became aware of – my first haiku moment:

dawn approaching
the terrier catches a scent
in the hedges

Upon witnessing these two converging images – the new day and the fresh scent – I ran up to my apartment, wrote the poem down and sent it to Bob. He wrote back a week later and said, “Now you've got it.” I’ve been writing haiku ever since:

electrical storm
my daughter practicing
the letter “S”

my hand shake

room full of chairs
the museum guard
stands at attention

I do not offer these examples as proof of my “mastery” (hardly so), but only as indication of how haiku, in the words of Gary Snyder “help us live where we are now.”

P.S. Bob Speiss has since died, but Modern Haiku is now published out of Santa Fe by a terrific editor, Charles Trumbull. I also recommend checking out Frogpond and The Heron’s Nest as examples of contemporary journals that offer stunning haiku in every issue.

Originally Published: November 1st, 2009

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...

  1. November 2, 2009
     Jessie Carty

    When I returned to writing and reading poetry after a dismal 5 year absence I came back through the world of haiku I found "Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide (Paperback)\r
    ~ Jane Reichhold" to be a very helpful guide as I started out. I'd also give a shout out to the little journal "bear creek haiku" Great post!

  2. November 2, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    hey watermelons\r
    if the flarf poets come by\r
    turn into toadstools

  3. November 2, 2009
     Joelle Biele

    I really like Issa--such a warm sense of humor-- Robert Hass's translations are really nice--I think because he keeps the form loose.

  4. November 2, 2009
     Michael Theune

    As you can see from the July 14, 2009, post ("Taking Turns (for Granted) in Sijo and Haiku") over at\r\r

    I agree with the significance of Reichhold's thinking on haiku. Thanks for mentioning her work!

  5. November 2, 2009
     Michael Zarowny

    Great post, oconnojo. It actually inspired me to think about writing haikus. Before I just thought they were kinda stupid actually haha. I just wish you'd have given some examples of the haikus you submitted before realizing their meaning or at least some haikus that aren't up to Speiss's standards. To end this comment I will put a Haiku by one of my 9 year old sister's classmates (Cory D) that I find to be genius.\r

    Tiger Moth\r
    Red Yellow Orange\r
    Pooping in the Field\r
    -Cory D'

  6. November 3, 2009
     Arthur Durkee

    Mixed feelings here. On the one hand, it's nice to see some Harriet denizens (re-)discover what practicing haijin have long known, that the moment is much more important than the "pure" form, although it's quite possible to do both together. On the other hand, one detects a faint whiff of (probably unintentional) condescension, the dismissiveness of which is probably no-one's fault as it is rooted in the way most folks are introduced to haiku in grade school: very superficially. The one thing haiku is NOT, is superficial. \r

    Having been involved in this poetry for most of my life, I can attest that haiku writing and appreciation can go much, much deeper than the cute poems most beginners come up with. It's sort of like playing the recorder: anyone can pick up the instrument and play a few notes, but to really master it, to make music with it, will require much more extensive study. \r

    Basho described haiku-writing as a Way, the Way of Poetry. If one wishes to explore in this direction, which goes very far beyond the purely formal elements of haiku, one might look into Sam Hamill's "The Essential Basho" or Robert Hass' "The Essential Haiku." When mentoring beginning haijin, I usually recommend William J. Higginson's "The Haiku Handbook: How to write, share and teach haiku," which isn't just a how-to manual but contains an anthology of examples. When they're ready for it, I usually recommend Makoto Ueda's books, or Robert Aitken Roshi's "A Zen Wave: Basho's haiku and Zen," which gets at what the haiku moment is about better than most other studies. \r

    laptop on knees,\r
    glass of orange juice at hand–\r
    morning pages

  7. November 3, 2009
     Jason Crane

    Thanks for this post. Just a quick note that the Modern Haiku link at the end of the post has a misspelled URL. The correct link is:\r\r