21st Century Butterfly, 19th Century Net: Fourteen Years in Haiku

March 27, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 5 8 min read

570_Clear Butterfly
coverCan you really write a poem a day for fourteen years? Yes, if the poems are very short, and if you think that someone will read them. I began writing daily haiku in 1999, inspired by a Soft Skull Press anthology called The Haiku Year, in which seven friends, including Michael Stipe of REM, agreed to mail each other a haiku a day on a postcard for a year. An anthropologist friend was my first haiku correspondent, inking her poems on delicate aerogrammes mailed from her fieldwork site in Papua New Guinea.

My companions see

that the sea-turtles are mating

and put their spears away.

Melissa Demian (1999)

Like most Americans, I was first introduced to haiku through an Orientalizing lens of false timelessness. My elementary school teachers — relieved to offer a lesson that matched the attention span of their students — explained the so-called “ancient” art of haiku by spelling out its rules. A haiku poem has three lines. The first line has five syllables. The second line has seven syllables. The third line has five syllables. Each haiku includes a seasonal reference.

Wrapping dumplings in

bamboo leaves, with one finger

she tidies her hair.

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

In The Haiku Year, Tom Gilroy’s forward discusses mid-20th century roots of Japanese-inspired American haiku: “Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure and the San Francisco poetry Renaissance started the concept of Western haiku…little three-line poems aiming towards a kind of Zen enlightenment. The Beat Generation was the right time to make a transition to a new kind of haiku, with all that pot-smoking and coffee-drinking and scatting and Japanese haiku books laying on couches next to Whitman and William Carlos Williams. A kind of combustion.” Gilroy follows the Beats’ lead by relaxing the 5-7-5 rules, explaining that the seven friends who wrote The Haiku Year were shooting instead for poems of three short lines each that included a seasonal reference. He added however, that they were attempting to write poems that offer both “the moment seized and rendered purely, captured in an instant of Buddhist (or Zen) enlightenment,” and “reflections on the particular consciousness, or point of view of the author, his or her loneliness, or comedy, or anger.”


boy smashing dandelions

with a stick.

Jack Kerouac (1959)

When I began writing daily poems fourteen years ago, was I writing authentic, Japanese-style haiku (a form I will indicate with italics), in contradistinction to Western-style, Kerouac-meets-elementary-school-classroom haiku (a form I will designate with Roman type)? Nope. But what I was writing excited me. I had wanted to write poetry for years, but couldn’t: nothing in my life seemed truly poem-worthy, which meant that when I did encounter love, for example, or death, I had no poetic muscle with which to tackle it, and wrote flabby clichés instead. Writing daily haiku unblocked me as a poet.I didn’t have to wait years to let myself write a poem (which of course would have to be the best poem ever); my job was to go through each day looking for just one poem, any poem. I felt like I’d been locked indoors for years, leafing through a field guide and wondering if someday I’d find that special butterfly that would be named after me. Suddenly I was standing outside with a net and the command to just catch something, anything, every day. Suddenly there were butterflies everywhere.

Bartlett pear blossoms:

these long-wristed girls

punch crisp holes in the blue day.

EA (1999)

Rethinking what counted as poetry and poem-worthy freed me to write some terrible haiku, but it also freed me to write a few good ones. Moreover, it has led me to realize that the poem itself is not the point of writing poetry. Instead, I forged this new definition. Daily haiku writing is a practice of attentiveness, the major byproduct of which is a seventeen-syllable poem.

String hangs from a branch.

The moment of wanting to tug it:

that’s the bell.

EA (2012)

As the years pass, I have departed increasingly from the elementary-school form. First I dispensed with the obligation to include a seasonal reference in the poem. Then I jettisoned syllable counts for each line. Although since 1999 I’ve annually made a booklet of each year’s haiku and sent it to friends, most recently I’ve been sharing these poems daily on the internet. Facebook and Twitter made my line breaks look precious rather than effortless, which spurred me to let go of the requirement that a haiku be a three-line poem at all.

Night. The drag queen at the corner pauses, wonders: Walk home, or cab it?

EA (2009)

What remains? A seventeen (or fewer) syllable poem that tries to capture a unique moment in time as freshly and simply as possible.

The revelatory pleasure of listening for a poem in each day led me to develop an exercise for my creative writing students that encourages them — as writing daily haiku encouraged me — to stop fretting over what counts as worthy subject matter. At the beginning of the semester, I ask them to choose someone in their lives, and then each day throughout the semester they have to write that same person a postcard that captures a moment from the day. (They also have to type up their postcards and turn them in to me.)  Although this exercise is designed to help perfectionists stop beating themselves up, it differs from freewriting or journal-keeping in two ways: it emphasizes selectivity over exhaustive production, and it also forces students to consider what it means to write for publication — even if one’s “public” is just one other person — as opposed to for oneself.

Winter Surfer

…No regard for frozen pain

Cover me in neoprene…

…Urine is my warm lover

You’re in my wonder winter-land…

–Columbia student (2005)

When I apply this question of publication to my own haiku practice, although I’d be over the moon if a press picked up my haiku, I find I shy away from sending a manuscript to publishers.  In researching the origin of the actual, Japanese, italics-intended haiku, however, I’ve come to wonder if my hesitation has something to do with the form itself.

A relatively recent predecessor of Japanese haiku is renga, multi-authored linked-verse poetry of the ninth century to the present. Renga began as an aristocratic pastime, and though the ranks of renga poets has become somewhat more democratic over the centuries, the form remains a hobby rather than a profession. Historically, renga groups usually consisted of people who already knew one another, be they a master poet and his (or her) disciples, monks or nuns belonging to the same sect, or simply a group of friends or colleagues. Groups numbered three to six, though sometimes included as many as twenty, and tended to meet at one another’s houses, with the duty of host (which included preparing a banquet and hanging seasonally-appropriate art) rotating from member to member. Poets had only a few minutes to compose each verse, and no time to rewrite: the point was not to create and publish a masterpiece for the ages, but to show off one’s talent with a fresh-sounding verse, one’s erudition with a verse that referenced older poetry, and one’s ability to keep an eye on the big picture with a verse that linked well to its predecessors, all in front of a handful of people who might be able to further one’s political or mercantile career.

Renga can be of any length, though well-known forms include 100-verse, 36-verse, and 18-verse poems. The verses of a renga alternate between two and three lines in length, the two-liners containing seven syllables each, the three-liners following the 5-7-5 pattern we now associate with haiku. A renga always opens with a 5-7-5 three-liner, known as a hokku, while all the subsequent links of verse, each by a different author, are called haikai. In the late 17th century, renga poet Matsuo Bashō began composing hundreds of verses in hokku form that were in fact designed to stand alone, a practice echoed by later poets Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). In the late nineteenth century, a renga poet named Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) championed Bashō, Buson, and Issa’s hokku verses as well as the practice of writing stand-alone poems as 5-7-5 three-liners. Shiki renamed these short poems haiku, fusing the terms hokku and haikai, the opening verse and its subsequent links.

The old pond:

a frog jumps in—

the sound of water.



I was surprised to learn that the word haiku, far from being ancient, is roughly the same age as Yeats’s Celtic Revival movement, which similarly engaged modernity while keeping one eye reverently on the past. Shiki’s invented word haiku suggests “The Opening Verse Is the Whole Poem” poetry, “Alpha-Omega” poetry, “Look No Further Than This” poetry. Shiki coined the neologism haiku in order decouple these short poems from their roots in renga, a form perhaps better suited to producing social relationships among poets than to producing poems. Unlike renga, which Shiki claimed was “not literature,” haiku were meant to be considered on their own terms. Half a world away, meanwhile, Walter Pater, the idol of the Aestheticist movement, was making similar arguments against judging art by what it could do for its producers or consumers, in language that revived the early nineteenth-century battle cry of Art for Art’s Sake.

The tree cut,

dawn breaks early

at my little window.


Shiki invented the word haiku during the cultural upheaval that attended Japan’s rapid Westernization in the late nineteenth century. Shiki, though known for his love of baseball and Western civil liberties, does not appear to have read Western poetry, no more than Gwen Stefani appears to have read Japanese in order to write her pop song “Harajuku Girls.” But he lived in a Westernizing milieu, and his friends included novelists Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai, themselves engaged in incorporating and rejecting aspects of Western literature into their work.

Smoke whirls

after the passage of a train:

young foliage.


To repurpose an anthropological term, renga can be considered a “high context” art form: its individual links of verse are not designed to stand alone, and the point of the renga is not the finished product, but the collaborative writing process, which involved an exclusive coterie of fellow-authors and the sharing of food and liquor. The Western poetry that Shiki’s contemporaries would have encountered it, by contrast — published, portable, single-authored works produced and consumed in private— could be described, on a relative scale at least, as “lower context.”

Buying leeks

And walking home

Under the bare trees


How do you pitch radical Westernization to a nation of proud traditionalists? Tell them it was their idea in the first place. In 1887, when the Empress decreed that all the women of the court would henceforth wear Western dress, she did so by citing ancient precedent. In a gesture that probably appealed to nostalgiacs and forward-thinkers alike, Shiki’s invention of the term haiku both heralded a new form capable of being appreciated alongside works of Western literature and asserted that form’s antiquity and cultural purity. Weren’t Bashō, Buson, and Issa writing haiku long before Commodore Perry’s black ships reached Japan?

All the time I pray to Buddha

I keep on

   killing mosquitoes.


Identifying how Shiki’s new (or “new”) haiku form rejected two key aspects of renga — its linked and participatory nature — helps me understand how those aspects live on in my own haiku practice, and in particular in my haiku publication practice. Where eighteen, or thirty-six, or even a hundred linked verses of renga constituted a poem, now one solitary verse of haiku stands in its place. While I love locking down a startling, purely-experienced moment into seventeen syllables as much as the next haiku poet, there’s also a way in which the poems don’t feel finished until they’re gathered into an annual collection, where the good-haiku-day poems balance out the blah-haiku-day ones, and the funny ones can inject breathing space around the solemn ones. The linked whole tells the story of a year. Meanwhile, the participatory nature of the form that morphed into haiku survives as the pleasure of hearing back from friends to whom I’ve sent each year’s collection, and of posting each day’s poem online. While I have had a few magical experiences of writing haiku in a group (such as the Hailstone Haiku Circle in Kyoto, led by Stephen Gill, or Rachel Simon’s poetry group in Yonkers), the sociable aspect of the renga banquet lives on more frequently in the “likes” and comments I get from friends online, and in the rare and delightful seventeen-syllable reply I receive.

Reading lines like recipes. 1 tsp wimpled nuns. 1 C river.

Holly Rae Taylor (2013)

When I read The Haiku Year and started writing and exchanging daily haiku, I didn’t know just how young the form was, especially given the long history of the renga from which it was cut loose. Though more than a century of vigorous Japanese production and consumption of haiku indicates that Shiki’s innovation was a success, my own experience suggests that the linked and participatory aspects of renga that Shiki tried to pare away re-adhere to haiku with remarkable ease. Much as I love writing haiku for haiku’s sake, I have let many aspects of the form fall away: the seasonal reference, the number of syllables per line, even the line breaks. What persists, however, is this: It’s as parts of a whole, an art-for-connection’s-sake whole, that these seventeen-syllable verses keep me coming back for more.

Old pier.

Late sun lights the gray wood gold.

You are still not tired of beauty.

EA (1998)


Image via Wikimedia Commons

is the author of two award-winning novels and a memoir. Her most recent novel, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012), was inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and is set in 1920s Paris. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City. She posts daily haiku on Twitter @EllisAveryNYC.