How to Read Haiku, Part 1

With The Heron’s Nest Editor Fay Aoyagi and Haijin Chad Lee Robinson

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

Part 1: Introduction by Ray Rasmussen

Early on in my haiku and haibun journey, editors rejected my haibun and several advised me to read haiku, saying that I’d not be able to write a good haibun until I had mastered the haiku part of haibun’s prose-haiku partnership. I had already looked at the many definitions of the two related genres (haiku and haibun), but found definitions lacking in specifics and mostly useless except as a rough guide, particularly the formulaic definitions like number of lines and syllable counts.

So I read a lot of haiku, both those of the Japanese masters and of the published works contemporary haijin and learned I simply didn’t get much out of them except that most didn’t follow the 5-7-5, 3-line, short-long-short structure learned in English classes.

And I mostly wondered why the editors picked the haiku featured in their journals. I concluded that haiku are not only difficult to write, but they are also difficult to read and understand, to “get the poetic spark,” so to speak. A problem was that I had a tendency to read them once quickly and to read too many at a time. In short, I was merely glancing at them, expecting a spark to jump out at me. In short, I was merely glancing at them, expecting a spark to jump out at me. I wasn’t engaging in what might be called “deep reading.”

I decided that in order to better understand haiku and thus, to be better able to write a worthy haiku and haibun, I had to first hone my haiku reading skills. In this way, I might be able to appreciate and understand why the editors selected some and not others, and particularly why they didn’t accept mine. And that’s what this three-part series is about – How to do a deep reading of haiku for better understanding of the nature of haiku.

To hone my reading skills – call them spark finding abilities – I regularly peruse the “Editors’ Choices” section of The Heron’s Nest. For each issue, one editor picks three haiku and elaborates on his or her thoughts about one of them.

Here’s editor Fay Aoyagi’s first pick in The Heron’s Nest, Volume XX, Number 2, June 2018.

tornado siren
the wind lifts a sneaker print
from home plate

~ Chad Lee Robinson

Robinson’s haiku has one of the most common structures found in contemporary English-language haibun:

  • seventeen or fewer syllables
  • presented in three lines
  • with no rhyming
  • composed of two distinct phrases, one short, one longer
    • tornado siren
    • the wind lifts a sneaker print from home plate
  • more “show” than “tell”, aka they focus on sense impressions, sound: tornado siren, felt: the wind; sight: a sneaker print, home plate.

The poetic spark in haiku has to do with the way the two distinct phrases work together along with the poetic images presented. For example, “tornado siren” alone isn’t likely to spark much interest. But what happens when you marry it to the second phrase?

Alas, if you’re like me, oftentimes you don’t “get” the spark. So in the next two parts, you’ll read about what sparked editor Fay Aoyagi’s poetic mind in reading Robinson’s haiku. And then, what sparked mine.

A suggestion. to the next pages that contain Fay Aoyagi’s and my musings about Robinson’s haiku, consider taking a moment to do to the following:

1. Read Robinson’s haiku slowly several times. Then read it aloud several times. In short, immerse yourself in its images.

2. Sketch out your reactions. What are your associations? What, if anything, does it bring to mind about your own experiences in life? Don’t try to interpret Robinson’s poem – you can always do that. Just focus on what his two phrases bring to mind in your own life.


Chad Lee Robinson’s haiku and Fay Aoyagi’s Comments that appeared in The Heron’s Nest are used with their permission.

Randy Brooks’ The Art of Reading and Writing Haiku: A Reader Response Approach can take you further into learning to read haiku.

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