haiku glossary

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haiku in English

An English language haiku is a poem with up to 17 syllables (or, very rarely, slightly longer). These short poems typically don’t include rhyme, meter, or overt simile and metaphor. Japanese haiku often include a cutting word or kireji, and a season word or kigo, and these are sometimes imitated in English examples. Frequently, haiku have themes of nature and focus on capturing a moment in time. A common characteristic of haiku is the effect of “opening the mind” (sometimes described as surprise, shock, or “ah ha!”) often achieved through disjunction.

senryū in English

Senryū are short poems of up to 17 syllables. They can have nature themes, but tend not to, and do not traditionally contain kireji (cutting words) or kigo (season words) as haiku may. Often the distinction between haiku and senryū is made by tone: where haiku is earnest, senryū is irreverent, ironic, satiric, or vulgar. However, haiku are often humorous. Senryū usually take the theme of human nature.


The term tanka was used in the eighth century to denote “short poems,” whereas chōka was used for “long poems.” The term waka replaced tanka in reference to short poems in the ninth and tenth centuries and tanka came to refer to poems of five parts, in 5-7-5-7-7 on (Japanese syllable) groupings. Tanka are often mistakenly thought to be related to haiku, however, they originated separately. The tanka is more similar to a sonnet, as it was popular with courting couples. Tanka also shares with the sonnet the concept of “the turn,” where the first three lines, the “upper phrase,” or kami-no-ku, might present an image, and the fourth and fifth lines, the “lower phrase,” or shimo-no-ku, present a personal response to the image.


Hokku, literally “starting verse,” are the opening stanza of renga, a type of Japanese collaborative poetry comprised of linked verses, as well as the later forms renku and haikai no renga. Of 17 mora, or on, in length, divided into three phrases of 5-7-5, and contained a season word. Hokku was the term used to refer to haiku, before Masaoka Shiki popularized “haiku” in the late 19th century.


Renga (linked verse) poetry is a collaboration between two or more poets. Alternating verses of 17 and 14 syllables were composed independently, but connected in various ways with the previous and following verse. The first verse of a renga was the hokku. Renga evolved into haikai-renga (playful linked verse), which is the direct origin of haiku.


Haibun is the combination of prose, such as a journal or diary, with a haiku.


Haiga is a Japanese painting style which combines a minimalist, poetic image with a haiku in calligraphy. Haiga are painted with the aesthetic principles of haikai, though may not always include a poem.

american sentence

The American Sentence is an invention of Allen Ginsberg, of which he published only 17 examples, all in his 1994 book Cosmopolitan Greetings. The American Sentence is 17 syllables long (though 2 or 3 of Ginsberg’s own are 18 or 19 syllables) and is written in a single line. Ginsberg’s inspirations in the creation of the American Sentence included haiku, the Heart Sutra, and William Carlos Williams famous admonishment: “No ideas but in things.” An American Sentence presents a scene with, as Ginsberg himself said, “maximum information, minimum number of syllables.”


Sabi can be interpreted as “beauty associated with loneliness,” or, “beauty that stems from age,” and is derived from the word sabiru, “to rust”. It implies “something that is given by time.”


An Overview of Haiku in English by Jim Kacian, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)

The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-language Haiku, Richard Gilbert (March 2004)

A History of Haiku, Volume One, R.H. Blyth (1963)

A History of Haiku, Volume Two, R.H. Blyth (1963)

Cosmopolitan Greetings, Allan Ginsberg (1994)

“About Form: What are American Sentences?” Paul E Nelson (2005)

Interview with Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman, conducted by Paul E Nelson (April 2001)

Wabi, Sabi and Shibui, J. Noel Chiappa

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