haiku rules: regarding tense

blackboard with the words haiku rules

the problem of haiku rules

Most rules of haiku are not rules at all. My personal opinion on these “rules” is that many exist to provide a means to decide which poems are “good” and which are “bad” by deciding which are “right” and which are “wrong” instead. There are perhaps real guidelines in terms of Japanese haiku, but I’m speaking of English language haiku here, and in this arena there are more gatekeepers than gates.

which haiku rules to follow

In regard to which rules should be followed there is some consensus, but not much. I am in the midst of a mountain of research, trying to find the threads, the facts, and the precedents. I’m certainly not the first to embark upon the journey to sort out what English language haiku needs at its core to be “haiku,” nor the first to change their beliefs along the way. The Haiku Society of America states in their Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms (2004):

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.

This definition differs from their original, created in 1973, which even at the time was not representative of everything haiku poetry was, or could be. The cases for and against this updated definition, as well as what might be added, can be covered another day. What I’m interested in here is what I’ve yet to find mentioned in any definition:

haiku: a moment in the present

The present tense. It may seem obvious, when so many guides suggest capturing a moment, residing in the present, or mention shaisei (“sketch of life”), but so far in my reading, it has not been explicitly stated.

In A History of Haiku, Volume One, R.H. Blyth includes 62 haiku by Bashō–only two of which are in the past tense. One being:

     Suddenly the sun rose, 
To the scent of the plum-blossoms
     Along the mountain path. 

which still conveys immediacy through “suddenly,” and the sensory images used. The other being:

     Seen on a journey,–
The year-end house-cleaning
     Of this transitory world.

While this is not conclusive evidence, I wanted to share it with you–not to create a new rule to follow, but to make explicit something implicit. There is a certain type of haiku (and there are many types) in which the goal of the poet is to share a moment clearly–perhaps a moment in nature, or an emotion–without the intrusion of the poet on the reader’s experience, where the reader is instantly brought into the mind of the poet, is looking out through their eyes. Many poets will intuitively write these haiku in the present tense, but perhaps it’s been overlooked.

Let’s give attention to the tense of our haiku, and see what effect we create.


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

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