How to read a haiku

Three great things to look for in a haiku poem

I’m going to come right out and say it: nothing makes me want to throw my hands in the air and flee faster than coming across a page that’s filled with verses instead of nice, solid paragraphs. I automatically assume I’m not going to enjoy it, because I’m not going to understand it.

Except for haiku. I LOVE haiku. Not just because they’re from Japan. And not just because they’re short (SHUT UP).

I love haiku because they never fail to give me a satisfying “Aha!” on the very first reading. But even better, they deliver much, much more on the second and the tenth and the hundredth, if you know how to look for it.

Here are three things to look for that will triple your pleasure the next time you chance across a haiku:

Guess the Season

Every traditional haiku takes place in a particular season, and the Japanese poets outdid themselves trying to come up with the most elegant way to tell us which one. The great ones can do it with a single word. They range from DUH (changing maple leaves = fall) to requiring the kind of knowledge that comes from living in Japan for many seasons (Japanese radish = winter), but these words can be easily spotted because a) they’re the ones that represent plants, animals, insects, weather, holidays and seasonal tasks and b) they’re usually the most obvious subject of the haiku.

(If you’re curious about how many there are to choose from, here’s an excellent list!)

So…which seasons do you think each of these represent?

The dragonfly
dressed in red
off to the festival.

Woodblock print of a summer festival by Hiroshige Ando

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

Woodblock print of a snowy village by Hiroshige Utagawa

Straw sandal half sunk
in an old pond
in the sleety snow.

In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
look cold.

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

The Surprise Pairing

One of the ways haiku punch way above their weight is by drawing a connection between two things that aren’t usually thought of together. Each haiku can be divided into two parts, and seeing them together is what knocks my socks off.

Like these

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky—
the moon seals it.

Woodblock print of a flying goose and the moon by Ohara Koson
Look at the signature in the bottom right, to see what he means

Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end—
tonight’s moon

They don’t knotice
the thief’s gaze:
the melons cooling.

Face of the spring moon—
about twelve years old,
I’d say.

Woodblock print of women and girls viewing the moon by Toshikata Mizuno

Sound of a saw
poor people
winter midnight.

The Meaning of Life

But my favorite thing that haiku poems do is deliver a whammy about the meaning of life, in a subtle and elegant way. Autumn poems, for example, can be about becoming aware that the end of life is now nearer than its beginning. A reference to a cicada doesn’t just mean summer (because that’s when they’re around), it’s also about how little time we’re allowed on this planet (because cicadas emerge, mate and die in a single day).

I bet you can guess what these are about…

Insects on a bough
floating downriver,
still singing.

Not knowing
it’s a tub they’re in
the fish cooling at the gate.

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment.

Woodblock print of a girl with chrysanthemums by Suzuki Harunobu

And finally, here are a few that have it all…

What good luck!
Bitten by
this year’s mosquitoes too.

From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

Woodblock print of a beautiful woman in the falling cherry blossoms by Tatsumi Shimura

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that there are actually far more than three layers to haiku masterpieces, and if you’d like to read them even more deeply, check out this excellent blog post by haiku poet Michael Dylan Welch. He has identified thirteen things to look for!

The woodblock prints: Summer festival by Hiroshige Ando; Snowy village by Hiroshige Utagawa; Moon viewing by Mizuno Toshikata; Girl with chrysanthemums by Suzuki Harunobu; Beautiful woman in falling cherry blossoms by Tatsumi Shimura

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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