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How to Write Haiku: Using Juxtaposition
More Useful Resources
Get started with expert advice for beginners from published haiku poets with Learning How to Write Haiku: Some Great Links
Avoid common mistakes with my ironic How to Write Bad Haiku
Explore the use of seasonal reference in traditional haiku with Kigo: Season Words in Haiku
Here's an essay by someone else, An Introduction to Advanced Haiku by Ashley Capes, which also has some good advice on juxtaposition.
Juxtaposition and Kireji
All Japanese haiku are written in one line, while in Western languages most are written in three lines. Nevertheless, pretty much all successful haiku have two parts, and the two parts usually convey two images. The exceptions are sometimes called "single image haiku."
As Alan Summers writes, haiku need "a break, a pause, a gap where sparks fly," to make them memorable.
In his article, "Meaning in Haiku," Charles Trumbull points out that while juxtaposition of images, emotions, and ideas is important for all poetry, the "internal comparison" of images is "the act that makes a haiku a haiku."
The one-line Japanese haiku uses a sort of verbal punctuation called a kireji, or "cutting word," to underline this gap between two images. Some kireji express a question mark, others indicate wonder—like "ah" or even "wow"—while others are completely untranslatable.
In Western languages, the line break between the first and second, or between the second and third lines—with or without punctuation—usually signals the juxtaposition or "cut" which adds energy and depth to haiku.
Basho's famous frog haiku clearly sets two images side-by-side.
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
~ trans. William J. Higginson
The ellipsis here represents the kireji, which is "ya," an untranslatable divider inviting the reader to perceive the relationship between the two parts of the haiku (Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Haiku, qtd. in Wikipedia "Kireji").
While this haiku seems a bit like three phrases in English, in Japanese the second and third sections have no pause between them, and they certainly describe one experience—"jump, splash!" Without the old pond, which begins in silence and ends in silence, the splash of the frog is just a noise, and without the leaping frog, the old pond becomes a static postcard.
Carmen Sterba, in her "Thoughts on Juxtaposition," speaks of this relationship between two parts as "resonance," or "reverberation." As a meditation bell may reverberate throughout a room, its echo creating new sounds, the two parts of the haiku resonate with one another to produce a new meaning. Sometimes I can describe that new meaning at once, but I'm often most struck by the haiku in which I sense the resonance but cannot easily put it into words.
Michael Dylan Welch in "Becoming a Haiku Poet," writes that realizing the connection between the parts leads to a "spark . . . an 'aha' moment" for the audience. "As a writer of haiku," he continues, "it's your job to allow the poem to have that spark--and not to spell it out for the reader. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do with haiku, as well as" the most important.
One final indication of the importance of juxtaposition is found in Jane Reichhold's teaching essay, "Haiku Techniques," first published in Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America. More than half of the twenty-three techniques given—such as "Association," "Leap Linkage," "Close Linkage," "Paradox," and "Humor"—are precisely techniques of juxtaposition.
This essay will give examples of juxtaposition in classic and modern haiku, then discuss some potential problems in creating effective juxtaposition. It closes with a brief description of "single image haiku," and a final quotation from a twentieth century master.
"Snail" by Issa
Examples of Juxtapostion
Traditional Japanese Haiku
Here is deeply personal haiku by Matsuo Basho, written during his first visit home after his mother's death, when his brother showed him a lock of her white hair.
if I took it in my hand,
would hot tears make it vanish?
~ Trans. Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani in The Heart of Haiku
Even without the story behind it, the juxtaposition between hot tears and frost is strikingly moving.
* * *
Kobyashi Issa often favored a relatively small "gap" between parts, yet almost all his haiku still have a juxtaposition that creates energy. Sometimes the energy seems to me to come from finding the gap rather than seeing a connection between apparently unconnected things. When I read the haiku below—appealingly interpreted by the video on the right—it seems to describe one unified moment. The "spark" is in Issa, and in the reader: that "scene of surprise" as Shinji Ogawa calls it, on suddenly seeing a little creature.
Right at my feet
and when did you get here,
* * *
Chiyo-ni, a woman haiku master, used juxtaposition in many ways. Here is one of my favorites. The device of using one part of the haiku to explicitly describe the human response to natural beauty is common—maybe too common—in contemporary haiku, but it has a long history.
at the crescent moon
enters the heart
~ trans. Donegan and Ishibashi
This stunning haiku is perfect taken in its plainest sense, but it also resonates with Buddhist teachings which liken enlightenment to seeing the moon.
Juxtaposition in My Haiku
Here a few recent poems which I think use juxtaposition well.
rain on the window
praying for someone
I’ll never meet
a moon sliver slips
through the powerlines
The smell of earth
as light rain falls at sunset
blackbirds tease a crow
A black tree
fills with bird song
for the unseen step
Haiku by Alan Summers
Juxtaposition in Haiku
I'll discuss five examples of juxtaposition in modern English-language haiku, four three-line poems and a one-line monostich. Each uses the technique in a different way.
First, a lovely example from Carmen Sterba's essay on juxtaposition, in which the moon plays an entirely different role than in Chiyo-ni's poem.
mist from my whisper
on her silver earring
~ William Cullen Jr., Frogpond, XXIX:1
While the haiku is not traditionally a romantic genre, this poem succeeds by calling up a scene alive with subtle romance. The couple stand so close on a cool moonlit night that the speaker can see the mist of his breath on her shiny earring. The poem's juxtaposition appears in the unspoken contrast between the distant moon and the earthly lovers. The moonlight echoed and reflected in the silver of the woman's jewelry creates resonance within the juxtaposition.
In addition, as Sterba writes, "the repetition of i and s in mist, whisper, and silver adds to the sense of intimacy and creates a delicate synesthesia," a mixing of senses, so that the gentle whisper and the soft mist entwine.
* * *
The second poem is from Alan Summers, who includes it in his essay, "The Moon is Broken: Juxtaposition in Haiku":
unlacing the shoe
on his sole
mud from the gravesite
Blithe Spirit Vol. 6 No. 3 (1996); Does Fish-God Know (YTBN Press 2012)
This juxtaposition reminds me of that in Issa's poem. Taking off one's shoes and seeing the mud are one action, one experience, but the tension, the poetic "spark," arises between the everyday act of unlacing dirty shoes and the uncommon realization that the mud on them comes from a newly dug grave.
As in many haiku, a syntactic dislocation also signals the cut between the poem's two parts, here the first line and the last two, thus creating verbal juxtaposition. It doesn't read "As he unlaced his shoe he saw" but "unlacing the shoe," so we have to concentrate just a touch harder to understand the relationship between the first and second lines.
In contrast to Cullen's moon haiku, Summers' poem lacks appealing rhythm and alliteration -- as part of a prose sentence in a personal essay the first line would seem like a dangling modifier rather than poetry. Written in three lines, it is definitely a poem, and for me a moving one. The lack of an active verb or even a "he" conveys the numbness that often comes with early grief. I see a man alone in a room, taking off his formal shoes after the funeral of someone he loved. -- and my picture arises precisely in the gap between the two parts of the poem.
On the sixth or seventh reading (I can be a little slow) I also see the word-play: both his "sole" and his soul are darkened by mud from the grave site. Perhaps because I did not notice it immediately, the pun does not strike me as too jokey for a serious poem; instead, it adds depth.
The next haiku lacks the obvious emotional resonance found in the first two poems; instead it presents us with a brilliant image -- in several senses. Ferris Gilli includes it in her "Juxtaposition in Haiku," part of her series "Haiku Lessons." By an award-winning author, this poem "resonates through the juxtaposition of dissimilar or unrelated images" which in the end, become unexpectedly connected:
~ Peggy Willis Lyles, Saki Chapbook #8: Thirty-Six Tones
Gilli writes, "I know, of course, that the glitter of sunlight in drops of water from the melting ice gives the impression of splintered light. But I will never again hear a noon whistle" -- ear splitting in both fact and cliché -- "without thinking of this one that shatters air and light." I also find this a beautiful example of how metaphor works in haiku, drawing subtle and unspoken connections that can remain with us long after we read a deceptively simple poem.
A few readers may wonder whether this poem about a factory whistle implies some statement about manufacturing or capitalism, either a critique of how industrial work alienates workers and "splinters" their experience, or a nostalgia for the factory towns of the northern U.S., where many people made a living wage in living memory. Some academic analysts I know would go that route, but I believe that one reads better without loading one small haiku with a social context or ideology that it does not clearly imply.
* * *
The final two poems come from the Haiku Foundation's Shortlist of Poems for the 2012 Touchstone Awards, which "recognize excellence and innovation in English-language haiku and senryu published in juried public venues during each calendar year."
on my mammogram
~ Carolyn Hall, The Heron’s Nest, Vol. 14
This haiku exemplifies a modern style of juxtaposition in which a natural object or scene is implicitly contrasted with an unrelated human thought -- often, as here, the thought of someone who is distracted or obsessing about something. As such, these poems are distinctly different from those traditional haiku which explicitly include an organic human response to the natural world, as in Chiyo-ni's moon poem or Issa's wry question to the snail. This kind of modern haiku, instead of connecting the human and the natural, reports or enacts alienation between human experience and the natural world.
Nevertheless, the best examples of this kind of juxtaposition often create a connection back to nature. Some qualities of the natural scene and the human thought resonate poetically -- either in implied comparison or significant opposition -- to make the juxtaposition meaningful and yet fresh. I suspect that readers' responses to a haiku of this kind vary widely, as perceptions of "meaningful" and "fresh" are particularly subjective.
This is not my favorite form of juxatposition, and at first reading this poem did not strike me. Slowing down and giving it a second chance, I began to love it. The "starless night" has a separate, objective reality, noticed by the author of the haiku despite her worries about health. At the same time, that night may accentuate her worry, bringing up images of uncertainty, darkness, threatening storm, or even death.
To me, the poet seems to express both connection and healthy disjunction between her worries about breast cancer and the starless night through which she walks. After all, she has chosen to write a haiku, matter-of-factly juxtaposing the two, rather than a lyric poem exploring her emotions and perhaps imposing them on nature. Yes, that "something" may be nothing or it may be life-threatening, the haijin seems to say, but the starless night does not exist only to echo my uncertainty: it has its own reality, whether muggy and close or cold and windy, with the smell of snow in the air.
* * *
Our last haiku differs in several ways from those above: It is a monostich, or one-line 'ku; like many modern haiku, it is a bit surreal; and it is gently but distinctly funny.
autumn days drifting from text to marginalia
–Mark Holloway, Bones no. 1
Over-analyzing a poem like this would be rather like dissecting a dragonfly to understand what makes it iridescent, so I'll make only a few observations.
This haiku is fun to say, and it has a nice additional juxtaposition between the first six common words and the very uncommon but easily understandable "marginalia."
It has an effect one can only have with a monostich haiku: One word, "drifting," can go with either the phrase before or the phrase after. This produces an effect rather like the little printed holograms one finds on cards or bookmarks: as our angle of view shifts, the bird's wings go up or down, or the dinosaur's mouth opens and closes.
Like many haiku, it becomes even better if one knows the poets whole body of work. Mark Holloway's blog is one of those I describe in my hub on haiku blogs, and if you head over there you'll find fine poems like and unlike this one, many of which display the same dry, wry, self-deprecating humor.
New car scent . . .
. . . an eagle pair???
Too Large a "Gap" Between Sections
In "When Juxtaposition Fails" Ferris Gilli takes one of her own published haiku and shows how it would fall flat if she changed its first line.
an eagle pair perches
atop the cypress"
Gilli writes, "I can imagine a new-car scent, and I love the image of the eagle pair. But seeing them together makes me say, “Huh?” The space between the parts is more like a cement wall."
The real version of the haiku juxtaposes misty weather with the eagle pair. It resonates because, as Gilli writes, "it offers a fillable space between the parts," implying a moment in which the speaker catches sight of the eagles through the fog.
hole in the fog -
an eagle pair perches
atop the cypress
~ published in Haiku Light, 1999
My second example of too much distance is an actual published haiku. Remember how I said above that responses will vary widely with haiku that describe alienation between a natural scene and human experience? This poem worked for the editor of a prominent haiku journal, but, with apologies to the author, did not work for me.
the riot police
~Terry Ann Carter, Ontario, Frogpond
I think the haiku genre is too compact to convey the experience of suddenly realizing that our pleasant or at least routine lives exist in a world full of violence and profound suffering. Longer poems (I think of some by Adrienne Rich) can do this better. My other issue is that "beach yoga" could also be "tai chi in the park" or a similar activity: there is nothing for me that makes "yoga" a meaningful opposite of "riot police."
Adding Words that Weaken the Juxtapostion
Alan Summers and Gilli agree that prepositional phrases often get a haiku off to a bad start.
"on a warm day
the workman lunches
in his wheelbarrow"
Summers' published version becomes far more spacious with one tiny change:
warm day ...
the workman lunches
in his wheelbarrow
Hermitage (2004); Snapshot Haiku Calendar (2005)
Ferris Gilli adresses a slightly different problem: a prepositional phrase that "is really part of the main component." She calls it one of the "devices that appear to be part of juxtaposition but are not." Her example may strike some as already an attractive haiku:
"on the lawn --
spider eyes reflect
a flashlight beam"
She writes, "I do think that’s an interesting image. If you’ve never gone spider shining, you should try it some night." The spiders' eyes "appear as tiny red or green sparkles in the grass. . . ."
"But," she continues, "there’s no real juxtaposition . . . no contrast or comparison of images. . . . On the lawn merely tells where the spiders are, and doesn’t add to the meaning or help readers to have a moment of insight."
Here is her improved version:
the sparkle of spider eyes
in a flashlight beam"
A beautiful haiku—and it makes me want to try spider shining, too! Gilli concludes that now there is real juxtaposition that brings out "a connection between the starry sky and the sparkle of spider eyes, and for me, more than one level of insight."
"beneath the porch . . ."
Over-obvious connection between the parts
"Explanation" is another technique that Gilli classes among things that seem like juxtaposition but are not. Here, "one component of the poem explains the other part."
"cats in love–
thumps and yowls
beneath the porch"
On the other hand, she continues "This is more interesting":
a mating cat yowls
beneath the porch"
Gilli also suggests we beware of obvious "cause and effect." As Alan Summers writes, "we must respect the reader, and not spell out things as if they are still in kindergarten."
Here's a purposely bad haiku that Kathy Lippard Cobb constructed to illustrate precisely this point:
clings to my body"
Lastly, I myself would add that we need to be careful not to repeat uneeded information by inserting a double or overly obvious kigo, the seasonal reference found in many haiku. This is my example of a rather boring haiku:
Easter egg hunt
a toddler finds
the chocolate egg
The second version, while nothing special, has much better juxtaposition:
a toddler finds
the chocolate egg
The syntactic juxtapostion between line one and the second two (what Jane Reichhold calls "the fragment" and "the phrase") allows the tulips to invoke the readers' own memories of spring and suggests when in spring this Easter egg hunt is happening. There's also resonance between the bright egg-shaped tulips and the easter eggs.
I'll conclude this section by saying that while one cannot write good haiku merely by following rules, some rules can help one can avoid writing bad ones.
"Single Image" Haiku
Carmen Sterba concludes her essay on juxtaposition with a discussion of effective haiku which do not use it. She cites Kyorai, a disciple of Basho, on the subject of what the Japanese called a "single-object" poem:
"If a poet composes by combining separate things, he can compose many verses and compose them quickly. Beginning poets should know this. But when one becomes an accomplished poet, it is no longer a question of combining or not combining (NKBZ 51:498, Shirane, 111)."
For comparison with the ordinary "double-image" haiku above, I found three fine single image haiku in a small web anthology of published poems gathered by Jim Kacian for the Haiku Foundation's "Per Diem" daily haiku. This particular selection, published in January 2012, was on the theme of "Animals."
With lines of light
the sun invents jaguars
in the gardens.
~ Norberto de la Torre González
free of the plow
the oxen move to the barn
side by side
~ Ross Figgins
The air spotted by a speeding leopard
~ Amita Chatterji
7-Minute Haiku Reading by Speiss
Thoughts by Robert Spiess
I'll close with a quotation from Robert Spiess, an influential haijin (haiku poet) of the twentieth century. In a Year’s Speculations on Haiku, he writes:
"In haiku the juxtaposition or 'confrontation' of entities produces
a tension charged with energy that generates an insight, intuition
or felt-depth of an aspect of reality; it is a movement, a birth, that
leads to a new level of awareness"
winter dusk -
as one, the chirping sparrows
fall silent in the spruce
~ Robert Spiess, 1921-2002