Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Art Elser on Poetic Forms: Haiku, Haibun, Tanka

Art Elser lives and writes in Colorado. On his blog, Art's Meanderings, he recently explored the poetic forms of haiku, haibun and tanka. He has graciously agreed to let us pull excerpts from his posts to share with Writing Wyoming readers. Since these are only excerpts, we encourage you to click through to read the full posts. They're well worth it. You may also want to see the chapbook ordering information at the end of this post for more of his work.

Writing Haiku

Haiku is an old poetic form that developed in Japan from both Japanese and Chinese poetic traditions. It is popular perhaps because it is short and most people feel they can write a three-line seventeen-syllable poem. Here's one I wrote a few years ago about the funeral of a classmate and friend.

taps from a bugle
tears in the eyes of family
crow flaps slowly past

Seventeen syllables for the haiku came into English because the Japanese haiku has seventeen sound units in it. But English syllables and Japanese sound units are nothing alike. In her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku, Jane Reichhold suggests that a closer approximation in English would be around twelve syllables. Another alternative that haiku books often suggest is that we write three lines with the first and third lines shorter and the middle line long.

The haiku traditionally has its basis in the observation and reporting of something from nature, although even that requirement relaxes in modern haiku. Haiku are usually written about some small moment, often called a haiku moment, when something seen or heard or sensed triggers a strong emotion like joy or love or fear or sadness or even a memory that evokes strong emotion. The poet captures that image in the haiku.

Extending the Haiku into Haibun

Although a haiku is often about what we call a "haiku moment," one of those moments of joy when one sees something of beauty, a sudden sunrise or sunset caught at the kitchen window, the first crocus seen on a morning walk, the song of a finch high in a tree, the haiku often seems to need some explaining. As Desi used to say to Lucy, "You got some splainin' to do."

Haiku poets have often found a haiku doesn't stand alone very well without some prose suggesting its context. Here's a haibun I wrote one afternoon this winter by something I saw as I sat looking out the window into my back yard. I thought that the haiku alone was ok, but felt some explanation for the reader might be helpful. Usually the prose that precedes a haiku is more poetic than normal narrative prose.

A Winter Haibun

I sit in the fading, late afternoon light coming through the family room windows, looking out at a winter-blue sky. The sun has moved beyond trees to the south to reflect off snow, bathing the back yard in brilliance. Light and warmth will fade quickly, though, as the sun settles behind the Front Range and night creeps in from the east.

            three shadows race
            up and over the brick wall
            roosting crows

So! What's a Tanka?

We've discussed the haiku, then the haibun—haiku with prose added to set the stage or context—so now let's look at the tanka. If we use the 5-7-5 haiku as a starting point, think of the tanka's structure as 5-7-5-7-7, a haiku with two added long lines. If you are using the short line, long line, short line technique for your haiku, just add two lines about as long as the long line of the haiku.

There is often a switch in tone or subject in the final two lines of the tanka. Often the middle line of the tanka can be read as the first line of a stand alone poem consisting of the last line of the haiku plus the two longer added lines. Sort of an oddly shaped haiku. When I write a tanka, I often see if I can read a tanka and see two haiku in it. You can read just the haiku and feel complete, and you can read just the middle line of the tanka as the first line of another haiku that uses the final three lines. Those feel best to me.

Toward the end of her life, my mother seem to waste away in a nursing home. It pained me to visit her because she often called me by one of my cousin's names and had lost touch with the past. One question she often asked during the last five years of her life was, "Where's your father? I haven't seen him in years." I'd carefully explain, as my did sister, that he'd died a dozen years before. Other times she'd say, "I want to die so I can be with your father."

Thinking back on those days, several years after her death, I remembered the fear on her face as she tried to remember. She was in her 90s then. She died at 95, finally to be at peace. Here's a tanka I wrote about that.

she lies in the dark
alone in the old age home
mind filling with fear
she knows her husband is dead
but cannot remember it

So, if you write a haiku and find that all you want to say won't fit in those three lines, see if you can add two more long lines and write a tanka instead. It's a fun exercise when the haiku seems to be not quite enough.

The Healing Journey - morning haiku to repair hearts
Art and Chris Valentine have co-written a haiku chapbook, The Healing Journey - morning haiku to repair hearts. When Chris's husband died in 2010, Art supported her with kind words and regular emails. She began writing a haiku each day, sometimes about her grief, but often of the landscape. When Art had a massive heart attack in 2011, to help him recover, Chris invited him to join her in writing a haiku every day and exchanging them by email. This chapbook grew out of that time. To order, send $10 (includes postage) to either Art Elser, 1730 Locust St., Denver CO 80220 or Chris Valentine, PO Box 547, Birney MT 59012.

Art Elser has been published in Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Emerging Voices, Science Poetry, The Avocet, and Open Window Review. His chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, received the Colorado Authors' League Poetry award for 2014.


  1. I knew about haiku, but not the other variations. I'm much smarter now! Thanks for making that happen. I'll add haibun and tanka to my experiments with haiku.

  2. Me too! I'm looking forward to working with all three forms. I haven't written haiku (a haiku?) since high school, but your post has inspired me to try again! I prefer to write short poems anyway, so they might as well be somewhat organized!

  3. Lynn, Chere - can't wait to read the poetry that results!


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