Haiku Presentation for Biology Class Central Oregon Community College

Hi everyone, my name is an’ya, and I’m the Oregon Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America. It may seem strange to you to be hearing about haiku in your biology class, but I think it’s a perfect match. Haiku is an antidote to much that’s wrong with our present world—most especially the disrespect for Nature that has led us to the serious environmental and even social issues that we all face in our universe today. To write this form, you first need to master “the art of being simple.”

How many of you have never heard of haiku? How many of you have ever written a haiku before?

Okay, first I want to explain in brief, that since poetry is a living art form, in the year 2010, the 5,7,5 count you may have learned previously in the school system, has now evolved, and although it’s still perfectly acceptable to write in this count, the majority of today’s haiku poets convey their moments in less syllables. The most important rule in modern-day haiku (which is sometimes broken by seasoned poets), is to write in a short, long, short rhythm without counting syllables. One other point to mention is that currently, haiku poets for the most part, do not normally use upper case letters, or punctuation. There are some people that think haiku is not poetry and that just anyone can write it, however because it follows a 300-year old specific form and must convey everything within three short lines, makes it one of the most difficult forms of poetry to write well. Albeit, haiku is different than other poetry because it is “objective”, rather than “subjective.” haiku is undistorted by emotion or personal bias, free of poetic embellishments,.and is not based on imagination or interpretation. So, when you write yours, be sure not to add your opinion, or personify anything in nature; for instance, clouds can’t laugh, baby birds are fledglings not children, frogs don’t sing they croak, leaves blow but don’t dance and they turn color in autumn but they weren’t painted, seeds rattle in their pods they don’t scream, and so forth. Be very careful what you say in each haiku that you write. Be sure that it’s what you directly observe, feel, taste, hear, or smell, not what you think or imagine. Don’t tell us how you personally feel, just simply show us how it really is.

So, on to discuss just a couple of the many different ways of writing the basic haiku. If you look at the paper we passed out, you’ll see that Example # 1 is exceptional because it uses two subjects and two verbs, like two different focuses of a lens. This represents only one of the ways to write haiku, which is using the small to BIG view, or moving from the narrow to a wide setting.

a fox sleeping (small view)
deep in the noiseless woods (medium view)
junipers whiten (BIG view)

In example # 2, the haiku is reversed and fits the BIG to small view, moving from the wide to a narrow setting. You can see what’s happening in the overall “furthest” environment, beginning at a distance, moving in closer, and then moving to the closest focus, aka the “zoom effect” in haiku.

junipers whiten (BIG view)
deep in the noiseless woods (medium view)
a fox sleeping (small view) or zoom effect

Now if you look at why this particular haiku works either way, it’s because it simply and clearly reflects the quiet decline and coming darkness of winter. We see the decline not only deep in the noiseless woods, but in the fox curled up asleep in the falling snow. The obvious curled sleeping position of the fox is in keeping with the decline of the basic energies in winter, and this feeling is made even stronger by the snowfall slowly diminishing the normally dusty blue/green color of juniper trees.

Although this haiku doesn't state what time of day it is, we can feel that the sun is declining also as it grows colder and begins to snow more and cover the sleeping fox and the tree branches . . . which brings me to mention what is known as the pivot line in haiku. As you see in Example #3, I have separated the poem into two distinct parts, both of which, pivot with the middle line in the original version:

a fox sleeping
deep in the noiseless woods


deep in the noiseless woods
junipers whiten

Another thing to take note of, is the choice of words in this haiku. For instance, the combination of the word “noiseless” with the word “woods”, gives nice “O” sounds.” If the word “quiet” or “silent” had been used, the effect just would not have the same impact. The word “fox”, is another enhancement as far as extending those “O” sounds. You may also recognize repeated “e” “n” “l” “p” and “s” sounds in this poem. 

Haiku needs to be written from your own personal experiences of the senses, and from your own internal reflections (which is the placing together of elements in a haiku that are similar in nature or feeling, so that they “reflect” one another within the three short lines. Again, the whitening of the junipers, the sleeping fox, the deep and noiseless woods, all are in juxtaposition not only with each other, but with the decrease of autumn and thereby, with the increase of the forthcoming winter season. 

Thus in a mere 10 word, 15 syllable poem, the reader has experienced numerous senses; we’ve seen the woods, the fox, the junipers and the snow as primaries, and although there’s no mention of the sky above the trees, and the ground beneath the fox, they are assumed. We have experienced touch in the coldness of that falling snow on the junipers and have felt the cold ground under the sleeping fox. We’ve smelled the dampness of the deep woods, and even heard the “noiselessness” that the snow has created. 

Now, thoughts on how-to arrange your moment into the haiku format, take a look at example # 4 and suppose you are sitting on a balcony on a summer day in June and you feel this warm breeze, and you see clouds floating by, some with holes that close up, reopen and close again. We have all experienced this moment sometime in our lives, and all together it manifests the summer season . . . but how to organize it into a haiku and make it not seem like an ordinary everyday occurrence.

june breeze
a hole in the cloud
mends itself

This is a single setting/subject/verb haiku, but in only 9 words and 10 syllables this time, it creates a memorable moment of a common situation made uncommon. A good haiku should be understood by everyone almost instantly, young and old alike, from children to senior citizens. Okay, examine this haiku, and identify for yourself, which is the BIG, the “medium view”, and the small view or “zoom effect” . . .

Of course, there are other ways to organize the experience, but this the most simple and direct one. If you try to put too much into your haiku, it will become overly padded with words and awkward to read, however if you put too little in your haiku, it will be vague and thereby confusing. The balance should be there in the exact same way as nature balances itself. If so, the content of your haiku will always be nature oriented and automatically reflect the place of humans within nature. If not, it will also be like nature when it goes out of balance, and in its unpredictable stages, cause total chaos. Knowing this, you will understand that haiku is a sensory experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or touching, set in the context of natural seasons. So often beginners write more about modern things and contemporary items and in doing so, they create what is known as a “senryu” (which Peter also mentioned) . . . senryu is a cousin to haiku insofar as it uses the same 3-line format of s,l, s, but it’s about the irony and agony of “human emotions” . . . so if you want to write haiku, it is safe to stick to the birds and bees so-to-speak. Keep in mind also when you are beginning to write haiku, that they are not just a random collection of things with no significant relation to one another. Instead, everything in the verse should feel as if it belongs---that it is it should be in keeping with everything else. Using articles such as “a”, “the” and so forth., are imperative to the smooth flow of your haiku. Often times, people leave out the articles and the poem reads in a choppy manner. Write your HAI-ku just as you would normally speak it in a sentence. 

Okay, we have been talking about haiku as sensory experiences, but for many writers and people, this is an entirely new concept, because other types of poetry and writing require “thinking’ and author opinion. haiku however, is free and lurking everywhere if you are just in tune with the environment. Usually sensation in a mainstream poem or report, is just a lead-in to added comments and intellection. It’s really rare to find sensation for its own sake, except in the haiku form as-in Example # 5 on your sheet:

bitter cold
a juniper berry parts
the jay’s beak

You can plainly see that this experience, is an ordinary scene written in a sensory and thereby extraordinary way. Moving on to Example # 6, when writing haiku, if you let your minds become calm like a still pond, you will be able to become one with the subject as the saying goes: 

still pond
a maple leaf floats
stem side up

There is nothing extraordinary about this experience to begin with, but it is the type of moment we will never even notice unless we are quietly observant and acutely aware. It’s the combination of the stillness of the pond (feeling), and the floating of the leaf (seeing), that puts this into the extraordinary context. It is peaceful, pure and yet astounding in its simplicity. We have just become that leaf, floating on our back in a still pond with a still mind.

As opposed to mainstream poems that begin in the poet’s fictional imagination and are of the poet’s own emotions", rather haiku begins and ends with physical sensation.

For instance, you’re out in the garden, and you touch a flower, and in doing so, your hand shakes loose a bee, in which case, you withdraw for fear of being stung. This initial sensation or reaction, perceived by you as a person who is also a part of nature, is the first stage that leads to a well-written haiku. The mainstream poet would then begin to think about the experience, to add his or her own thought and emotion, which would be the second stage to the experience.

However, a haiku poet would not, and the haiku remains in the first and most vital stage. It does not go on to thoughts, opinions, judgments and commentary or the building of emotions. Instead, the haiku writer doesn’t tell us what he or she thinks about it, or what we as readers should think about it. There is no using it as a symbol of something else, or a metaphor for anything different. It is-what it is, and therefore nature speaks through the haiku poet, and we are given the purity of the moment only. The haiku poet simply writes about the bee, as in example # 7 on your sheet.

soft breeze a bee’s stinger lifts in the air haiku isn’t about impressing the reader with the writer's thoughts or cleverness, nor about trying to convince the reader of anything political, moral, or religious. However, haiku is the spiritually sensual experience of a writer staying in the background so that Nature may speak in the foreground. As biology students, you have an advantage to become haiku writers insofar as using your existing knowledge of the facts in nature as they already are; details that other people (unless they are aware or well-read) might never realize or ever appreciate, as in Example # 8 and 9.

female pinecone
morning fog squeezes
into its spirals

Notice that line 3 does not “personify” the female pinecone by saying “into (her) spirals.”


mosquito bite!
as a mother it is mine
to understand

This is what’s called a “statement” haiku where Line 1 deepens into line 2, and then line 2 deepens into line 3 which gives us an example of what is known as the “aha” moment, or a realization.

Haiku also quite often contain a season word or something to at least indicate the season. It isn’t mandatory in modern-day haiku, but it is a plus in establishing the timetable of the moment. Examples 10 through 13 are haiku with seasonal references. For instance: 


still trowel
with a waking of insects 
the motion!

In this haiku, the season is spring of course, and you can quickly sense the relationship between the unmoving trowel and the motion of the waking insects. 


mountain air
a caterpillar reaches
the twig’s end

In Japan, caterpillar is a summer kigo and here as it reaches the end of a twig, we too feel the warmth of that mountain air. This haiku is not deflected by the superficial story context of an experience . . . instead it concentrates on its existence. .. on the thing in it and the experience of the senses.


night of stars
all along the precipice
goat bells ring

Here, the Japanese season indicator is “night of stars” and the goats walking under these stars, give us a feeling that they have done this many times before, thus we feel the significance of autumn in their measured pace of carefully crossing above a precipice, and we hear it in the bells they wear. Everything in this haiku speaks of change, impermanence and the transience that is so evident in the autumn season.


boulder to boulder
a bobcat

The season word is obvious here, but what makes this a specialhai-ku, is the feet of the bobcat leaving tracks on each boulder. In noticing this little detail, we see the snowdust and the boulders in a new way. Each time we experience nature in a new way or from a different perspective, or in a different context . . . we see it through a different lens, which gives strength to a sensory experience.

Now moving on to Example # 14, which shows that we must not forget to feel free to use a bit of subtle humor as well as real life experiences in our haiku writing:

fast asleep
the old dog starts his new year
with flatulence

Notice in this haiku (as opposed to the female pinecone one) that the old dog is correctly referred to as a “he”, not an it . . . and lastly a couple of haiku #’s 15 & 16, that show we can occasionally stretch the rules . . . 

sometimes life
it stinks even more than
this skunk cabbage

the entrepreneur
my son carries home a frog
i every pocket

So, now that you all have acquired still and simple minds, I am happy to try and answer any questions you may have. Thank you, an'ya