Liv Aldridge

Notes on Haiku

This was made possible by a Penguin Anthology of Haiku translated and edited by Adam L. Kern. I spoke to Thea about wanting to use this residency as an opportunity challenge my reading practice by approaching subjects that might seem daunting. The concept of Haiku is of course familiar, but I have not read much before in the genre. When I think of Haiku I think of poetry that is just demonstratively poetry. It’s strange how Haiku has become this watered-down word, how I could feel like I know what it is when I really don’t. Kern writes critically of a ‘grand narrative’ on haiku as a cultural propaganda of positive images of Japaneseness (Kern, p. xxx). Kern takes issue with an ‘ironclad’ nationalism of haiku (p. xxiv). He writes of historicity that ‘haiku is anything but ancient, let alone traditional.’ The term ’haiku’ has come to misrepresent and unify disparate poetries (p. xxx).

Haiku can be divided into two different periods/forms which are often taken as interchangeable. The first ‘premodern’ haiku form or haiku no renga consists of long sequences of haikus of a set stanza count (often 100 or 36). These where made as a collaborative writing exercise, like a game of exquisite corpse with poetry?

The second type is Haiku, as it has been popularized in its tiny three-line extract, a form that was ‘invented’ by being extracted from the long sequences by Shiki, one of the grandmasters in a movement toward individualizing Japanese poetry. This was done at the turn of the 19th century by extracting what Kern names an ‘initiating stanza’ from the haiku sequence known as ‘hokku’ (Kern,  p. XXVII).

There are a select few of the Haikus I’ve read so far that I can remember from start to finish because they are so brief. They feel like boxes.

The strictness and repetitions of the form make me question whether I should be picking and choosing or expressing a preference at all.

A Haiku by Yosa Buson, (1716–1784) nervy and agressive:

‘bursting open / disorganizing its rainbow: / peony dynamo!’

(I transcribed it wrong it’s actually) =

‘bursting open / disgorging its rainbow: / peony dynamo!’ (p.141 Kern)

I prefer the misreading which is why I kept it in. Disorganizing a rainbow; stretching the colours apart like pieces of sour candy. Rainbows always seem too coherent of a concept and I would prefer chaos, but ‘disgorging’ which means pouring, works toward coherence in the image of outpouring, so the poem ends in a stream of chaos anyway. The exclamation at the end reads as aggression to me in English. The poem expresses a desire to capture, activate and explode a chaotic floral image.

I look at the rain in the college courtyard and think of disorganizing what I see, imagining exclamation marks as thin sticks with dots underneath like raindrops falling off a soundless character  ( ! ) The drama… But a lot of the work in the anthology (like the peony dynamo haiku) punctuates a short line with an exclamation mark. Is this an accurate representation of the Japanese or an effect of translation?

I brought this collection of Elena Ferrante articles in my teens, and I vividly remember her warning against the use of exclamation marks unless necessary. As a writer of the wry and cold descent of narrative, I guess it isn’t surprising that Ferrante thinks this. But I agree with her when she considers the loss of effect in terms of certain characters or punctuation marks with social media. I load my text messages with ellipsis, exclamation and question marks for aggressive, excited or manic effect. (Ferrante, The Guardian)

Memory: Being about 9 years old in my village school writing haikus in a red shed.

Thought: Haiku allows us to feed change through images. It has no time for patterning or explaining. 

According to Kern, in Japan an ‘offering (tamuke) in the form of an object that provided comfort to the departed when he or she was alive’ is presented to the mourning (p.237 Kern). The haiku below refers to this.

Until last year
scolding over muskmelons
now an offering
Ōemaru (p. 24 Kern)

Uncertain time. Back and forth, loss brings melons to the foreground. Now they have become an act of longing, before they were a backdrop to irritation. Muskmelons can smell musky but they also can be odourless or sweet-smelling. The word muskmelon (cucumis melo) is strange in its coupling of the rich and bland, a sweet calm with a tangy, overpowering scent of musk.

It’s easy to pick poems for their images because you find them attractive, when looking through Haikus I remember a specific poem because the image is magnetic, or because it moves magnetically. Once I have said I like the muskmelon and the scolding over it — I’m done.

I love this contemporary haiku from Acorn Journal

Something is encouraging and appreciative about this. It’s the zingyness of a sugar rush, a mint cigarette or a dip in the sea. Thinking of how quickly longer poems move past moments. Haiku is stacking, it forces us into something for a moment without aesthetic posturing or efforts at symbolic separation. We can use it to think on. The poet Lorine Niedecker wrote in her poem Paean to Place that we ‘live by the urgent wave / of the verse’, as if poems are channels through which poets and readers feed themselves.

The images have to be different and perfect. In 1900, Haiku master Shiki wrote that the ‘face of the puffer fish bears a slight trace of beauty within its ugliness.’. For any kind of grotesque sublimity there has to be some space, some movement, some kind of contrast in the composition.

A lot of the haiku that I have been reading engage with the animal and the human in interlocking ways. This haiku by Bashō swings between aquatic and the avian… Haiku (like sonnets) read as arguments. The images themselves sometimes argue. I imagine octopus tentacles curling around the poem above. It’s ’fleeting dream’ is invoked but not described.

Actually, I think invoked but not described is a solid way of conceptualizing Haiku from what I understand about the form so far. It’s like striking a chord. There is a certainty and show-don’t-tell methodology.

I expected to be immediately drawn into Haiku, considering it is theoretically my taste (short-form / minimalist / image-heavy) but I kind of feel like I am being thrown around with the anthology, between moments of appreciation and moments of dislike. I pull at the haikus I like as if they where loose strings, but they won’t ‘unravel’. Still they kind of haunt me.

over there
appears nice and cool —
pines on the ridge
Shikō (165 Kern)

This doesn’t try to overwrite and though overwriting can be fantastic, I sometimes want to read something that is strictly lifelike/photographic. The final line is like a statement. ‘pines on the ridge’ is not really a motto but I read the image as a statement. I also am partial to pine trees in poems…

My attention span has definitely been affected by screens and social media. But haiku is great for that. It requires attentive work, and it works if you just want to get a clear distilled moment in poetry and get yourself back into that really present frame of mind.

This is from 1699.  I don’t know if it’s my nostalgia but a good snow-poem is one of the best things. Each time a season changes, you’ve got to figure out a new way to be. In my hometown, the winters are different from what they used to feel like; the the snow has changed from a texture so powdery and dense that a ten-year old could walk on it to something wet, slushy and malleable. For me the attraction of the Haiku by Jōsō is framed in a feeling of specific and impossible nostalgia.

I trust the hidden snow mounds here. The image swells and comforts me and feels transferable, something I want to pocket. I trust photographic haiku that are present in a time when the status of seasons and the natural world seemed (more) stable.

I’ll end on a quote from an article that argues for change/crisis in modern Haiku as an effect of the seasons blurring with the warming climate. In their absolute photographic precision, they are attentive to season and the climate crisis seeps into their attention. It is inherent in the ethics or rules of the form to pay attention, to raise some kind of alarm.

McMurray writes:

Writing and reading haiku requires a relationship with nature—its fauna, flora, weather, and environment—yet these are rapidly changing.’

About Liv Aldridge

Liv Aldridge is a poet from Småland in the south of Sweden. In November 2023, her Micro-Chapbook ‘Bad Air’ of poems she wrote when she lived in Kraków was published by The Braag. Her poems have appeared in Ink Sweat & TearsPorridge Magazine and Carmen et Error. She is currently editor of The Gentian Journal for the Durham University Poetry Society.


David McMurray,  ‘Climate Change is Changing Haiku’ in The IUK Graduate School Journal, November 2015, pp. 23-30. (page 26)

‘The Penguin Book of Haiku’, ed. By Adam L. Kern, (London: Penguin Classics, 2018).

‘Haiku on Shit’ essay Masaoka Shiki (1900), Trans. by Ikuho Amano and James Shea,

Elena Ferrante, ‘I make an effort never to exaggerate with an exclamation mark’ The Guardian (March 2018).

Lorine Niedecker, Paean to Place

Acorn: a Journal of Contemporary Haiku, ‘Sample Poems’