An Introduction to Haiku – Compositional Techniques 1

Haiku can be tough to write, but they’re worth the challenge, and there are a few techniques that can help during composition.

Juxtaposition

The first technique you can take advantage of—and if you’ve read haiku you’ll have seen it often—is the use of juxtaposition.

Jane Reichhold’s “phrase & fragment” theory is one of the most powerful techniques there is for using juxtaposition in a haiku. It has long been used in contemporary English haiku, and it’s also common in translated works. The theory suggests that a verse ought to be made up of both a phrase and a fragment.

The fragment appears at line one or line three and usually dispenses with articles, while the phrase is made up of the remaining lines—lines two and three, or one and two. You can see this technique in the above examples—some feature it more strongly than others—and you’ll also notice that the “cut” is a vital part of this approach. Below is an example of another Bashō poem, where line one is the fragment:

waterjar cracks—
I lie awake
this icy night

—trans by Lucien Stryk

The lines dealing with his wakefulness make up the phrase of the poem.

Now while this theory is the easiest way to achieve juxtaposition, it more importantly allows the poet to avoid a ‘crowded feeling’ – which can happen when a haiku has too much going on—haiku with something vivid in each line. Haiku with three or more images (or ideas) competing for the reader’s attention often suffer from this feeling of crowded-ness, and they can become list-like. They can also lack an internal relationship between images and ideas.

Juxtaposition thus seeks to compare or contrast fewer ideas, instead bringing them together in a single image. In the following example, one location is described and contrasted with the people visiting it:

church steps
lead to a beggar’s cup
sunburnt tourists

If we were to rewrite this with a more vivid or ‘full’ image in each line, we might end up with something like this:

speckled church steps
a beggar’s empty cup
the chatter of sunburnt tourists

See how it’s become crowded with description, and how the relationship between ideas and images is now unclear due to the list-like appearance? Contributing to this new feeling in the poem is the removal of the phrase and fragment. Further, this re-written version is also too prescriptive in its description; it doesn’t allow the reader to infer information about the scene and its participants.

Here’s another haiku, written by Graham Nunn, featuring juxtaposition:

dawn sky
steam from the lamb’s
throat

As you can see, juxtaposition is achieved by setting one image or idea in the fragment portion and contrasting it with a second, often related, image or idea in the phrase portion of the verse.

By doing this, the haiku avoids overcrowding, retains a sense of lightness, maintains the “cut” or natural pause, and allows the reader to draw the two parts together in their mind. The phrase and fragment approach is also key to many other techniques and will improve the quality of your haiku if you’re facing difficulties keeping the haiku brief, or struggling with achieving either a satisfying internal structure or a sense of connected-ness between images.

(Mizusashi) Edo period waterjar (1615–1868)

Next – sense switching, narrowing the focus and Shasei.

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