An Introduction to Haiku – Compositional Techniques 2

Sense Switching

“Sense switching” is a great technique for surprising and delighting the reader. A haiku poet might use it to engage the reader by introducing something unexpected in the poem or to connect two seemingly unrelated events or images. You can do this through careful placement of information across the phrase and fragment. Here, sense switching is illustrated by what’s perhaps the most famous haiku of all, Bashō’s “Old Pond” haiku:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

—trans by Jane Reichhold

The poem starts off by focusing on an image—on the visual—but by the end, the sense has been switched from sight to sound.

Again, we see the use of phrase and fragment, where the visual aspect appears in the fragment and sound element appears in the phrase. What’s especially impressive about this haiku is the way the movement of the frog leads to the transition from sight to sound, neatly tying the elements of the poem together and avoiding the “list-like” haiku.

Here’s one of my own verses, featuring the same switch:

through the shutters
a single fly
carries the chug of boats

This poem, while far less graceful, uses different subjects but the same senses. The reader should go from watching the fly pass through the shutters to listening to the chug of boats enter the room.

Narrowing the Focus

“Narrowing the focus” is a similar technique, a change occurs over the phrase and fragment. A haiku begins with a broad description of a scene in the first line, then takes a progressively closer view of something over the following lines (generally the phrase portion of the verse).

This can be seen in the haiku by Graham Nunn, featured earlier in these posts:

distant thunder
each stroke of the oar
stirs the clouds

Line one establishes a broad view before we shift closer with line two, to the moving oar, before the poem finishes with a micro view of the oar tip, as it stirs clouds which have been reflected in the water. “Narrowing the focus” can be achieved if you think of your poem like a camera—begin with an establishing shot, then move to the subject for a close up, and finally an extreme close up where the most telling detail of your poem is revealed.

This technique is favoured by haiku writers seeking to establish an intimacy between subject and viewer, and can be useful in drawing attention to something seemingly insignificant—but which becomes poetic through either its position in the wider world or the lens through which the poet views it. In Nunn’s poem the ripple of the water is both a disruption of the image of the clouds, and a precursor to the approaching storm, a kind of calm that’s depicted as always fleeting.

Shasei

The last technique I’ll explore is Shiki’s theory of shasei. In shasei, the poet attempts to “sketch from life” by writing directly and simply, without a focus on other techniques. Instead, this approach attempts to represent an experience “in the moment”, or an image or a scene “just as it appears”. These types of haiku strive for simplicity and reject artifice (which is especially unappealing in a traditional haiku). Here’s one from Shiki himself:

spring day
a long line of footprints
on the sandy beach

—trans by Yuzuru Miura


It begins very simply by establishing the scene, written as a fact and showing something the writer has observed. This haiku could be reduced to very basic units; spring, day, footprints and sand. When the modifier “long” appears, a sense of time is introduced and we might ask ourselves, “who walked here before me?”

Actually, asking “who walked here before me?” is a useful way to describe the key to shasei—the directly observed experience. To write in this style, the poet personally experiences some sight or moment, then composes it “live”. The poet goes out and sees the footprints in the sand. This is part of the reason why the ginko or “haiku-walk” is popular: The poet actually goes outside, often into picturesque landscapes, and simply walks, unhurriedly, until they see a striking image.

If writing a haiku in the shasei tradition, remember to state what you observe in the simplest of terms.

Amalfi Coast – the ‘chug of boats’

Composing Your Own

Try these techniques and approaches in your own haiku and see if they make a difference. While there are many other techniques out there, and trying them out is important, it’s just as useful to keep your observation skills sharp and to be direct in your expression.

Haiku has a long history and its evolution has sometimes occurred simultaneously in multiple countries. What used to be scripture and what’s current practice can always be bounced off of each other—just as what works in one literary tradition or era won’t always have the same effect here and now.

  • And so instead of counting syllables, count a single breath: Does your poem feel like a mouthful? If so, maybe there are too many words.
  • Remember the phrase and fragment approach, which incorporates the important “cut”—but remember, not all cuts need to be sharp!
  • Remember also that the phrase and fragment is the hinge upon which the haiku’s prosody hangs, and it can further serve as a compositional framework.
  • Instead of searching for the perfect classical kigo, find a referent that suits your culture, your experience of the season.
  • And finally, instead of cramming multiple ideas, images or techniques into one verse, go for something that isn’t overburdened, and something that takes the reader somewhere unexpected.

Thank you

First and foremost to Graham Nunn, for allowing me to quote from his work, for teaching me so much about haiku, and for inspiring my thoughts on the techniques. I’d also like to thank Alex Cabal for helping to get the article up to shape, and for publishing it first, and to John Carley, renku master, for his valuable feedback too!

8 thoughts on “An Introduction to Haiku – Compositional Techniques 2

    • It was so inspiring that I had a dream the night after reading this where I wrote a haiku using sense switching and I tried to write it down on a piece of paper (in the dream) so I wouldn’t forget it – and then I woke up and forgot what it said (though I can still see the outline of it and it might come back to me one day 😉 ) – so thanks for that – hahaha

    • Thanks, Andrew! Really glad to hear, hopefully it helps folks. 🙂
      I have considered that – it is available as one article on Scribophile, but I’ve adjusted it a tiny bit here. If I were to PDF it I’d probably work on more permissions first – but I like that idea, cool!

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