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Haiku Definitions: Lorraine Ellis Harr

Lorraine Ellis Harr, haiku poet, teacher, and editor of Dragonfly, a pioneering haiku journal, became interested in defining American haiku and its relationship to the Japanese original. In the 1970s she drew up lists of guidelines or rules for the composition of haiku in English. The first and most influential of these was “The ISN’TS of Haiku”—things that haiku is not—that was first published in Haiku Highlights in 1972. Later Harr followed with a matched set of guidelines, “Haiku Is” and “Senryu Is,” which were helpful in understanding of the differences between haiku and senryu

The Isn’ts of Haiku

Do Your Haiku Submissions Contain Any of These ISN’Ts? Better Check!

  1. Haiku ISN’T a prose sentence divided into 3 lines of 5–7–5 syllables, nor a “dribble of prose.” Haiku IS an art form that requires study and discipline. 
  2. Haiku ISN’T always divided into 5–7–5 syllables. The 5–7–5 count refers to the Japanese onji (symbol/sound) not to English language syllables. It IS usually in a short/long/short form. It ISN’T “padded” with modifiers to make the count come out right. 
  3. Haiku ISN’T poetics (in the English-language-poetry sense) but IS pure poetry. 
  4. Haiku ISN’T simile or metaphor. Simile and metaphor turn haiku into English-poetics.
  5. Haiku ISN’T an intellectual statement—it IS an intuitive response to NATURE. 
  6. Haiku isn’t a picture postcard or a “pretty picture”. It IS a moment of heightened awareness which may be shared by the reader. It should have depths of meaning. 
  7. Haiku ISN’T a 3-line poem with the first or last line a title for the other 2. All 3 lines should be necessary to the clarity of the haiku. Don’t waste word-space. 
  8. Haiku ISN’T summed-up by the poet’s intellectual comment regarding the experience. It IS left open-ended, so that the reader can share in its creation. 
  9. Haiku ISN’T a clutter of words strung together to get a 5–7–5 syllable count, or a staccato tongue-twister. Haiku should flow, especially when read aloud. It doesn’t rhyme, except rarely. Avoid run-on lines. Take the time to write haiku without them. 
  10. Haiku ISN’T a mechanical poetry with rhythms (i.e. iambic pentameter) but the line endings should be as complete a thought as possible, with the total poem as the total expression. Haiku requires polishing! “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”. 
  11. Haiku ISN’T of human values, morals, judgments, comments, etc. It ISN’T an epigram or a couplet. It ISN’T didactic, either overtly or covertly. It IS of Nature & the “Nature of Things.” Capturing the “Nature of Things” is the essence of good haiku. 
  12. Haiku ISN’T anthropomorphic, as English-language poetry. No humanizing of nature or personification! Rather, Naturalize MAN. This is a subtle difference. 
  13. Haiku ISN’T a generalization about something. It IS a specific thing/time/place/season/event. It IS nature poetry in the Japanese sense (ZEN-like). In the present moment. 
  14. Haiku ISN’T a “tell-all.” It IS indicating by not saying. Show don’t tell. 
  15. Haiku ISN’T obscure. The season (ki) should be named, or a season-word (kigo) used. The reader should be able to co-create the mood/season/event. Be specific. Don’t say “tree” if you mean elm; don’t say “bird” if you mean wren, for instance. The thing/time/place/season should be apparent to the reader. Avoid “this” or “that” bird/insect/leaf etc. Unnecessary. 
  16. Haiku ISN’T a “pretty picture,” nor is it deliberately grim for the sake of “showing off.” It is an interplay between 2 or more things/objects in a state of unresolved tension—don’t tell the reader how to react, or feel; leave the reader something to co-create. 
  17. Haiku ISN’T just anything that comes to mind. It IS a specific enlightened experience shared with the reader. It IS heightened awareness not imaginary images. It IS what is going on right here/right now, not a day-dream or exposition. 
  18. Use no unnecessary words, that overlap or say the same thing such as April/Spring, Winter/Snow. Each word should have value & importance. Choose carefully. 
  19. Haiku ISN’T just a “little poem” by anyone who can count to 17. The Masters of the Art worked at it, sometimes an entire lifetime. 
  20. Haiku ISN’T easy to write, but when you get “hooked” you’ll be glad you tried it. The study & discipline sharpen the perception & improve all other fields of writing, as well as adding zest to living. Haiku IS what IS! 

If you have broken one or more of these ISN’Ts, study these GUIDELINES again; we need good haiku poets. 


           Lorraine Ellis Harr

Original 12-point version published in Haiku Highlights 8a:4 (July–August 1972), 23–24. First publication of this 20-point version is unclear.

The response to Harr’s “Isnt’s” was so strong and varied that she felt compelled to follow up with a long explanatory essay, “How to Interpret the ISN’TS of Haiku” in the April 1977 issue of Dragonfly and a testimonial by Paul Schofield in the July issue (not included here).

How To Interpret the Isn’ts of Haiku

The ISN’TS of HAIKU have met with anything from expressions of sincere gratitude to rantings of outright hostility, depending upon the insight of the recipient. The level of haiku know-how varies from non-existent to the more serious student who has learned enough to know there is still much more to learn. The ISN’TS can be read and utilized at any of these levels.

There is certainly no easier way to give the writer a clue as to why a particular haiku failed than to refer to the ISN’TS. With a mail load of some 35 to 40 submissions a day, one could certainly save time by simply returning them without any comment. (This method does nothing to advance the knowledge of haiku.) One might make up a page of bibliography to include in returns thus giving the writer an indication of where to look for answers. However, listing the 20 most obvious problem areas seems a good solution, since one meets with the same errors again and again.

In Japan, Haiku is a lifetime study for the serious haiku poets. In the English language one seems to want simply to put anything at all in three (more or less) lines and instantly become as famous as Basho’s frog! Upon taking over the duties of editor (1972) it soon became apparent from the deluge of poetics in haiku form that a list of ‘rules’ was needed for a quick and easy response to questions and to point out the most often encountered errors. A “Sorry, not for us” rejection slip wouldn’t suffice. One needed to help beginning haikuists see the differences between haiku and English language poetics. No one else was doing this job. It seemed someone should at least try.

Some have mistakenly gotten the idea that the ISN’TS are a set of hard-and-fast rules from which no deviation is permitted, instead of recognizing them as a busy editor’s tool. They seem to have caused some to think they are presented as a final word and must, therefore, be railed against. Far from being a final word, they are an introductory word! Example: Haiku ISN’T simile or metaphor. But this does not mean that the subtle use of simile and metaphor is forbidden. They are only eschewed when used in the English language poetical way. Haiku ISN’T an intellectual statement. This simply means that the poet’s views on Beauty, Truth, Love, Nature, etc. are not HAIKU. This does not mean the poet is simple minded. It does mean that haiku experiences are NOT intellectual gymnastics, or philosophical emotings. Mushin (no mind) is an open (empty) mind unencumbered by intellectual interpretations of symbols.

English language haiku is still in its infancy here, and until one learns HOW to handle simile and metaphor, it should be avoided, because that’s what haiku ISN’T. Even a statement can be made in haiku, if it isn’t didactic, or biased to the poet’s intellectual set or axe-grinding. A subtle simile points up Man’s ONENESS with Nature, and is a tool of the experienced haikuist. A frog on the path can ‘recite his poem’ IF it is done so that the frog isn’t likened to a man, but rather the man and frog are seen in their ONENESS. The frog’s poem is every bit as valid as the poet’s haiku. ONENESS makes the difference. A frog isn’t seen as like a man reciting a poem! This difference, of ZEN view is often beyond the scope of English language poets or haiku scholars to understand. However, the difference does exist.

In addition, there is good writing and there is poor writing, even in a poem as short as haiku. Some simply don’t see (or sense) that their choice of words, or word sounds, can be awkward and uneven. While haiku isn’t poetical, it is pure poetry, and as such it should utilize the language in a perfect way. Omitting words necessary to our manner of speaking is an affectation. Forcing haiku into a set 5–7–5 form is not the answer: the answer is to write well, to use the language well and rely on haiku TRUTH. A 17 syllable-count is not as important as a real haiku experience told simply and directly. Poetical language is not for haiku. Use strong nouns. Strong verbs. Few modifiers.

The over-use of the ‘ing’ ended verb has become a cliché. The over-use of ‘this’ and ‘that’ has become a cliché. The over-use of ‘now’ has become a cliché. There are other ways to approach haiku, and it is up to the haikuists to experiment, investigate and find new ways (within the roots of classical/traditional haiku).

There is much to-do about ‘liberating’ haiku. This is another affectation. Bashō liberated haiku after some 200 years of tradition and Shiki’s more recent liberation of haiku came after a [d]eep knowledge of the roots of haiku in Japan. We cannot hope to liberate haiku until we understand what it is! It is typical of the generation brought up on ‘instant’ gratification and ‘it’s new’ ‘it’s improved’ that they apply this Madison Avenue ‘thinking’ to haiku. But haiku is not a pre-packaged cereal, or new frosting on TWINKIES. It is a verse form which comes to us from a long line of tradition and culture. We simply cannot hope to absorb it in all its ramifications by having read a few haiku (in translation) or books about haiku. Our cultural background does not give us the same inborn ONENESS with Nature. Not that a city dweller can’t write haiku, but Nature still exists in some places on this planet! We who are aware of it, write haiku about what we deal with daily. Fetuses in garbage cans aren’t the USUAL, unless of course, one is a medical student. The grim is NOT more poetic than the ordinary, although some would have us believe this is the case.

By saying what something ISN’T, one can leave it up to the individual to learn what is IS. To say haiku IS a little poem of 5-7-5 syllables is misleading. NOT every little poem of 5–7–5 is a haiku! To say haiku IS simile or metaphor is misleading, since haiku is all too often spoiled by these. To say haiku IS an intellectual poem is to mislead. Haiku ISN’T just any intellectual comment that comes to mind. This doesn’t mean that the poet has NO INTELLECT! Haiku ISN’T a poem summed-up by the poet for the reader, since a summing-up line gives the reader nothing to co-create along with the poet, and haiku is a poem of co-creation. Summing-up also often results in a line which becomes a title describing the other two lines. It should be avoided in good haiku.

If one approaches the ISN’TS rationally one sees them for what they are; a means of quickly educating the writer on a very common number of misconceptions about haiku. There should be no problem as to their intent or usefulness. That they should have been interpreted as anything else was simply the fault of the reader. Some rail against them because they shed light on areas of their own work which fall short of being anything like haiku. Perhaps they sense that if the majority learn what haiku IS, then work they pass off now as haiku, will be seen in that light. That is their problem, not the problem of a busy editor. The ISN’TS have been used even in Japan as a means of teaching the basics of haiku! They are considered to clarify the problems most often encountered, so, until something better comes along, this editor intends to continue to use them. How much easier my work would be if I didn’t have to refer to them … if work came in without the usual errors.

A recent issue of DRAGONFLY: ¼ of HAIKU had 143 individuals listed in the Table of Contents. One writer (who wrote to thank me for ‘personal’ attention) said this was probably ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ and he was right! For every haiku accepted for use, some dozens are returned as not usable. Think about it. We publish more poets and more haiku than any other magazine. Keep in mind that an editor exists to get work into a magazine, not to keep work out of it. (But to make a magazine worth being seen in—‘Ah, there’s the rub.’) We hope for continual striving toward excellence. There is no other way to develop English language haiku that will survive into the future in a worthwhile way. Why not read the ISN’TS again, with all this in mind.

           Lorraine Ellis Harr

Reprinted from Dragonfly 5:2 (April 1977), 62–66

Harr was inspired to produce two positive sets of guidelines for the creation of haiku and senryu—the second a mirror image of the first—which she published in Dragonfly in 1976.

Haiku Is

  1. Intuitive response to the Natural world.
  2. Expanded awareness of our One-ness with Nature.
  3. Simplicity without strivings or antagonisms.
  4. An expansion from the specific to the general, or, a contraction from the general to the specific.
  5. Sees us in our endless becomings. In Nature, nothing is static. Samsara.
  6. A moment of increased awareness. Intuitive in regard to our Oneness-in-Nature.
  7. Simplicity—simply stated.
  8. Takes all things religiously (not denominationally). Not religiously philosophical.
  9. Avoids grimness, violence—being essentially life enhancing.
  10. Refinement of language, avoids the vulgar and the shocking (for the sake of shocking).
  11. A nudge of enlightenment.
  12. Intuition.
  13. Poetry of the enlightened spirit.
  14. Deals with the Naturalness of Man.
  15. Eternity in a moment.
  16. Deals with Nature’s purity AS NATURE.
  17. Sincerity in all things. Helps us to transcend through our alikeness with ALL Nature.
  18. 1Can contain implications of humor, contradictions and paradoxes.
  19. Shows us “ideally” our One-ness-with ALL.
  20. The Whole Truth, honed to purity. A flash of insight unresolved by intellectual comment. NATURAL.

           Lorraine Ellis Harr

Originally published in Dragonfly 4:3 (July 1976), 64; reprinted in Dragonfly 8:1 (January 1980), 50

Senryu Is

  1. Intuitive response to our Human-ness in Nature.
  2. Expanded awareness of our Human-ness in Nature.
  3. Simplicity of our strivings and antagonisms.
  4. Sums us up. (Specifically and/or generally.)
  5. Static, in that it sums-up as an intellectual response, rising from intuition.
  6. A moment of increased awareness. Intuitive in regard to our foibles as Humans.
  7. A simple complication—simply stated.
  8. Takes things irreligiously—and can include religious denominations and beliefs.
  9. Neither embraces nor ignores violence. We are as we are.
  10. Often vulgar and full of common language usage. Not vulgar for the sake of vulgarity.
  11. A poke in the ribs (Adam’s rib).
  12. Wit and humor.
  13. Poetry of the common people and their doings.
  14. Deals with Man’s imperfections. Quirks, etc.
  15. A moment in Eternity.
  16. Deals with Man’s paradoxical Human Nature.
  17. Helps us keep sane through our human alikeness comically revealed. Helps us laugh at ourselves. 
  18. Should contain contradictions, paradoxes, humor and wit.
  19. Shows us the opposition of our intentions, our actions as opposed to our ideals, our irrationality.
  20. The “Whole Truth” unvarnished, rough, in a flash of insight. HUMAN.

           Lorraine Ellis Harr

Originally published in Dragonfly 4:3 (July 1976), 65, and reprinted in Dragonfly 8:1 (January 1980), 51

Sources / Further Reading

  • Harr, Lorraine E. “The Isn’ts of Haiku.” Haiku Highlights 8a:4 (July–August 1972), 23–24. The original 12 ”Isn’ts” version.
  • Harr, Lorraine Ellis. “Haiku Is.” Dragonfly 4:3 (July 1976), 64.
  • Harr, Lorraine Ellis. “How to Interpret the ISN’TS of Haiku.” Dragonfly 5:2 (April 1977), 62–66.
  • Harr, Lorraine Ellis. “Senryu Is.” Dragonfly 4:3 (July 1976), 65.
  • Harr, Lorraine Ellis. “The ISN’Ts of Haiku.” Guidelines. Submitted by Nina Shamana, July 26, 2006. Agonia.net website: http://english.agonia.net/index.php/poetry/195654/The_ISN%27Ts_of_Haiku. Reprint from an unstated source of the 20–“Isn’ts” version.
  • Schofield, Paul. “More Thoughts on the Isn’ts”: Forum. Dragonfly 5:3 (July 1977), 9.
  • Welch, Michael Dylan. “The ISN’Ts of Haiku: Learning from Lorraine Ellis Harr.” Graceguts website: http://www.graceguts.com/essays/the-isnts-of-haiku-learning-from-lorraine-ellis-harr. Includes from an unstated source the 20–“Isn’ts” version, plus Welch’s detailed explanations and critique.

Lorraine Ellis Harr

Compiled by the Haikupedia Editors

Updated on May 28, 2022