Use of Metaphor in Haiku

Why is it so confusing?

Deborah Christensen
Feb 24 · 13 min read

Metaphor decry

The word IS something or other

Simile denounced

But wait, I hear you say!

Metaphor in haiku. Is this not forbidden?

Well, yes and no, depending on who you read, and where you look.

There are different types of metaphor.

Let us examine this further and try to understand.

What is a metaphor?

Grammarly defines metaphor as:

“ A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.”

Example: Love is a battlefield.

Example: I am titanium.

“If you hear someone say “metaphorically speaking,” it probably means that you shouldn’t take what they said as the truth, but as more of an idea.”

Example: That test was murder.

What idea does this conjure up in your mind? It felt like the test nearly killed them as it was so tricky they did not feel they would get through it.

Modern Haiku’s definition of a metaphor is given as:

The origins of the word “metaphor” are Greek: meta (beyond, across, over) and phoreo (to carry, bring, bear).

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which the qualities of one thing are carried over to another.

So how are metaphors and similies similar?

A metaphor makes a comparison by stating that one thing is something else, but a simile says that one thing is like or as something else.

How is metaphor used in modern haiku?

In Modern Haiku online, the article The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku by Matthew M. Cariello attempts to explain the use of metaphor in haiku.

He explains that “Metaphor is central to all poetry, including haiku.” He explains that this is because the metaphor is “an integral part of our way of understanding the world.

According to an article in The Pen And The Pad:

Traditional haiku describe an event in nature, but modern haiku may describe indoor events and scenes or man-made objects.

Writers of traditional haiku verse purposely avoided using metaphors, but modern writers bend the stringent rules of form to include symbolic language.”

However, other composers of haiku interpret the use of metaphor very differently. In a discussion forum, one poet made the point that:

Haiku is usually characterized by the use of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is a type of “metaphoric language”, but is not itself “metaphor”.

In a haiku, two concrete objects are often juxtaposed, in order to directly compare or contrast them.

He is carrying the world on his shoulders https://pixabay.com/en/users/Prawny-162579/

She argues that putting two objects “near each other” implies something, but is not directly stating it, so it is metaphorical language and not direct metaphor.

Other poets would argue and do argue, that all juxtaposition is a metaphor, whether intrinsic or extrinsic.

She also argues, that traditional haiku uses understatement and a true haiku should never directly state anything. If a direct statement is made, then it takes away from the reader, their ability to create their interpretation, and is imposing the author’s viewpoint.

She believes Westerners destroy the intent of haiku by using a direct (intrinsic) metaphor. Haiku was never originally meant to tell the reader how to feel about anything. She firmly argues that direct metaphor (Thing A is thing B) as it deliberately shows the reader where to look, this takes away the active role of the reader, which is the whole purpose and difference of haiku to other poetry.

She makes a strong argument.

What are the different types of metaphor used in haiku?

Instead of directly stating, “thing A is thing B” the metaphor is implied or implicated in the wording. It is more subtle and less direct.

Example: He simply fans his feathers.

A peacock is not directly mentioned or a bird. But the implication is that a male is in a room and he is showing off in some way.

Peacock fanning feathers Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

It is extrinsic in that the interpretation is external to the poem. The link is to be made in the mind of the reader.

Some poets would argue the implied metaphor is NOT a metaphor, but rather is metaphorical type language. Others strongly disagree.

In GraceGuts article, “Metaphor in haiku” she quotes an example of an extrinsic metaphor used in a well-known haiku (3,5,6):

five years
in the wrong window:
the violet’s first bloom

At first glance, it does not appear immediately obvious what the writer is saying. A friend of the writer’s who divorced after five years of marriage, read the poem and immediately copied it out and carried it with her. She identified herself like that “violet” now blooming after her divorce, where she metaphorically had been in “the wrong window.”

This is a great example of an extrinsic metaphor where the meaning is often very personally felt and interpreted by the reader.

In this way, the haiku “reverberated” with the reader.

The implied metaphor added emotional value and a juxtaposition between the violet blooming and five years in the wrong window (the “bridge” or tension between two dissimilar things).

2. An Overt Metaphor (or intrinsic metaphor) CLOSED metaphor

Example: Life is a highway.

It is intrinsic in that the interpretation is given directly inside the poem. The link is already directly made.

Other types of metaphor (not always used in haiku)

Sustained Metaphor

The use of metaphor or imagery in comparison to the human condition is carried over a longer period of text.

A sustained metaphor is often found in songs and a longer version of poems. An example of a sustained metaphor is Shakespeares comparison of Juliet with the sun.

He does not merely say, “You are my sunshine.”

Instead, he states:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief.

Dead Metaphor

These are metaphors used so often, they no longer contain any power or provide any emotional effect in the reader and are pretty much “dead in the water.”

Example: It is raining cats and dogs.

Example: Throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The use of them can cause people to lose interest unless you use a very familiar metaphor in an unusual or unconventional way.

Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is mixing up two metaphors that do not usually go together. They are not easy to “pull off” successfully.

Example 1: Even Napoleon had his Watergate (by Yogi Berra)

Example 2: Let’s get all our ducks on the same page. (A mashup of “get our ducks in a row” and “get on the same page.”)

How to determine what sort of metaphor to use in haiku (or not)?

Some sites ban the use of implicit or closed haiku (intrinsic) in haiku. Other sites do not.

GraceGuts recommends this as advice if you are starting out writing haiku:

I’d like to suggest that haiku poets engage in these two tasks:

First, learn how to avoid metaphor in haiku. By learning how to control that, you’ll learn how to admit it, occasionally, into your work.

Read as much contemporary English-language haiku as you can, from the various haiku journals and anthologies or reliable online sites. When you see metaphor, write down that poem and perhaps write a sentence or two explaining the metaphor for yourself. Determine whether the metaphor is intrinsic and extrinsic.

Also be aware of similes (which are easier to spot because they nearly always require a “like” or “as” construction).

She also gives another example of the use of extrinsic haiku below:

Here’s a haiku that uses metaphor well. It’s by Tanya McDonald, and was first published in Mariposa #34 (spring/summer 2016):

rain on the skylight
I carve off a petal
of lavender ice cream

The word “petal” makes the poem. But of course it’s not a literal petal from a flower or blossom, but a scoop of ice cream that looks like a petal, thus a metaphor.

In an online United Kingdom website dedicated to haiku the somewhat confusing comment is made by George Marsh:

“But while haiku do not use metaphor, they may often be metaphor.”

The example is given:

Waterfall roaring -
though the sparrow sings unheard,
still he keeps singing
(James Kirkup)

It describes the effectiveness and power of this haiku as being because it, “ is an observation that captures something important about the spirit of sparrows, and, by extension, all creatures, especially poetsIt takes on symbolic power and is invested by the reader with a wider significance.

However, the subject of the haiku remains the sparrow, and it is never implied that it is anything but the sparrow, or is more than the sparrow. The interpretation is in the mind of the reader, and the human condition is applied to the haiku by the reader.

Sparrow in waterfall https://pixabay.com/en/users/babilkulesi-4016372/

In this way, some would say in this haiku the use of extrinsic metaphor is captured, whereas other’s would say there is no use of metaphor either intrinsic or extrinsic.

George Marsh (who is against the direct use of intrinsic metaphor) sums up by saying:

“The best haiku have metaphorical power, because the concrete observation which is the subject has wider resonance.

In this sense the haiku poet is like a great photographer: the art is in the selection.

One could photograph everything and anything, but only those images that catch a universal significance, that show some balance of forces, are worth publishing.”

So what is it about Haiku poetry that generates such conflicting opinions?

According to Modern Haiku, The Web site of the Haiku Society of America, defines haiku as:

“a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”

Virtually all other writers and scholars of haiku take this connection between a specific state of nature and a general human condition as a starting point. What is not clearly articulated is how this connection works.

This connection between nature and the human condition which is an essential element of good haiku is what creates the arguments over the use of metaphor.

Some would argue that the juxtaposition that is central to haiku, always involves extrinsic metaphor (and occasionally use of intrinsic metaphor). Whereas others would say, it is ALWAYS interpreted in the mind of the reader, and so in that sense haiku only employs metaphorical language to create this bridge or juxtaposition, and metaphorical language is implied and is never direct metaphor.

Modern Haiku goes on to argue that The Haiku Society of America’s definition further says that “the most common technique [for writing haiku] is juxtaposing two images or ideas,” and that in haiku “metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently.”

More recently, Ludmila Balabanova, in Modern Haiku 39.3 (2008), helpfully suggests that “most confusion regarding the use of metaphor in haiku arises from the complicated definitions and multiple aspects of ‘metaphor.’

Bruce Ross, in his 2007 essay in Modern Haiku correctly points out that “the very structure of traditional haiku lends itself toward drawing parallels between the human and nonhuman worlds.

The rule is to never use simile in haiku (or can you)?

In Summary: My conclusions

On the website, The Way of Haiku, the writer comments in the article “The Don’t’s of Writing Haiku.”

“… avoid using direct figures of speech, since they distract the reader from engaging with the experience, and consider using indirect figures of speech in your haiku.”

Dawn Blasco, published an academic article in the Creative Research Journal where she commented on metaphor and haiku:

“Haiku is unusual among poetic genres in that poets are cautioned to avoid the use of figurative language such as metaphor, which may obscure the expression of a simple perceptual truth.

In the same breath, the poet is told that good haiku usually have two elements in tension that create in the reader a new insight — a definition that sounds remarkably like modern views of metaphor.”

She postulates that “the negative view of metaphor often expressed by teachers and poets may be primarily definitional.

Conflicting Opinions https://pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

Why is the use of simile discouraged in haiku?

YourDictionary online describes a simile as being:

“A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things. The simile is usually in a phrase that begins with “as” or “like.”

Some famous haiku poets use simile in their haiku.

For example, The Haiku Foundation Forum gives an example of haiku that used simile by Basho:

265 (the number of haiku in the book “Basho The Complete Haiku)

sprouts of horsetail
as if a legendary person is wearing
a pleated skirt

The original Japanese haiku from which the English translation “above” is taken reads:

Mafukuda
wears his hakama … ka
this horsetail

The explanation from Japanese to English is given as:

“…the “legendary person” is the young priest Mafukuda, for whom Saint Gyoki made a purple hakama (pleated trousers for men and women), but only with one leg. (There is a purple flower called “fujibakama” (hakama like a wisteria, thoroughwort).”

So, why is simile discouraged or haiku composers told NOT to use simile if famous haiku poets used simile?

The Haiku Foundation Forum explains:

“Usually in English, you know a simile is coming when you spot the words “as” and “like.” Occasionally one will find in a haiku the use of a simile with these words still wrapped around it, but the Japanese have proved to us that this is unnecessary. From them, we have learned that it is enough to put two images in juxtaposition to let the reader figure out the “as” and “like” for him/herself.

So basically the unspoken rule is that you can use simile (which the rule-sayers warn against) if you are smart enough to drop the “as” and “like.”

In Haiku Topics an analysis is given of the Japanese ‘toriawase’ (combination) or juxtaposition which is often seen as central to haiku. This explanation of juxtaposition or ‘toriawase’ is fascinating and speaks to the heart of haiku:

“It may sound as if toriawase is a golden rule, or a “be all and end all”.
However, like many (or all) other haiku tenets, it is not.

On the contrary, it is wrong for anyone to be a slave to any rule including toriawase.

The haiku poet writes the poem from the heart, first, and looks to see if it has followed any principle, second, if necessary.

To put up any haiku principle first, and then force the work to follow it, is an enticing trap which many fall into.”

So, once again, just like with the use of metaphor, there is plenty of conflicting information to be found depending on where you look. However, in the spirit of haiku, I believe I have come to some correct conclusions for use at House of Haiku.

So what does this mean?

Submissions of haiku to House of Haiku

I will no longer be rejecting haiku for using a metaphor.

However, it is STRONGLY ADVISED to use implied metaphor rather than a direct metaphor if you wish your haiku to be strong and powerful.

It is strongly encouraged to drop “as” or “like” and use the line separation to join or bridge two concepts/concrete ideas/descriptions together. I will not be refusing haiku though that use “as” or “like” as the spirit of haiku I believe would reject this putting of rules ahead of the genuine spirit of the poem.

I hope you have found this in-depth discussion around the use of metaphor and simile in haiku interesting and that it has helped you gain a clearer understanding of how muddled, and conflicting this issue is within different camps of the haiku community. I found it confusing which is why I wrote this article.

I am looking forward to seeing all your haiku submissions come into House of Haiku.

I hope we can continue to support and encourage each other as we all refine and practice this art of poetry that is so beautiful and profound in its simplicity, and in its ability to create a bridge between nature and the human condition, and draw meaning and conclusions we otherwise may not have seen.


If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy reading about the history of haiku.


Deborah Christensen is a writer, artist, published author and a disability support worker. She currently lives in Queensland, Australia and also has citizenship in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She lives with her husband, and a rescue dog called ‘Lily’ and has six adult children (and one amazing grandchild) who live away from home. She’s on Twitter @Deborah37035395 and Pinterest and is the author of the best selling award winning memoir Inside/Outside: One Woman’s Recovery From Abuse and a Religious Cult.

House of Haiku

Haiku is a form of poetry usually inspired by nature, which embraces simplicity. We invite all poetry lovers to have a go at composing Haiku. Be warned. You could become addicted.

Deborah Christensen

Written by

Seeker of Understanding, Explorer of Spirit, Writer, Artist, Believer/Doubter, Dreamer, Communicator, Counsellor, Bachelor of Science (Psychology)

House of Haiku

Haiku is a form of poetry usually inspired by nature, which embraces simplicity. We invite all poetry lovers to have a go at composing Haiku. Be warned. You could become addicted.

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