School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Eleven
Basho's Haiku Techniques

While writing the book Basho The Complete Haiku, I was aware of the techniques that Basho used. This is taken from the the back of the book and the numbers are the ones given the poems.

1. The Technique of Association - This method of linking can be thought of as “how different things relate or come together.” In many societies a similar technique is known as parallelism – the method of setting ideas into similar syntaxes with slight variations in information which reveal a connectedness. The Japanese borrowed this principle from the Chinese, who had made it their dominate device, and moved the parallel built on syntax to a new level with an association of images. The Zen of this technique is called “oneness” - showing how everything is part of everything else. An association that has been over-used so often that it is a called a cliché, is the Japanese association of dew and tears. One of Bashō’s major objectives was to find new and apt associations that made the reader rethink reality and the connectedness within. Of all the techniques, this is the one Bashō used most.

hating flowers
the mouths of talkative people
the wind bag

            Here Bashō is saying that the mouths of people who talk too much and the bag of winds, a fanciful expression of the place where the spring winds come from, have something in common. They both must hate the cherry blossoms because they, each in their own way, reduced a person’s pleasure in enjoying the flowers. The talkative person distracts from one’s appreciation of the beauty of the scene and the wind blows the petals off the tree. Because of the perfection of this association, the reader can then think of many other associations between these two images.
            Other poems that are prime example of Bashō using this technique are: 7, 22 106, 236, 246, 324, 325, 329, 353, 358, 375, 397, 402, 406, 446, 454, 465, 466, 675, 676, 678, 683, 692, 694, 695, 716, 720, 820, 846, 881, 891, 948, 949, 951, 957, 958, 960, 1000, and 1004. A quick glance at this partial list shows a certain clumping of the numbers. By seeing all of Bashō’s poems in a chronological order, as much as that is possible, it suggests that when the master was practicing the use of a technique, he tried it out on several poems.


2. The Technique of Comparison – This technique is so close to the technique of association that it may seem they are the same. However there is a vital difference. All comparisons are associations, but not all associations are comparative. Here is a fairly clear example.

rabbit year iris
how much it looks like
its image in water

3. The Technique of Contrast – Identifying this technique is much easier. The reward from this technique is the excitement that opposites create. Thus, a common haiku idea can gain added interest. Because many of the surprises of life are the contrasts, this technique is a major one for haiku in our times, but less so in Bashō’s life.

clear at the lake
yet it rains on Mt. Hiei
departing May

Other poems clearly containing the use of the technique of contrast are: 34, 803, 840, and 843.


4. The Technique of Close Linkage – Basically this could come as a sub-topic to association but since it also works with contrast and comparison it deserves its own category. In making any connection between the two parts of a haiku, the leap can be a small, or even a well-known, one. Usually beginners are easily impressed with close linkage and experiment first with the most easily understood examples of this form. They can quickly understand it and feel comfortable using the technique almost without realizing what they are doing.

when planting it
handle it like an infant
baby cherry tree


5. The Technique of Leap Linkage – Bashō was, due to his renga writing skills, a master at making wild, wide leaps in the linking of the images of his poems.

ladder bridge
first one thinks of
meeting horses

Here the linkage leap is so wide that it may need a footnote of explanation for readers four centuries and thousands of miles away to follow it. This is one of the problems of making an innovative or wide leap; how to get the reader’s mind to track it over the abyss without getting lost. The important point in creating with this technique is that the writer is always totally aware of his or her truth. Usually, if you think about the words long enough and deeply enough, the reader can find the author's truth, or better still, a new one.


6. The Technique of Using a Metaphor – Until recently haiku teachers taught that haiku do not employ metaphor. They came to this wrong conclusion because the Japanese state their metaphors differently. As you can see, Bashō used metaphor.

the gay boy
a plum and the willow
a woman


7. The Technique of Using a Simile – Usually, in English, the reader recognizes a simile when seeing the words “as” and “like.” Occasionally in Bashō’s poems will be found a simile with these words still wrapped around it, but the Japanese writers, for the most part, have proved to us that this is unnecessary. From them we have learned that it is enough to put two images in juxtaposition  – next to each other –  to let the readers figure out the “as” and “like” for themselves. So basically the unspoken rule is that one can use simile, if you are smart enough to simply drop the “as” and “like.” Besides, this allows the readers an active part in creating the poem within as they discover the unspoken simile. Other poems where Bashō used this technique are:  343, 428, 839, 893, 979, and 1007.

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


8. The Technique of Rhyme – This is a major component of Western poetry, and in Japanese, the way the sound units are built, rhyming is something that almost happens naturally. Yet, haiku translated into rhymed lines often need so much padding to make the rhyme work that the simplicity of the poem gets lost. However, if the reader takes the time to read the romaji version of Bashō’s poems, one can see how often the old master employed the linkage of sound in his work.

nebu no ki no / hagoshi mo itoe / hoshi no kage
a silk tree
even through the leaves weary
of star light

The rhyme occurs here with hagoshi = through leaves, and hoshi = star, and the seven “oh” sounds.


9. The Technique of the Sketch or Shiki's Shasei – Though this technique is often given Shiki's term shasei = sketch from life, or shajitsu = reality, it had been in use since the beginning of poetry in the Orient. The poetic principle is “to depict the thing just as it is.” There are some inspirations for haiku which are best said as simply as it is possible in this way. Most of Shiki’s haiku were written in this style. Yet, he himself realized in 1893, that the over-use of this one technique that he admired could produce many lackluster haiku. So the method is a technique, but never should it be the only method used to write a haiku.

a rainy day
the autumn world
of a border town


10. The Technique of Narrowing Focus - This is a device the Japanese master, Buson used often because he, being an artist, was a very visual person. But Bashō was, as well as earlier poets were, completely comfortable using this technique.

morning of snow
only onions in the garden
blaze the trail

Basically the poem starts with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, then switches to a normal lens for the second line and then zooms in for a close-up in the end. The technique sounds simple, and when done well it is very effective in bringing the reader’s attention down to one basic element or fact of the haiku. Bashō, as was typical for him, added another element to the technique with the idea that the close-up image – the trail at one’s feet – is covered up with snow so it cannot be seen.


11. The Technique of the Riddle – It is apt that the very first of Basho's saved poems employs this technique. The riddle is probably one of the very oldest poetical techniques as well as a device to preserve and transmit spiritual knowledge. Zen Buddhists retain this linage with the koan. It takes some explaining of culture and time-keeping to figure out the riddle in Bashō’s poem, but the clarification is in the note. The trick in using this technique is to state the riddle in as puzzling terms as possible. What can one say so that the reader cannot easily figure out the answer? The more intriguing the set-up, and the closer the correlation between the images, the better the haiku seems to work. The old masters’ favorite tricks with riddles were: “is that a flower falling or is it a butterfly?” or “is that snow on the plum branch or blossoms?” and the all-time favorite – “am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man or a man dreaming I am a butterfly?” Sometimes the riddle is not actually set up as a question but makes a statement of improbably. At times the author supplies the answer of how this other reality can be and other times the reader is left to find the solution.

has spring come
or the year gone away?
second last day

from a tree top
emptiness drops down
cicada shell


12. The Technique of Using Paradoxes - One of the aims of haiku is to confuse the reader just enough to attract interest and engage the mind in thinking. Using a paradox will give the reader something to ponder after the last word has been read. Again, the author cannot espouse nonsense but has to construct a truthful paradox – connected to reality or even a higher reality. It is not easy to come up with new ones or good ones, but when an author discovers one, it is perfect in a haiku because the haiku’s briefness adds to the excitment of figuring out the paradox.

black forest
whatever you may say
a morning of snow

13. The Technique of Double Entendre – Anyone who has read translations of Japanese poetry has seen how much poets delighted in saying one thing and meaning something else. Often only translators knew the secret language and thus, got the jokes which may, or may not, be explained in footnotes. In some cases the pun was to cover up a sexual reference by using a euphemism or images with double meanings.

the rainy image
of the bottom-shining princess
the moon’s face

14. The Technique of using Puns – Again we must study the master punsters – the Japanese. We have many of the same opportunities in English but contemporary haiku writers may not be as well-versed as the Japanese are in using this technique because there have been periods of Western literary history when this skill has been reviled. Bashō did not use the technique much because he was against the over-use of the method by the two other haikai schools of his time. Translators shy away pun verses because they rarely work in the target language and long explanations can be tiresome to write and to read. Fortunately this verse, by Bashō, works in both languages.

come and see
in-vest yourself in
a flowered robe

The type of robe was a sleeveless version which can be called a vest.

15. The Technique of Wordplays – Again, one has to admit the Japanese do this best. Their job of finding wordplays is made easier by the custom of their place and object names having a double meaning as well as many of their words being homonyms – sounding the same. Still we also have scores of words with multiple meaning so there is no reason we cannot learn to explore our own language for such literary gifts. A good look at some of our cities' names could give new inspiration: Oak-land, Anchor Bay, Red Bluff, Ox-ford, Cam-bridge. Especially the descriptive names of plants, such as cone flower or Sweet William, and the other named things have opportunity for haiku in them. Bashō was careful in using this technique for same reason he avoided puns. Yet he did employ the technique for 781, 924, and 933.

so beautiful
the princess melon
already a queen

The wordplay comes from the name of the melon sort which is hime-uri – a princess melon, and the image of a queen. Another wordplay comes with urizane gao – a face like the fruit of a melon or an oval-faced beauty. Also, in some parts of Japan people would make a hime uri bana – a melon doll with face powder and black ink similar to pumpkin faces.

16. The Technique of Using Humor – Bashō is often remembered as a rather dour old guy with god-like qualities, but this is not accurate. He was a party person who enjoyed the company of all classes and employments. There are no belly laughs in his haikai, but his quirky mind would occasionally be allowed to come up with a poem that would bring a smile.

rice cake flower
stuck as a hair ornament
on Lord Rat


17. The Technique of Using Pseudo-science – This is very close to paradox but has a slight difference. This technique demonstrates a distorted view of science – one we think is not true, but it always has the possibility of being true, perhaps when we finally completely understand quantum physics or all become poets. When the “other reality” the author was using is explained, the poem becomes absolutely clear. Again, this is an old Japanese tool which was used to make the poet sound simple and child-like but also to confound the reader.

a falling sound
that sours my ears
plum rain

I have tied to my feet
sandal cords

Other poems using the technique of pseudo-science are: 81, 304, 305, 728, 767, 897, and 898.


18. The technique of Sense-switching – This is another old-time favorite of the Japanese poetry masters, but one they used with a great deal of discretion. It is simply to speak of the sensory aspect of a thing and then change to another sensory organ. Usually it involves hearing something one sees – the color of a sound, or vice versa – the sound of a color, or to switch between seeing and tasting. Some persons have this ability naturally; for them it is called synesthesia. The most famous example of this technique is in Bashō’s “old pond” haiku:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

Here, the frog not only jumps into the water but also into the sound of water. The mind-puzzle which this haiku creates is how to separate the frog from the water, the sound of water from the water, the frog from the sound it will make entering water, and the sound from the old pond. It cannot be done because all these factors are one, but the reader arrives at this truth through the jolt of having the senses scrambled. Other poems using this technique are: 733 and 963.


19. The Technique of the Frame Rhymekasuri. – This technique, used by the two haikai schools in vogue in Bashō’s time, also was utilized in English poetry, where it was known as the para-rhyme or frame rhyme. An example would be back – buck. This rhyming device has, until now, almost completely fallen out of practice in poetry, but recently was revived in rap. An extension of this technique is still used in jokes. By taking a known phrase or cliché, and then changing one part of it, it is possible to express a new idea. Examples: “He, who laughs last, thinks slowest.” or “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” Bashō, by changing only one sound unit, was using the frame rhyme.

from Kyoto's many houses
a crowd of ninety-nine thousand

At the time there was a saying that Kyoto has 98,000 houses. Another phrase is kisen kunju = a crowd of rich and poor. Bashō changed the kisen to kusen to add another thousand to the number and including the concept of all classes of society.


20. The Technique of Making New Words – One of the reasons for becoming a poet, or writer, is for the joy of working with words. Fairly quickly one finds out, even in a language as rich as English, that there are not enough words to explain or name everything in all its variations. The writer must either find images for these unnamed states of being or make up a new word.

for the star festival
even when hearts cannot meet

The word uchūten is a compound word made by Bashō incorporating “rain in the middle of heaven” and ecstasy.


21. The Twist Technique – This is one of the most used methods in writing waka poetry. It was also the basis for the maekuzuki – capping verse. It works by setting up a situation, and leading the reader to believe the author is going to relate a certain situation. In the middle of a verse the writer’s thinking makes a turn or twist, and forces the reader’s mind into a completely different situation. Since Bashō had studied the old waka anthologies, he was very familiar with the technique.

folly in darkness
grasping a thorn
instead of a firefly

Because fireflies appear in the time of the evening when lovers meet, they have the connotation of helping lovers find each other. Thus, the reader is led to think “thorn” is a euphemism, but the addition of the third line swings the poem back around into another situation.

at a kale farm
the face viewing the flowers
a sparrow

Kale, a leafy green vegetable, has a sharp mustard-like flavor. Many people find it to be too sharp or almost sour. Therefore when one mentions a face with kale, the reader is led to believe the author will say something about a frowning or distorted human face. Bashō flips the image around so the reader sees only a common little sparrow gazing at the plant with no indication of sourness or spice – just quiet observation.


22. The Technique Of Pivoting – This technique, also carried over from waka, is a variation on the twist. In the pivot however, the middle line acts as a gate that can swing in either direction. This results from having a middle line that can have two meanings. The reader is flipped from one way of thinking to another, but here the device is made clear. The reader can make two conclusions using the same common information in the middle line.

first snowfall
almost finished
on the bridge

To be completely understood, perhaps this poem also needs its title: “When the new Great Bridge at Fukagawa was almost finished.” Here both the snowfall and the work on the bridge were “almost finished.”


23. The Technique of Using Literary References or honki-dori – One of the ways writers had of elevating their status was to link their poem with that of a more famous person. Also, by making a reference to a facet of literary history, the writer could silently advertise how well-read and knowledgeable he or she was. If the reference was obscure, the reader could feel uneducated. In translation these poems require more footnotes and usually the help of a well-read native speaker to figure them out.

pining for flowers
or a tune from Gichiku
on Mount Yoshino

Gichiku, known as Tōzaburō, was a popular flute player in Bashō ‘s time whose hit-song had the title of "Yoshino" – the mountain most famous for its cherry trees and deep snows. The idea was that when the flowers bloomed there would be parties under them, and at the parties would be flute playing at its best.

24. The Technique Of Response to Another’s Poem – This is a variation on the technique of a literary reference only here the reference is to a usually well-known poem by someone else. Again this demands that the reader has the same literary history or competent footnotes. This device is a good one to get poetic inspiration flowing by reading the works of others and then finding something else or new to say. In this example Bashō was referring to a waka he had read in the imperial anthology, Shin Kokin Waka Shū: “along the way / where water is running / in the willow shade / I have stopped to rest / for a little while – michi no be ni / shimizu nagaruru / yanagi kage / shibashi to te koso / tachidormari tsure .”

one patch of rice field
when it was planted I left
the willow tree


25. The Technique of Narrating an Admirable Act – This is another very old method of choosing subject material for a poem. Surely the old Chinese poets were the first experts, but the Japanese ran a close second. In the imperial collections of waka, some of these poems with this attribute were categorized as “laments.” Usually it is plainly polite bragging of ones own goodness or elevating one’s poverty to an achievement.

burning dried pine needles
to dry my hand towel
such coldness

Bashō made use of this device in the poems: 98, 467, 473, 482, 581, 866, and 940.

26. The Technique of Hiding the Author – Often poets used ambiguity to hide the fact that they were writing about themselves. They would refer to “an old man” or “the traveler” when in fact it was the author having the experience. By doing this, the technique moved the poem from the individual into the universal. Then readers could fit their thinking into the experience. Another reason for using ambiguity was to mix up the action so the readers do not know if nature is doing the acting or if a human is doing it. This device minimizes the impact of the author’s person on the poem, and allows an interaction between humanity and nature.

full moon
walking around the pond
all night

Is the poet or the moon walking around the poem all night? Or are they going together? There is also an association between the roundness of the moon, the pond, and the walked path.

27. The Technique Of The Hidden Subject – Another variation on the above technique was to write about a subject that could not be sensed, but only imagined. Often Oriental poets praised most highly a missing thing. Frequently this was done as a lament for a deceased person, but it was also a way of forcing the reader to think beyond the poem to imagine something that was not expressed in the words. Here is an example of Bashō experimenting with the technique.

bell at sunset
also was not heard
a spring evening

no bell ringing
what do the villagers do
on a spring evening

Bashō continued the exercise with: 518, 520, 521, 810, 811, 952, 953, and 1008.


28. The Technique of Sabi – SAH-BEE – It is questionable whether this is actually a writing technique, but the concept is so vital to Oriental poetry that it needs to be on a list like this. The word sabi has been given so many meanings over the innumerable years it has been in Japan, and now that it comes to the English language it is undergoing even new mutations. As fascinated as Westerners have become with the word, the Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Some say sabi is “beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.” Daisetz T. Suzuki maintains that sabi is “loneliness” or “solitude” but that it can also be “miserable,” “insignificant,” and “pitiable,” “asymmetry,” and “poverty.” Donald Keene sees sabi as “an understatement hinting at great depths.” So you see, we are rather on our own with this. One way to think of it is that a split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi and a freshly painted picket fence does not. As a technique, the writer puts together images and verbs which create this desired atmosphere.

dreaming rice cakes
fastened to folded ferns
a grass pillow

29. The Technique of Wabi – WAH-BEE – This concept is the twin to sabi. Again many persons have tried to find a perfect definition, but wabi can most easily be defined as the poverty or beauty that is the result of living simply. Frayed, faded, and worn Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve. Because these two terms are so nebulous, deciding which of Bashō’s poems exemplify the ideas can be debated. However, as a reader and writer it is important to be aware of these concepts because their use can bring a deeper sense of life and living.

a hibiscus flower
worn by a naked child
in its hair

30. The Technique of Yūgen – This is another of these Japanese atmospheres of poetry which is usually defined as “mystery” and “unknowable depth.” Somehow yūgen has avoided the controversy of the other two terms but since deciding which haiku exemplifies this quality is a judgmental decision, there is rarely consent over which verse has it and which one does not. One could say a woman's face half-hidden behind a fan has yūgen. The same face covered with pink goop while getting a facial, however, does not. But still haiku writers do use the atmosphere as defined by yūgen in haiku by enticing their readers to think and to delve into the mystery of common things.

souvenir paintings
what kind of a brush first drew
the image of Buddha


31. The Technique of “As Above: So Below” – Though this idea seems to be using a religious precept, yet this technique works to make the tiny haiku a well-rounded thought. The idea is that reader should be able to read the first line and the third line to find it makes a complete thought. Sometimes an author does not know in which order to place the images in a haiku. When the images in the first and third lines have the strongest relationship, the haiku automatically feels balanced. For exercise, take this haiku by Bashō and switch the lines around to see how this factor works or try reading this haiku without the second line.

snow on snow
this night in December
a full moon


32. The Technique of Finding the Divine in the Common – This is a technique that seems to happen without conscious control. A writer will make a perfectly ordinary and accurate statement about common things, but due to the combination of images and ideas about them, or in between them, a truth will be revealed about the divine. Since we all have various ideas about what the divine is, two readers of the same haiku may not find the same truth or revelation in it. Here, again, the reader becomes a writer to find a greater truth behind the words. This example from Bashō’s work may seem fairly clear.

the one thing
that lights my world
a rice gourd

Perhaps it helps to know that rice was stored in a dried gourd. To keep it away from mice, the gourd was hung from a rafter above the room. Though electricity had not been conquered and light bulbs invented, Bashō already had this comparison. Yet there is a deeper meaning, also. The rice gourd’s golden yellow color not only brightened the dim room, but the rice in it furnished the energy to maintain his body while endeavoring to reach the goal of enlightenment. One can also see this poem as a riddle. What is the one thing that lights my world?

33. The Technique of Lightness or karumi – This is the concept for poetry that Bashō discovered late in his life. His belief in this method of writing was so strong it compelled him to take trips his health was not capable of in order to bring the concept to a wider audience. Several students abandoned Bashō over their dislike of the method and others, even though they said they believed in it, found it very hard to define and emulate. Looking backwards in time, it seems Bashō was trying to write poetry that was less emotional, and therefore deemed lighter. Whether or not Bashō could have made the statement that it is the verb that carries the emotional baggage of a poem, at some level he must have known this. The poems he considered to exemplify the concept of karumi best are the ones with the least employment of verbs or even none at all. In our times this technique of writing a haiku without a verb produces what is pejoratively called “grocery list” haiku.

under the trees
soup and pickles
cherry blossoms

From Bashō’s own comments on his work, he found these poems displayed the technique of lightness: 776, 819, 885, and 923.



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