BOOK REVIEW: Writing Haiku by Bruce Ross

Writing Haiku: A Beginner's Guide to Composing Japanese PoetryWriting Haiku: A Beginner’s Guide to Composing Japanese Poetry by Bruce Ross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: March 15, 2022

With this guide, Ross offers a compact guide to navigating Japanese poetic forms and the offshoots and variations that have evolved in America. The book does have a particular focus on the American and international style of haiku, and related forms, though the author always lays the groundwork by first exploring the “rules” of the traditional Japanese form. He also discusses concepts, such as wabi and sabi, that heavily inform Japanese poetry. However, most of the examples come from English language writers, and there’s extensive discussion of how American haiku differs in form and substance. This makes the book particularly useful for English-as-native-language writers who wish to capture the flavor of this spare and elegant poetic form, but who have limited acquaintance with the Japanese language and culture.

I didn’t think I’d need another guide for writing haiku after reading and re-reading William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, but Ross does cover a few topics in greater depth and detail, particular haiga (combining graphic arts with haiku,) renga (a partnered / team style) and several American variations, and ginko (a nature walk-based practice.)

The book has graphics as needed (i.e. in the haiga section,) and offers and extensive set of recommendations for further reading as well as resources.

While I’ve been writing haiku, tanka, and senryū for some time, I learned a lot from this book, and it got me excited to try some of the forms with which I’m inexperienced. I’d highly recommend this book for beginner, intermediate, and advanced haiku poets.


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The Temple Yard [Haibun]

At dusk, the temple yard is silent. A twiggy tree twists and leans, shading no one but seemingly stretching toward something unknown. Nothing can be heard, save the buzz of low-flying insects when they get too near. 

Then someone clangs the brass bell -- just one sharp snap of the bell tongue. But the tone hangs in the night air, piercing something unseen.


temple yard at dusk,
the silence is broken
by the brass bell

Night Sky [Haibun]

Flipping open the tent flap, I see a vast and glowing night sky. It's not the shabby patch of light points of my sky at home. Here, high in the mountains, far from any city, I can make out bands of color and dazzling webs of luminosity. 

And I can feel the tininess that past men must have felt, a diminished sense of importance that's hard to come by for a human standing on the Earth, where flags are planted everywhere and grand monuments to our pomposity are packed into dense clusters.



mountain sky.
the cloudless night
glows infinite 

Varanasi [Haibun]

Varanasi smashes up against the Ganga. Note the tightly packed warren of lanes near the ghats, as if the city is compressed there. It's only farther from the river that the city unfolds, gaining breathing room, becoming wide enough for streets and signs that aren't blurred by being too close to one's face. The ubiquitous smoky scent also hints at a collision. Yet more evidence is seen in the barren east bank, a sandbar occupied by lounging cows and cricketers. As if the city refuses to crawl over the river as most cities do. The east bank desolation allows the formation of the "Golden Bridge," a band of orange that spans the glassy waters each morning, the only bridge in sight.   


ramparts loom;
boats glide over
glassy waters

Nowhere Station [Haibun]

The tawny landscape was tinged with the green that landlubbers take on in rolling seas or flatlanders show on a high mountain pass. The world looked like it was being viewed through shooter's glasses -- except for the azure infinity overhead that was unafflicted by sickly hues. Railroad tracks arced the length of the valley and it was a long valley - so long the tracks almost looked line like. The lack of other signs of humanity might have led one to believe it was the train to nowhere, but there was a solitary station in the middle of the valley and there can't be a station in the middle of nowhere on the way to nowhere. Or, can there be? Maybe, nowhere is like infinity, existing in larger and smaller degrees.


a single building
and a long covered platform,
but just i, waiting

Great Egret [Haibun]

The egret stands on stiff, still legs. By contrast, its neck is coiled into a sinuous strike position. For a long time, only its eyes move, saccading in time with the darting prey below the water's mirrored surface. The egret plays shrub, hoping to lure tiny fish into its shadow, within striking distance of its flexible neck.

the egret stands,
moving only its eyes...
then spears water  

Butterfly Paralysis [Haibun]

Struggling to wiggle its wings, the butterfly warms in the morning sun. Is it like sleep paralysis - that hypnopompic impulse to flee that's stymied by stuck muscles? What's a wind gust or rapidly advancing shadow like for the butterfly? Normally, such occurrences would provoke an erratic fluttering away. But now the screaming instinct to wing away can't be answered. Does the butterfly know dread, or does it just quietly await the moment it's unfrozen?


cool morning -
a butterfly twitches,
but can't yet fly 

City Swallowed [Haibun]

Rubble cubes lie like piled dice. Temples and throne halls collapsed into mossy blocks brought low by the meager -- if inexorable -- forces of water drips and grass roots, roots that became wedges, splitting stone from stone. People push the blocks back together in homage to ancestors, but turn one's back and the hungry jungle consumes. Those ancestors crafted such sturdy stuff out of stout stone blocks. How much more quickly will our planned obsolescent cities be swallowed?


stout stone blocks -
toppled, dissolved, buried -
a city swallowed

Tree & Pond [Haibun]

Beside a pond, a tree reaches, its branches stretched wide and skyward, blocking the harsh cloud-penetrating rays. Locals sit on the lush grass, their backsides wet, their backs resting on the rough and slanting trunk. They watch ripples echo outward from the mouth tips of feeding fish, those concentric rings etched into in the mirrored waters - and yet moving. In time, watchers will become ripple mesmerized, and will experience the stiff twitch and head nods of an impending nap.


sitting pondside,
ripples from feeding fish
lull my mind 

Vertigo Green [Haibun]

Life overtakes all. Moss coats stone; vines smother shrubs; trees straddle walls. All growing in splotched patterns of green -- a million shapes of leaf in a million subtly different shades. My world is awash in green. My mind is soothed by deep greens, and fired by the bright light-greens of fresh growth. My periphery swirls and blurs with green.


a mossy stone 
becomes my focal point,
the fringe blurs