by Alan Summers flower2


Haiku is perhaps more so a symbiotic type of poetry than most other genres, as its very origins – via hokku – relied on a second verse to complete an internal couplet in a much longer multi-poet multi-poem and linking form called Renga, and later Renku.1 We could say that haiku is a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence; that haiku (plural and single spelling) is one organism and the reader at large (individuals and groups of individuals) is the second organism. There are the three kinds of relationships in symbiosis 2: mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism, and it could be said that haiku are dominantly in the first category.  Is the reader so vital and can influence the dynamics and innovation of haiku that it remains current to society, and if so, how?

My thoughts are that we, the writer (collective or singular) need to be open to co-operation with the reader as co-poet, and allow them to fill the space, be the space, and proactively fill in the spaces: As haiku evolved from Japanese verses that started a longer poem – where each verse was written by a different person – so a certain amount of information is left out each time, to be completed by a second verse, and then every verse after that gives a little more information to the preceding verse.

So as haiku are standalone poems, that second (linking) verse is the reader themselves; they are the connecting actions.  As haiku are open poems that allow the reader to compose their own insight that’s why haiku can often appear incomplete or at least not replete with the full facts, or stuffed with description or opinion.

So how to let the reader *be* in haiku:

While suggestions lie in the text they are deliberately not spelt out to us as we are surely proficient and able enough to work some things out for ourselves: We all have to be solvers from childhood onwards.  Good haiku avoid authorial direction as a haiku is not the single voice of the writer, but of the reader to be also. There is usually enough to get our imagination and emotions activated as a reader to complete the story as a co-author, as a partner of equal standing to the writer. If the whole story is revealed, and dictated, to the reader, what is left for us but to be merely random bystanders, rather than participants? On one level there may be a beginning, middle and end to a haiku poem but that ending is hopefully open so we, “The Reader,” can make our own conclusions and our own signature on it as a reader/co-author.

The trick with haiku is to turn the story into poem, and not just any poem, but one that avoids a definitive one and only choice of interpretation narrative onto the reader.  Should haiku leave nothing to the reader, to refuse us the opportunity for our own interpretations, dreams, and imagination so that we are engineered into obsequiously taking a narrower route into and out of the poem? We are not reading/telling/writing a story or tale for a child who is in their early development, where they require a certain amount of logical narrative progression and conclusion. We want to trick the brain into learning and discovering new ways to grow and react, to innovate and evolve as human beings and as readers.

Haiku is currently more about the spirit and degree of resonance evoked in the mind of the reader rather than the accomplishment of having fitted it all into a precise form.” Quote from Stephen Gill in Conjuring haiku from the concrete sea of Matsuyama by Shaun McKenna, Japan Times May 2016

We tend to want to over-explain rather than create a simple attempt to tell: Instead we must edit ourselves so we hint, and to let the reader explain to us.”  Alan Summers

Haiku is often the art of implication, tension, and resonance: We bring in something lateral, something ‘off screen’ to let the reader join up at least some of the dots, complete the incomplete, and add their own take, interpretation, and breakdown of the poem, adding their own ‘ending’.

The reader is the ending.” Alan Summers

English-Language haiku are not statements OR mere descriptions and reports: We need to avoid directing or controlling the reader. It’s the reader who should be in command, and not the original author/poet as can be the case in other poetry where the poet may command the reader. A haiku poet can want the reverse, for the reader to be in control, taking their meanings and comprehension, and life experiences to the poem.  We, “The Reader” are also units of intellect, and we will inform those haiku poems, directly, or in other ways.  If we use, as poets, the horizontal and vertical axis of haiku we can assist and enable the reader to see through the poem to themselves: We surely want the reader to see back to themselves?

Even if the reader veers away from the intended point of the poem, and the original event witnessed and experienced by the poet, haiku are not poems for the reader to compulsorily be ordered to follow the one way or not at all.   But of course the poet, the originator of the poem, can tease the reader along and so both writer and reader grow and evolve in symbiosis.

“…lesser poets might end up writing epigrammatic, didactic, or moralist three-liners, lacking what has been termed as ‘haiku spirit’.”  Ram Krishna Singh (July 25, 2015)

Haiku certainly have their own genre and are not quips; idioms; ditties; epithets; axiom; platitudes; directives; statements; proverbs; statement of belief; caveats; a homily or hypotheses; proselytism; or persuasive arguments.  As Ram Krishna Singh says about Didactic verse / poetry, such poems set out to teach something to someone else other than the poet/originator themselves. Haiku give readers choices of interpretation and of adding their own internal dialogue of poetry.

Perhaps we need to unlearn in order to progress and this is where the reader is vital: Allow the reader to remove the author. If so, a haiku will begin to form, and as a mutual benefit, where the poet grows through the reader, and readership, and in turn each reader becomes stronger, and ever more astute.

1.) “RENGA” AND “RENKU”William J. Higginson
2.) symbiosis (ˌsɪmbɪˈəʊsɪs; ˌsɪmbaɪˈəʊsɪs), noun

  1. (Biology) a close and usually obligatory association of two organisms of different species that live together, often to their mutual benefit
  2. (Sociology) a similar relationship between interdependent persons or groups

[C19: via New Latin from Greek: a living together; see symbiont]

“Symbiōsis,” in turn, traces to “symbios” (“living together”), a combination of syn-, meaning “with,” and bios, meaning “life.”

Two organisms that live together in symbiosis may have one of three kinds of relationships:
mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism. The mutualism shown by the rhinoceros and the tickbird benefits both. Riding on the rhino’s back, the tickbird eats its fill of the ticks that bother the rhino while the rhino gets warning calls from the bird when it senses danger. In commensalism, one member benefits and the other is unaffected. Certain barnacles attach themselves to whales, gaining a safe home and transportation to food-rich waters. But the whales are generally unaffected by the barnacles’ presence.

Copyright Notice

The Reader as Second Verse©Alan Summers 2012-2016




All views expressed on The British Haiku Society website are the views of the authors and contributors.

They do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The British Haiku Society.

Find us on Facebook!