14 American Haiku Writers

Posted on Sep 19, 2023

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Poetry is quite a versatile format, from epic poems to three-word miniatures, writers have been squeezing and stretching words and imagery into different shapes and sizes for centuries. One form amongst these is the haiku. Though it originated in Japan, nearly every culture has created its own version of this poetry form.

Let’s look at America’s contribution to the art of haiku.

What is haiku?

The traditional haiku is a form of Japanese poetry, known for its brevity and focus on capturing a moment of nature or fleeting emotion. It consists of three lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5, totaling 17 syllables. They typically convey themes of nature and a general sense of simplicity, tranquility, and observation.

Key characteristics of haiku poetry include:

Syllable Structure

The traditional syllable pattern for a haiku is 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line, and 5 syllables in the third line.

Nature and Seasonal Themes

Haikus often center around nature, the changing of seasons, and the beauty of the natural world. These themes help evoke a sense of mindfulness and connection with the environment.

Emotional Subtext

Despite their brevity, haikus aim to convey deep emotions or insights within a single snapshot of time. They often capture a fleeting moment or a simple observation that holds significance.

Suggestion and Openness

Haikus often leave room for interpretation and evoke a sense of openness. They may hint at deeper meanings or emotions without explicitly stating them.

Kigo (Season Words)

Traditional haikus often include a “kigo,” which is a word or phrase that indicates the season in which the poem is set. This helps establish the time and atmosphere of the poem. For example, “cherry blossoms bloom” would be a kigo. 

Kireji (Cutting Word)

In Japanese haikus, a “kireji” is a word or particle that creates a pause and adds emphasis. It serves as a sort of verbal punctuation. An example of a kireji is “silent moonlit night” in the following haiku:

Silent moonlit night—
Whispers of love on the breeze
Gone with morning’s light

There’s a natural pause after the first line, even if the em dash wasn’t there.

While this is the traditional format of a haiku, literature is a dialogue between cultures—Japan said, “Hey y’all, look at this thing I made,” and western countries and cultures said, “Yes! Absolutely, we love it. Here’s our take on it.” This back-and-forth evolution of concepts and writing styles is one of the things that makes literature so fascinating. Let’s look at some American haiku writers and how they brought their own spin to the format.

14 American Haiku Writers

Here are fourteen American haiku writers, what they were known for, how they made the haiku their own, and example pieces.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright (1908 – 1960) was a renowned African-American author and haiku poet who spent the last eighteen months of life bedridden with dysentery, writing around four thousand haiku. He prepared over 800 poems for publication, but he was rejected, and his haiku wouldn’t greet the public until 1998, years after his death.

While Wright did include themes of nature in his work, as is the traditional content of a haiku, he also interwoven themes of race, humor, and human nature.

I am nobody:

A red sinking autumn sun

Took my name away.

Burning autumn leaves,

I yearn to make the bonfire

Bigger and bigger.

A sleepless spring night:

Yearning for what I never had

And for what never was.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), writer famous for his novel On the Road, also took interest in the haiku and other forms of poetry. In his novel The Dharma Bums, Kerouac describes his discovery of haiku. He thought Western languages weren’t suited for the format, since they didn’t match up to the “fluid syllabic Japanese,” he made it his mission to successfully adapt the haiku form into English.

On his style of haiku, Kerouac says the following:

Then I’ll invent

The American Haiku type:

The simple rhyming triolet:–

Seventeen syllables?

No, as I say, American Pops:–

Simple 3-line poems

Arms folded
to the moon,
Among the cows

A spring mosquito
dont even know
How to bite! 


Marlene Mountain

Marlene Mountain (1939 – 2081) was notable for her feminist twist on haiku. She was a poet, artist, and social activist. Mountain was one of the first haiku poets to focus on the one-line approach to the format.

seed catalog in the mailbox cold drizzle

old pond a frog rises belly up

winter night writing letters to get letters

he leans on the gate going staying

John Wills

John Wills (1919 – 1999) was an influential haiku poet, co-founder of the Haiku Society of America, and husband to renowned writer, Marlene Mountain. His earliest haikus were influenced by children’s poems.

looking deeper
and deeper into it
the great beech

laurel in bloom
she lingers awhile
at the mirror

Nick Virgilio

Nick Virgilio (1928-1989) not only wrote haiku, but was also practiced in senryu, which is a form of haiku that focuses on human nature, rather than…nature nature, although he often blends the two subgenres.

out of the water…
out of itself

picking bugs
off the moon

after the bell,
within the silence:
within myself

Robert Spiess

Robert Spiess (1921-2002) was an esteemed haiku poet and editor of the Modern Haiku and American Haiku journals. He published numerous collections of haiku, including The Shape of Water (no relation to the Guillermo del Toro film, unfortunately, I thought that would be my new party fun fact).

drifting into the room,

the milkweed seed distracts me

        as when i was young

at me with one eye,

and with the other the gecko

        observes a fly

all the skaters gone:

thinner now the midnight ice

        across the wide lake

Cor van den Heuvel

Cor van den Heuvel (1931-present) is a prolific haiku poet and editor of several haiku anthologies, currently aged 92—rock on, Cor. Heuvel’s first haiku publication was in 1961, and he has been rolling ever since. He was also editor of The Haiku Anthology, The Haiku Path, and others. Cor van den Heuvel’s haikus often take the perspective of a capital O Observer. Almost a creepy vibe, in my personal opinion, which gives his work a distinctive style. 

going through the tunnel
the girl looks at her reflection
so do I

through the small holes
in the mailbox
sunlight on a blue stamp

in her dressing room
the stripper powders her breasts
and whispers something to them

Michael Dylan Welch

Michael Dylan Welch (1962-present) is a prominent haiku poet, editor, and promoter of haiku in the United States. Welch grew up in different places, like England, Ghana, Australia, and Canada—perhaps the variety of settings helped to inspire his poetic work.

first snow . . .
the children’s hangers
clatter in the closet

tulip festival—
the colours of all the cars
in the parking lot

Alexis Rotella

Alexis Rotella (1948-present) is an accomplished haiku poet and artist. According to herself, she writes “from direct experience, dreams, and imagination.” From what I have read of Rotella’s work, she orbits around the traditional natural themes of haiku with her own twist. You’ll figure it out:

Late August
I bring him the garden
in my skirt

During our argument
a pink rose
tightens its petals

William J. Higginson

William J. Higginson (1938-2008) was a haiku and renku poet, translator, and author of numerous books on haiku. Higginson served for two years in Japan, the experience leading him to conclude that “the 17 sound structure of Japanese haiku did not translate into 17 syllables in English,” so he sought to translate it more upon images, grammar (or lack of grammar), and the general psychological effect.

this spring rain
the thief too
curses his job

grey dawn
ice on the seats
of the rowboat

the tick, tick
of snow on the reeds . . .
sparrow tracks

George Swede 

George Swede (1940-present), not American, but in near proximity, is a Canadian haiku poet and author of haiku-related books. He’s published 56 books and chapbooks with publishers around the world.

waving goodbye
to the father     a clothesline
of children’s shirts

alone at last
I wonder where
everyone is

Peggy Willis Lyles

Peggy Willis Lyles (1947-2010) was a renowned haiku poet and author of To Hear the Rain, a haiku book “for the ages, setting a standard we may all strive to emulate,” according to the editor of The Heron’s Nest. Lyles is another poet who chose to bring her own rules and rhythm to the classic haiku.

autumn sea
a little girl’s love
of small brown shells

I brush
my mother’s hair
the sparks

lap of waves
my daughter molds a castle
for her son

Tom Clausen

Tom Clausen (1950-present)  is a noted haiku poet and editor of various haiku publications. Clausen posted a daily haiku in the elevator of the Cornell University library for over ten years, and he continues to post them online on the library homepage. He says the appeal of haiku has a lot to do with using it as “a means of centering, focusing, sharing, and responding to a life and world bent on excess.” As such, many of his poetic topics have to do with scrutinizing and evaluating the social world.

morning walk –
the slow dissolve
of world news

a little bit of pane
holding light
from the dark

back and forth …
the shimmering life
at the tide line

Francine Porad

Francine Porad (1922-2006) was a highly celebrated haiku and tanka poet and one of the founders of the Haiku Society of America. Porad also studied painting, becoming an accomplished visual artist alongside her written work.

snapped line-
the salmon’s full length
in the air

love poem read aloud
splintered light
of a billion stars

hospital vigil
the imperceptible shift
of clouds

As we can now see, a haiku doesn’t necessarily need to follow the standard 5-7-5 syllable, 3-line structure anymore. Poets have always pushed the mold and expectations to create something new and entirely their own.

Check out this post for more haiku poetry examples.

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