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How to write a Haiku

Writing poetry is a lovely way of building your vocabulary, and Haku, a Japanese form of poetry, is a nice challenge for most intermediate to advanced learners.

A traditional Haiku poem consists of seventeen syllables, written in three lines of five, seven, and five.

So - clap clap clap clap clap / clap clap clap clap clap clap clap / clap clap clap clap clap

Contemporary haiku are less rigid in the number of syllables, up to 17 is fine, but still consist of three lines.

The Japanese write their haiku in one line, in order to see clearly the parts of the haiku. In English each part is given a line.

The kigo, or season word, is a vital part of the Japanese haiku, but in English it is often ignored. So a great number of English haiku do not have a season word and yet are considered to be haiku.

The Japanese, because of their longer history of reading haiku, understand that there are two parts to the poem. In English these are called the phrase and fragment. One line is the fragment and the other two lines combine grammatically to become the phrase. Without this combining the two lines together the haiku will sound ‘choppy’ as the voice drops at the end of each line.

To summarise, English haiku:-

  • Use three lines of up to 17 syllables;
  • May or may not use a season word (kigo);
  • Use a cut (sometimes indicated by a punctuation mark) to compare two images.

The steps to take are:-

  1. Understand the way haiku is made. This can best be done by reading as many haiku as you can. Be aware that translations of the Old Masters of Japan are not written in proper English haiku, and many translators are not poets so their versions may show their lack of understanding of the haiku in the English language.
  2. You should show your feelings in a haiku through imagery. When you see or notice something that makes you want to say to others -"Hey, look at that!"-include that in a haiku. Many people go for walks just to find new inspiration for their poetry.
  3. Many haiku seem to focus on nature, but what they are really focusing on is a seasonal reference (not all of which are necessarily about nature). Japanese poets use a "saijiki" or season word almanac to check the seasonal association for key words that they might use in a haiku (thus the haiku is a seasonal poem, and often about nature. But it does not have to be about nature if the seasonal reference is about a human activity). The season is important for coming up with words to use in a haiku, because the poem has so few words, simple phrases such as "cherry blossoms" or "falling leaves" can create lush scenes, yet still reflect the feeling of the verse. Moreover, season words also invoke other poems that use the same season word, making the poem part of a rich historical tapestry through allusive variation. In Japanese, the "kigo" or season word was generally understood; "autumn breeze" might be known to express loneliness and the coming of the dark winter season.
    • Winter usually makes us think of burden, cold, sadness, hunger, tranquility, death or peace. Ideas about winter can be invited with words like "snow," "ice," "dead tree," "leafless," etc.
    • Summer brings about feelings of warmth, vibrancy, love, anger, vigor, lightness, action. General summer phrases include references to the sky, beaches, heat, and romance.
    • Autumn brings to mind a very wide range of ideas: decay, belief in the supernatural, jealousy, saying goodbye, loss, regret, and mystery to name a few. Falling leaves, shadows, and autumn colors are common implementations.
    • Spring, like summer, can make one think of beauty, but it is usually more a sense of infatuation. Also common are themes like innocence, youth, passion, and fickleness. Blossoms, new plants, or warm rains can imply spring.
    Seasonal references can also include human activities, and Japanese saijikis contain many such listings. Be aware that some references to human activities, such as Christmas, are effective season words, but require a geographical limitation; while Christmas is a winter season word in the northern hemisphere, it's a summer reference in the southern hemisphere.
  4. Add a contrast or comparison. Reading most haiku, you'll notice they either present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else or do the same with the first line and last two. A Japanese haiku achieves this shift with what is called a "kireji" or cutting word, which cuts the poem into two parts. In English, it is essential for nearly every haiku to have this two-part juxtapositional structure. The idea is to create a leap between the two parts, and to create an intuitive realization from what has been called an "internal comparison." These two parts sometimes create a contrast, sometime a comparison. Creating this two-part structure effectively can be the hardest part of writing a haiku, because it can be very difficult to avoid too obvious a connection between the two parts, yet also avoid too great a distance between them that , although this is not necessary provided that the grammar clearly indicates that a shift has occurred.
  5. Use primarily objective sensory description. Haiku are based on the five senses. They are about things you can experience, not your interpretation or analysis of those things. To do this effectively, it is good to rely on sensory description, and to use mostly objective rather than subjective words.
  6. Like any other art, haiku takes practise. Basho said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. It is important to distinguish between pseudo-haiku that says whatever the author thinks in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and literary haiku that adheres to the use of season words, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and primarily objective sensory imagery.
  • To get inspiration and begin to understand the subtle emotions within images from nature, read the works of famous Classic haiku poets, such as Basho, Buson, Issa, or Shiki, but do try to read more modern or contemporary Japanese haiku writers to avoid writing in a pseudo Classic fashion.
  • Write what you see, not just what you feel. In the end, haiku are about emotions expressed through concrete images. When reading haiku, don't read them as you would other poems. Haiku are written to capture a feeling and image. Keep an open mind when reading haiku and try to feel what the writer was trying to get across. The more you read haiku, the easier they are to understand. Haiku has been called an "unfinished" poem because each one requires the reader to finish it in his or her heart.
  • Japanese was originally a pictographic language, so, when it is written, it uses picture characters to represent ideas visually instead of letters. Because there is so much difference between the Japanese language and English, haiku in English will have some differences.
  • There are some who say that haiku can just be a short fragment (no more than three words) followed by a phrase. The following is an example of such a structure, which is often very effective, but this example fails to have the necessary seasonal reference or to create an intuitive spark or leap of understanding in the relationship between the two parts.

    early evening
    small flat stones
    line the shore

  • The haiku doesn't have to be serious. It can be funny, although traditionalists might call it a 'senryu' rather than a 'haiku.' Please note that the following is not an example of senryu, but merely a three-line poem that attempts to be funny (this is the sort of poem that both haiku and senryu writers consider to be what has been called a 'pseudo-haiku' or 'pseudo-senryu'):

    I like Cottage Cheese
    Cottage Cheese is my favorite
    Yummy Cottage Cheese
  • Or:

    I Like this nice girl
    She is in my English class
    she doesn't like me

  • It is worth reading both classical and contemporary Japanese haiku poets in translation otherwise you will get a skewed perspective of what constitutes a 'Japanese haiku'.
  • To get a good understanding of English-language haiku, the two most important books to read are William J. Higginson's 'Haiku Handbook' (Kodansha, 1989) and Cor van den Heuvel's 'The Haiku Anthology' (Norton, 1999, third edition).
  • For serious students of haiku, it is worthwhile to join organizations such as the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, or the British Haiku Society (there are many other similar organizations elsewhere in the world). It is also worthwhile to subscribe to leading haiku journals such as Modern Haiku and Frogpond (which comes with Haiku Society of America membership).
  • The word 'haiku' is both singular and plural, so it is generally considered incorrect to say 'haikus'. Also, because the term is not a proper noun, the term should not be capitalized within a sentence. Haiku also do not rhyme and should not be titled (although there is a tradition in Japanese haiku that they occasionally have 'head-notes' that identify the place or circumstances of composition, but this should not be confused with a title).
  • Haiku in Japan traditionally follow a rhythm of 5-7-5 Japanese sound units using 'on' as a counter for those sound units (for example, the word 'haiku' is two syllables in English but THREE sounds in Japanese). The Japanese language systems (plural) don't contain alphabets. Outside Japan, most practiced haiku writers write about 10 to 14 syllables to approximate the brevity of a Japanese haiku, which is sometimes described as a one-breath poem.
  • Haiku originated from haikai no renga (a collaborative group poem usually one hundred verses in length; a kasen renga had thirty-six verses). Renga collaborations began with what was known as a 'hokku' (starting verse) that indicated the season and also contained a cutting word. Verses that followed after the hokku typically did not (and should not) contain cutting words because 'cuts' (after the first verse) existed between the verses. The first verse did not have anything to shift from, so it was necessary for it to contain a cut or shift within the first verse itself. This tradition has remained with haiku as an independent poem. it's a very short poem.

Useful Links:-

For a basic overview of haiku strategies, read Michael Dylan Welch's 'Becoming a Haiku Poet'

With Words gives an easy overview of haiku and its history in the West.

A really useful ongoing friendly resource for season words and references can be found at Gabi Greve's World Kigo Database.