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More than 5-7-5: What Is “Haiku”?

Here are the most important tools you will need to write a haiku.

My recommendation is that you tackle one rule at a time. When you feel comfortable with these rules you will learn which rules can be broken – and why – and it will be an intuitive process.

Reading your haiku aloud helps!  🙂

utamaro courtesan writing letter wikiart

1. The syllable count is 5-7-5 … or at least “5ish-7ish-5ish”. Some people prefer a strict syllable count, others chafe at that count.

My experience is that it is good practice to start with a strict 5-7-5 count. Once you have the feel for line length, experiment. Try to keep your first and third lines short, and your second line a bit longer.

2. Nature, nature, nature!

Haiku embraces the relationship between humans and nature.

3. A haiku is inspired by a brief moment in time. Some people call that moment an “aha!” moment. It is brief as a heart beat or a pebble that is thrown into a brook.

It is not in the spirit of haiku to write about a canyon forming over thousands of years.

It IS, however, in the spirit of haiku to write about fleeting sunlight in that canyon (or a hawk disappearing over the rim, or the scent of rain as it splashes onto hot rock).

4. Often, the first and third lines are interchangeable.

For example:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

Also makes sense as:

the sound of water
a frog jumps into
old pond

5. Haiku contains a season word, called a “kigo”.

There are plenty of web sites that list traditional Japanese kigo. We will discuss them eventually, but for now, include a word that tells the reader what season the haiku occurs in (for example “crocus” and “nest” for spring, “popsicle” and “swimming” for summer, “cicadas” and “acorns” for autumn, and “mittens” and “icicles” for winter.

Fun fact: in Japan, New Year had its own season. We will discuss that later.

6. Haiku contains a “kireji” (“cutting word”). This gives haiku a “phrase-fragment” structure.

This is a feature of the Japanese language, and it really doesn’t have an English equivalent. Think of kireji as punctuation of some sort, or a device that will “cut” a haiku into two segments.

Let’s visit the old pond again.

old pond:
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

or

old pond –
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

Both of these haiku use punctuation to create a pause, and that pause gives the poem two segments: “old pond” and “a frog jumps in the sound of water”.

There is an implied kireji in the original haiku – not a physical one.  Either way – phrase/fragment is important.

Look at this “haiku”:

an alligator
disappears underneath the
murky swamp water

This is not a haiku. It’s a sentence.
(But don’t worry: we will explore Alan Ginsberg’s “American Sentence” later.)

7. Often, there is a deeper meaning to each haiku than just an image or a moment.

For example, on the surface a haiku may talk about falling autumn leaves – but those leaves might symbolize aging, loss, or change.

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peony-and-paddy-birds-1926

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