A haiku is a poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, typically evoking images of nature. Haiku is a Japanese poetic form. It might seem easy to write a haiku, but it’s surprisingly challenging.
Haiku dates back to the 9th century. The earliest known haikus focus on observations of nature, life and death. There is often a stark contrast or juxtaposition between two otherwise opposing forces. In three lines, the masters of haiku are able to paint a picture.
Haiku quickly evolved, from a one-verse poem to a series of hundreds of verses, telling a complete oral history. The haiku spread internationally and has even become modernized to allow for greater freedom of expression.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Haiku Is a Japanese Poetic Form
Haiku poetry can be traced back to the 9th century. Traditional haiku is evocative of nature, life and death, water, impermanence and the floating world.
A haiku is structured in a specific way. The poem consists of three lines. The first and third line have five moras; the second line has three. A mora is similar to a syllable. Haikus traditionally include stark juxtaposition between two thoughts or ideas by using the technique of “cutting” or kiru. Two images, concepts or thoughts are cut by a kireji word. The kireji word indicates a pause or a break, before reading the rest of the haiku.
Haiku soon evolved into hokku, where the initial haiku becomes the first verse of many. One verse flowed into the next, and sometimes, hundreds would follow, an oral history told by the masters of poetry who wandered the Japanese countryside, sharing their hokku with the locals. A summary of the history of haiku can be found here.
2. Boshu Is Considered The Master of Haiku
While there are many master poets of haiku, Matsuo Basho is considered to be the most famous. His three best-known haikus are as follows:
“An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.”
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.”
“In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus –
A lovely sunset.”
A collection of haikus by Basho and an extensive biography can be found here.
Yosa Buson was another master poet highly skilled in writing haiku as well as a famed painter. Three famous haikus written by Buson are as follows:
“A summer river being crossed
with sandals in my hands!”
“Light of the moon
Moves west, flowers’ shadows
“In the moonlight,
The color and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away.”
3. Haiku Poetry Has Been Modernized
While haiku poetry dates back to ancient Japan, it has been modernized, shared and enjoyed internationally.
Modern Haiku is studied, written and celebrated internationally. Writers are encouraged each year to share and submit their work. One example is the annual call for haiku submissions sponsored by iaforhaikuaward.org/.
Here are 2017’s award-winning haikus:
“among the debris
the cell phone screen
Manos Kounougakis, Greece, Grand Prize
i found her”
John Hawk, USA, First Place
The formatting and “rules” of traditional haikus have been adapted for a more modern approach. A full explanation on how to write modern haiku poetry is available here.
4. How To Celebrate Haiku Day
The best way to honor Haiku Day is to spend a few minutes outside in nature. Bring a pen and paper, or at the very least, your cell phone; taking photos of the things that inspire you might be helpful. Try the traditional haiku approach of three lines – 5,7,5. The process of writing haiku poetry has been compared to transcendental meditation.
If you are struggling to get started, you can try the Bruce Lansky approach.
“I think the best stimuli for writing haiku are nature hikes, nature photography, or art. Try this: Write down what you see when you go outside for recess or when you go for a walk in the woods over the weekend. Write down your observations on paper (or better yet, record them with a camera),” wrote Lansky.
“Depending on the season, you might get observations of nature like the following:
leaves blowing in the wind
snow piling up on unused doors
ducks swimming in a pond during a rainstorm
the first buds on tree branches in your backyard
the first daffodil poking its head through the dirt
hungry bees buzzing around a flower garden”
5. Not All Haikus Are Serious
Poetry, like all art, can be farcical, critical and scathing. It can also be insulting and brash. While traditional haiku is a meditation on nature, modern haiku can be just about anything. While “insult haiku” might not win any formal poetry competitions, it certainly has a home on the internet.
Here is a tip from Haiku World. Write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables (some writers use a short-long-short format, but sometimes it’s better to just say what you need to say and not worry about form); haiku are usually not 17 syllables long in English.
If you get stuck, try to remember to add in something about the season or the time of the year. Make sure your haiku is written in the present tense.
Create an emotional response by describing what you caused to have an emotional response when writing the haiku in the first place. This will help your reader.
Your haiku should contain two main images. They can either be similar in nature or in sharp contrast to each other, depending on what meaning you are trying to convey. Light and dark, old and young, etc.
Do not attempt to make your haiku rhyme. Your haiku should be authentic and believable.