This article first appeared at the Writers Choice website

How To Write Haiku

The haiku is a very simple form of writing. So think many poets exposed to this verse for the first time. The more perceptive of them soon realise that it can in reality be rather difficult. A casual glance at magazines or web pages will often show a wealth of examples, good, bad and indifferent. On asking further the poet usually gets told that haiku are traditionally written in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. They may also be told that all haiku include a "season word" (kigo) to indicate the time of year to which the haiku relates. For a beginning this might do.

If you want to know more and you want to write haiku that have impact, then read on.

The haiku originates from Japan. Before haiku there was renga, a regal and highly-regulated form of verse with Chinese antecedents. In the 17th century modern haiku was born in Japan. It arose, not so much from a need to write poetry as to express the feelings of Zen. Enough of history for now.

The haiku in English, or, indeed, any other "Western" language, can only go so far in reflecting or emulating the Japanese haiku and individual writers must choose for themselves how closely they adhere to the rules informally gathered by exponents of the genre. So what are some of these rules to which we should adhere or ignore at our peril? For the beginner, it is probably best, at first, to stick to the 17-syllable rule. In general an English syllable is much longer than a Japanese syllable, and so, strictly speaking, 17 English syllables is too long for a Japanese haiku. For example, in Japanese, Tokyo is four syllables: To-o-kyo-o. For this reason, some authors consider the correct format to be 2-3-2 beats rather than 5-7-5 syllables.

But certainly

"the simple writing
of seventeen syllables
doth not haiku make"
[This poem entitled "Not a Haiku" by Gerald England is from "The Art of Haiku" (New Hope International, 1990)]

Those who have studied the form and become masters of it (haijin), will tell you that a haiku is essentially the distillation of a moment. Haiku are set in nature (in the widest possible sense) and they reflect the human response to nature. Often this is by the juxtaposition of images. Essential ingredients for haiku are simplicity of language, directness of communication, rhythm (but not rhyme) and the relative absence of the narrator. The trap into which poets new to haiku often fall is in using the techniques of other poetries inappropriately. Simile, alliteration, metaphor, rhyme, personification, intellectualisation and other such devices have little place in haiku. Also, since haiku are meant to be complete in themselves, a title is generally considered an unnecessary addition.

The season can be represented by any of thousands of words. If you use your imagination you can come up with all sorts of ideas as to what season different words belong. Whole books called "saijiki" have been written describing and classifying things by their season.

A variant of haiku is the form often called "senryu." The senryu is similar in form to the haiku but concerns itself with the human condition rather than nature. Hence, they do not contain a "season-word" and are often either humorous or erotic.

To sum up: a haiku should evoke the essentials of a keenly observed moment within nature; it should include a "season-word"; it should be written in three lines of either 5-7-5 syllables or 2-3-2 beats; it should avoid the use of traditional non-Japanese poetic devices. It should be untitled. You will discover many poems published under the title "haiku" that do not observe these rules many will have a genuine haiku quality for reasons not fully discussed here, and be perfectly admissible as haiku. Others might well be mis-named as haiku but be quite acceptable under the label of "short poem". The Haiku Society of America spent six years in committees trying to come up with a definition satisfactory for use by dictionaries. Even now they are not completely happy with it.

For many people, writing haiku, is not just another way to package content. It is a way of life; an open-ness to and one-ness with nature. However, follow the above rules, decide what works for you and what doesn't and think about why. Read as widely as you can. Support haiku publications. In time you may discover what really is and isn't haiku. Meanwhile, keep writing.

You can learn more about haiku by following some of the links on the Art of Haiku website. The site includes details about a mailing list where writers of haiku discuss all matters pertinent to haiku and related genres.

Gerald England

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This page last updated: 21st June 2010.