To write a haiku,
string precise words together
for deeper meaning.
That sentence is a haiku about writing haiku.
So, what is a haiku?
What It Is
Haiku is a form of poetry that originated during the 17th century in Japanese literature, although the name “haiku” was not used until sometime in the 19th century. This unrhymed poetic form emerged as a response to the flowery poetic traditions that flourished during that period.
The concept is simple. The poem consists of 17 syllables. No more. No less. These are arranged in three lines that have five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.
The artistry of these poems comes from the ability to arrange words that fit the syllabic structure while conveying a deeper meaning. Provoking emotion and thought through carefully chosen and arranged words can be profound if done right.
Something Lost in Translation
Before we continue, it’s important to note that when you read traditional Japanese haiku translated into English, the five-seven-five syllable scheme is often lost. That’s because words in Japanese don’t translate to English with the same syllable structure. As an example, the word “haiku” has three syllables in Japanese but only two in English.
Modern Changes to the Form
As time passed, poets began to alter the form of haiku to uniquely fit their needs. That is, after all, the natural course of all artforms.
Today, there are traditional haiku poets who adhere to the syllabic formula. There are also just as many modern haiku poets who avoid that structure at all costs. They choose to adhere to what is considered the “true” philosophy of haiku. The Academy of American Poets defines haiku as:
- A perception of abrupt enlightenment
- Vivid provocative imagery
- Focusing on one moment in time
- Able to read in one breath
Topic choices for haikus have also changed with time. Whereas the traditional haiku was nature-based, modern haiku embraces all kinds of themes, such as:
- Social issues
- Environmental concerns
- Political matters
- Relationships and emotions
- Humor and satire
The options are truly as limitless as the poet’s imagination.
Examples of Traditional Haiku
Masaoka Shiki, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Matsuo Basho are collectively known as The Great Four and are considered quintessential Japanese haiku poets in its traditional form. Their work is the model used in most traditional haiku writing and we’ve one of Matsuo Basho’s most well-known poems below.
This isn’t to imply that there aren’t a plethora of outstanding modern poets who follow the traditional haiku pattern. There are. We simply chose to go with the epitome of this classic version of the art form. After all, if you can use a Picasso to demonstrate Cubism, you do!
“An old silent pond,
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.”
Examples of Modern Haiku
When examining modern Western haiku, there’s no better place to turn than author-poet-vagabond Jack Kerouac. Anyone who’s read On the Road knows that Kerouac walks to the beat of his own drum. It should come as no surprise that he became a prolific haiku poet known for not following the rules.
Too dark to read the page
Not all modern poets divert from the traditional syllabic pattern. Some remain loyal to the original form. This one by author Robert Yehling does just that:
” A little boy sings
on a terrace, eyes aglow.
Ridge spills upward.”
Unleash Your Inner Poet
As you can see by now, there are precise rules for writing haiku … but those rules aren’t written in stone.
Whether you’re working on a traditional or freeform haiku, some steps can make it easier to find inspiration and the words you need to get your message across.
1. Read haiku … lots of haiku.
This is the No. 1 tip for anyone who wants to write anything. Read in the area that you are wanting to write.
This immersion in the craft is inspiring and will help guide your own process. Check out haiku websites or books from your local library for further inspiration.
2. Brainstorm subjects that inspire you.
These are the topics that will compel you to write beautiful words that adequately convey your feelings. Nothing is too obscure, and no detail is too small to create a great haiku.
3. Assemble lists of words.
Find the words that your subject pushes into your mind. Think about feelings, emotions, how the senses perceive it. Be descriptive.
Don’t be ashamed to use a thesaurus. All the cool poets do it.
4. Try out some haiku writing.
For quick practice, WriteAHaiku.com provides a free, simple to use interface that helps you count syllables and arrange your haiku. If even provides modern examples of haikus created by people just like you.
Wrapping It All Up
Haiku is an expression of the inner heart of the poet.
It is art. It’s a strict traditional poetic form with explicit rules that either follows them succinctly or ignores them completely.
Most of all, haiku is supposed to be fun for the writer.
So, grab a pen and some paper and let your muse inspire you to enjoy the therapeutic release of writing beautiful haiku.