Haiku are a type of traditional Japanese poetry. Only three lines long, haiku are fun to write and share. Let's find out what a haiku poem is and what we need to write our own!
Definition: What Is a Traditional Haiku Poem?
Haiku originated in Japan and as a poetic form, they are arranged in three lines, each line with a specific number of syllables. Here are the elements you need for a traditional haiku:
- Three lines that don't rhyme, with seventeen syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern. Five syllables in the first and third line, and seven syllables in the second line.
- Each haiku “must contain a kigo. A word that indicates the season in which the poem is set,” according to the World Book Encyclopedia, page eight, volume nine, between the words Douglas Haig and Hail, and according to Japanese Haiku tradition. The word that indicates season can be obvious, like “ice” to indicate winter. Or it can be more subtle, like using the expression “fragrant blossom” to indicate spring.
- The words and expressions in the poem are usually simple and deal with everyday situations, usually capturing a moment in time, often in nature.
- Usually, the haiku form does not contain metaphors and similes.
Subject matter: Haikus Are About a Single Moment
“Haiku explores a single moment's precise perception and resinous depths.”
— Jane Hirshfield, The Heart of Haiku
Matsuo Bashō, a popular Japanese poet, composed this poem in the late 1600's.
mizu no oto
frog leaps in
the sound of water
The English version doesn't follow the syllabic pattern due to translation differences, but you can see all the other elements of haiku in play. It's arranged in three lines with the traditional number of syllables in each. Its subject matter is the small splash a frog makes leaping into an old pond.
Why focus on a single moment?
Good question. Haiku invite us to slow down as readers and experience a single moment, to pay attention. And isn't that part of what fuels great writing?
How to Write a Haiku Poem
Let's turn again to Japanese poet Bashō to show us how to write a haiku poem.
Jane Hirshfield explains in her book, The Heart of Haiku, how Bashō encourages us to see for ourselves and hear for ourselves, and if we enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through us.
“To learn about the pine tree go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo.”
— Matsu Bashō, Jane Hirshfield, The Heart of Haiku
Using the four guidelines mentioned above, think of an everyday situation, feeling, or a precious moment, such as a blade of grass, a sink full of dirty dishes in the spring, a warm cat, or the sound of snow falling.
If your haiku poem is about something that has happened in your past, if you are remembering a snowfall from last winter, then sit in a quiet spot and go to the memory in your mind.
Use all of your senses. Think of what you heard, felt, tasted, smelled and saw. Let us live the moment with you through distinct images.
If your haiku is about a blade of grass, as Bashō said, go to the grass. Yes, that's right. Go outside right now and lay down in the grass and let the single blade of grass speak through you. Study the grass.
If you are writing about a warm cat, go to the cat and study the cat. Study the sink full of dirty dishes while you wash them. To learn about snow go to the snow.
Ready to Write Your Haiku?
Now that you've tried to immerse yourself in an experience to use for your inspiration, pick out some words that describe the sensations you felt. Remember to choose precise words that capture the moment. Arrange them into three lines and count out those syllables for each.
If you are not sure how many syllables are in a word, you can check out your word on Mirriam-Webster, an on-line dictionary.
You might find that the practice of writing haiku is meditative and a little addicting. It's great practice for using language to show but not tell. The art of haiku is a perfect way to practice creating strong images that will benefit your other forms of writing as well.
I hope you'll give it a try today!
Do you have a favorite haiku? Have any tricks you use to write them? Share in the comments.
Practice staring at a blade of grass for fifteen minutes. No, I have a better idea. Come and help me wash my dishes. We can both write about washing dishes.
Okay, seriously now. Please write your thoughts down about something you see in your everyday world or focus on nature, and then try to fit it to the five-seven-five pattern.
Write a haiku poem and share it with us in the practice box below. Then comment on someone else's work. I hope you enjoy this old form in new ways!