Saturday, September 17, 2016

Prompt #261 – Haiku, Related Forms, & How To

I'm leading a haiku retreat on Saturday, hosted by Tiferet Journal and I thought this might be a good time to do some haiku work here on the blog! 

  Haiku and Related Forms

Haiku, a minimalist form of poetry, has enjoyed considerable popularity among modern poets. Allen Ginsberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon, wrote collections of haiku and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary notables as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Richard Wright, and Gary Snyder. During the 1960s, a haiku movement began in the United States, which catapulted haiku into popular consciousness. Since then, haiku has been widely taught in schools, and hundreds of haiku journals have published the works of numerous haiku poets. The Haiku Society of America, Inc. was established in 1968 and continues with a membership of many hundreds. 

Although something other than "mainstream" poetry and very much its own genre, haiku are compact and direct, and are usually written in the present tense with a sense of immediacy and of being “in the moment.” The natural world and our responses to it are integral to haiku. While haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, their writing requires profound reflection and discipline.  Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human and natural world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.

Despite the brevity of its form, haiku inspire detachment as well as interrelationship detachment without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, with a sense of inward and outward direction. the best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious, spontaneous and unpretentious but entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound. Through haiku, both the writer and the reader are invited to reflect upon minute details that lead them to larger realities. 

Haiku's origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a form of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Basho and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each contained seventeen onji or sound symbols. The onji were usually divided into 3 sections, with the middle one being slightly longer than the others, and often with a pause at the end of the first or second section to divide the haiku into two thoughts or images. These thoughts or images contrasted or pooled to create a sense of insight or heightened awareness and usually involved nature. A kigo (season word) was used to indicate the season or time of year.

However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that an onji was equivalent to a syllable in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7,and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still accepted by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines having a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning, and successfully experimental haiku of a single words have been written. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, although less frequently. Typically, haiku contain two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience.

Haiku describe things in a vey few words, usually a in a single image – haiku never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be reading in a single breath.
Haiku Sequences
Haiku can be linked together to form a sequence that moves from moment to moment in a perceived experience. A good haiku sequence is built on an idea that underscores the sequence and becomes a longer poem. That is, haiku (or haiku-like verses) fused to form an integrated whole. Depending upon the content of the individual haiku, it’s important to have a central idea or theme in a haiku sequence: nature in general or something specific in the natural world, love (or another emotion), a season, a journey (actual or spiritual), or any part of life that is common to each haiku in the sequence.

A great way to begin experimenting with sequences is to think in terms of a narrative approach in which order of the haiku follow the chronological arch of the event:  beginning, middle and end.

A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. In senryu, human nature is more essential, and the poem itself is more playful, humorous, or ironic. A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break. Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also "borderline haiku/senryu", which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them. Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Loosely defined, senryu are haiku-like poems that deal most specifically with human nature. In Japanese, the word "senryu" sounds like the English phrase "send you" with a Spanish flipped-r in place of the d. For those unfamiliar with this sound, a three-syllable word, "sen-ri-you" may be substituted in English. 
Tanka, the 5-line lyric poem of Japan is like haiku, its shorter cousin, in that they are grounded in specific images but are also is infused with lyric intensity and intimacy that comes from the direct expression of emotions, as well as from implication, suggestion, and nuance. The tanka aesthetic, however, is broader. You can write on virtually any subject and express your thoughts and feelings explicitly. 

The third line of a tanka may be a “pivot line” or turning point similar to the shift in a haiku. In Japan, tanka is often written in one line with segments consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 sound-symbols. Some people write English tanka in five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable to approximate the Japanese model. To approximate the Japanese model, some poets use approximately 20-22 syllables and a short-long-short-long-long structure or even just a free form structure using five lines. You may wish to experiment with all these approaches.
A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem that typically ends with a haiku. Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun, the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the prose. Japanese haibun apparently developed from brief prefatory notes occasionally written to introduce individual haiku, but soon grew into a distinct genre. The word "haibun" is sometimes applied to longer works, such as the memoirs, diaries, or travel writings of haiku poets, though technically they are parts of the separate and much older genres of journal and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun).

How To Haiku
1. Bashō said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud.

2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience that you’ve had. 

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a work or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shortened days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that is not necessarily about nature.

4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action. Use only the most absolutely necessary words. Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech, and keep things simple.

5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Many haiku present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. A Japanese haiku achieves the shift with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku. Creating a haiku’s two-part structure can become a balancing act because it’s difficult to create just the right equilibrium without making too obvious a connection between the two parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must work toward sparking the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate.

6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.

7. In a nutshell: 
·       focus on a single moment (detach from everything else); recreate that moment in words,
·       write simply and clearly,
·       forget about 5,7,5 syllabic structure (start with about 10-20 syllables in three-line format),
·       include a season word,
·       make sure you create a two-part juxtapositional structure,
·       include a shift between the two parts of your haiku,
·       avoid figures of speech, rhyming, anything forced or contrived.
Ways in Which Writing Haiku Can Inform and Enhance Your Longer Poems

     Writing haiku can:

1.     Increase your sense of imagery.
2.     Broaden your awareness of—and attention to—details.
3.     Teach you about compression, conciseness, and clarity.
4.     Help you understand the importance of removing unnecessary words.
5.     Develop your ability to write poems that are efficient and clear, even when their meaning and message are complex.
6.     Show you how to create lines breaks that have a clear and non-intrusive logic.
7.     Illustrate ways in which you can achieve clarity with just a hint of being on the edge of understanding.
8.     Form the basis for longer poems. That is, a haiku may be extended into a longer work of poetry; it may be become the opening, closing, or “somewhere inside” part of a longer poem.
9.     Work toward your understanding that the best poems show rather than tell.
10.  Improve your ability to connect, reveal, and surprise.


  1. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)September 18, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    So much info! Wonderful! Thank you!

  2. gratitude i are
    hurricane season has come
    cats sleeping on beds

  3. Thanks so much for sharing, Risa! I can picture tho cats sleeping!

  4. It's always wonderful to read your poems, Risa! Thank you for sharing.

  5. Thanks, Jamie. Tis the season...for you to get posting again, too!