池や 蛙飛込む 水の音

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

old pond,
a frog jumps in:
the sound of water

– Matsuo Basho (1644-94)

The above haiku, written during the seventeenth century, is perhaps the best known haiku in the world. Compellingly simple, it invites the reader to perceive its deeper meanings.

Haiku's origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a kind of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Basho (1644-94) and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today. A minimalist form of poetry, haiku has been popular among modern poets since the 1960s, when a western-world haiku movement generated increased interest in the form. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Paul Muldoon have written haiku, and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary greats as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Richard Wright. Although something other than "mainstream" poetry and very much its own genre, haiku is a unique and demanding form to master.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each contained seventeen onji (音字) sound symbols. 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 regarded as "haiku format" by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines with a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen.

Traditional haiku contain a kigo (season word) to indicate the season or time of year, and two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. Normally, one idea is presented in the first two lines and then a switch occurs 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. The shift is achieved with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. The kireji is a kind of caesura (and similar in theory to the volta in a sonnet).

Haiku describe things in a vey few words – they never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme. Brevity is key, along with a sense of immediacy (written in the present tense) and often a sense of relationship between nature and human nature. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be read in a single breath. Most will agree that a successful haiku is characterized by crystal-cutting clarity and in-the-moment presence.

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.

Good haiku inspire detachment as well as attention to interrelationships. Haiku detachment is without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, embraces 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.

Compact and direct, haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, but their writing requires profound reflection and discipline.  If you decide to write haiku, it’s a good idea to read a lot of it. Haiku is based on reflection and may even be considered a kind of meditation. Accordingly, it’s important to fine-tune your powers of observation when you write haiku and to look for haiku moments in the world around you.

(Note: the word haiku forms its own plural – haikus is incorrect.)

If you'd like to try writing a haiku, some tips follow.

1. Basho 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 you’ve had.

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a word 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 (shorted 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. Click here for a great list of season words: Season Words.

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.  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. Remember that haiku often present one idea in the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku without making too obvious a connection between the parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must reveal the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate.

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.

In a nutshell: forget about 5,7,5 structure, and learn to know the difference between pseudo-haiku (5-7-5 syllable patterns that are padded to meet the 5,7,5 requirement) and literary haiku that adhere to the use of season words, two-part juxtapositions, and objective sensory imagery. And ... FYI ... single haiku do not have titles (titles are seen in haiku sequences)

When you’ve written a haiku, it’s a good idea to put it aside for a few days and then come back to it to begin a more intense process of editing and revising.