Poetry takes many different forms, and this is one that might not be as familiar as others.
A Haiku, or a Hokku as it can be known, is a Japanese poem that can be based on many themes, from love to nature. The Haiku has since been adapted for English and many famous authors have tried their hand at this short poem.
It usually contains a total of 17 syllables shared between three lines, arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5. The first line consists of 5 syllables, the second line 7, and the last line another 5 syllables.
Originally, in Japanese, Haiku poetry was measured in sounds, or "breaths," not English syllables. The 5-7-5 approach was a rough approximation to get the same feel as the traditional Japanese poems. The 5-7-5 form is still popular today and many poets still embrace the framework.
Characteristics of Haiku
Here’s a bullet-point guide to the main characteristics of Haiku poetry
- English-language haikus usually contain a total of 17 syllables
- This format is usually composed of 3 lines of 5-7-5 (syllables)
- 2 subjects are often placed in juxtaposition
- These 2 simple subjects are most often separated by punctuation
- A Haiku traditionally contains a reference to the seasons or to nature and the natural world
Haiku poems don't need to rhyme but some poets do try to rhyme lines 1 and 3, this is quite the challenge considering it is such a short poem!
Traditional haiku focuses on two simple subjects while giving an unexpected perspective. Much like a joke, the first part of haiku can often serve as the set-up, while the second part delivers the punchline.
Here’s an example from the Japanese poet Murakami Kijo (1865 – 1938):
First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face.
In Kijo’s example we can see that it follows the rules we explained above: two simple subjects, punctuation separating the lines, a reference to Autumn and the unusual perspective in the ending.
Haiku in More Modern Times
There has been some debate on the form of Haiku. Some modern poets are purists and reject the 5-7-5 structure preferring the shorter Japanese originals which were supposed to be spoken in one breath.
Whether you choose to side with the traditionalists or the more modern 5-7-5, haiku is an amazing art form. While a child can understand the very basics of format and structure, truly mastering it can take a lifetime. Come as you are, get comfortable and join us as we continue to work on our craft together!
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Themes in Haiku
Here are some typical features of Haiku to help you spot one or to help write one yourself:
- A focus on nature.
- A "season word" such as "snow" which tells the reader what time of year it is.
- A division somewhere in the poem, which focuses first on one thing, than on another. The relationship between these two parts is sometimes surprising.
- Instead of saying how a scene makes him or her feel, the poet shows the details that caused that emotion. If the sight of an empty winter sky made the poet feel lonely, describing that sky can give the same feeling to the reader.
Here are famous Haikus for you to enjoy. See if you can spot the typical characteristics of seasons and surprising endings:
Haiku by Jack Kerouac
The low yellow
moon above the
quiet lamplit house
Matsuo Basho is one of the most prolific Haiku writers. He wrote over 1000 Haiku poems in his lifetime. His “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is the most famous collection of Haikus in Japan. His poems were originally written in Japanese and have been translated to English for us all to enjoy, here are a few for you to read:
In the Twilight Rain
by Matsuo Basho
In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus . . .
A lovely sunset
By Matsuo Basho
of the peony.
By Matsuo Basho
this deep in fall –
still not a butterfly
This poet decided to change the Haiku format altogether writing his poem Distressed Haiku over 25 lines rather than 3! But we can still see some of the other characteristics of Haiku so we think it still counts, what do you think?
Distressed Haiku - Poem by Donald Hall
In a week or ten days
the snow and ice
will melt from Cemetery Road.
I'm coming! Don't move!
Once again it is April.
Today is the day
we would have been married
I finished with April
halfway through March.
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?
In April the blue
from white to green.
The Boston Red Sox win
a hundred straight games.
The mouse rips
the throat of the lion
and the dead return.
How to Write a Haiku
Now it’s your turn. We’ve given you the Haiku basics and some examples for inspiration. See if you can write your own Haiku.
- Go for a walk in nature. Many haikus are inspired by objects in the natural world, such as trees, rocks, mountains, and flowers. To get ideas for your poem, take a walk in a park nearby or go for a hike in the woods. Head to a mountain trail or a body of water like a river, lake, or beach. Spend some time in nature and observe it so you can get ideas for the poem.
If you can’t go outside for a walk in an area with nature, try looking at nature photographs and art in books or online. Find a particular nature scene or object in nature like a tree or flower that inspires you.
- Focus on a season or seasonal event. Haikus can also be about a season, such as fall, spring, winter, or summer. You can also focus on a natural event that happens at a certain time of year, such as the blooming of the cherry blossom trees in your neighbourhood or the icicles on houses in the winter.
- Seasonal haikus often focus on a specific detail about the season, naming the season in the poem. Writing about a season can be a fun way for you to describe a particular detail you love about that time of year.
Choose a person or object as your subject. Haikus do not all have to be about nature or the seasons. You can also choose a particular person or object as inspiration for the poem. Maybe you want to write a funny haiku about your dog. Or perhaps you want to write a thoughtful haiku about your childhood toy.
Read examples of a haiku. To get a better sense of the genre, read haikus that are well known and considered good examples of the form. You can find examples in books or online. Read haikus that are about nature and other subjects.
Once you’ve got your inspiration you can finally get writing, here are our tips:
- Write two lines about something beautiful in nature. Don't worry about counting syllables yet.
- Write a third line that is a complete surprise, that is about something completely different from the first two lines.
- Look at the three lines together. Does the combination of these two seemingly unrelated parts suggest any surprising relationships? Does it give you any interesting ideas?
- Now rewrite the poem, using the 5-syllable, 7-syllable, 5-syllable format and experimenting with the new ideas or perspectives that have occurred to you.
- End the poem with an intriguing last line. A good Haiku will leave the reader hanging.
- Read the Haiku aloud, make sure that the lines flow well together. If anything sounds rough or choppy try to rewrite them.
Now you’re fully equipped to write your own Haiku! Happy writing!
The great thing about poetry is that there are so many different types of poetry after you have tried Haiku poems. Give a new style a try, Limmericks can be short and funny, Epic poems are detailed and long, If you want to express an idea use one of the types of Sonnet, If you are a musician you can learn the Ballard poem and set it to some music, If you like to perform why not learn about the slam poem and let the audience decide or why not try free verse poetry which has no rules and is pure free expression. There are so many kinds of poetry that you are bound to find one for you.
Don’t forget, if you need help with your writing skills you’ll find a Superprof tutor to suit you. Each lesson will be adapted to your needs, whether you want to write a Haiku, a novel or just brush up on your essay skills for an exam. Superprof have tutors all over, so wherever you live, you’ll find the right one for you!