A haiku (both singular and plural) is perhaps the smallest form of poetry in the world, and it comes from a longer linked poem called a renga. The hokku was the first part of this extensive verse, which eventually became its own form with the help of such poets as Matsuo Basho (1644–1694). In English, it is commonly written in three lines, whereas in the original Japanese, it is composed in one vertical line. This type of poem usually shows a mood, aesthetic, and/or meaning through juxtaposing two things. Though traditionally it was written in 17 on (Japanese sound units), the conversion to English is not efficient. So, we try to aim for a poem that can be spoken in one breath and that fits in three lines, like:
There is a misunderstanding that haiku are nature poems. In reality, they are seasonal poems that revolve around certain events during the calendar year. These occurrences are often compared, contrasted, or associated with the poet’s life, something else happening in the season, an action, ideas, and many other things.
Here is the most famous haiku, written by Matsuo Basho (translated from Japanese):
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
The seasonal reference (kigo) here is the frog, which implies spring in Japan. The old pond is contrasted with the fresh sound of a frog leaping into it. The meaning behind it is multiplicitous, but generally, it means the frog has lost its ego or identity by submerging into the pond and only the sound of water remaining. It has become one with the water and has transformed—even for a moment.
Guidelines that will help you write one of your own
- Aim for two sections that make a comparison, contrast, or association. It is rare to have one-part or three-part haiku. The basic structure is to have a fragment and a phrase. Like in the haiku “old pond,” the first line was a fragment, and the last two lines were a phrase.
- Try to create something in the reader’s mind that is not said in the poem. Essentially, there are two parts in a haiku, and the third is found in the reader’s imagination.
- The two sections of a haiku should not connect so closely and not so distantly. This is called ma. You should find two things that compliment each other in a unique way.
- The parts are commonly separated either by line breaks or punctuation (kireji). The em dash and the ellipsis are the most common. Each expresses the meaning and mood of the poem in different ways. Often, only one punctuation mark is used per haiku.
- Most haiku have a seasonal reference. These are used to give more nuances, meaning, and interconnectedness to the poem. It also grounds the haiku with concreteness.
- Write in the present tense. Most haiku are about what is happening in a single or a few moments. You can write from memory, but it is important to keep the content in the now to make it more stark and immediate.
- The haiku aesthetic relies a lot on brevity, simplicity of expression, and directness. That is why metaphors, similes, personification, and other poetic devices to express abstract notions are not used often. Most of these poems have between 6-12 words, and are written in an informal, objective style. Once you get used to composing haiku in this basic aesthetic, you can start to use more poetic devices for a nuanced effect.
- Haiku focuses on various aesthetics: wabi-sabi, or seeing beauty and accepting imperfections and impermanence (Life, The School of); ma, or ingredients mixed together that seem disconnected but are really not, and create a flavorful concoction; aware, or how something can elicit feelings and ideas; haii, or simplicity, brevity, and discovery; yugen, the mystery one understands intuitively; and many more (“Haikai Glossary”).
- Ultimately, haiku usually is reverent towards its subjects and often celebrates them. These poems try to bring out compassion, concern, and love towards things that are commonly seen as unworthy or lowly. Also, haiku brings our attention to the connection between humans and nature, and the interconnectedness of everything as a whole.
This guide will end with a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) that demonstrates much of what has been mentioned:
Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
spring’s first dawn—
the priest pretending
Life, The School of. “HISTORY OF IDEAS – Wabi-Sabi.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 Dec. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmHLYhxYVjA.
“Haikai Glossary.” Haiku Commentary, 16 Jan. 2019, haikucommentary.wordpress.com/haiku-glossary/.