While some forms of poetry have free form with regard to their number of lines and syllables, the haiku was established in Japan as far back as the 9th century with a specific structure. That is, many Japanese poets wrote in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. If read in Japanese, most ancient haiku would have five syllables, or sounds, in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last. The Academy of American Poets asserts, “As the form evolved, many of these rules – including the 5-7-5 practice – have routinely been broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.”
Michael Dylan Welch, Adjunct Poetry Professor for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts shares this sentiment, stating, “Most Western literary haiku poets have rejected the 5-7-5- syllable pattern. …The poem gains its energy by the intuitive or emotional leap that occurs in the space between the poem’s two parts, in the gap of what’s deliberately left out. …The art of haiku lies in creating exactly that gap, in leaving something out, and in dwelling in the cut that divides the haiku into its two energizing parts.”
Traditional Haiku Structure
Traditional haiku are always the same, including the following features:
- There are only three lines, totaling 17 syllables.
- The first line is 5 syllables.
- The second line is 7 syllables.
- The third line is 5 syllables like the first.
- Punctuation and capitalization are up to the poet, and need not follow rigid rules used in structuring sentences.
- A haiku does not have to rhyme, in fact usually it does not rhyme at all.
- Some haiku can include the repetition of words or sounds
Defining Haiku Poetry
Haiku is a short, descriptive form of poetry, usually read in one breath. Haiku poetry traditionally discusses subjects from the natural world, including seasons, months, animals, and even the smallest elements of nature, down to a blade of grass or a drop of dew.
The most prominent traditional Japanese poets are Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masoaka Shiki. They are known as “the Great Four” and their work is still the model for traditional haiku writing today.
While haiku does not have to only cover natural subjects any more, it is most often used as a celebration of nature. And although modern haiku still focus on simple yet sensory language that creates a brief moment in time and a sense of illumination, the structure can be looser and traditional rules ignored.
So whether you choose to play by the traditional rules or go freeform is entirely up to you.
Examples of Haiku
Let’s take a look at two of Matsuo Basho’s most famous poems. (Note: The 5-7-5 rhythm has been lost in translation, as not every Japanese word has the same number of syllables, or sounds, as its English version. For example, haiku has two syllables in English. In Japanese, the translated word has three sounds.)
An old silent pond,
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.
Natsume Soseki was a Japanese novelist in the 1800s (commonly referred to as the Charles Dickens of Japan) who also wrote haiku:
Over the wintry forest,
winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
Now, let’s take a look at modern Western haiku. Here is an example taken from The New Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2002) edited by John Barlow and Martin Lucas:
empty café –
he hangs a spoon
on the waitress’s nose
This has a 4-4-6 pattern, but still encompasses many haiku principles and creates a revelation about the moment. Perhaps they’re about to become more than friends, these two?
Like anything else, some writers choose to hold strong to tradition. For example, modern Western poet Anselm Hollo uses the standard structure here:
round lumps of cells grow
up to love porridge later
become The Supremes
In the West, one of the most prolific 20th-century haiku poets was Richard Wright, a famed African-American novelist. This haiku was contained in the 1998 collection Haiku: This Other World:
Whitecaps on the bay;
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.
So, although many modern poets don’t follow the 5-7-5 pattern, you will still come across a few who remain true to the original form.
Reading through examples of haiku can greatly help you understand, appreciate, and eventually write haiku yourself. Reading haiku to children can also help them develop a sense of how to interpret poetry, and begin the process of writing their own simple poems.
Process of Writing Haiku
Even though there are specific rules for writing a traditional haiku, the process can still be fun and rewarding. And remember that a modern haiku can be more freeform.
If you are trying to write haiku for the first time, consider the following steps:
- Begin by reading examples of haiku to help you get inspired about the subjects and construction of haiku. Haiku is a beautiful form of poetry, so take time to appreciate it before you begin writing it. Ample examples of haiku poems are available here on YourDictionary or in your local library.
- Create a list of possible subjects that you might write about, considering various aspects of nature that inspire you. Consider traditional subjects like animals, nature, and seasons, or something completely different. Even the smallest details can make for great haiku.
- After you choose a subject, you may want to look at a few pictures of it, or go outside and admire it. Like all of the great poets before you, some of the greatest inspiration comes from simply admiring nature and the world around them.
- Make a list of words that relate to the subject you have chosen. Be as descriptive as possible. Think about feelings and emotions too.
- The last line is usually used to make an observation about your subject. It can be fun to add a surprise here. Looking through the list you wrote, can you create an unexpected relationship between the first two lines and the third?
- Decide if you want to write using the 5-7-5 rule or branch outside the limits of this pattern. (If you have trouble determining the syllables in a word because you are not sure how to pronounce it, you can look up the word here on YourDictionary for a count of the syllables.)
Remember to be creative, not only with your use of words, but also with your punctuation and word order. Haiku is not designed to read like a sentence, so do not feel bound by normal capitalization and structure rules.