Know the sound structure of Haiku
Japanese Haiku traditionally consist of 17 on, or sounds, divided into three phrases: 5 sounds, 7 sounds, and 5 sounds. English poets interpreted on as syllables. Haiku poetry has evolved over time, and most poets no longer adhere to this structure, in either Japanese or English; modern Haiku may have more than 17 sounds or as few as one.
- English syllables vary greatly in length, while Japanese on are uniformly short. For this reason, a 17-syllable English poem can be much longer than a traditional 17-on Japanese poem, straying from the concept that Haiku are meant to distill an image using few sounds. Although using 5-7- 5 is no longer considered to be the rule for Haiku in English, it is still often taught that way to children in school.
- When you’re deciding how many sounds or syllables to use in your Haiku, refer to the Japanese idea that the Haiku should be able to be expressed in one breath. In English, that usually means the poem will be 10 to 14 syllables long. Take, for example, this haiku by American novelist Jack Kerouac:
- Snow in my shoe
- Sparrow’s nest
Use Haiku to juxtapose two ideas
The Japanese word kiru, which means “cutting,” expresses the notion that Haiku should always contain two juxtaposed ideas. The two parts are grammatically independent, and they are usually imagistically distinct as well.
- Japanese haiku are commonly written on one straight line, with juxtaposed ideas separated by a kireji, or cutting word, that helps define the ideas in relation to each other. The kireji usually appears at the end of one of the sound phrases. There is no direct English translation of the kireji, so it is often translated as a dash. Note the two separate ideas in this Japanese haiku by Bashō:
- how cool the feeling of a wall against the feet — siesta
- English haiku are most often written as three lines. The juxtaposed ideas (of which there should only be two) are “cut” by a line break, punctuation, or simply a space. This poem is by American poet Lee Gurga:
- fresh scent—
- the labrador’s muzzle
- deeper into snow
- In either case, the idea is to create a leap between the two parts, and to heighten the meaning of the poem by bringing about what has been called an “internal comparison.” Creating this two- part structure effectively can be the hardest part of writing a haiku, because it can be very difficult to avoid too obvious a connection between the two parts, yet also avoid too great a distance between them.
Choose a Haiku Subject
Distill a poignant experience
Haiku is traditionally focused on details of one’s environment that relate to the human condition. Think of a haiku as a meditation of sorts that conveys an objective image or feeling without employing subjective judgment and analysis. When you see or notice something that makes you want to say to others, “Look at that,” the experience may well be suitable for a haiku.
- Japanese poets traditionally used haiku to capture and distill a fleeting natural image, such as a frog jumping into a pond, rain falling onto leaves, or a flower bending in the wind. Many people go for walks just to find new inspiration for their poetry, known in Japan as ginkgo walks.
- Contemporary haiku may stray from nature as a subject. Urban environments, emotions, relationships and even humorous topics may be haiku subjects.
Include a seasonal reference
A reference to the season or changing of the seasons, referred to in Japanese as kigo, is an essential element of haiku. The reference may be obvious, as in using a word like “spring” or “autumn” to indicate the season, or it might be subtler. For example, mentioning wisteria, which flower during the summer, can act as less obvious reference. Note the kigo in this poem by Fukuda Chiyo-ni:
- morning glory!
- the well bucket-entangled
- I ask for water
Create a subject shift
In keeping with the idea that haiku should contain two juxtaposed ideas, shift the perspective on your chosen subject so that your poem has two parts. For example, you could focus on the detail of an ant crawling on a log, then juxtapose that image with an expansive view of the whole forest, or the season the ant is currently inhabiting. The juxtaposition gives the poem a deeper metaphorical meaning than it would have if it were a simple, single-planed description. Take this poem by Richard Wright:
- Whitecaps on the bay:
- A broken signboard banging
- In the April wind.
Use Sensory Language
Describe the details
Haiku are comprised of details observed by the five senses. The poet witnesses an event and uses words to compress that experience so others may understand it in some way. Once you have chosen a subject for your haiku, think about what details you want to describe.
Call the subject to mind and explore these questions:
- What did you notice about the subject? What colors, textures, and contrasts did you observe?
- How did the subject sound? What was the tenor and volume of the event that took place?
- Did it have a smell, or a taste? How can you accurately describe the way it felt?
Show, don’t tell
Haiku are about moments of objective experience, not subjective interpretation or analysis of those events. It’s important to show the reader something true about the moment’s existence, rather than telling the reader what emotions it conjured in you. Let the reader feel his or her own emotions in reaction to the image.
- Use understated, subtle imagery. For instance, instead of saying it’s summer, focus on the slant of the sun or the heavy air.
- Don’t use cliches. Lines that readers recognize, such as “dark, stormy night,” tend to lose their power over time. Think through the image you want to describe and use inventive, original language to convey meaning. This doesn’t mean you should use a thesaurus to find words that aren’t commonly used; rather, simply write about what you saw and want to express in the truest language you know.
Become a Haiku Writer
In the tradition of the great haiku poets, go outside for inspiration. Take a walk and tune in to your surroundings. Which details in your environment speak to you? What makes them stand out?
- Carry a notebook to write down lines as they come to you. You never know when the sight of a stone in a stream, a rat skipping over subway tracks, or a cap of clouds over hills in the distance might inspire you to write a haiku.
- Read other haiku writers. The beauty and simplicity of the haiku form has inspired thousands of writers in many different languages. Reading other haiku can help spur your own imagination into motion.
Like any other art, haiku takes practice. Bashō, who is considered to be the greatest haiku poet of all time, said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. Draft and redraft every poem until the meaning is perfectly expressed. Remember that you don’t have to adhere to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and that a true literary haiku includes a kigo, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and primarily objective sensory imagery.
- An afternoon breeze
- expels cold air, along with
- the fallen brown leaves.
- Cherry blossoms bloom,
- softly falling from the tree,
- explode into night.
- The warmth on my skin.
- Fire falls beneath the trees.
- I see the sun set.
- Summer here again.
- Music plays sweetly, drifting.
- And life is renewed.
- A winter blanket
- covers the Earth in repose
- but only a dream.
- An ocean voyage.
- As waves break over the bow,
- the sea welcomes me.
- Refreshing and cool,
- love is a sweet summer rain
- that washes the world.
- Love is like winter
- Warm breaths thaw cold hearts until
- one day the spring comes.
- A bird flies sweetly
- on paper wings. Telling all
- of my love for you.
- Every day I will
- love you more than you could know.
- We are here as one.
- The softest whisper
- beckons me closer to you.
- I love you, dearest.
- Vast as a mountain,
- my love for you shines through for
- all the world to see.