Definition of Haiku

A haiku poem has three lines, where the first and last lines have five moras, while the middle line has seven. The pattern in Japanese genre is 5-7-5. The mora is another name of a sound unit, which is like a syllable, but it is different from a syllable. As the moras cannot be translated into English, they are modified and syllables are used instead. The lines of such poems rarely rhyme with each other.

Haiku became popular as tanka poems in Japan during the 9th and 12th centuries. Initially, it was called “hokku” and Basho, Buson and Issa were the first three masters of the haiku genre. Haiku poetry is also full of metaphors and personifications. However, this has been often argued against, since haikus are supposed to be written on objective experiences and not subjective ones. In English, several experiments were made in this genre as given below.

Below is a translation of one of the popular haiku examples.

Autumn moonlight-
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

(Autumn Moonlight by Basho)

Features of Haiku

  • It contains three lines.
  • It has five moras (syllables) in the first line, seven in the second and five in the last line.
  • It contains 17 syllables in total.
  • A Haiku poem does not rhyme.
  • Haiku poems frequently have a kigo or seasonal reference.
  • Haiku poems are usually about nature or natural phenomenon.
  • The poem has two juxtaposed subjects that are divided into two contrasting parts.
  • In English, this division between two parts can be shown by a colon or dash.

Examples of Haiku in Literature

Example #1

Old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water

(Old Pond by Basho)

In this example, we can clearly see two contrasting parts of the poem; one is about frog that is jumping and second is about the sound of water. The syllable pattern is also following a 5-7-5 format.

Example #2

Snow in my shoe-
Sparrow’s nest

(Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac)

This haiku is presenting an image in the first part; “snow in my shoe”. And there are two contrasting ideas that mingle with each other as the second part is about nature. The pattern of syllables is 5-7-5. The poet has tried to present a little story in this haiku.

Example #3

Calling home–
the color of mother’s voice
before her words

(Dust of Summers by Hilary Tann)

his voice
deep purple

(Dust of Summers by Ludmila Balabanova)

In these haikus, figurative device such as metaphors have been used to present an insight of the world. Through this technique, multiple senses are used to gather sensory information.

Example #4

Song birds
at the train yard’s edge
two cars coupling

(Thirds by Jeffrey Winke)

Personification is also a definite trait of haiku poetry. This is to assign a human quality or qualities to nonhuman things, though less prevalent in haiku as compared to metaphors. In this poem, personification is very well done, hence allowing the poem to speak for itself.

Example #5

To a leg of a heron
Adding a long shank
Of a pheasant.

(To a Leg of Heron, from “The Book of Master Tchouang” by Basho)

The theme of this poem is to laugh at yourself. This is a perfect example of haiku poetry, as it is perfectly following the pattern of syllable counts. It is also giving an amusing and ironic touch, since reality is the major aspect of this form of poetry.

Example #6

out of the water
out of itself
Picking bugs
off the moon

(“Lily” and “Bass” From Selected Haiku by Nick Virgilio)

Nick Virgilio is an American poet who is a great supporter of Japanese haiku. He has written 5-7-5 syllable style poems when translated in Japanese. These examples of haiku poems are natural, mystical and refined.

Function of Haiku

Haikus are short poems written on topics and things that the readers could identify with easily. For example, seasons and animals are readily recognizable topics to the readers. Generally, haiku is written for realistic and objective reasons; however, haikus are also written for children. Sometimes it presents two juxtaposed ideas to express meanings through internal comparison.

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4 comments for “Haiku

  1. Hillary
    November 11, 2015 at 9:10 am

    These examples are not 5-7-5. Maybe they were in the original language they were written in, but the point here should be about English haikus, yes? Please consider changing your examples and giving real haikus that actually follow the 5-7-5 format.

    • Brendon Kent
      December 9, 2015 at 4:17 pm

      There are many mistakes in this article…the plural of haiku is haiku (as in sheep etc.) It was Jack Kerouac who decided to start this ‘haikus’ (Book of Haikus) expression but it should not be so…also,unless starting a sentence,haiku(or any Japanese form) is not capitalized…
      Haiku did NOT start as tanka! hokku was the opening verse of a renga which later Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902 …Issa’s pupil and the last of the 4 great masters) decided should be a ‘stand alone’ verse which he named haiku.Now known as modern haiku or gendai haiku.
      Tanka originated from waka!
      Most of the article is fairly well written…
      Without getting too involved in the 5,7,5 argument i must say that it is generally accepted that 12-14 English syllables is about the equivalent of Japanese onji/morae.

      Haiku in English has only been around for about 100 years,it was Blythe who decided that to write haiku in English it should be 5,7,5 English syllables.
      The Japanese couldn’t understand why there were so many words!

      This is not to say 5,7,5 (17 syllables) in English is incorrect,just that it is wrong to think it must only be that…no-ones fault,it’s the way everyone was taught when English haiku became westernised…
      Blythe tried to work a way around simulating Japanese haiku to fit into English and 5,7,5 English syllables is what he came up with.
      Most of the 5,7,5 ‘supposed’ English haiku you see online now is not haiku just because it conforms to the syllable count… and so this myth carries on.

      More importantly haiku should have kigo(seasonal word or reference),kireji(cutting word or symbol) and should show not tell…i.e. don’t explain the haiku like a painting or statement,use senses etc. to involve the reader in his/her interpretation of the haiku…a haiku is not complete until another reader has read and connected with it.

      I am a member of the British Haiku Society and we provide teaching modules for schools/universities etc.

      There is so much more to say but this would then become an article in itself so i will leave you with one of mine to hopefully connect with you and give an example of modern haiku…the examples shown above are excellent and i know them very well…
      This is a hokku/haiku;

      how fragile
      our eggshell minds…
      moon on water

      -Brendon Kent
      Haiku Reality Vol.12 No.20 Summer 2015

      warm regards


      • RAS
        December 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm

        Thanks, Brendon. Beautiful haiku. The water ripples.

  2. Patricia Mills
    December 27, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    I think it’s a shame that elementary school teachers are more concerned with the 5-7-5 rule than the imagery that haiku is meant to evoke.

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