Definition of Haiku

Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry that consists of short, unrhymed lines. These lines can take various forms of brief verses. However, the most common structure of haiku features three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. A haiku poem generally presents a single and concentrated image or emotion. Haiku is considered a fixed poetic form and is associated with brief, suggestive imagery intending to evoke emotion in the reader. Though this poetic form originated in Japan during the thirteenth century, it is also a significant element of English poetry, especially in its influence on the Imagist movement of the early twentieth century.

Because of the haiku form’s brevity as well as fixed verse and syllabic pattern, it leaves little room for anything more than the presentation of a single and focused idea or feeling. Therefore, haiku poems are allusive and suggestive, calling upon the reader to interpret the meaning and significance of the words and phrases presented.

For example, here is a haiku written by Issa, a Japanese poet, and translated by Cid Corman:

only one guy and

only one fly trying to

make the guest room do

This haiku creates an image of a man and a fly in the same room. The phrase “guest room” is clever in that it implies that both the guy and the fly are welcome temporarily and neither have ownership of the room. This evokes a humorous response and sense of enforced coexistence between man and nature in shared space. Though the poem consists of a single image, presented with simple phrasing, it evokes humor and inspires thought and interpretation for the reader.

Common Examples of Poetic Images in Haiku

Historically, haiku is associated with describing the seasons and their changes. In fact, traditional haiku feature kigo, which is a word or phrase that specifically indicates a particular season. This supports the brevity of the form as well as reference to the time of year. Many poets focus on the natural world and its seasonal changes as subject matter for haiku through the use of nature themes and imagery, which evoke corresponding emotions.

Here are some common examples of poetic images in haiku:

  • cherry blossoms
  • wisteria
  • moon and its phases
  • cold (ice, snow, etc.)
  • Trees and boughs
  • Rain
  • flowers and petals
  • insects (butterflies, bees, caterpillars, etc.)
  • birds (herons, swallows, etc.)
  • forest animals
  • water (dew, pond, etc.)
  • light (twilight, dawn, candlelight, etc.)
  • fruit
  • garden
  • landscapes (mountains, forests, seas, etc.)

Structure of Haiku

Traditionally, a haiku is a Japanese poem featuring three lines and consisting of simple, yet impactful, words and phrases. This language is structured in a pattern of 5-7-5 moras. Moras are rhythmic sound units that are comparable to syllables. When translating Japanese haiku to English or other languages, the balance between syllable count and meaning of words and phrases is complex. Japanese haiku feature 17 total sounds, or on, which some English translators argue is closer to 12 syllables rather than 17 total. On are not the same as syllables in English and are therefore counted differently, leading to translation discrepancies as to whether 17 English syllables effectively represent haiku.

In addition, Japanese haiku are written in one line, unlike the form with two line breaks that is featured in most English translations. Japanese haiku often feature kireji (a “cutting word”) that creates a pause or break in the rhythm of the poem, rather than a line breakKireji may be used to juxtapose images.

Overall, the common structure of most haiku poems is:

  • first line: 5 syllables
  • second line: 7 syllables
  • third line: 5 syllables

This 5-7-5 pattern and structure means that a haiku poem, as a rule, consists of three lines and 17 total syllables.

Writing Haiku

It may seem that writing haiku is simple due to the brevity of the form or by meeting the syllable count and pattern. However, this art form requires careful choices in language and the order of words to create effective imagery, evoke an emotional response from the reader, and allow for deeper interpretation and meaning. Here are some elements to keep in mind when writing haiku:

Subject Matter

When determining the subject matter for haiku poetry, it’s important to focus on singular images and smaller details. Nature themes are prevalent in this Japanese art form. Nature makes for interesting and beautiful subjects in terms of seasonal changes and the way our human senses interpret the natural world around us. Haiku poetry is effective in its portrayal and reflection of simple and natural elements of daily life.

Language and Wording

It’s important for poets, when writing haiku, to utilize short phrases that evoke strong images and emotions for the reader. In this case, it’s beneficial to consider the Japanese tradition of kigo. This allows the poet to choose images that symbolize a season and therefore set the mood and tone of the poem with a select few words. For example, a poet can utilize the phrase “tender snowflakes” to represent winter and indicate a cold, perhaps peaceful, setting. This can evoke feelings of calm and quiet for the reader.

In addition to careful use of language and wording to create an effective haiku, it’s important for poets to consider using punctuation or a “cutting word” (kireji) for implementing meter and rhythm in the poem.

Examples of Haiku in Literature

Haiku is a style of lyric poetry that usually features intense emotion or a vivid image of nature. This is traditionally designed to lead to spiritual insight for the reader. This type of verse is considered a fixed poetic form, with three unrhymed lines in the pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Contemporary poets occasionally vary the syllabic count and/or pattern in haiku.

Here are some examples of haiku in literature and their significance:

Example 1: The Falling Flower (Moritake)

What I thought to be

Flowers soaring to their boughs

Were bright butterflies.

In this poem, Moritake utilizes the phrase “flowers soaring to their boughs” as kigo, an indication of the spring season when plant life is blooming. In the third line of the poem, the poet establishes that the flowers are actually bright butterflies, reinforcing the warmth and renewal of spring. Additionally, in mistaking the butterflies for flowers and then realizing the actuality, the poet emphasizes the themes of balance, beauty, and relationships in nature. This perception allows the reader to witness this change in imagery and actuality, as the poet does. As a result, this haiku is significant in its representation of the natural world and the way it is interpreted by humans.

Example 2: Lightning in the Sky (Matsuo Basho)

Lightning in the sky!

In the deeper dark is heard

A night-heron’s cry.

In his poem, Basho appeals to the senses of sight and sound in nature. First, the poet establishes the image of lightning in the sky. Following this lightning, however, is not a clap of thunder as the reader may expect. Instead, the subsequent sound that comes from the dark is the cry of a heron. This juxtaposition of lightning and the bird’s response evokes a feeling of connection between heaven and earth and their natural forces. This haiku is significant in its traditional presentation of nature themes, as well as the spiritual “communication” between heaven and earthly entities.

Example 3: After Basho (Carolyn Kizer)

Tentatively, you

slip onstage this evening,

pallid, famous moon.

Kizer’s poem is both a haiku on its own and an homage to Matsuo Basho, a seventeenth century Japanese poet who refined the 17-syllable poetic form and established it as an artistic literary expression. As an independent poem, Kizer utilizes the moon as a subject matter which is common in haiku poetry. The moon is personified and “slips onstage” in the evening, just as the moon subtly appears in the night sky. Kizer incorporates this image of nature in a clever manner, as the moon appears to have a spotlight shining on it while “onstage” in the sky.

Kizer’s poem is also significant as a tribute to the poet Basho and a haiku in celebration of the person who enriched this poetic form. With this interpretation, the use of “you” in line one signifies Basho. Kizer implies that his presence and fame remain as the moon does each evening. This brings a spiritual element to the poem through remembrance and reverence in terms of Basho.

Example 4: c’mon man hold me  (Sonia Sanchez)

c’mon man hold me

touch me before time love me

from behind your eyes.

Sanchez’s poem is an example of contemporary haiku and how this poetic form crosses boundaries of time and place. The subject matter of this poem deviates from traditional themes of the natural world. Instead, the subject is human nature and the desire to be loved, physically and emotionally. Beginning the poem with the informal “c’mon” is strategic in that this word consists more of two moras rather than two distinct syllables. This is closer to the traditional Japanese on and use of sound. Most haiku written in the English language are dependent on defined syllables rather than phonetics.

In addition, Sanchez creates a different pattern of meter and rhythm in this poem by using several one-syllable words. Rather than flowing as a somewhat continuous thought, the language in Sanchez’s poem is almost choppy. This increases the pacing and punctuation of the poem while enhancing its sense of pleading and urgency. The poet’s intentions and desires are clear through the use of direct, commanding language. This evokes strong emotion in the reader in terms of identifying with the poet’s desire to be held, touched, and loved on an emotional level (“from behind your eyes”) as well as physical level. This emotional response supports the significance and universality of haiku as a poetic form.