Poetry comes in many forms, from a long, freely written ballad style to shorter pieces like limericks with an emphasis on rhyme. In between these two extremes sits the haiku, an ancient style of Japanese poetry which is now enjoyed by a global audience.
What Is a Haiku?
The traditional form of Japanese verse only ever has three lines, and words which total 17 syllables – five in the first and third lines and seven in the middle. This structure means a haiku can be read on one breath and remain a short yet very powerful observation on life. In recent years some Westerners have chosen to loosen the boundaries and create haiku with slightly different patterns, such as 4-6-4, but for the most part the traditional form is still dominant and is the approach discussed here. Due to fundamental differences between Japanese and English, translated haiku do not automatically fit the 5-7-5 model.
Every haiku follows the theme of nature, the seasons or the natural world in general, they rarely use rhyme, and you will never come across similes or direct metaphors; instead, words are stripped back, allowing them to imply much more than could ever be said. A good haiku offers perception and insight by allowing the reader to interpret the words for themselves. A good example of this is this haiku from Matsuo Bashō, one of the most revered Haiku authors in Japanese history.
In the cicada’s cry
No sign can foretell
How soon it must die.
Here Bashō expertly introduces the topic which heightens his emotions but leaves the reader to identify his feelings of sadness over how their joyous singing is the lead-up to death after just a few weeks in the world above ground.
While haiku have strict rules about length, structure and the theme, the author has free rein to play with punctuation and capitalization, as in this example, again from Bashō.
An old silent pond,
A frog jumps into the pond,
Splash! Silence again.
Haiku may seem at first like a rather complicated style of poem to tackle, but so long as you follow some basic guidelines they are really quite simple and straightforward.
How to write a haiku
1. Bearing in mind the theme is always nature-related, begin by deciding on a topic. What are you drawn to? Clouds? Insects? Wildlife?
2. It’s important to bring your ideas to life by getting close to nature itself, so disconnect, go outside and allow yourself to really see and hear. Take pictures, sketch or make notes to record your feelings and build on small details.
3. Make lists of descriptive words relating to your topic, add words about relevant emotions too, and then put together some sentences. Don’t worry about their length just yet, and make sure to always keep the language simple.
4. Now play with your sentences, gradually paring them down. Use simple language, and keep in mind that your haiku will deliver some kind of message. Look at this more modern example, written by the author James Hackett
Half of the minnows
Within this sunlit shallow
Are not really there.
These words force the reader to work out the puzzle – that the sun’s reflection creates an illusion of twice the number of small fish as are actually there.
5. Use a thesaurus of you need help finding alternative words to fit into the 5-7-5 syllable format.
It’s standard for the third line of a haiku to include some form of observation on the topic of the poem, which we saw with the impending death of the insect and the silencing of the pond, but there’s room to be playful here too. So adding something unexpected but still connected to the first two lines is fine. This example is from another famous Japanese haiku author, Masaoaka Shiki.
As one who loved poetry