Writing poems is a fun way to relax and get your creative juices flowing. Poems can challenge us to pay more attention to our surroundings and appreciate the little moments even more.
But sometimes, you may not have the luxury of time to write more than one stanza, or you may be up for a challenge to practice concise writing. In that case, a haiku might be a good place to start.
What Is a Haiku Poem Format?
A haiku is a type of poem with Japanese origins that traditionally deals with nature. It uses a lot of weather or season-oriented words. For example, the use of the word “snow” in a haiku lets the reader know the haiku is set in winter.
But the theme of haiku is not only limited to nature. Going deeper into haiku, you will find that the theme is nature but compared and contrasted with human nature.
Note that the plural form of haiku is still haiku.
One common definition is that it is made up of three lines, with the first and third line having 5 syllables each, and the second line has 7 syllables.
My hammock hangs where
The trees and birds linger free
But I’m stuck at home
Describing the power of haiku, Adjunct Poetry Professor Michael Dylan Welch of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts says the following:
“The poem gains its energy by the intuitive or emotional leap that occurs in the space of 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.”~Michael Dylan Welch
However, haiku enthusiasts believe that its beauty does not lie in a strict syllabic pattern, but rather in the thoughts that it conveys.
For example, in an essay published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, John J. Dunphy says:
“While many early English-language haiku poets indeed wrote in the 5-7-5 style, modern haiku poets have pretty much discarded that format. We believe that it tends to make a haiku too wordy and stilted-sounding. A genuine haiku is characterized by a freshness and spontaneity that simply can’t be conveyed by strait-jacketing its expression.”– John J. Dunphy
Are Haiku Always 5-7-5?
Most high school English classes define a haiku as a short poem consisting of 3 lines with 17 syllables in total. But in reality, a haiku does not have to be limited to the 5-7-5 format.
One reason is that in Japanese, haiku come in 5-7-5 patterns of what is commonly translated into English as “syllables.” But from a linguistic perspective, “syllables” isn’t the exact translation of the term used in Japanese to count the 5-7-5 pattern.
Japanese haiku count the sounds, and not necessarily the syllables. For example, in English, the word “haiku” is counted as 2 syllables. But in Japanese, it contains 3 sounds: ha-i-ku. While this is not how “haiku” is pronounced in Japanese, this is the way the sounds are counted.
Perhaps a closer way of looking at it is letter sounds in English. When we first teach a child to read, we teach him to sound out the letters. For example, the word “cat” has three sounds, ‘c,’ ‘a,’ and ’t.’ In Japanese, the word Nippon contains the following sounds: ‘Nip,’ ‘p,’ ‘on,’ and ’n.’
From this difference in counting sounds, many haiku poets believe that 17 syllables in English yield a longer thought than 17 sounds in Japanese.
How to Write a Haiku
To give you a better understanding of haiku, here are some basic principles to remember:
- Remember that a haiku is not made up of only one sentence, but more often of two parts.
- A haiku is usually written in the present tense to give the feel of being “in the moment.”
- Haiku are designed to take something ordinary and give it an extraordinary feel.
- Haiku are meant to be simple, so do not use literary devices like simile, metaphor, hyperbole and others.
- Don’t worry about following capitalization rules.
- A haiku does not usually rhyme.
- Use minimal punctuation or none at all: haiku are designed to feel almost unfinished.
- The magic of haiku is in the contrast of two different things, creating emotional resonance. This technique is also known as juxtaposition.
- Instead of telling the reader how a scene makes you feel, show them the details that resulted in the emotion.
- The key is to highlight something interesting in what you are describing.
The process for writing a traditional haiku includes specific rules, but a modern haiku offers more freeform.
If you’ve never tried writing haiku before, limiting your first attempts to the 5-7-5 format does not automatically give you a haiku. But it does help you remember to keep your lines short and simple, and to focus on showing a surprising contrast.
Here are the steps to writing a haiku for a beginner:
1. Read examples of haiku to familiarize yourself with their structure.
Haiku are beautiful pieces of poetry; take some time to appreciate them before you start writing your own. Here are a few examples of haiku, written by traditional Japanese poets known as “The Great Four”:
“The Old Pond” by Matsuo Basho:
An old silent pond,
A frog jumps into the pond
splash! Silence again.
“A World of Dew” by Kobayashi Issa:
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
“Lighting One Candle” by Yosa Buson
The light of a candle
Is transferred to another candle—
Other Japanese poets who are famous for haiku include Masaoka Shiki, Takahama Kyoshi, and Kawahigashi Hekigoto.
2. Think about something you admire in nature.
First consider what aspects of nature inspire you. Traditional topics include seasons, animals, and the outdoors.
Once you have chosen your subject, take the time to go outside and appreciate it. Most great poets draw their inspiration from admiring nature, and the same can be true for you.
For example, you might want to write about a river walkway where people in the city jog early in the morning. Spend some time there to get even more inspired.
3. List words that come to mind as you think about your subject.
Think of as many descriptions as you can about your chosen subject. Remember to include emotions and feelings in your list.
To continue our example, words that might come to mind may include: sunrise, fresh air, birds, jogging, walking, family, relaxation.
4. Use the first line to describe the setting.
Don’t think about the syllables at this point, but instead just write whatever you think is most important to you about your chosen subject.
For example, if you feel the sunrise is a highlight for you, our first line can go:
The sun peeks over the horizon
5. Describe the subject and what they do in the second line.
Continue describing your scene. You can use the list you prepared in Step 3 as a guide.
In our example, the second line might go:
I’m jogging and breathing in the fresh air
6. Think of something totally contradictory to the first two lines, and use that for your third line.
The last line of haiku is usually the part where the poet makes an unusual observation. Add a surprise to make it more fun. Looking through your list of words, can you think of an unexpected contrast?
In our example, perhaps the word “relaxation” conjures up the contradictory concept of needing to sit behind a desk for work after an early morning jog. With that, our third line can be:
Before I sit behind my desk.
7. Read through the 3 lines.
Read your haiku aloud. Does the contrast of the third line with the first and second line trigger any emotion or ideas?
From this example, the juxtaposition appears to give the feeling of being trapped. So we can use that emotion to rewrite our haiku in the next step.
8. If you are satisfied with your 3 lines, decide on the syllable pattern.
Again, not all haiku come in the 5-7-5 pattern, but it’s a good place to start. If you would like to try your hand at keeping the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, rewrite each of your lines to fit the number of syllables.
If this is your first time, it might take several tries, but don’t give up! The end result will be worth it.
For example, our three lines can now be:
Fresh air in sunrise
Breathing deeply I run free
Before I start work
How does the above example make you feel?
Practice Writing Haiku and Other Poems
Remember, as you keep practicing, you will become used to finding subjects that have interesting juxtapositions.
Continue to keep a list of words and sources of everyday inspiration and you just might stumble upon something you never thought of before! For more practice, you can study how to write poems in a variety of forms.
Have you ever tried writing a haiku? Share it with us in the comments below!