Haikus are fragile little verses that carry immense poetic weight and provide a formidable creative workout for the poet.
The simplest way to describe a haiku is that it is a poetic form that has three lines. The first and third lines contain five syllables each, the second line has seven syllables. But there’s more to writing -and reading haikus than this.
Haikus are Japanese in origin. This poetic form was born from the renga, a poem that was built collaboratively among a community of writers. The hokku (where we get the haiku) is the first part of the poem, setting the tone for the other writers. It was in the 1600s when haikus began to be written as independent, separate verses.
Writing a haiku goes beyond counting syllables. Consider this haiku (translated from the Japanese) by Matsuo Basho:
At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water.
Note that the translation has somewhat altered the syllable count. More than this, consider the words. Note the scarcity of adjectives (only one: ancient). Note the precision and tangible nouns and verbs: pond, frog, water, plunge. (More about how to read poetry in this article).
Notice how your mind’s eye has taken you to that old pond, to see and hear that brief second when a frog jumped in. This is the magic of the haiku: to magnify and draw out the potential power of those moments that seem to flit past us.
Now it’s your turn. It may seem daunting initially but it can prove to be quite fun once you get the hang of it.
Start with focusing on something simple. Consider where you are sitting right now. What is immediately in front of you? A plant? A cup of coffee? Are you looking out the window? If so, what do you see? Pay attention to what you see, hear, smell. Do not try to interpret what you see into complex thoughts like love, hate or death.
Just sit still and observe. Write down what enters your senses. After writing your first draft, take a breather. Then go back to revise it. The 5-7-5 syllable meter isn’t etched in stone but it helps you take a good look at your word choice.
Here are a couple I’ve written, one at a park after the rain and another while riding a tram.
The lotus reflects
Upon her broad, rough leaf
Where rain drops dance.
Overhearing A Foreign Tongue
Assembly of tones
Tumble down my ears and break
Into sparrow songs.
Writing haikus are a great way to open up your artistic senses. No little bit of conversation, no tiny movement escapes the possibility of becoming a metaphor. These postcard-sized verses pack in huge metaphors about the human condition, mother nature, life as we know it.
Writing haikus also compel writers to see the strength of the individual word, to perfect their artwork the way a painter considers each brush stroke.
There are other ways to call up a poem, such as from paintings or news articles or by focusing on one word. However you create your poem, be it a haiku or a longer verse, remember that it is through “showing” rather than “telling” that makes a poetic expression compelling and worth reading.
Make haikus a regular part of your writing exercises. Here are other ideas you can put into your journal.