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The Truth About Haiku

How has the haiku changed? Is the 17 syllable format still relevant? Here are some interesting guidelines to think about when writing haiku in the English language.

There are a few misconceptions about what constitutes a haiku. Most people, if asked, would tell you that a haiku is a poem of three lines written in 17 syllables. They would tell you to put five syllables on the first line, seven on the second line and another five syllables on the third line. This is a rather old-fashioned idea of haiku.

The truth about English language haiku is that the counting of syllables is one of the least important aspects of the form. Why is this so?

The haiku is a Japanese form. Many haiku written in Japanese follow a pattern of 5/7/5. The Japanese word for syllable is loosely translated as onji. An onji is a “sound unit”. Seventeen onji do not equal 17 syllables. A poem written in 17 syllables usually contains a great deal more information than a poem written in 17 onji. So poets who are serious about writing haiku in the English language concentrate on other things besides the syllables.

There are many guidelines for writing contemporary haiku. Here are thirteen which I think are good to use if you’re a poet who wishes to learn the joys and disciplines of haiku writing.

13 Guidelines for Writing Haiku

  1. Use concise, simple and clear language
  2. Write in two sections, using a fragment and a phrase
  3. Use sense images, in particular what you see or hear
  4. Write in the present tense
  5. Compare or contrast two different images as juxtapositions
  6. Try to include a seasonal reference
  7. Write in 17 syllables or less, preferably between 8-12
  8. Use minimal (if any) punctuation
  9. Try to make your haiku open-ended and evocative
  10. Try not make judgments or express your opinions
  11. Limit your use of adjectives and try not to use adverbs
  12. Do not use rhyme, simile, metaphor or personification
  13. There is no need for capital letters, except for proper nouns

Haiku has evolved over a span of almost five hundred years in Japan. The
haiku does not need to be complete – it is a lightly sketched and ambiguous
poem, which the reader is expected to finish. It is at its best when it
contrasts or compares two images, and is written in the present tense,
focusing on nature and capturing one moment.

Basho (1644-1694) is one of the acknowledged masters of haiku and he wrote
this most famous example where he combined what he saw and what he heard:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

In a haiku it is sometimes a good idea to keep the reader guessing about what is about to happen. Often the final line provides us with a surprise, as in this
delightful example by another famous master Issa (1763-1827):

snow melts
the village floods
with children

As you can see, neither of these excellent examples of haiku translated from the Japanese, contains 17 syllables. Rather they concentrate on the more important aspects of haiku – writing about one or two moments and concentrating on what the poets experience with their senses.

The haiku in English has been written for about seventy years and the form
is still evolving. It often contains around 8-12 syllables. There are over
66 different ways a haiku can be written. The form is currently very
popular in many parts of the world and has become an important poetic form.

Here are a few examples of haiku I have written over the years. In these haiku I follow the contemporary way of writing what I see or hear around me, rather than expressing what is inside me:

gentle breeze-
between falling leaves
a butterfly

sunlight
through the old pine
cobwebs

black ducks
all along the creek bank
willow stumps

driftwood-
a man meanders along
the tideline

mountain valley-
the river escapes
into an ocean

early autumn-
the pale rose rests
on a tin fence

Finally, here are some quotes about haiku. Please note that the plural of haiku is the same as the singular.

“The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future –
and thus a true haiku is important because it is a moment of total and
genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.”
Robert Spiess (New and Selected Speculations on Haiku)

“Haiku has developed as a poem which expresses deep feelings for nature,
including human beings. This follows the traditional idea that man is part
of the natural world and should live in harmony with it. This differs from
the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as independent of and
perhaps superior to the rest of nature.”
Sono Uchida President of the haiku International Association.

“Haiku forces us to get out of the loops and worries or depressing thoughts
by demanding that we use our senses to explore what is around the body at
this very second.” Jane Reichhold

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29 Responses to “The Truth About Haiku”
  • Shawny Nevill
    February 13th, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    I knew nothing of Haiku before (well at least my definition was 5/7/5).

  • myron lysenko
    February 14th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Hi Shawny – thanks for reading this aricle.

    Yes, it’s a pity that we are taught haiku in a superficial and old-fashioned way in school. Teachers teach us how to write syllables, rather than how to write haiku.

    yours on the haiku path,
    myron.

  • Barry
    February 15th, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Now Myron

    I have to take issue with you over several points.
    1. You say: most people would say that a haiku contains 17 syllabes. Not true – most people would not know what the word refers to. I reckon if you stopped 100 people inn the street, you might geta result like the following:
    37 say: ‘No idea.’
    14 say: ‘Go away you lunatic and leave me alone!’
    24 say, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care!’
    16 say: ‘ Is it something like sushi?’
    8 say: ‘Isn’t it some Japanese sort of poetry?’
    And 4 say, ‘Are you innumerate or something!!’

    2. I can come at your 13 rules. It’s a few too many I think. And 13 is too many rules to have to follow. Surely poetry is about the joy of expression, of embodying in words the essence of (an)experience. Surely having 13 rules to follow is at least 8 too many!

    3. But here we come to the real problem: 66. Not 65, not 67, not even 69. 66! Why 66? Where did that number come from?
    If there are 13 rules, and the various FORMS of haiku differ in terms of WHICH of the rules that are used in their creation, then it’s a simple ‘Combinations and Permutations’ problem to work out the possible number of ways these 13 rules MIGHT be combined.
    The formula would be 13 X 12 X 11 X 10 X 9 X etc …. 0.

    Now the answer to THAT sume is not 66!
    It is in fact: 6,825,580,800 : that is, xix thousand eigtht hundred at twenty five MILLION.
    And when I went to school, that was quite a bit more than 66, though still well short of infinity. It’s even well short of the cells in the human brain.

    So – Mr Street Poetry and Haiku writer Lysenko: unless you are able to ;list for me, as one of your avid readers, the 66 forms – AND name them… AND explain in detail the differences between them, I shall have to conclude that you are simply trying to baffle us with claims to esoteric knowldege that hold as much water as a sieve.

  • wordmanblue
    February 16th, 2008 at 8:12 am

    This is all well and good but why can’t we just be free. Why be guided when our emotions are the stuff of poetry?

    If it’s not 17 syllables it’s not haiku.

    barry is right and you’re wrong.

  • goose_runner
    February 16th, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for the input. it is very helpful.

  • Alan D Taylor
    February 18th, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Myron – well done mate

    One of the most important things about haiku is the skill of reading – and understanding.
    This ability is paramount, there is no point in being disciplined as a haijin, if others cannot read haiku.

    Barry – you seem to lack the first skill.

    wordmanblue – It is not the usual ’stuff of poetry’ – there are plenty of other forms for that. Haiku is the stuff of the true observer, passing on the elation of finding the unusual in the usual.
    This is done without using poetic device or 5 – 7 – 5 syllables.

    goldfish -
    are you inside or outside
    the bowl?

    ;-)

  • Myron
    February 27th, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Hi Alan! Thank you so much for reading my article.

    I’m glad you appreciate it.

    Yours in haiku,
    myron.

    PS Don’t worry about Barry – he’s a fiend of mine who enjoys trying to stir me up.

  • Paul Smith
    February 27th, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you for posting this article on haiku. Things have sure changed alot since I wrote them at school. That is to be expected I suppose. I will attempt to follow your guide lines, because they seem interesting and some discipline never hurts in poetry.

  • MargaretG
    March 2nd, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you for this article, Myron.

    I was raised on the 5-7-5 definition as well, but I like the new streamlined form. If there is a rationale coming from Japanese, all the better. You have emphasized the spontaneity of the moment, which is life.

    I really like your example from Issa, that shows we can be misled by our expectations, and it sounds like a humorous and true observation:

    snow melts
    the village floods
    with children

    and yours also:

    black ducks
    all along the creek bank
    willow stumps

    I like the thirteen rules, they seem like reasonable guidelines and the most important things to remember, from all that I have read. Number 10 counteracts a frequent tendency away from the moment.

    I found this informative and enjoyed reading.

  • Myron
    March 3rd, 2008 at 1:13 am

    thanks, Margaret – it’s wonderful to get your response to my article.

    i’m pleased you liked my ‘black ducks’ haiku!

    yours in haiku,
    myron.

  • Myron
    March 5th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Hello Michael – it’s wonderful that a dintinguished haijin such as your has come along to read my humble article. I feel honoured by your visit. I have read and contributed to some of the contemporary haiku journals and keep seeing your wonderful haiku everywhere.

    I particularly like this sentence of yours:

    “As I say in the haiku workshops I give, don’t write about your feelings, write about what CAUSED those feelings (or thoughts).”

    I’ll take a look at your article.

    best haiku wishes,
    myron

  • Angelika Wienert
    March 5th, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    I liked it very much to read your article about haiku, Myron.

    The 13 guidelines are important. Perhaps number 12 is a bit strict because there are good haiku with personifications (and even Bashô used personifications, see Shiranes essay “Beyond the Haiku Moment. Basho. Buson and Modern Haiku Myths”. 2000).

    Very good that you gave some examples. Good haiku tell more about haiku than everything else.

    Best wishes,
    Angelika

    (Oberhausen/Germany)

  • Myron Lysenko
    March 6th, 2008 at 3:03 am

    Hi Angelika – thank you very much for reading this and for leaving your lovely comments. I appreciate them.

    You are right about personification – but it’s a guideline, not a strict rule. It’s the same with all poetry, isn’t it? We can break the rules once we know them and once we know what we are doing.

    Best wishes on your haiku path,
    Myron.

  • Myron Lysenko
    March 6th, 2008 at 3:06 am

    Hi Angelika – thank you very much for reading this and for leaving your lovely comments. I appreciate them.

    You are right about personification – but it’s a guideline, not a strict rule. It’s the same with all poetry, isn’t it? We can break the rules once we know them and once we know what we are doing.

    Best wishes on your haiku path,
    Myron.

  • Michael Dylan Welch
    March 17th, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I think personification is best avoided in haiku. If it’s done, it has to be done very skillfully, and it seems to me that the examples of where it works are extremely rare — and even then it’s a matter of opinion. I think it’s generally excellent advice to avoid personification in haiku, as nearly always it produces problematic haiku. It’s certainly not for beginners.

    I should also say that I disagree with guideline #13 (don’t use capital letters). I think capital letters *should* be used for proper nouns, and lowercasing “i” or “christmas,” for example, is an unnecessary affectation and faux humility. It draws unnecessary attention to the words AS words, which is the opposite of what a good haiku usually does or should do (and so much for humility when lowercasing draws MORE rather than less attention to the “i”). As James Hackett once wrote, “A haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon. If the finger is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon.”

    As for not starting a haiku with a capital, THAT I think is a good idea (unless it’s a proper noun). The standard reason for that (or at least, my reason) is that a capital suggests that you’re about to read a sentence, whereas a lowercase letter suggests you’re about to read a fragment. Since the bulk of successful haiku are indeed fragments (by design), why confuse the matter by starting with a capital and ending with a period? Both are at odds (especially the period) with the fragmentary nature of literary haiku. But capitals for proper nouns? Definitely keep using them.

    Of your 13 guidelines, #2, #5, and #9 are really all the same (or pretty close), so if you combined those and cut #13, you’d have this down to 10 guidelines, if round numbers are worth anything. :-)

    Happy to visit your site and read your article, Myron. It’s a useful article with good examples.

    Michael

  • Jackie
    May 26th, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Most interesting. I have learnt much from reading this. Excellent comments too!

  • Jayson Killigrew
    May 27th, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Just like tha haiku form, I found this article to be very enlightenening. I am going to try to write haiku of under seventeen syllables, but that is a lifetime of learning to unlearn.
    Cheers!

  • Corey X
    August 25th, 2008 at 1:12 am

    Thank you with pleasure for this essay on structure and guidelines. You know what you are on about and I have learned a great deal from you.

  • Alan Summers
    August 28th, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Hi Jayson,

    That’s the good thing about haiku, because it’s a lifetime of challenge even for past experts like Basho who was moving onto new things to discover only weeks before he died.

    I wish you all the best in lifetime of ‘unlearning’; I wish more of us would embrace this for haiku and other things in our lives. ;-)

    all my best,

    Alan
    http://www.withwords.org.uk

  • WritingWretch
    September 7th, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Haiku is a fantastic form. Its seeming simplicity disguises the sharp mental focus required to sucessfully capture the spirit of haiku in a strob flash of image and inuendo. Thank you Myron for your expert guidence and patience in overcoming my resistance to instruction. What joy to master this dicipline.

  • StormyDawn
    March 3rd, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Thanks Myron. This article, I think, will make my time your Haiku class on Allpoetry.com easier.

  • Djtrickz
    March 11th, 2009 at 4:41 am

    hey thats something really descriptive..

    thanks for this..

    - regards jokester

    lolz;-p

  • Malcolm
    March 27th, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I enjoyed this article and I am not shamed to admit that I don’t always understand the fragment such as willow stumps. Is there an element of competition in haiku?

  • Michaelb2005
    June 14th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    This really settled things in my mind about haiku, and opened up a whole world of new possibilities. Many things have changed in my thinking because of this article. I appreciate the tips and the help.

    Michael

  • Belleu Coz
    March 16th, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you very much, for this article, and for teaching me all good things about the joy of learnig, as well as haiku, I’m in your beginners class stumbling along quite happily.Godd Bless and Belleu Flowers To Ya ! ( my prayers for your family,hopefully they vibrate on your air) Respectfully, Cerulean’s Light.

  • Eileen Benavente-Blas
    October 13th, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I believe the seasonal reference is essential in haiku. Other than that informative intro to haiku writing.

    Eileen on Guam

  • Martin Kloess
    March 15th, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    very good.

  • Mike
    May 17th, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Haiku rules are not a matter of who’s wrong or right. That’s ego! In poetry one speaks from the heart. If rules are overrun, then let beauty and love prevail…

  • Tamara
    February 22nd, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    This article is very useful. In short form,explains the history and development of haiku poetry and gives us the basic instructions, how to write a good haiku poem. Especially important is the 13 Guidelines for Writing Haiku, which all of us, who like haiku, need to learn by heart. I am very pleased with this article.My best wishes for you Miron.Tamara ( besherat,from allpoetry site ).

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