what is a haiku? | the basics

haiku’s origins in Japan

Haiku is a form of poetry which originated in Japan, and evolved out of another Japanese form called renga. Renga began with an opening stanza called a hokku, which were written as stand-alone poems as early as the 16th century. The term haiku wasn’t used until adopted by Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), and use wasn’t commonplace until the late 20th century. English scholars and poets discovered hokku decades earlier.

format of a haiku

Japanese haiku were commonly written in one line or three. Below is an example by Matsuo Basho, written in three lines which would be read from right to left.

mats basho haiku example of what is a haiku
yellow rose petals / thunder— / a waterfall -Matsuo Basho

In English, dividing your haiku into three lines, using a forward slash (/) instead of a line break, or using just one line, are all common formats. Other numbers of lines are less common, but still valid, as are concrete or text-as-image.

number of syllables

Haiku often have 17 syllables in total, and these are divided into phrases with five, seven, and five syllables each. Japanese syllables, called on or morae, are a little different than English ones. This means Japanese haiku are less “wordy,” and it’s why some people think that, in English, haiku should be written with less than 17 syllables.

Since the 1950’s, English language haiku poets have put more or less emphasis on the importance of syllable count. With dumbed-down haiku definitions pervading the internet, insistence on the 5-7-5 form is ingrained in less academic spheres such as social media.

What could be taken as a standard guideline, is that a haiku should not be more than 17 syllables.

the season word

Haiku are often about nature or the seasons, but not always. There is a list of kigo, or season words, called a saijiki. Poets refer to this list, especially while writing renga, to make sure their poetry progresses through the seasons correctly, without accidentally reversing in time. Kigo function as a literary shorthand, conveying a lot of information about the context of the poem, as well as connecting it with other poems of similar context.

the cutting word

There are words in Japanese which function to interrupt the flow. These words are called kireji, or “cutting words.” It is not possible to directly imitate kireji linguistically in English, however, they are similar to an exclamation point, an em dash, an ellipsis, or a caesura. A kireji typically comes at the end of one of the poem’s three phrases, and can be used in different ways. Sometimes, it is meant to draw attention to the way the sections before and after it are connected.

haiku by matsuo basho
the old pond / a frog jumps in— / the sound of the water -Matsuo Basho
Thunder in the mountains—
the iron
of my mother's love

                                        -Jack Kerouac

haiku are unrhymed, unmetered, & avoid metaphor

Meter in poetry is when the emphasis of the syllables in a phrase is patterned. For example, in a sonnet there are five groups of two syllables each, and each group has an unstressed and a stressed syllable, in that order. This is called iambic pentameter, and a line of it would look like this: (emphasized syllables are in bold)

I beg for food before I sleep alone.

Haiku poetry does not typically make use of meter, and does not usually contain a rhyming scheme.

Obvious use of metaphor or simile (using like, or as) is generally frowned upon, as a common intent of a haiku is to draw attention to a moment, and the contents of that moment, as they are (as opposed to comparing them to other things). Metaphor does have its place, when executed well, for example in suggesting two things are the same and showing them to be different, all in one poem.

the river
          the river makes
of the moon
                           - Jim Kacian in Mainichi Shimbun, Anthology, 1997

evoking feelings

Another common goal of haiku is that it should attempt to open the mind. Despite being very small poems, haiku contain vast ideas. The scenes, connections, and meanings are not laid out on the page– they are made in the mind of the reader. The masterful creation of space in the reader’s mind is what determines if a haiku has succeeded or failed.

One way this effect is achieved is through juxtaposing two images, creating an effect which is larger than the poem itself. By surprising the reader with an interesting connection, the writer creates a memorable poem. Notice how in the following poem only three words imply so much more than what is written:


                  -Paul Reps

haiku without limits

English language haiku has been evolving since it was first attempted in the late 1800s, and through its popularization in the 1950s with the Beat Generation. What has been maintained through this progression is a striving to create a particular, difficult to articulate, sensation of openness in the mind of the reader. Beyond this, the particulars are widely disputed. Even the ancient masters didn’t conform to a rigid idea of what a haiku had to look like. I encourage you to read as many historic and modern examples as possible and experiment with your own.
In the end, poetry isn’t about rules, it’s about sharing a piece of yourself with the world—so keep writing!


haiku and senryu: what is the difference?

The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words

what type of haiku poet are you?


An Overview of Haiku in English by Jim Kacian, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (2013)

The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-language Haiku, Richard Gilbert (March 2004)

A History of Haiku, Volume One, R.H. Blyth (1963)

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