what is a haiku? | the basics

what is a haiku? | the basics
woman at her computer wondering what is a haiku

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 became haiku after poets started writing them as stand-alone poems.

format of a haiku

Japanese haiku may be 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.

number of syllables

Haiku 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.

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.

the cutting word

There are words in Japanese which function to interrupt the flow. These words are called kireji, or “cutting words.” In English, 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

haiku are unrhymed & unmetered

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.

evoking feelings

Despite being very small poems, haiku can evoke big emotions. One way this is achieved is through juxtaposing two different 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 two concepts are used to imply more than what is written:

New Year’s Day— / everything is in blossom! / I feel about average. -Kobayashi Issa

haiku without limits

Now that you know the basics, you might feel like there are a lot of rules to follow, but there are actually no rules at all! Even the masters didn’t conform to a rigid idea of what a haiku has to be. You can experiment, use what you like, and forget the rest. Poetry isn’t about rules, it’s about sharing a piece of yourself with the world—so keep writing!

references / resources

haiku and senryu: what is the difference?

The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words

what type of haiku poet are you?

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