Combining the restraint of short-form poetry with centuries of tradition, haiku poems are a popular form for poets both classic and contemporary, both Western and Eastern. The haiku poetry tradition is rich with history, and while many poets know about the 5-7-5 rule, they don’t know all the requirements of the haiku format—much less how to write a haiku poem.
This article looks at the history, poetics, and possibilities of haiku poems. We draw comparisons between Japanese haiku and Western/contemporary haiku poetry, with copious haiku examples and analysis. Finally, we make distinctions between the haiku form and the senryu, a similar Japanese form.
What is a haiku? How do you format it? Let’s dive into how to write a haiku poem, and first, we’ll examine the form’s long and complex history.
What is a Haiku?
Haiku poems are short-form poems that originated in the 17th century, Japan. Traditionally, the poetry form requires the poet to arrange 17 syllables into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. Classical Japanese haiku requires the poem to use natural imagery; poems that don’t dwell on nature are called senryū.
What is a haiku: a short-form poem from 17th century Japan that uses natural imagery.
Here’s an example of a haiku, from Modern Haiku’s Summer 2020 journal, from former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins:
even the thieves stay at home,
except for those two.
Although the classical form has strict requirements, contemporary haiku poems can be far more impressionistic and unconstrained. Let’s take a brief look at the history of haiku poetry, before turning to the rules of the haiku format.
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A Brief History of Haiku Poetry
Japanese haiku poetry evolved from several poetic traditions. Previous to the invention of the form, Japanese poets wrote waka, a form of poetry that followed a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic format. Waka was primarily written by people of higher status, and often required countless hours of studying and crafting poetry—hours which were unavailable to the common folk.
Eventually, Japanese commoners produced their own modified form of waka, called renga (linked verse). In a renga poem, two or more poets take turns writing lines, linking those lines together in a waka. This tradition arose in dominance from the 13th to the 16th centuries, and poets like Sogi helped popularize this verse across the Japanese islands. In the 17th century, waka inspired a different form of linked verse, called haikai.
Starting in the 14th century, many linked verse poems were preceded by a hokku, or “first verse.” A hokku was a poem written in 5-7-5 which often introduced or summarized the themes of the linked poem.
Hokku eventually broke off to become its own form, the haiku. This official split did not occur until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which opened Japan up to many countries where it had previously refused to trade or share its culture. Technically, most haiku poems preceding the Meiji Restoration are simply hokku, though some poets, like Bashō, are retrospectively considered haiku poets, as Bashō himself freed the hokku from always introducing linked verse.
The introduction of haiku poetry to the West was at first unsuccessful, but in the 20th century, the Imagist Ezra Pound and the Jazz poet James Emanuel, alongside many French and Spanish poets, helped introduce the form to contemporary literary society.
Haiku Vs. Senryū
An important distinction is the difference between haiku and senryū. Senryū and haiku poems rely on the same format (described below), but differ in subject matter.
Haiku poetry dwells on nature, usually imparting wisdom about life and existence through observations of the natural world. (An exception to this is gendai, which refers to contemporary Japanese pieces that differ in values and topics from classical poetry.)
Haiku poetry dwells on nature, usually imparting wisdom about life and existence through observations of the natural world. Senryū poems dwell on the follies of human nature.
By contrast, senryū poems dwell on the follies of human nature. A senryū might make fun of certain human behaviors or limitations, and the tone of a senryū is usually humorous, cynical, or even satirical.
Additionally, senryū does not have a kireji or kigo, both of which are defined below.
Traditional Japanese haiku are written in three lines. The first and the third lines have 5 syllables, while the second line has 7. If you’ve heard of the form before, you’re probably familiar with the haiku 5 7 5 rule. As we will discuss in a bit, contemporary examples do not have the same syllabic requirements, but most are still written in three lines.
Proper haiku poetry has three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images, and a kireji, or “cutting word” which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together.
Proper haiku poetry has three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images, and a kireji, or “cutting word” which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together. An individual image occupies lines 1 and 2, with the third line containing the kireji.
See this in action in the below poem, by Bashō:
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
The image in the first line is the old silent pond; the image in the second line is the frog jumping. The frog, also, is the “nature word” in the poem: frogs are traditional symbols of the springtime, and what’s lost in translation here is that the poem represents the passing of seasons, from the “old, silent” winter to the sudden arrival of spring. “Splash!” is the kireji, signifying the suddenness of seasonal transition.
Note: some English poems use punctuation, like the em dash (—), as the kireji.
If you want to learn how to write a haiku poem, practice juxtaposing simple, natural images against each other, using the final line to surprise the reader and pull the poem together.
How Many Syllables in a Haiku?
The conventional haiku structure requires poets to write 17 syllables in 3 lines: 5, 7, and 5 again. However, as we’re about to explore, this syllabic requirement does not apply to contemporary English verse. Far more important is the philosophy of writing haiku.
Note: In the Japanese tradition, haiku poetry contained 17 on. (Linguists also refer to on as morae.) On, or onji, are slightly different from syllables, in that an on counts any variation in sound as a separate phonetic unit. This distinction is mostly irrelevant to English speakers, as we use a different set of vowel sounds than Japanese speakers use. None of this information is related to how to write a haiku poem in English, but if it interests you, you can learn more about morae here.
Classic Vs. Contemporary Haiku Poems
Classical Japanese haiku requires strict adherence to 17 on. This syllabic constraint does not apply to contemporary English haiku. Rather, the standard length for a modern day poem is that it should be spoken “in a single breath.”
The standard length for a modern day poem is that it should be spoken “in a single breath.”
What does this mean? If you read any of the haiku examples in this article out loud, you should be able to do so without inhaling twice or losing your breath.
As you write a haiku, don’t worry too much about syllables (though certainly keep your poem short). Rather, focus on the fundamentals: natural observation, the juxtaposition of images, and the use of surprising language that imparts on the reader an “aha!” moment. If it’s too wordy, you can omit needless words in revision.
Terminology of Haiku Poems
Use this section as a reference for the various components and terms related to haiku poems.
- Gendai—Literally “contemporary,” a gendai haiku encompasses modern values and often dwells on themes of politics, urbanity, modern life, and war. These poems do not use kigo, and they sometimes include similes and metaphors, which a traditional piece lacks.
- Haibun—A specialized type of verse popularized by Bashō. A haibun includes a prose poem and a haiku, each of which draw upon natural observations with a high level of imagery and description. The haiku and the prose poem are related, but one does not explain the other, and the narrative jump between the two is not linear.
- Hokku—The opening 3 lines of a linked verse poem. Its form precedes the modern day haiku.
- Kigo—The “nature word” of a poem. Kigo words are usually seasonal. The word “autumn” is an obvious example, but so is the word “pomegranate,” which is traditionally harvested in, and thus signifies, autumn.
- Kireji—The “cutting word” of a poem, surprising the reader and tying together the juxtaposed images.
- On—A phonetic unit in the Japanese language. A Japanese haiku counts on, whereas an English poem counts syllables.
- Renga—A linked verse poem written by multiple authors, often preceded by a hokku.
- Saijiki—A list of kigo organized by seasonal terms, which poets can reference as they construct their haiku poems.
- Senryū—A humorous poem which utilizes the haiku format, but dwells on man’s foibles.
- Waka—A traditional linked verse poem in classical Japanese literature, usually written by a poet of higher status.
Writers of traditional haiku poems can reference this saijiki for seasonal kigo words.
The following haiku examples come from both classic Japanese and contemporary English literature. Remember: a contemporary piece does not need to have 17 syllables, it must merely be spoken in a single breath.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
The birds cry, and the fishes’ eyes are
Bashō is one of the most famous Japanese haiku poets, and his work popularized the form throughout all of Japan. In this poem, “Spring is passing” refers to an eternal parting, and the birds and fish represent the poet’s friends.
Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775)
from the heart
of one vine
Chiyo-ni was one of the greatest poets of the Edo period, and also one of the few popular female poets from classical Japan. This poem encompasses the importance of simple observation, and the profound thoughts one can have simply by witnessing nature.
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)
Being pulled by a cow
To the Zenkoji temple.
Issa, a name which roughly translates to “cup of tea,” wrote poetry that often attended to animals in nature. This poem is allegorical, referring to a traditional Japanese legend of a woman who was led to a Buddhist temple by a cow whose horns had stolen her drying clothes.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
There are a lot of paper lanterns
On the street.
Despite his short life, Shiki’s work is filled with humor. The name Shiki itself means “little cuckoo” a bird who, in legend, vomited blood from singing so much. (Shiki died from tuberculosis.) In this poem, Shiki juxtaposes the summer moon against the paper lanterns, perhaps commenting on the brightness of the moon despite the streetlights, or perhaps commenting on modernity’s rejection of nature.
Richard Wright (1908-1960)
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.
Richard Wright was a prominent African-American writer, poet, and critic in the 20th century, who wrote countless haiku towards the end of his life. This breathtaking poem begins with an absence of self, juxtaposed against the sublime immensity of the sun, which has stripped the speaker of identity and left him in a field of mystery.
Elizabeth Searle Lamb (1917-2005)
of Monet water lilies . . .
Elizabeth Searle Lamb turned towards the power of haiku poetry in her 40s, and continued to write it throughout the rest of her life. Her work was often ekphrastic and inspired by classical art, such as this poem, which feels as though you are staring at Monet’s painting and falling into a deep, thoughtful tranquility.
James Emanuel (1921-2013)
No such thing.” Wouldn’t say that
if they heard Chops sing.
Highly underrated during his lifetime, James Emanuel’s jazz-and-blues haiku defined the possibilities for the poetry form as its popularity grew in the West. Emanuel’s poems ought to be read accompanied with music, but because most of his poetry was performed in Europe and Africa before modern recording technology was universal, readers are encouraged to read his work rhythmically and out loud.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
In every direction
Kerouac, as well as the Beat Generation in general, re-popularized haiku poems for the West. Following the advice of “first thought, best thought,” Kerouac’s poems explored the landscape of modern America, yet still found depth and inspiration from natural observation.
Allan Ginsberg (1926-1997)
of the flowers – now
my garden is gone.
Alongside Kerouac, Ginsberg’s poetry encouraged writers to meditate, observe, and record thoughts as they arose.
Sonya Sanchez (1934- )
speech and breath. loving you is
a long river running.
Sonya Sanchez was highly influential to the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s, and her work continues to inspire poets and artists of all stripes. Her haiku poems are decisively more contemporary and less reliant on natural imagery, which frees her to explore the intersections and juxtapositions of modern America.
Tips on How to Write a Haiku Poem
While it’s easy to understand the haiku format and the requirements of the form, it can seem daunting to write a haiku that’s both brief and inspirational. Here are a few tips on how to write a haiku poem to get you started.
- Meditate, and stay in the present. Great haiku poetry comes from simple observations, and from accepting what comes to the mind without judgment or modification. Let your thoughts arise naturally, and try to transcribe those images into the poem.
- First thought, best thought.To put it another way: preserve naked thoughts. This advice, borrowed from the Beat Generation of poets, should free you to accept your own thoughts as rich source material for haiku poems and other pieces you write.
- Carry a mindfulness notebook. Throughout your day, use a little notebook to transcribe your dreams, observations, and thoughts as they arise. You might find the notes you jot down combine into powerful haiku poems. Again: do not self edit, simply record things as they occur.
- Lean into uncertainty. You don’t have to know what your own words mean. Many beautiful poems lean into the mystery of language and its countless possibilities.
- Imitate the classics. At least, to get a start in writing haiku poetry, spend some time observing the styles of other poets and trying to imitate them. You might learn how to observe and record the world simply by observing how other poets do it.
- Don’t be concerned with counting syllables. Yes, your poem should be concise and imagistic, and you don’t want to edit too much that you distort your naked thoughts. But, worrying about syllable count will only prevent you from jotting down your honest observations.
- Use representational, symbolic language. Good imagery can act as a symbol, allowing your poem to have multiple meanings. The haiku examples we use from Bashō are rife with symbolism and imagery, such as his poem which represents his friends as birds and fish.
- Use titles to clarify only when necessary. Generally, haiku poems don’t use titles. But, if your poem will make more sense to the reader with a brief, descriptive title, you can bend the rules a little and provide one. Only do this when the clarity is necessary—you might find that your poem benefits from leaning into mystery.
Let’s end with a prompt for writing a haiku, which comes to us from Allan Ginsberg. There are many other prompts for haiku poetry out there, but this one has a contemporary flair to it, and helps the poet rely on their own observations.
Line 1: What is your neurotic confusion? (Something that obsessively confuses you.)
Line 2: What do you really want or desire?
Line 3: What do you notice where you are now?
Learn More About Haiku Poems at Writers.com
Whether you take our mindfulness class, our workshop on haiku poems, or any of our other poetry writing classes, Writers.com will help you master the art of haiku. In the meantime, be present, draw upon natural observations, and accept your thoughts as they arise.
Many thanks to Marc Olmsted, Miho Kinnas, Richard Modianos, and Barbara Henning for their insights on the writing process.