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Most people think of haiku (“haiku” is both used for singular and plural) as three lines of 5-7-5 syllables having to do something with nature. Haiku is more than a form though—it is a style of its own. In fact, the syllable counting rule only applies to traditional haiku, written in Japanese. When people write haiku in English, usually they don’t use the 5-7-5 syllable form and instead work with this format: short line/longer line/short line. But again, haiku is more of a style of poetry rather than a form, with its own set of aesthetics.
Haiku has these key stylistic features:
- The majority of haiku contain two parts that interact with each other.
- The two parts of a haiku create a third part in the reader’s mind, which deals with the implications of the two parts interacting.
- The two parts usually show a comparison, a contrast, or an association.
- A season commonly is referenced, but only one season for one haiku. One season commonly is referenced once in a haiku.
- The less punctuation the better, however punctuation can be used to show a mood, add to the content, or show a separation between parts. One punctuation mark is usually enough.
- The less complicated and longs words, the better.
- Using “I” or “me” is discouraged, but can be used with taste and not in an ego-centric way.
- The images juxtaposing each other or showing similarity shouldn’t connect too obviously.
- The images juxtaposing each other or showing similarity shouldn’t be too obscure in their connection.
- Make it as simple and direct as possible, leaving out unnecessary adjectives, verbs, and nouns.
- Using metaphors, similes, and personification are discouraged. If done rarely with taste, it is acceptable.
- Haiku are objective poetic observations written in the present tense or the present continuous tense.
- The essence of haiku is to show compassion and concern, but many other qualities exist.
- Haiku are usually cut into two parts either by punctuation, by making a grammatical shift, or a line break. Haiku can be one part, though it should contain enough mystery and lead readers to think about something in addition to the one part to create a second part in the reader’s mind.
As you can see, haiku have a lot of stylistic peculiarities, and these are just the basics. Different schools of haiku add their own rules on top of these ones, or take out some of these rules. But anyways, here is a haiku that demonstrates some of the rules above and which also shows the flexibility of haiku:
summer storm …
I push the beetle
back on its feet
This one is written by me and was published in Frogpond, the haiku journal for the Haiku Society of America. You see the two parts juxtaposing each other in not such an obvious way, a seasonal reference, a reference to compassion/oneness/not discriminating, simple language, and no metaphors or similes. But you may have noticed I used punctuation and used a personal pronoun. When both are used tastefully, it can work. The ellipsis shows something in process and waiting for something. The “I” shows my relation to the beetle, which demonstrates my compassion and non-discriminating nature towards the beetle.
Haiku is deeper than a poetic structure relating to nature: it has a whole culture to itself which one may take a lifetime to understand and to use properly.
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