Writing a Haiku

Haiku is a unique style of poetry known as the smallest genre of poetry, originating in Japan. It was part of a longer poem named renga as its beginning verse, but then became popular as a separate form in the 17th century by the efforts of poet Matsuo Basho. Haiku are traditionally written are tercets, which consist of 17 syllables each: 5 syllables for the first line, 7 for the second, and 5 again for the third. This format is usually not followed when it is written in languages other than Japanese (instead using a short line-long line-short line format) and also many Japanese haiku poets nowadays prefer to have write in a freer style.

Though some people tend to seek deep philosophical meaning in haiku, or difficult Japanese aesthetics, haiku are usually composed on special occasions, or to remember a certain mood or feeling. Sometimes, to get a better understanding of a poem, you must know the context, as in the example below:

how far has he gone
where has he wandered, chasing
after dragonflies?

This haiku was composed by the famous Japanese poetess Kaga-no Chiyo. At first glance, it may be difficult to understand what it is about, but a context to the haiku can help you: Chiyo-ni wrote this poem after her young son’s death.

Steps for Writing a Haiku

  1. You should have a strong idea of what a haiku is and what it should look like. Therefore, read haiku for at least one week before attempting to write a haiku of your own. The most renowned haiku poets are Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki.
  2. The next step, no matter how strange it may sound, is finding inspiration. Haiku are composed on a whim, and written in present tense. Though you can later edit and polish them, the main frame for the poem is usually written on the fly. The best way to find inspiration is to watch the world around you objectively. When a moment attracts your attention and evokes feelings, it is worth capturing.
  3. Compose a haiku considering the genre requirements. Write about a moment as objectively and accurately as you can. Don’t hesitate to write your poem down, because you can forget it as quickly as you composed it. Remember to have two parts that juxtapose each other.
  4. Later, if you want, you can polish your haiku: look for synonyms for words that are not exactly what you intended, or change the images you’ve used to create more poignant ones.

Topic Selection

It is rare you will write a good haiku if you assign yourself a topic and start thinking about the words, literary techniques, and images you could use to compose a poem. Haiku has much more to do with the present moment, with your momentary mood or experience. Therefore, literally any event or item can serve you as a topic for haiku. It could be a first glimpse of sun after a long winter, an encounter with an old friend, your thoughts or sentiments about a person you love or hate, your physical sensations, and so on.

Key Points to Consider

  1. Haiku may be seen as an image, an immediate essence of reality. A strong haiku has the same effect as when you look at an old photograph and emotions fill you. At the same time, most haiku express feelings you can hardly name. In your poem, though you can directly state that you are sad, or relaxed, or enlightened, this way you just tell how you feel and don’t convey the feeling itself.
  2. Let the two parts speak for themselves and let a third part be created in the reader’s mind.

  3. Most haiku contain what is called a kigo, or a “seasonal word.” It is a special word or phrase that helps create a certain atmosphere or mood through associations with nature. At the same time, references of a season may not necessarily be direct (such as “winter evening” or “autumn leaves”): for example, a poet may mention “melting icicles” or “birds returning from afar,” and it will still be a kigo.
  4. Most haiku are built on a technique called juxtaposition. The term means the presence of two characters or items in the poem, and the dynamics of the relationship between them. As a result, haiku consists of three lines, but has a maximum of two semantic parts. As an example, you need to look no further than a famous haiku from Matsuo Basho:

    an old pond
    a frog jumps in
    the sound of water

  5. Because of the differences in Japanese and English phonetics, a 17-syllable haiku written in English may often sound longer (or, on the contrary, much shorter) and less sophisticated than in Japanese. Therefore, sometimes it is better to write haiku lines in a “5-7-5” way, but as a “short line-long line-short line” form. This will help you balance between the meaning and the sound.

Do and Don’t

Do

  • Do feel free to omit certain words, punctuation signs, or to write in incomplete sentences. Allow your readers to have their own vision and understanding of your poem.
  • Do seek for inspiration in your everyday life. It may seem surprising, but our everyday life is full of beautiful moments we miss while waiting for the extraordinary to happen.
  • Do write about your personal experience. While in other poetry genres you can make scenarios up, haiku requires you to convey your own emotions and mood.
  • Do remember about using a kigo. Though this requirement is often omitted, seasonal expressions are a powerful tool for creating a certain mood, because we associate each season with a certain emotion: autumn with sadness, spring with joy, and so on; these associations are often more sophisticated though.
  • Do write haiku in the present tense, because this way you can easily create a feeling that what you write about is happening at the moment, and thus affect the reader stronger.
Don’t

  • Don’t over-explain. Haiku shows, but it doesn’t explain. Stated succinctly, the main goal of a haiku poem is to display a moment as it is without tracing causes and effects, or delving into philosophical reflections.
  • Don’t write haiku without inspiration, when you aren’t in a proper mood and want just to create another poem; don’t grind haiku out of yourself. Haiku that is written in a technical way may look perfect, but its essence will be lost.
  • Don’t use metaphors and similes. By doing so, you impose your view and your image to the reader. You must convey the mood, not the visual picture, and even if a certain image evokes emotions in you, it doesn’t mean your reader will experience the same feelings.
  • Don’t use epithets, and don’t express feelings directly. Epithets name, but do not show. The epithet “amazing” alone can’t make a person amazed. The same refers to emotions: you can’t make someone sad by simply saying the word “sadness” to them.
  • Don’t mention yourself in haiku if you don’t think that it is absolutely necessary. In contrast to other poetry genres, haiku rarely refers to the author, but often makes them one of the objects of the depicted image.

Common Mistakes When Writing a Haiku

– Trying to cram the whole story that may stand behind your current emotional condition into three short lines. Conditions depicted in haiku have neither past, nor future; it is only about the current moment.

– Approaching haiku as an analogue of western poetry, and using all the literary weaponry of epithets, metaphors, and other literary techniques to compose a haiku.

– Struggling with composing a poem. If you work hard enough, you can write a fine piece of western poetry; however, you can hardly force out a perfect haiku.

– Trying to write in a complicated and fancy way. A haiku poem is usually written in simple language.

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