Haiku is probably the most well-known form of traditional Japanese poetry. Its short structure and concise nature has inspired countless people to put their pen on the paper – or their fingers on the keyboard.
A well-written haiku is a great example of the art of conveying much while saying very little. Therefore, writing haiku is very good exercise to all aspiring poets; even those who rather stick to their sonnets or free verse.
Three Requirements of Traditional Haiku
If your goal is to write a haiku that follows all the conventions of a traditional haiku, then there are three things you need to consider:
Let’s take a look at these aspects one at a time through some examples.
The 5-7-5 Haiku form
The most commonly known aspect of a haiku is its form:
17 syllables divided into three lines of five, seven and then five syllables again.
- first 5 syllables
- second is 7 syllables
- third 5 syllables
Modern haiku usually disregard the next two traditional elements of haiku poetry and only stick to this basic rules. And that is perfectly ok! Sometimes less is more - especially when it comes to restricting your creativity with too many rules.
Cutting- The meeting of two different but related images or ideas
Although the haiku-form might be the most iconic thing about this poetry style, a true Japanese haiku was originally as much about the content as it was about the form.
The traditional haiku paints a picture
What is considered the essence of a haiku is called kiru, which means 'cutting'. This word is used to describe the way two different images meet in the poem. The two colliding worlds are divided by a kireji, a 'cutting word' that serves as the separation between the ideas.
Paul Holmes’ beautiful "Haiku Year" poem illustrates this perfectly – let’s take a look at one of its haiku stanzas.
(5) Ripe golden harvest
(7) Burning sun in azure skies
(5) Labours rewarded.
In Holmes' poem the word ‘skies’ acts as the cutting word by dividing the haiku into two observations.
- The first observations describes the surroundings: golden harvest, burning sun and azure skies.
- The second observation brings the poem more depth by creating an image of something more emotional under that sky; a farmer finally being rewarded for his hard labor throughout the year.
While these two images are different in nature, they are still strongly connected and inseparable part of the picture this poem paints.
The seasonal reference
Holmes' poem also includes the third traditional aspect of haiku poetry: seasonal reference. In Japanese, this is called kigo.
The seasonal reference can be anything that ties the poem to a certain time of the year: falling leaves, frosty windows, flowers starting to bloom. This feature of haiku is why it is commonly believed that they should be about nature; this is not strictly speaking true. A haiku can be written about anything – even refrigerators – and still abide by all the traditional rules. You just need to add a little ‘seasoning’.
Haiku Fun and Games
One of the most viral contemporary haiku was written by Rolf Nelson, It has since become so popular that it has even been printed on t-shirts.
(5) Haikus are easy
(7) But sometimes they don’t make sense
The humoristic approach to haiku is loved by many, and has inspired a lot of people to try the haiku-game that has become popular on discussion boards.
Playing is very simple – whatever you post, stick to the syllable count!
The game can be set up as
- Conversation between the players.
- One long poem everyone collaborates on.
- Challenge where anyone can join in by creating a haiku from the theme supplied by the previous player.
It’s a lighthearted and fun way to get started with haiku, and an exceptional cure for a writer’s block.
Starting your first haiku
Start by picking a season. Think about how the world around you changes during that time of the year and what you like to do. For an example, does winter mean curling up with a blanket and hot chocolate, or is it a time to hit the slopes? These observations will become the core of your haiku and put you in a proper mindset for writing one that is uniquely you. So give it a go and share your work with us – we are looking forward to reading it!