How to write a haiku

writing notebook

Writing exercises: There’s more to haiku that meets the eye. We give you 65 – yes, 65 – creative writing tips for writing haiku as tiny and slender and powerful as a shard of glass, with haiku formats and examples to help you with writer’s block. We’re not mucking about.

Haiku are drops of water, tiny pieces of colored glass, boiled sweets melting on your tongue… the possible metaphors go on and on. But haiku aren’t at all the seemingly-dull poems to which your grammar school teacher had you slowly count out the number of syllables in each line.

Except for when they are.

Haiku have a more-or-less undisputed claim to the title of ‘World’s Shortest Literature Style’, but they also have the most rules. California-based poet Jane Reichold (who has published some 35 books, including an annotated translation of the great poet Basho’s haikus – which she worked on for over twenty years) offers up a list of 65 rules [please see the end of this article for said list]. But, she adds, that many of the rules contradict each other and so it is up to the poet to decide which rules to abide by, and which to ignore. Of course, once one becomes comfortable with their personal set of haiku rules, it’s time to change things up by adding or subtracting to your rule list

Seventeen syllables in one line, seventeen in three lines or only as many syllables as can be said in one breath, there are some elements common to (nearly) all haiku. The subject matter is usually related to nature and includes a kigo – a seasonal word or reference. The kigo can be obvious (“snow”, indicating winter) or abstract (“gold” might bring summer wheat fields to mind, if one is familiar with wheat fields).

sea lions bark

their breath comes ashore

as mist

-Jane Reichold

You might have noticed that the above poem was composed of two parts as opposed to being one run-on sentence. The two-part structure, or juxtaposition, is common to most haiku. The idea is to create a connection or resonance between the two parts beyond mere ’cause-and-effect’. Keeping with the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, the first and third lines are often fragments while the second line is a complete phrase. Another way the two-part structure is employed is in the content of each line. It’s not uncommon to find that the first part contains the setting, while the second part contains the subject and action. The two parts can also be formed with the assistance of a punctuation mark or dash, though some poets claim that all punctuation should be avoided to keep with the simplified and pure style. (This is also the reason why articles and capitalization are so often absent from haiku; the idea is to use only the necessary words.)

Despite all this talk of objects and nature, haiku are still – like (most) all poetry – centred on the poet’s emotions. This is done through showing the emotion via concrete imagery.

Poet Kathy Lippard Cobb demonstrates this.

Example of telling:

the funeral over–

the house is so lonely

without him

Example of showing:

the funeral over–

his aftershave lingers

in our bedroom

Both poems reflect loneliness, but the second poem does so more effectively even though the word ‘lonely’ never appears in it.

The theme of nature, though common in haiku, is not necessary as demonstrated by Ms. Cobb’s lovely poem. Increasingly, modern haiku poets are finding their subject matter in the urban world. Jack Kerouac is considered one of the pioneers of American haiku, which he called ‘pops’ because, as he wrote in 1959, “American speech is something again […] bursting to pop.”

Early morning yellow flowers,

thinking about

the drunkards of Mexico.

– Jack Kerouac

Mr. Kerouac expressed the opinion that syllable count was not nearly as important as keeping the expression of one singularly poignant moment. Nevertheless, it is possible for one poem to embody both spontaneity and syllabatry.

her suicide note

she checks the dictionary

for correct spelling

– John J. Dunphy

A rule that all haiku observe, however, is seriousness in tone. The observation of this rule is only because there is a separate category for humorous or satirical poetry. Poems that deal with the follies of human nature are called ‘senryu‘.

class reunion

the ex-football team captain’s date

handsome in his tux

– John J. Dunphy

However, the simplicity and style of haiku are still employed in ‘senryu’.

So, that more or less concludes ‘Haiku 101’. Now that you know the basics, everyday life will provide you with all the inspiration you need to write lovely haiku yourself!

The rules of haiku

Ms. Reichold’s List of Haiku Rules, to be Used as One Sees Fit

1. Seventeen syllables in one line.

2. Seventeen syllables written in three lines.

3. Seventeen syllables written in three lines divided into 5-7-5.

4. Seventeen syllables written in a vertical (flush left or centred) line.

5. Less than 17 syllables written in three lines as short-long-short.

6. Less than 17 syllables written in three vertical lines as short-long-short. (Ala Barry Semegran)

7. Write what can be said in one breath.

8. Use a season word (kigo) or seasonal reference.

9. Use a caesura at the end of either the first or second line, but not at both.

10. Never have all three lines make a complete or run-on sentence.

11. Have two images that are only comparative when illuminated by the third image. Example: spirit in retreat / cleaning first the black stove / and washing my hands

12. Have two images that are only associative when illuminated by the third image. Example: fire-white halo / at the moment of eclipse / I notice your face

13. Have two images that are only in contrast when illuminated by the third image. Example: two things ready / but not touching the space between / fire

14. Always written in the present tense of here and now.

15. Limited use (or non-use) of personal pronouns.

16. Use of personal pronouns written in the lower case. Example: i am a …

17. Eliminating all the possible uses of gerunds (‘-ing’ endings on wording).

18. Study and check on articles. Do you use too many the‘s? too little? all the same in one poem or varied?

19. Use of common sentence syntax in both phrases.

20. Use of sentence fragments.

21. Study the order in which the images are presented. First the wide-angle view, medium range and zoomed in close-up. (Thanks to George Price for this clarification!)

22. Save the “punch line” for the end line.

23. Work to find the most fascinating and eye-catching first lines.

24. Just write about ordinary things in an ordinary way using ordinary language.

25. Study Zen and let your haiku express the wordless way of making images.

26. Study any religion or philosophy and let this echo in the background of your haiku.

27. Use only concrete images.

28. Invent lyrical expressions for the image.

29. Attempt to have levels of meaning in the haiku. On the surface it is a set of simple images; underneath a philosophy or lesson of life.

30. Use images that evoke simple rustic seclusion or accepted poverty. (sabi)

31. Use images that evoke classical elegant separateness. (shubumi)

32. Use images that evoke nostalgic romantic images. Austere beauty. (wabi)

33. Use images that evoke a mysterious aloneness. (Yugen)

34. Use of paradox.

35. Use of puns and word plays.

36. Write of the impossible in an ordinary way.

37. Use of lofty or uplifting images. (No war, blatant sex, or crime)

38. Telling it as it is in the real world around us.

39. Use only images from nature. (No mention of humanity.)

40. Mixing humans and nature in a haiku by relating a human feeling to an aspect of nature.

41. Designation of humans a non-nature and giving all these non-nature haiku another name.

42. Avoid all reference to yourself in the haiku.

43. Refer to yourself obliquely as the poet, this old man, or with a personal pronoun.

44. Use no punctuation for ambiguity.

45. Use all normal sentence punctuation

: = a full stop

; = a half stop or pause

… = something left unsaid

, = a slight pause

— = saying the same thing in other words

. = full stop

46. Capitalize the first word of every line.

47. Capitalize the first word only.

48. Capitalize proper names according to English rules.

49. All words in lower case.

50. All words in upper case.

51. Avoid rhymes.

52. Rhyme last words in the first and third lines.

53. Use rhymes in other places within the haiku.

54. Use alliteration. Example by Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes: twitching tufted tail / a toasty, tawny tummy: / a tired tiger

55. Use of words’ sounds to echo feeling.

56. Always end the haiku with a noun.

57. Write haiku only from an “ah-ha” moment.

58. Use any inspiration as starting point to develop and write haiku. (These are known as desk haiku.)

59. Avoid too many (or all) verbs.

60. Cut out prepositions (in – on – at – among – between) whenever possible; especially in the short 1/3 phrase.

61. Eliminate adverbs.

62. Don’t use more than one modifier per noun. This use should be limited to the absolute sense of the haiku.

63. Share your haiku by adding one at the close of your letters.

64. Treat your haiku like poetry; it’s not a greeting card verse.

65. Write down every haiku that comes to you. Even the bad ones. It may inspire the next one which will surely be better.

And lastly – just when you thought it was safe to venture forth – the zombies have found you yet again. For there is a book you can devour for haiku inspiration. It is called Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your Brains.