Some Haiku How to’s

robin eating

Last year, I wrote a spontaneous post called  Haiku: Sharing Essence, Shedding Skins, which I loved. Last week, in Why Haiku? we looked at why writing haiku is a good idea. We also looked briefly at the content they cover and their effects on the reader and writer. (Haiku is both a plural word and a singular, by the way.)

Today, I’ll be giving you some brief guidelines on how to write haiku. Why brief? Firstly, there are plenty of specialist haiku sites out there, and haiku experts and authors.  Secondly, I suspect no poet enjoys being told what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and I believe the most important thing is the pleasure you get from writing.

Striving to write haiku, within the traditional guidelines, has given me a great deal of pleasure and repays the effort, even though most of my poems rarely make it into the realms of ‘proper’ haiku. That’s why my posts about haiku have been informative as well as personal; I’d like you to discover that joy, too, if you haven’t already.

So, here are a few tips.

  • get used to carrying a notebook and jotting down life-sketches
  • contemplate nature and objects so you can describe them objectively
  • immerse yourself and stay centered in the NOW, the present
  • become one with nature and empathise
  • recollect your thoughts and recreate them in silence and solitude
  • don’t attribute human qualities to nature; describe it as it is. (Tricky, this one, as vivid verbs and participles often wander into anthropomorphosis – see, I just did it!)
  • if you use adjectives and adverbs, make sure they vivify
  • make every word and syllable work hard
  • use verbs in the present tense
  • suggest the emotional reaction you had during your haiku moment
  • use normal, common language; try and get your English as natural and ‘unpoetic’ as possible
  • avoid end rhyme
  • life is the essence of haiku; it doesn’t have to be beautiful
  • don’t be obscure; avoid personal symbolism and intellectual allusions (there’s a lot of debate about this last one, because of how much homage goes on)
  • avoid poeticism and figurative language if you can; haiku are immediate
  • work on each poem till you’re sure the reader will feel what you felt
  • haiku aren’t about you being clever;  be as ‘invisible’ as you can so there’s nothing to detract from the experience you’re recreating
  • the best haiku are written by those folk whose minds are contemplative, serene and calm; they are the people whose capacity for mental stillness is best able to recreate the experience
  • use words which indicate the elements or the seasons (kigo); they give universal breadth and depth. The Japanese have plants, animals and elements that indicate the seasons and special times of the year. For example, the phrase kaze no kaori, ‘wind scent’, is a season word representing (Japanese) summer – May, June and July. There’s an extensive list at the back of William Higginson’s book, The Haiku Handbook -25th Anniversary Edition: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku

Haiku Form

Ah, …eventually, you sigh…here we go…

Haiku don’t have to be in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. Folk did this originally, thinking it was the best way to represent Japanese syllables, or onji, which are shorter and more stable in their length than English syllables; English syllables vary in the length of time it takes to pronounce them. (Compare ‘ease’ with the ‘ed’ at the end of ‘started’.)

Personally, I love the 5-7-5 structure; I enjoy trying to corral my thoughts into a restriction that makes my tapping fingers feel like accomplices. And I suspect hundreds of thousands of non-Japanese folk feel the same. Cor van den Heuvel, a respected expert and haiku poet, says this in The Haiku Anthology

Though a few poets still write in the 5-7-5 syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice.

I guess that puts me in his third category. However, having taught haiku both in classrooms full of children, and to foreign adults learning English, I must admit I find their enthusiasm and beginners’ minds – and often their results – more full of haiku essence than the work of some élitist, haiku experts.

English haiku often have 7 accented syllables with a syllable total –  including unaccented syllables – of  about 12. Most experts agree that haiku shouldn’t have more than 17 syllables.

You don’t even need to have three lines…

at dusk hot water from the hose                      ~ Marlene Mountain

…although many haiku do have a structure of three lines with a  2 -3 – 2  sequence of stressed syllables.

On néaring the súrf,
évery fóotprint  becómes
thát of the séa…                                       ~ James W. Hackett

What you do need are two rhythmically balanced sections and a cutting word (kireji) or some kind of punctuation or natural break between them. Higginson suggests that if you leave a major grammatical pause between the 2nd and 3rd stressed syllables or between the 5th and 6th stressed syllables, it provides the sense of division created by the Japanese kireji.

In these examples, can you feel that break, that pause that heralds the moment of altered perception, or signals that there’s a universal message or deeper truth in the emotion conveyed by the juxtaposition of the images?

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves                               ~ Eric Amann

a bike in the grass
one wheel slowly turning –
summer afternoon                               ~ Lee Gurga

The Gurga poem makes me feel the essence of summer heat and fields and childhood and wide open spaces. I feel the presence of someone, maybe a child, who has tossed down the bike and just left the shot, maybe in pursuit of the next pleasure, as we pan in on the still spinning wheel; it suggests to me how childhood is gone in an instant, how that wheel spins and then slowly comes to a halt and how precious it is to take it all in and savour it while we have the chance. But that’s just my gut feeling.

I hope this mini-series has heightened the pleasure you get from reading and writing haiku. If you’re inspired to write haiku or any kind of haiku inspired short poems over the spring break, you know you’re always welcome to share them with us here.

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I’m celebrating my blog birthday by reminiscing!

This week last year, I posted….

22 thoughts on “Some Haiku How to’s

  1. Hi janice .. thanks for that full explanation .. as I’d never come across Haiku until recently and I’m not a poet .. I feel I have poetic licence to a point .. so – for some reason I started ….

    The weather’s cold
    The heating’s off
    The sun shines through
    I’m feeling lost

    Neither one nor the other ..

    It’s so good to learn more – and I love your robin and the snow – terrible ‘dump’ you had up there … let’s hope Spring really does come before May Day?! Enjoy the Easter weekend .. hugs Hilary
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Chess, one of 100 objects, Northern Sea Trading Routes, India and Persia … =-.

    • Hi, Hilary.
      Any kind of poem or expressive writing someone leaves here is always fine with me. Thank you! I didn’t really expect any comments on this one, far less poems, as it’s a very dry informative post. But I hope it’s a post folk will bookmark if they think it may be useful in the future, and maybe it’ll spark someone’s interest enough to visit a haiku site or buy a book some day.

      If you were sitting in the café-bistro with a notebook and a pensive look, I’d be asking what you were writing, as I dried glasses with a blue and white checked teatowel or came to freshen up your coffee. I hope Easter brightens your heart, brings warmer days and guides you through that cold, lost place you described.
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Some Haiku How to’s =-.

  2. “… I enjoy trying to corral my thoughts into a restriction that makes my tapping fingers feel like accomplices” — nicely put, and I agree! I guess that’s why I like writing limericks every now and again, too. (But that’s for the bawdy side of me.)
    .-= Lori Hoeck´s last blog ..Gaslighting makes you question reality =-.

    • Thank God someone else does secret syllable tapping! (Or almost imperceptible finger twitching if I’m in company.) I have no idea why, but I tap all my haiku-like things and tanka on the fingers of my left hand, even when I have no pen in my right hand!

      You, bawdy?! Would never have believed it. 😉 But now that you’ve outed yourself, you do know you’ll have to share one of the least rude ones here some day!
      .-= janice´s last blog ..Some Haiku How to’s =-.

  3. Hi Janice,

    Great lesson! Thank you so much for all the tips and for discussing how to approach the structure of haiku. You definitely answered all the questions in my mind.

    It seems that haiku is very lyrical or rather it has the potential to be. I will have to give it a try when the muses call.

    It is obvious that you are passionate about it. Your love for haiku shines through and that is a joy to see.
    .-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Wisdom from the Dalai Lama: Being Like the Sun & Yes, We’re Moving =-.

    • Hi Nadia,
      I hope you will have a go at the form some day – maybe some word sketches of the world around you in your new home! (Can’t wait to click on over and see what’s been happening…)

      I love that in writing haiku, we’re encouraged to engage with all of our senses, both in the experience and in the language we use to recreate them. It suits the way my heart wites.

    • Thanks, Barbra. I remember a poem you wrote about your dying cat a few years ago that was very moving and beautifully painted in just a few words. I hope you’re still writing poetry!

  4. Hi Janice. I too love the structure of the 5-7-5 and when I’m writing other types of poetry I really work it by trying to use rhyming. I guess I enjoy the challenge. “At dusk hot water from the hose…” There is SO much to feel in that one. It really takes me somewhere. Wow.
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..Beyond the Dysfunctional Family =-.

    • Another thing I enjoy about the 5-7-5 is knowing I can shorten it even more or combine two lines around an image. In some ways, it’s like seeing a world through a viewfinder and it stops me getting overwhelmed with that feeling of So much world…so many details…where do I start to recreate my love for it all!?

  5. I’ve learned very little about haiku over the years, just that I love reading it. ‘But the rules say…’ (Haha! I was raised to follow the rules, and I’m still learning to get over it.) I thought haiku was 5-7-5 or 3-5-7-5-3. Didn’t think to question it, so after reading your last haiku post and the examples that did not follow my limited knowledge of what haiku was, I’ve sort of been waiting for this post. Informative, yes. Dry? No!

    In my mind, I think of haiku — right or wrong — as having no caps, no punctuation, because we come into one in the middle of something. A moment suspended, but not the beginning or the ending — just an observation — and then we move on. We don’t stop. It’s an impression we take with us.

    I’m taking a class in Japanese Sumi-e Painting, and am feeling that, in it’s bareness, it’s a little like haiku. A visual observation from a bird’s eye view. Quickly brushed, in and out across the paper.

    As I paint today, I’ll observe more closely this feeling. But I warn you, it’s difficult sometimes for me to not write the metaphor. I guess the challenge will be: just watch, see what I see, and move on. (Like my personal impression of haiku.) That will be fun.
    .-= Barb Hartsook´s last blog ..Spring Cleaning and New Beginnings =-.

    • Hi, Barb.
      The capitals in the haiku above may be my typos; I’ll double check and see. But you’re so right about haiku making you feel like you’ve just walked into something that’s happening right now, a moment suspended.

      Metaphor..ah, there’s my real passion – combining the life-fulness of haiku with the metaphors that help souls and essences touch. I’ll be doing a a post or two about those this month.

      I look forward to seeing some of your Japanese influenced painting over at your blog after the course, but I do confess, I hope there are no radical changes to your style; I enjoy the paintings you do now!

  6. What a great way to kick off National Poetry Month here.

    http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/41

    I’m off this month and hope to write more. I love haiku because I can sometimes deliberately make one, whereas other forms require much patience, waiting for a first line’s arrival.

    As unpoetic
    as possible, she says
    to make this simple poem

    Just curious. . .do you pronounce ‘poem’ with one syllable (pome) or two (po-em). I hear it both ways and wonder why.
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..Mama the Magical Cat =-.

  7. Hi, Brenda.
    What a great coincidence; I didn’t know about National Poetry month!

    I find what helps me with haiku is the humbling knowledge that I fail most of the time to write ‘proper’ ones, so my ego just leaves me alone to have fun and get on with it. I also love the ‘failed’ efforts in my notebooks because they’re so packed with life-filled snapshots.

    I hope you have a wonderful month off and get the chance to fill it with all kinds of self expression! Oh, and thank you for the poem – which Scots pronounce pó-em; we pronounce ‘poetry’ pó-etrrry, the ‘t’ being a glottal stop, and not really even a ‘t’!

  8. Janice, thank you for this wonderful contemplation of haiku.

    I composed a haiku for you earlier, but things happened in March here in Japan, and I have laid those words aside.

    Today I just wanted to express my appreciation for your words and insightful haiku explanation.

    Smiling once again from the mountains of Japan – Catrien Ross.
    .-= Catrien Ross´s last blog ..Catrien Ross on Finding 9 Powerful Meanings in Your Smile When You Don’t Feel Like Smiling =-.

  9. Hi Janice .. just come across this from the back of a card that I’m about to write .. the card is a picture of a bright pink Camellia Japonica –

    “Falling upon earth,
    Pure water spills from the cup
    of the Camellia.”
    by Matsuo Basho …

    The description is then: This 17th century haiku not only contemplates the beauty of nature, but also evokes a sense of transience, the fleeting quality of life. In Japanese literature the cmaellia is often used to symbolise the samurai; the lives of both the flower and the warrior being spectacular but short.

    Interesting I thought .. have a great Sunday .. with love from down south – Hilary
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Fancy a Cornish Cream Tea? In Cornwall, in Tokyo or at home? =-.

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