In this poetry workshop we will be reading and writing haikus, which are among the simplest and most elegant forms of poetry. The essential loveliness of thought and language make them special for poets and for poetry lessons in the classroom.
What is a haiku?
Haikus originated in Japan, where they have been very popular since the 17th century. One of the most famous Japanese haiku (originally hokku) poets was Matsuo Basho.
(The Japanese plural of haiku is haiku, but in English we now commonly refer to them as haikus.)
The haiku is a structured poem with three basic rules. Once you have mastered these, you will know how to write a haiku. After that, you can experiment, but it is always best to learn how to write a pure haiku first.
Writing haikus – the main rules
There are three basic rules for you to know when writing haikus:
- The structure
- The subject
- The break
The structure is really what distinguishes the haiku from any other poem.
The haiku contains seventeen ‘syllables’, or sounds. (For example, there are three sounds in the word syllable. (syll-a-bul) 1-2-3. Count them, or clap them.
The structure is really what distinguishes the haiku from any other poem.
Our alphabet and way of writing is different from the Japanese. This is what a Japanese haiku would look like, with the seventeen syllables strung down in a single line. Japanese script is still sometimes written in a vertical line, though it’s becoming more usual to write a horizontal line.
But in other languages the seventeen syllables of the haiku are traditionally set out in three lines. 5 syllables in the first, 7 syllables in the second, 5 syllables in the third, like this:
Five seven and five
Read aloud and count the sounds
Five seven and five
However, when writing haikus, it’s not just a matter of counting sounds, or syllables.
Haiku subject matter
The subject matter of the haiku is important too.
This is how author Endo Mieko (in Japan, the surname is always written before the forename), who lives in Tokyo, describes the haiku and what it should be about:
When we read haiku, we have some images of delicacy of nature, our feelings as human beings, or beauty, splendour, strength of surrounding views through some short words. So I think you can draw any kind of pictures you like or image. Haiku brings us some perception of things around us which we are apt to miss or pass over. Haiku leads us to have an imagination, the feeling or mood in a place or situation.
So, usually the subject matter of a haiku is nature or the seasons, and how they create feelings or emotions. It is about a moment in time, when something particular happens and excites you or interests or moves you in some way. It could be a butterfly landing on your hand. A fish leaping in a pond. A shadow cast by clouds. Why has that image touched you, and how can you share that with your reader?
But the haiku isn’t just about that natural image.
A break or new thought
A haiku has a break, or new thought, towards the end.
Often that image will make you think of something else. In the traditional haiku there is often a new thought at around the last line of the poem, or even the last word. At that moment, there would be a particular character in Japanese script, called a kireji. We have no way of putting a kireji into our haiku, as we aren’t writing in Japanese, but we can create a new thought or image, and if we get it right, our reader’s thoughts will linger there. And maybe, that is what the whole haiku poem is actually about.
For example, what if that butterfly landing on your hand makes you think of a gentle kiss?
Another example: a fish leaping in a pond might make you think about freedom. Perhaps you can think of a different idea.
And maybe the shadow cast by clouds makes you think of an eagle following its prey, or a warplane flying overhead… Anything else?
So, here’s an example of a haiku which tries to follow the rules:
A white butterfly
touches my hand, flits away
A forgotten kiss
Green shawl unfurls, furls
spreads out its creamy fringe, slow
waves creep to the shore
I seem to be writing about a shawl being shaken out, but I’m actually writing about the sea. What I haven’t done is to write “the sea is like a green shawl.” A haiku doesn’t tell the reader what to think. It creates a picture in words and lets the reader explore the image.
Writing haikus: simple steps
Follow these simple steps when writing your haiku.
First of all, write the structure. To get used to the idea, write three lines one after another:
First five syllables
Now write seven syllables
Then five syllables.
Do three lines again, about a dog, a cat, a horse. Anything.
You probably won’t need full stops.
Keep the words simple. You don’t have much time!
Then the subject
Try to choose something to do with nature. Make it simple. One thing, not a whole landscape! A dandelion. A mouse.
Don’t forget the break
Now the break.
On the third line, or near the end of the second, bring in another thought. But don’t say the first thought is like the second – don’t say a butterfly is like a kiss. Let the reader make the connection. It’s a secret.
If you’d like to show me your haiku, when you’re happy with it, write it into the comments box near the end of this blog post.
‘Four Haiku’ from ‘Walking on Air’
The Japanese haiku explained
Mieko has kindly sent me a technical explanation of the traditional Japanese haiku.
Haiku used to be the first line of a renga = a linked verse. The first linked verse poet should present an independent phrase so as to let the next poet continue the phrase to any scenes or feelings. This leads to the kireji.
Later, haiku became independent from the renga, and kireji has still a very important function or role, giving readers a space of imagination, lingering tone to the whole poem, and leading to the next phrase, scenes and situations. Though there used to be 18 kireji words as the handing down of a secret technique, now these days the three shown below are used as kireji;
かな [kana] shows admiration, exclamatory feelings, mainly used at the end line:
や [ya] shows an exclamation or a call or a greeting, usually used at the end of the first line:
けり [keri] shows a strong assertion or a definite statement, mainly used at the end of the poem, meaning the firm judgement of the facts of the past.
After the first line of haiku, you pause for one beat, and it leads you to imagine some scenes or situations. Kireji is a kind of the device to make us have some images during this pause. I think you have no kireji, but you can use exclamatory expressions, an imperative form of verbs, or a conjectural auxiliary verb (= may, might, should), which might be used as kireji, I think.
Examples of Japanese haiku
Mieko has sent me some examples of Japanese haiku. They are written by Tani Kazuko = 谷 和子.
She studied under Mr Takaha Shugyo = 鷹羽 狩行, the former president of the Japan Haiku Society.
Mieko has presented Kazuko’s poems here in the beautiful Japanese characters.
(The Japanese writing system consists of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji is used for the roots of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Hiragana is used for the declensions and tenses and endings of the root words, as well as articles and prepositions. Katakana is used for foreign words.)
She has then put them into Romaji (Japanese as it is written in our alphabet) so you can say them out loud. And she has translated them for us into English.
Haiku by Tani Kazuko – example 1
|All the grasses and trees
|[kusa ki mina]
|have signs of standing on tiptoes
|[tsuma datsu kehahi]
|for the moon rising
It is a very beautiful poem. The picture it gives us of the grasses and trees stretching towards the moon is simple and lovely. You have no need of a photograph or painting to illustrate it, because the poet has painted it in our minds. Because it is a literal translation, it doesn’t fall into our 5, 7, 5 pattern. So, with permission from Mieko and the poet Kazuko I have tried to put it into our format.
The grasses and trees
appear to stand on tiptoe
for the moon rising
Haiku by Tani Kazuko – example 2
|A red dragonfly flies
|as if he goes up the stair
|which the wind has in it
I often see lots of dragonflies flying over the playground near the river. Each of them are flying straight on, when suddenly some go up one step higher and keep flying straight on again. The author watches it carefully and shows us their movement.
Haiku by Tani Kazuko – example 3
|What flies away from us
|seems so good and beautiful
|birds flying into the clouds
|[tori kumo ni]
Haiku by Tani Kazuko – example 4
|Even though it becomes fine
|show the wet trunks after the night rain
|[miki no nureiro]
|the morning cherry blossoms
After the rain, the trunks of cherry trees get darker colours, and show a beautiful colour contrast with pink blossoms and they look much better than usual ones.
All the above are from Tani Kazuko’s book, One Bay.
And finally, I’ll leave you with one of Japan’s most famous poems:
‘Over the Wintry’ by Natsume Sōseki
Over the wintry
Forest, winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.
Writing haikus – show me yours!
I hope you enjoy writing haikus.
If you’d like to share your haiku, put it into the comments box below.
And maybe at home you would like to try to copy some of these lovely Japanese letters. You will find it easier with a calligraphy pen or a very fine paint brush.
Photographs by Endo Mihikiko.
Readers of Japanese might like to visit Endo Mieko’s website.
And you may also be interested in my Winter haikus blog post, which features exclusive haikus from some well-known writers.
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