As a micropoet, I see a lot of confusion and misinformation in my Twitter feed about haiku, tanka, and cinquain. This post is my small contribution to the effort to decrease confusion and increase literacy in these forms. This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive review of these forms. I could write a book of the dos and don’ts of haiku alone – some people have done just that. This is a short primer, though, and will be necessarily a little light.
In a nutshell, an English haiku is a short, 3-line, non-rhyming, poem of about 12 syllables that centers around natural images that is meant to be spoken aloud. A haiku usually implies or mentions a specific season and often has a “cutting” or transition word within it. But it is so much more than that.
Forget the 5/7/5 Rule
Every grade school kids learn that a haiku is a short, non-rhyming, poem of 5-7-5 syllables, right? If you search Google for a definition of a haiku, you’ll see numerous sites stating that a haiku must be 5-7-5 syllables. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. If you write 5-7-5 haiku in English, you’re probably doing it wrong and need to unlearn what you know and start over.
The confusion is natural, so don’t worry if you thought a haiku was 5-7-5. Haiku originated in Japan as a spoken form of poetry. This means that the spoken lengthof the poem is extremely important. A haiku is a single though, or moment, and must be expressed quickly. As such, in Japanese, a haiku has a very strict 17-on requirement.
So, what’s an on? The Japanese have an grammatical concept called an on. An on is a distinct phonetic sound that is often confused as being the equivalent of a syllable – from which the confusion about 5-7-5 in English stems. But an on is not a syllable. An on is spoken much more quickly than a syllable, and actually references word parts differently than syllables do. This is from Wikipedia on the differences between an syllable and an on.
Nippon (ni-p-po-n) – 4 on, but 2 syllablesWikipedia
Tokyo (to-u-kyo-u) – 4 on, but 2 syllables
Osaka (o-o-sa-ka) – 4 on, but 3 syllables
Nagasaki (na-ga-sa-ki) – 4 on, also 4 syllables.
Because of the way the Japanese language is structured, it is easier to have a strict 17-on poem (5-7-5) than in English. Additionally, an on is generally “faster” than a syllable. In effect, in order to preserve the spoken length of a haiku, American poets usually have to limit themselves to about 12 syllables. Notice I said “about.” The syllable count is less important than the stresses per line. A good haiku in English should have about 2-3-2 stresses per line. In order to achieve this, a haiku usually floats around 10-12 syllables and, as such, closely matches the spoken length of a Japanese haiku.
Describe a Moment – Without Prose
The most sound advice I can give is to remember that a haiku is a “moment” in time or a moment of perception that the poet is trying to describe – not embellish. You are trying to be objective, not subjective, in your poem. The hope is that whatever feeling you felt when you experienced the moment is passed on in the describing of that moment in haiku. A good haiku can give insight into the human psyche like no other poem – without ever resorting to overly-emotive pleas. As such, show, don’t tell, but don’t embellish, argue, rationalize, explain, or insert overt poetic devices (like alliteration) into your haiku.
Here is an example of one of my haiku. By describing the scene, I hope to impart the same feeling I had when I was actually there.
star-filled night; nothing moves except that satellite
Notice the lack of overt poetic device (although there is loose rhyming between “night” and “satellite”). No interpretation of feeling about what I experienced. No justifications or opinion. I hope you felt the same desolation, sense of wonder, awe at human progress, slight trepidation, and hopeful feeling I felt when I wrote the poem.
Haiku is a Nature Poem
Your haiku should have a kigo, or season word. That does not mean you should have the words “spring”, “summer”, “fall”, or “winter” in your poem, although many great haiku do just that. It means the reader should get a sense of the season by the word choices in the poem itself.
For example, in this haiku I recently wrote, the season is known by my word choices in the poem:
Full flower moon in its halo – the space station
By choosing the “full flower” moon, I am referring to the month of May. It’s not a well-known image, but many Native American tribes know the full moon in the month of May as the “full flower moon.” Similarly, your haiku can use any season word you deem fit.
The Cutting Word
Perhaps the most difficult to describe, understand, and use is the kireji, or cutting word, in a haiku. The cutting word is used to transition between two thoughts, pull two concepts together, or to have an “aha!” moment (usually at the end) of the haiku. A kirejihas no exact English equivalent and is often left out of English haiku. It’s not necessarily wrong to leave it out in English haiku, but when you have one, it makes the poem oh-so-much better.
Here is one of my haiku with a cutting word in it:
An icy blast assaults rows of crosses Lonely heroes
I wrote this in the dead of winter at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The word “crosses” serves as a bridge between two thoughts – the icy wind and the lonely hero, and gives the poem a little punch it wouldn’t have otherwise had.
What About Funny Haiku?
Everyone’s read those, right? Haiku that don’t fit the mold above. They make a statement, interpretation, or cute image. What are those? Those are not haiku, but rather senryu. A senryu is structurally similar to haiku but is about the human condition and subjective interpretation rather than nature and objective observation.
How Should I Start?
A haiku is about observation. Haiku don’t write themselves in a dark room in front of a keyboard. They come from experience outside of the room and away from the computer. If you have a great memory, remember your experiences and take them back to the computer later. Many haiku poets keep a notebook where they jot draft versions of a haiku they later go back and perfect.
Get out of the house and let the distractions of life go – look around and see the world around you – and haiku will start imprinting themselves on you naturally. Every moment you experience is a potential haiku. Start thinking like that and you’ll not only start seeing the haiku in everything, you’ll start appreciating those little moments more and more.
I hope this short primer helped. There are a lot of books with more detailed instruction and tons of poets out there who would love to chat with you about haiku. Just search for #haiku on Twitter and see all the poems flow your way!