I first learned about haiku in 2005. It happened on one of my regular trips to the north of Osaka city to check out the foreign books and magazines in Kinokuniya. Most of the magazines were super over priced, but I happened upon a copy of The Kyoto Journal

In it was a long, luxurious article about Basho Matsuo, the famed haiku poet, haiku in general, and Japanese art. I’d first fell in love with Japan via Murakami Haruki and instantly the idea of haiku found a place in my heart just as Murakami had.

You compose haiku in the moment. They are a quick, one-breath, representation of a nature-based experience featuring 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables, a verbal cut (kireji), and a seasonal flavor (kigo).

Reading this article changed my life. It tapped me into the quiet beauty of traditional Japanese art. The kind of beauty oft not seen under modernity’s glitz, lights, and tacky superficiality. I found peace in writing haiku.

What are haiku?

Kenneth Yasuda in Japanese Haiku presents the idea that haiku are an attempt by a poet to relate an experience in poetic form. This is done through the presentation of an object within that single breath.

For example, let’s use the classic Basho Matsuo frog-pond poem:

An old pond

The frog jumps

Sound of water.

It’s a short, quick moment. We have the stillness of the pond followed by an action from the frog – jumping. Then we hear the sound of water. We do not know if the frog made the sound or if something unseen did. We don’t know because Basho did not see the frog go into the water.

Think of a moment happening. For example, a few years ago I was sitting on the steps of a theatre in Bristol waiting for an Amanda Palmer concert when a robin landed on my shoe. It stayed there for a few moments.

This is a haiku moment. A connection between nature, the season, and the poet. The poet does not have to be in the haiku, but they have to experience it – seen, unseen, heard, unheard, etc.. or maybe just felt. 

However, being Japanese, means they have been refined over time and have accrued ever growing sets of rules. They now require 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 form, seasonal words, a cut, a when, a where, a what, and in many cases movement paired with stillness.

That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, in this article I’ll go over all of these elements and how to include them in your haiku. 

What is the history of haiku?

Haiku are the penultimate form in a long chain of poetic development in Japanese culture spanning 1,500 years or more. The senryu (see below) are the more recent form. Let’s look at some other forms:

Katauta: This is a two-sentence conversation first seen in the Nihonshoki in 720 AD. It’s a witty one with a first sentence of 17 syllables put out and then a riposte of the same length follows. Here’s an example:

How happy I am! I have met a handsome man.

How happy I am! I have met a lovely maid.

Of course, the katauta is not poetic, but more of a witty Q&A or fun pairing. Due to the 17 syllable format, it is possible for the two lines to be re-formatted as paired haiku.

Sedoka: Also found in the Nihonshoki, the sedoka is similar to the katauta because it’s a paired poetic form, but they’re written by the same person and are not a Q&A. Also, instead of 5-7-5 they are both 5-7-7. 

Choka: I once edited the Wikipedia page for Kashiwara to list myself as an eminent choka poet from the city. I don’t think that entry lasted long. 

The choka is a poem of no set length which features alternating 5-7 syllable lines until you get to the final pairing which were 7-7. 

Tanka: The choka eventually settled down into the tanka format – made most famous by Ishikawa Takuboku. This has a 5-line format with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable format. Here’s an example from the Kokinshu:

Do the spring-soft showers

Shed tears as they fall gently,

Blooming cherry flowers?

One can but deplore your fair

Petals scattering in air.

Renga: After the katauta, Japanese poetic forms were solo endeavors, but the renga brought back the idea of group poetry. As with the choka there is no set length, but there must be at least two stanzas of 5-7-5-7-7 written by at least two people.

Is it really 17 syllables?

In the non-Japanese world; especially the western world we think of them as those oddball 17 syllable poems ending in “refrigerator.”

The inclusion of 17 syllables is open to debate because the Japanese form is not syllable based. Instead they use morae or on which are based on hiragana kana (letters) and sounds. These are weighted so a long vowel or pairing count as two on. Here’s an example:

Osaka counts as 3 syllables in English

In Japanese it’s Oo-sa-ka, so is 4 on

Another example is haiku itself. In English we count haiku as a 2-syllable word but in Japanese it is ha-i-ku, so is 3 syllables. The syllable ending “n” sound is also a separate syllable in Japanese. Haibun is 2 in English and 4 in Japanese (ha-i-bu-n). 

The result of this in English is that Japanese haiku seem sparse when translated into English, and conversely, we can say a lot more in English with 17 syllables than the Japanese can. Look at the Basho frog example:

Furu ike ya (5)

Kawazu Tobikomu (7)

Mizu no oto (5)

So there we have 17 syllables but also 17 on. Here’s the English version:

An old pond (3)

The frog jumps (3)

Sound of water (4)

That’s just 10 syllables. So there are two approaches we can take when writing an English haiku. The first is to go for the full 17 syllables and the second is to go for 10-17 syllables to give a more spartan effect as seen in translations of Japanese haiku.

Be careful though. I once had a haiku published in the Daily Telegraph which was, I think, 15 syllables. A day later came a riposte from another reader complaining my haiku was too short. So it seems some people are sticklers to the 17 and may moan if yours are too short, but hey, ignore them. It’s ok to be a little short.

Fixed form (teikei) vs. free form (jiyuritsu)

Okay, so that’s the syllable thing covered, but what about this 5-7-5 structure? Does it have to be divided so?

Japanese haiku are written in a single line, but outside of Japan, we write them in three lines. Even then, the rhythm of a standard haiku in any language is over these three lines in this 5-7-5 format.

These are known as teikei or fixed form haiku. However, especially outside of Japan, there are those who wish to keep to the ideals of the haiku without keeping to the structure. Thus we get jiyuritsu haiku or freeform haiku.

If you wish to write free form haiku go for it. I’d suggest that you work first on the 5-7-5 or thereabouts if you’re using fewer syllables in English. Once you’ve got that down, then move on to more free form versions.

What is the ‘kireji’

The kireji element is the cut. It’s a point within the haiku where there is a shift of emphasis and a dramatic pause. This is the small pause within the breath which juxtaposes the before elements and the after element. 

In terms of visuals, you should see a single comma in any English haiku. Sometimes this is used for effect and sometimes just to add related information. Here’s an example from Basho:

Underneath the eaves,

A blooming large hydrangea

Over blooms its leaves.

Here the comma comes in after the first line, but it can come in the second line too: 

The path to the beach

Blocked by a water buffalo,

Island etiquette. 

Or your comma/kireji could arrive mid-line:

In the rains of spring

An umbrella and raincoat

Pass by, conversing.

This is a pretty late kireji, but it works. Given the rest of the haiku it cannot be moved elsewhere. Without the word “conversing” you might add the kireji at the end of the first line. This pause will come naturally to you, but do play around with moving it to see what works best for each haiku.

What is the ‘kigo’

For such a short poetic form, there’s a lot of rules and ideas, aren’t there? Yes, and there’s more. The next element, which is vital to making a poem a haiku, is the kigo.

The kigo is the ‘seasonal word’ used to convey a sense of nature and time of year. Japanese haikuists have a book of words to draw from known as the Saijiki, but we non-Japanese poets have to draw on our own languages and feelings.

What counts as a seasonal term? There are the obvious ones like blossoms or hay or daffodils, but there are more complex ones too like gridiron which is only played in the autumn and winter.

Think of specific elements of that season. Draw from the weather though bear in mind this alone does not give a sense of the season. Think also of seasonal flora and fauna, events, and so on. 

This might sound difficult if you’re sitting there reading this indoors somewhere, but haiku come in the moment. They are deeply rooted in the nature and experience at that exact time, and thus are open to seasonal elements as they are. Personally, I do not worry too much about the kigo but focus more on nature and the experience.

The where, what, and when of haiku

Yasuda, when noting the framework of the haiku at its core, noted that objects exist within time and space. Therefore, your haiku needs to include these senses. 

For Yasuda and Otsuji these are divided into three – the where, the what, and the when. Here’s a haiku which I believe is by Basho:

On a withered bough

A crow alone is perching,

Autumn evening now.

This is a perfect haiku to examine this idea because the first line contains the where – “on a withered bough,” the what “a crow,” and the when “autumn evening.” 

Not all haiku fit this model of course. Let’s go back to that famous old frog poem. We have the where in the first line – “an old pond” and the what in the second line “frog,” but we don’t get a when.

Let’s look at one of the haiku in my collection and try to improve it with these parameters:

Early morning

Sweeping a pink carpet

Sakura blossom

You get an idea of the moment. It was in 2007, in the spring, at my third school in Osaka. The middle school sat halfway up a mountain with a copse of cherry trees on the next level above the school. As they began to shed their delicate petals, they’d cover the school steps. I’d sweep them in the morning though I wished they could remain.

Now, the haiku is a bit unclear – we open with the when, then we get an action, before the what. So perhaps we can fix it in order to get the where, what, and when. So how’s this:

Petals fall on school

Steps as I sweep them away,

The morning bell rings.

We lose the cherry blossom element here though we still get the sense of season as petals in Japan would likely be limited to plum or cherry blossoms. I’m a bit worried by the double or triple action here – fall, sweep, rings. 

There’s not so much stillness, but we get the where, the what, and the when at least. How would you improve it?

The stillness and movement of haiku

Above I bemoaned the lack of stillness in my haiku improvement. That’s because the juxtaposition of stillness and movement is also an important element of a good haiku. Let’s go back to that Basho one – the pond is still and the frog jumps. 

Or more subtly, the withered bough has the crow perching – it’s an action technically even if it appears still.

Do consider how you can include a movement and a stillness within your haiku. This may be one of the least important elements, but when reading them I have a feeling this juxtaposition is quite an interesting thing to consider.

The haiku compared to the senryu

Just to confuse you, haiku are not the only 17 syllable poems to come out of Japan. We also have the senryu, which is quite a different beast entirely.

The main difference between the two is that senryu are focused on humanity; especially on human foibles. Your senryu can be humorous, dark, cynical, and fully able to examine humanity’s dumbness – or your own.

Senryu also take the 5-7-5 form, but there are more relaxed rules than the haiku in terms of what happens within this simple frame. You do not need to include either the kireji or the kigo plus there’s no need for the other elements. Of course, you are free to include any as it’s up to you.

Here’s an example:

He stole my haircut,

It was right there yesterday,

But now it’s no more.

Now that’s one of mine from my collection, but here’s one from the man who invented the genre in the 18th century, Senryu Karai:

When I catch,

The robber,

My own son.

When working on my own philosophy, The Way of the Runari (Bunjindo), I noticed how Chinese culture is a balance between Daoist wit and Confucian discipline. 

We see this too in the poetic forms found in Japanese culture. Both philosophical ideas found their ways into Japan, and even though Confucianism won out in a big way, there’s always been a rambunctious Daoist undercurrent. 

A good example is a folding screen once owned by Alex Kerr which featured calligraphy (shodo) by the bunjin (culture person), Kameda Bosai. Going from right to left, the 12 panels gradually degenerate from wild kanji to impossible to read slithering snakes. The very last panel contains his signature – “written by old man Bosai, totally drunk.”

So the senryu forms the final rebellious injection of wit and humor into a long chain of Confucian refinement. The tanka became refined so humorous renga arose, but when the renga became refined, the haikai (haiku) rose up to inject some humor. The senryu of course took over when the haiku attained its complicated rules.

Woke up this morning,

Got out the wrong side of the bed

And into a wall.

Conclusion: The haiku moment

Is art divinely inspired? While modern art feels calculated and sterile, great art – even that which does take planning and refinement, comes in the moment. Maybe that’s from a walk, a read, during a discussion, or through sheer boredom, but there is an aha moment.

We call this the haiku moment. When Basho is sat near a pond where he sees the frog jump but does not see it land – the haiku moment. At that moment nature and the poet were one, and the haiku poured out. 

Maybe you can sit down and calculate some beautiful haiku or witty senryu, but the real ones come in the moment out of the blue. They just fire out even if it’s a remembered moment that you’re capturing in poetic form. Embrace these moments and don’t stress is nothing comes forth because that just means the moment is yet to come.