What is Haiku?
Haiku is a Japanese poetry form using a few words to capture a moment and create a picture in the reader’s mind. A tiny window into a much larger scene or event.
The poet’s eye like a camera, the words hinting at the emotion or thought felt at that time – not telling the reader what to feel but hoping they understand or sense what that moment meant to the poet.
Traditionally, haiku is written in three lines, and when I was first introduced to the form I was told to have words making five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. ( 5,7,5 = 17 syllables)
Poets writing in Japanese do not count syllables – they count sounds.
The most important content is a strong image or an imagistic moment, therefore, we shouldn’t (and modern poets don’t) get fixated on the syllable count.
However, to many poets, a haiku is still a Japanese poem with 17 syllables, written in 3 lines. They find having that definite structure helpful:
- First line — 5 syllables a frozen puddle
- Second line — 7 syllables a trip back to my childhood
- Third line — 5 syllables worth wet socks all day
A syllable is a part of a word that’s pronounced as a unit, usually made up of a single vowel or a vowel with one or more consonants.
‘fragile’ has 2 syllables: frag-ile
‘secluded’ has 3 syllables: se-clu-ded
However, many English-language haiku do not follow this exact structure and concentrate more on the poetic power or essence of the form rather than the syllable count.
This allows a freedom to express thoughts and feelings and not be shackled to word or syllable count. An unnecessary straightjacket when you consider the difficulty of being able to translate exactly the nuances of any language into another.
Typical qualities expected from haiku may be –
- A focus on nature.
- A “season word” such as “spring” telling the reader the time of year.
- Somewhere in the poem a shift of focus from one detail to another. The relationship between these two parts perhaps surprising.
- Mindfulness is a word that has become a popular concept translated to ‘living in the moment’ – essentially what a haiku can be: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still for the poet and hopefully transmitting that feeling to the reader.
I’ve been having fun writing haiku inspired by random photographs I’ve taken. The images help jog memory as to what I was thinking and feeling at the time.
I don’t always get it to work the way I would like, but ‘practice makes perfect’ is a good maxim or the childhood advice ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’!
Haiku does not have to rhyme and many today are on any topic or about any subject.
They don’t have to have a title either, but you can give them a title if you like.
Postcard from the Park
Petals fall from trees
like pink ashes and the wind brings
the smell of dog poop
Guillermo Castro in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry
Words can make pictures in your mind
Think of haiku as a snapshot – a piece of time frozen forever. A snapshot can freeze people, places, objects, creatures, events, feelings, even random thoughts.
The haiku … was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H. D. – and later, the Beat Generation, in love with Zen…
Children are very good at haiku. They naturally achieve that freshness of perception necessary for all poetry, and for haiku in particular. (They also like the fact that they don’t have to write very much.) Economy and observation are the two main qualities of the haiku – and these are good disciplines, however old you are…
… it is also possible to write one, two or four-line haiku, and that the syllable count can vary enormously. The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.
Linda France, Mslexia Guide To Poetic Forms
Traditionally, haiku always refer to the natural world and present the human relationship to that world.
The season, an essential context suggesting an association with time passing and continuing.
However, in contemporary Western haiku, this is no longer necessary and the form easily adapts to be terse verse focusing on the world around you – the weather, your mood and observations.
Remember The Senses
The first most obvious sense is sight – writing what you observe.
But it also can be touch or sound.
More Advice From Linda France
- The first line usually establishes a time or a place, a setting for the subsequent action, which usually takes the form of a powerful sensory impression.
- Brevity requires the language to be succinct, striking and accurate. No rhymes, similes, or excessive ornamentation should be used – and few adjectives.
- It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks.
- The line-endings reflect the neatness of the form.
- Each line is self-contained, evoking a new image.
- Punctuation is kept to a minimum. The dash is used to establish settings without a preposition and link them to what follows.
All of these haiku are on disparate themes. But if they were related in some way – via subject, mood or setting – they would form a haiku sequence.
The haiku is the perfect form for journeys and visiting new places, recording all those powerful moments that would otherwise evaporate.
I’ve talked about this before in another post and used haiku in a longer poetic form called haibun.
Keep A Notebook And Practice Haiku
There are cultural differences that can make a haiku in English seem the very opposite of natural and authentic.
Take the opportunity to practice writing haiku – forget about syllables – concentrate on the idea of a snapshot of what you see and feel, and write three lines.
Each year in my class at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh we collaborate with the art classes and do just that – write our poems to their pictures and the calendar is sold as a fundraiser.
With today’s technology, this is a project anyone can attempt – adding a poem to special photographs and making a calendar or a diary.
I often take photographs walking around the neighbourhood and later write the fleeting thought or emotion.
Writing The Detail
Think of how you experience the seasons – how does it differ each season?
- What do you do?
- Where do you go?
- Think of your daily routine
- Choose a setting:
What sounds are specific to this place?
- How does that sound change according to the season?
How does that make you feel – how do you react?
How do you feel emotionally?
- How are you or the place transformed?
When we examine each work of art for the calendar – we put ourselves in the scene – we respond/react as in the scene or the one creating the scene.
If you don’t have a calendar for inspiration, look at postcards, or an album of travel pictures. Write a short, dramatic, poetic response but most of all enjoy immersing yourself in trying to find the right words, play around with nuance, move out of your writing comfort zone.
Sitting at my desk
captured memories recalled
in haiku dreams…
Please feel free to share your haiku because ’tis true – you too can haiku.