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An Introduction to Haiku - What is haiku?



What is haiku?

Haiku is a form of poetry that originated in Japan. It focuses on a brief moment in time, and a sense of enlightenment. A traditional* haiku is composed of seventeen syllables in three short lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables. A haiku is usually written in the present tense, with a pause at the end of the first or second line. This pause divides the poem into two parts. Haiku don’t rhyme. Contemporary or free format haiku, especially in English, are not bound to the 5-7-5 syllable structure but it is a good place to start writing haiku. Many of us started there.

Haiku is closely related to nature and the change of seasons and how that relates to human nature and awareness (think Zen). Haiku poetry captures a moment in time objectively, sharing the joy or sadness that can lead to a profound emotional experience. Seasonal words are often used in haiku and they are taken very seriously in Japan.

One of the ways to approach haiku is to think of a camera and what you see through the lens. Open your senses. You can zoom in or out and capture a moment. Haiku doesn’t tell, it shows. Don’t tell us how you feel, describe what causes the feeling.

The following haiku popped to mind while writing this post. It is in the 5-7-5 format:

beneath a dead branch the entrance to a fox den— the owl sees it too

—Corine Timmer

debaixo de um galho seco a entrada da cova da raposa— a coruja também a vê


Portuguese Translation: Esperança Dickman

In May, fox pups (kits) are playful and vocal and will leave their dens for longer periods of time. Big owls can catch and eat fox pups. The combination of the dead branch with the fox den, the latter which we can imagine to house pups, deepens the haiku and adds balance. It highlights the circle of life, which includes death. The owl’s presence further enhances this and adds tension. In this poem the poet hasn’t used a traditional season word but we know it’s probably May because of the owl’s interest in the den. Has the owl seen a pup? Will it catch one? How does that make us feel? Did you notice the two parts? There is a pause after the second line. The third line gives us a new image and a new thought.

Here is another example, but in free format. This haiku was commended in the Little Iris Haiku Contest, Croatia 2018 (judged by Jim Kacian).

leaf-strewn street— my reflection in a passing hearse

—Corine Timmer

We know it is autumn because of the leaves scattered in the street (leaf-strewn is a season word for autumn). Autumn means the end of a life cycle. It invites us to let go. It can be associated with illness, death or old age. But the narrator (poet) doesn’t tell us she is old or ill or dying. All she says is that she sees her reflection in (the tinted windows of) a passing hearse. The use of the word “reflection” in this haiku leads to multiple layers of interpretation. Perhaps she has suddenly become aware of her own mortality? Perhaps she is happy to be alive? The reader is invited to finish the poem in his or her own mind. This poem has space beyond the words leading to further thought.

A good haiku has silent space (think of a lot of white space on a canvas). A space where each individual can dwell and finish the haiku (art) in his or her own mind. In other words, don’t show all. Leave something to the imagination.

Remember, there can’t be a valley without a mountain (yin-yang). A good way to familiarize yourself with haiku is to read it. Another way is to go on a nature walk and write down what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

Next time we will learn more about seasonal words, known as kigo in Japan.

Have fun!

*Traditional haiku in Japanese is written in 17 sounds (not the same as syllables) in a single vertical line. Three lines with 17 syllables is a Western interpretation. There is much debate about the correct structure of haiku in English and other languages other than Japanese. Some adhere to the 5-7-5 structure whereas others practice a free format (less than 17 syllables in English). The most important factor is the essence of the poem.


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