A haiku is a short form of poetry that originated in Japan. A traditional haiku contains three short phrases, a seasonal reference known as kigo, and a “cutting word” known as a kireji. (More on these terms in a bit.)
Traditional Japanese haikus are also usually written with 17 on. On is a sound unit. The on has often been compared to the English syllable. Because of this comparison, haikus written in English often follow a 5-7-5 syllable count. However, that is not necessary for English haikus because the Japanese on and the English syllable are not identical.
In a Haiku Foundation’s article titled, “Haiku: A Short Introduction” Jessica Tremblay says the writer should think of haiku as “one breath poetry”. Tremblay continues by stating that counting syllables isn’t necessary, but you should write with a “short-long-short” pattern. What this means is that your second line should be longer than your first and third.
It probably goes without saying, but brevity is important in a one breath poem. The haiku seeks to eliminate all unnecessary words and to convey a sense of wonder to the reader. This can be a challenging. Blaise Pascal wrote in his 1657 Lettres Provinciales, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”(3) I really like this statement because it encapsulate my experience of trying to writing a good haiku. It can take a lot of time to be clear, concise, and interesting. A well-written haiku will do this, and it will do this in as little as 10 words.
The Kigo or Seasonal Word
One thing that makes the traditional haiku unique is its use of the seasonal reference. The seasonal reference word can be as direct as stating the season, or it can be more abstract by using a symbol for the season.
An example of a direct seasonal reference that can be seen in this haiku by Basho:
summer grass all that remains of a Samurai’s dream
In contrast, this haiku by Buson uses the plum blossoms as a symbol for the season.
white plum blossoms absorbing the color of morning
In Japan, white plum blossoms bloom in February or early March. This means by stating “white plum blossoms” the author is referencing spring.
The Kireji or Cutting Word
The application of the Kireji in English haiku is not as easy as the application of kigo. In traditional Japanese haiku the kireji is used to add structure to the haiku. Kireji signals to the reader that the haiku has ended, or it directs the reader back to the beginning of the haiku, or splits the haiku into two images. This final use of the kireji, the splitting of the haiku into two images, is the one that seems to find its home in English haiku.
Jessica Tremblay writes, “The juxtaposition of two images is the key to creating an element of surprise, the aha! moment that triggers emotions in the reader. A good haiku helps us see the world in a different view.” In English haiku, the splitting of imagery is often done through punctuation or through line structure. Below are two haikus that demonstrate this difference.
toy store a client returns a boomerang --Jessica Tremblay
one wild apple ripples the rain puddle: evening sun --Nicholas A Virgilio
Using either the end of the lines or a form of punctuation is a good way to accomplish the splitting of the haiku. Try out both forms and see what works.
Haiku as a Nature Connection Practice
Haikus are either written from memory, imagination, or in the present moment.(4) When we think about writing haiku as a nature connection practice, the present moment is where we want to find our inspiration. William J Higginson writes:
“Many of the best haikus are written after the author saw, heard, tasted, or smelled something. Do you see anything that might be interesting to play with in words? Can you find words that will fit together to make other people see something the special way you see it? “(4)
However, in order to allow the writer’s brain to shift from the busyness of everyday life to something that enables them to observe the wonders of the world and capture it in haiku, it can be helpful to set up an intentional practice that allows the writer to settle into the moment.
The Ginko or Haiku Walk
Haiku writers have often participated in something called a “ginko”. The ginko is a walk with the intention to gather inspiration to write a haiku. During ginko practice, the writer carries a writing utensil and paper so that they can capture what they are observing. One potential challenge I see with this basic description of the ginko is that it keeps the writer in their analytical mind and limits the potential of truly observing the world around them. Therefore, I would propose an addition to these instructions. I would suggest that before the writer heads out on their ginko, they include a simple grounding practice and intentionally schedule moments for writing.
Below is my personal practice. Feel free to try this out and let me know how it goes.
- Identify a place where you can feel comfortable while in nature. Have a small notebook and some sort of writing utensils with you.
- When you arrive at this place, make sure your phone is off or on silent. The purpose of doing this is to limit potential distractions.
- Take the next few minutes to “arrive”. Check in with your body. How are you breathing? Can you take some deep breaths? Pay attention to your breath for at least five cycles. If you are breathing rapidly, see if you can get it to slow down a bit.
- Next, check in with your senses. There is no need to rush this step. Take your time with each sense.
- What are you seeing?
- What are you hearing?
- What are you feeling?
- What are you smelling?
- What are you tasting?
- When you are feeling settled, move to the next step.
- Walk, or sit, for about 10 minutes. During this time, just try and be with your surroundings. Your goal is to observe. Rosenstock writes in Haiku Enlightenment “Keep your eyes and your ears open — but not too intently, not fanatically!” You are striving to maintain a delicate balance between observation and being. The goal is to be present. Sometimes this is difficult. I am totally guilty of writing and editing a haiku in my head while I am trying to be present. Do your best to recognize this if this happens for you. If you just need to get something down on paper, write it down. But then go back to observing. (Yes, I totally do this all the time. I am always worrying that I will forget something.)
- After about 10 minutes, or when you feel ready, take out your pen and paper and start writing. If the words aren’t flowing, use your senses as a starting point. Write what you saw, what you heard, what you felt, what you smelled, or what you tasted.
- After writing for a bit, see if anything emerges from the paper. If something grabs your attention, start to work with that. Dive in and write your messy first draft of your haiku. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and probably won’t be. The goal is to get the words down on paper and start building images.
- Write a few haikus if you feel inspired. Write until you feel like you have all your ideas down on paper. Then, take a break.
- Check in with yourself. How do you feel? Was that fun? Did you notice something new? Do you have something that might resemble a haiku?
This initial process may be enough for some people, others may want to continue to work on their haiku. It is your nature connection practice so make it enjoyable for you. If you want to continue to revise your haiku, Tremblay reminds us to keep these 6 basic rules in mind:
- Keep it short
- Write in the present tense.
- Follow a “short-long-short” pattern
- Use your senses.
- Juxtapose two images.
- Include a season word.
Higginson also states that, “Much of the art of writing haiku comes in revising. . . . Remember, that you may have to rewrite your haiku several times to make it a really good haiku.” (4)
Be kind to yourself as you write. Sometimes it is fun to share your haiku, other times it is nice to have something that you can keep for yourself. I think that engaging in process is the important part. A good haiku at the end is a benefit.
Did you try out this practice? Did you write a haiku? Feel free to share your experiences below.
It’s what I live for! The haiku form has become attached to machinery, sex, money, everything that haiku were not! I try to write verses “in season” and so as we move into August into what is called Lammas I will begin writing only about the autumn. Three lines, no syllable count, in-season, about nature and humanity’s place in nature: hokku.
Hi Ashley, thanks so much for sharing! I especially like your comment about haiku being about nature and humanity’s place in nature. I think that is such an important aspect of the art. Can’t wait to read your haikus in the upcoming months.
Thanks for sharing.
Hi Eunice, thanks for visiting and I am glad you enjoyed this.
replanted ash tree green
beyond death in midsummer
branches – no leaves yet
Just came home after 4 days away and my eyes were drawn to the miserable looking tree in my yard which seemed to grow in hope before it had to be resettled. At which point all leaves withered. I was surprised to see the 4 or 5 highest branches in the little tree (so far 140cm) showing 15cm long green tips.
Thanks for the article !
Hi Barbara, the saga of your ash tree continues! Let’s hope the tree pulls through. Thanks for sharing your writing here. I hope you are doing well.
well-remembered, Mark. Thanks for reading and writing.
You’ve done us readers a service with this in-depth post. To me, haiku can evoke a precise image of nature and does it usually more effectively than longer poems. Like the haiku plants a seed and your mind grows the tree rather than a long poem describing all the branches and leaves. Also, that toy store haiku is delightful 🌞
Hi Dave, thanks for the comment. I have noticed that I really don’t get some haikus until I have read then a few times or come back to them. I also remember writing a haiku about a frog that I constructed in my head to read one way, but then someone commented on it and they interpted it another. That was fascinating. It was unintentional on my part, but it made they haiku better.
I also found the toy store haiku very fun. Be well!
This is a great explanation of what haiku is all about!
Thanks Dwight! I am glad I found your blog. Thanks for the comment.
You are welcome!
Lovely post, Mark. Those haikus are stunning.
Thanks Jeff! I appreciate the feedback. Be well.
You’re most welcome, Mark. Always. Thank you, and wellness to you too.
Mark, thank you so much for this brilliant post about haiku! I’m going to make a point of going out some time this week (leaving the dogs at home for a change) and take your recommendations on board for writing a haiku. I’m looking forward to it!
Hi Lesley, that is great! Please let me know how it goes.
I will. 🙂