Free verse, as a poetic form, came to exist for many reasons. One of those was the desire for minimalism and simplicity in poetry, in the face of structured poems, iambic pentameter and rigid stanza lengths.

Haiku is a traditional art form, originating in Japan, for which simplicity is the goal. The severe limitations placed on haiku poems enforce their simplicity in the same way than blank verse can force a certain grandiosity.

Just three lines, with a rigid syllable count, creates such a minimalist poetic form that there isn’t space for anything besides the direct purpose of the haiku itself. In fact, modern haiku and traditional haiku (or hokku) in translation often doesn’t meet the rigid syllable count which is so often closely associated with haiku – instead, the poetic form relies on, in the best examples, the removal of ego – and even the parsing of the self – from the poem as a whole.

What Is A Haiku Poem?

A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem, commonly composed of 17 syllables spread over three lines, in a 5, 7, 5 pattern. This extremely rigid, simple form is designed to remove as much as possible from the poem, creating space around the concept shown in the poem.

It is one of the reasons that nature poems are extremely powerful in the haiku form – with a few words, in as little as seventeen syllables, the haiku writer or poet has to convey a scene, an image, a feeling and a sense of depth.

Are Haiku Poems Always About Nature?

While often relying on natural images, there isn’t a limit to what the haiku form can be used to express. The form of haiku poetry lends itself well to natural scenes, and traditional Japanese poems often revolved around the feeling of peace and tranquility found in nature. However, there are other haiku written about everyday life, or which upend the idea of the haiku as a poetic form celebrating stillness.

Can Haiku Poems Be About Anything?

Yes, you can write a haiku about anything. However, it can be difficult to extricate a form which is so tied in to the idea of nature poetry to cover any topic. When not writing about the tranquility of nature, or how that tranquility can so easily be fractured, it can be difficult to use the haiku form to its fullest.

However, don’t let that put you off. There are several schools of haiku which reject the idea that it should be used for nature poetry, and instead use to to reflect observations about the world as a whole.

Can Haiku Be About Love?

Yes, haiku can be written about love. While most commonly known as nature poems, haiku can be written about any topic. The important thing to remember, when writing haiku poetry, is that you need to make the image as simple as possible – build a universe in a few words, and don’t be afraid to leave space around your poetry for your reader to discover or infer themselves.

Can Haiku Be Written About Death?

Yes, you can write haiku poetry about death. Death poetry, in Japan, is traditionally written as a tanka, instead of a haiku, which consists of five lines totaling 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7). This form makes up more than half of all surviving death poems from Japan, but that doesn’t mean a haiku is an improper form for dealing with the concept of death.

Is Haiku An Example Of Blank Verse?

No, haiku is not blank verse. While it may have a rigid syllable structure, it does not match the iambic pentameter structure which is essential for writing blank verse. Haiku writing does rely on the counting of syllables, but not necessarily to match the traditional 5, 7, 5 form. Instead, you should use the haiku form to present and explore as much as possible in as few words as possible.

Is It Haiku Or Haikus?

If you’re discussing multiple haiku poems, it is still haiku. “Haikus” is unnecessary as the term “haiku” is already a collective. A Japanese poet, for example, may well write haiku, but they will never write “haikus”.

How Do I Start Writing Haiku Poetry?

Writing a haiku is a specific art form – and one which can be used to improve your other writing. The key to writing powerful haiku is the removal of ego from the work. You should write the three line poem, or whatever form your modern haiku takes, with a focus on exploring a single image – a single moment in time, and rely on the strength of that minimalist image to explore larger themes and concepts.

Are Haiku Poems Titled?

You can title haiku poems. Traditionally, many poems went untitled, but many writers – particularly those who write large amounts of haiku, find it convenient to have their poems titled. A poem’s title can often be used to change the reading of a poem, either by encouraging the reader to focus on a certain image, explaining an image which not be immediately clear, or even filling in the missing piece of the puzzle, so to speak.

Can You Use Punctuation In Haiku?

While you can, it is better to avoid punctuation when writing haiku poetry – that includes capital letters. Your stated goal should be complexity in as simple a form as possible. As such, anything which makes your haiku look more complicated should be avoided.

Can Haiku Rhyme?

Yes, it can, but it doesn’t need to. Most haiku doesn’t rhyme, and with good reason. The precision required when it comes to haiku writing often means that any kind of rhyme scheme will simply get in the way. Rhyming can also ruin the tranquil pace of the poem, propelling your reader through the three line poem too quickly, causing them to lose out on the benefits of the imagery.

How Many Syllables Are There In Traditional Haiku?

Traditional Japanese haiku is composed of seventeen syllables, spread over three lines, in a 5, 7, 5 form. Modern haiku, and traditional Japanese literature in translation can break this syllable form. It is possible to write haiku without following this form. Japenese poets, for example, often break from this rigid syllable structure without sacrificing the feeling that a haiku traditionally conveys.

What Are Different Literary Techniques Used in Haiku?

Haiku in Japanese relies on a wide range of literary tools and techniques – many of which aren’t readily available in the English language. Some of the most common literary techniques used when writing haiku include:

  • Kigo: A special word that evokes a season or some other aspect of nature.
  • Kireji: A “cutting word”, used to divide the haiku into two parts and create an abrupt pause, often indicated by punctuation such as a dash.
  • Kimagure: An unexpected change in meaning or direction.
  • Shasei: Describing an event or scene as if it were being observed without the poet’s personal feelings or opinions.
  • Sabi: A feeling of loneliness and solitude, usually expressing a sense of peaceful acceptance with one’s circumstance.
  • Wabi-sabi: An appreciation for transience and imperfection, often associated with the feeling of peace and beauty one finds in nature.
  • Yūgen: A profound awareness of the universe which evokes a strong emotional response that is difficult to describe.

Examples of Haiku:

Since haiku became a popular form of Japanese poetry, it has spread across the world. Today, you can find haiku written in the UK, by American poets (particularly the Beats) and anywhere else that poets are working today. However, traditional Japanese poets are still considered the leading masters of the form, with Japanese poets like Matsuo Bashō and Katsushika Hokusai penning some of the most well known haiku.

Examples of Japanese Haiku

As the quintessential Japanese poet, Bashō’s haiku poem, “The Old Pond” is particularly well known in translation across the world.

The old pond-

a frog jumps in,

sound of water.

This is the most famous of Bashō’s poems, and has been translated in a thousand different forms, but this translation, by Robert Hass, is my personal favourite. Other translations feature phrases like “the old silent pond”, which matches the five syllable structure, but doesn’t have the same simplicity. In my mind, the addition of “silent” doesn’t add anything to the line. We imagine the old pond to be silent already – quiet, holy and peaceful.

Examples of Non-Japanese Haiku

Even haiku which hasn’t been written by Japenese writers can still convey the same feeling as traditional Japanese haiku. English and American poets have both written incredible haiku over the past hundred to two hundred years. This is even true when the haiku doesn’t necessarily match the three line or seventeen syllable count. Beat poets and writers, including the American poet Gary Snyder, On The Road writer Jack Kerouac, and American poet Ezra Pound all wrote haiku which didn’t match the conventional form of poetry you were more likely to find in Japan.

Notably, Pound’s haiku “In a Station of the Metro” (which is often regarded as the first haiku written in English, although that is certainly up for debate) is a non-traditional poem, composed of nineteen syllables spread over two lines. It reads:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The absence of a third line, and the addition of two syllables, technically would disqualify this piece from being a haiku. However, the beautiful image, with its echoes of traditional Japanese poetry, reference to the natural world, short lines, present tense and short form structure all elicit the traditional feeling of a Japanese poem, capturing a brief moment in time.

Haiku is an extremely powerful form of poetry, with both modern and traditional styles to explore. Whether you’re looking to expand on the strength of your imagery in poetry, improve your control over syllables within your work, or even just grow your knowledge of poetic terms and poetry as a whole, haiku is an exciting art form with a rich tradition.

For more information on haiku as an art form, or advice on reading and writing haiku in the twenty-first century, check out some more of our articles.

J.W. Carey
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