A haiku is a short, unrhymed poem with three lines. The first line and last line contain five syllables; the middle line has seven. Teachers often assign haiku poems as a writing exercise, since they offer a hands-on way for students to learn about counting syllables. Although haiku do not adhere to a strict meter or rhyme scheme, they often include a pair of images and a reference to the season.
The History of Haiku
According to the Poetry Foundation, “Not popularized in Western literature until the early 1900s, the form originates from the Japanese hokku, or the opening section of a longer renga sequence.” Renga, a collaborative form of poetry, first appeared in written form in the 12th century with the publication of the Kin’yō-shū. The Encyclopædia Britannica explains how renga predated that imperial anthology, originating as “…a popular pastime from ancient times, even in remote rural areas.”
Within the Kin’yō-shū and prior traditions, two poets worked together on each tanka, consisting of a trio of lines (5-7-5 syllables) by one poet and two lines (7-7 syllables) by the other. Renga offered lyricists a bit of a game, wherein the first poet would purposely make lines difficult for the second poet to complete in linked-verse. By the 15th century, the standard renga length grew to 100 verses. Modern haiku developed from the first three-line units within each tanka, as poets began writing hokku that would stand alone.
In Japanese, haiku poems consist of seventeen mora, written units of a single syllable, arranged in a vertical presentation. The Poetry Foundation describes how Japanese haiku offered a convenient form for practical instruction, writing, “Unlike the rest of the renga sequence, which was composed collaboratively, the hokku was often created by a single poet working alone, and was subsequently used as an exercise for students.” When English-language students practice writing haiku today, the end results look quite different from a traditional Japanese haiku. Still, students who compose haiku participate in an educational tradition that dates back to 12th century Japan.
How to Count Syllables
How many syllables are in the word aluminum? Well, that depends where you’re from. In the U.S. and Canada, we pronounce the thirteenth element of the periodic table with four syllables: ə-ˈlü-mə-nəm. In the U.K., they spell the word “aluminium” and pronounce it with five syllables: al-yə-ˈmi-nē-əm. When you’re writing a haiku and need to know the number of syllables in a word, you can always look in a dictionary for the pronunciation guidelines. Eventually, you’ll be able to figure out the syllable count on your own. Just remember that some English words, such as caramel, have a different pronunciation and number of syllables, depending on your regional accent.
Although the haiku originated as a form of Japanese poetry, haiku poets now live all over the world. In other languages, composing a haiku can present its own special challenges. For instance, many languages have long or compound words that consist of many syllables. Inger-Mari Aikio and Miro Mantere have published a collection of self-styled “taiku,” (5–7–7 syllables) in Northern Sami and Finnish. The collection is called Beaivváš čuohká gaba: diktamusihkkaduodji / Aurinko juo kermaa: runomusiikkiteos (The Sun Drinks Cream: A Musical Poetry Piece). In Kenya, the poet Mercy Ikuri regularly writes in Swahili, a Bantu language. Compared to a translation of her poem in English, the original Swahili requires double the syllables to say the same thing. The presentation of a haiku can also change, based on a poet’s preferred language. Rather than writing haiku vertically (as in Japanese) or from left to right (as in English), poets who speak Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu compose haiku from right to left.
In contemporary haiku poems, expect to see a large degree of variation. As with other poetic forms, the poet has control over all stylistic decisions. Most haiku use the present tense, but you may choose to deviate from this norm when you write your own poem. Some modern poets look to Japanese haiku for inspiration, but ignore the syllable restrictions altogether.
Because haiku do not contain full sentences, normal rules for capitalization and punctuation do not apply. Many poets prefer the unfinished look of a haiku without any capitalization or punctuation at all. Sometimes, poets experiment with line breaks and white space; however, most poets avoid breaking words in half to suit the syllable structure. Traditional Japanese haiku often employ a kireji, or a cutting word, which causes a break or pause in the poem. The kireji is frequently placed within the middle of a line.
Traditional haiku deal with images from the natural world. Although most haiku poets describe scenes from nature, they usually avoid literary devices such as simile, metaphor, or allusion. Instead, simplicity defines this three-line poem. Haiku poetry remains known for capturing simple, unadorned moments.
In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac writes about the guiding principle behind his own haiku poems, quoting his friend Japhy (Gary Snyder):
“A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes ‘The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.’ By Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.”
In the poem quoted above, you can see two images. The first—a sparrow hopping—could be imagined as a medium shot in a film. The second image is the sparrow’s feet, a close up. Another traditional element of haiku is seasonality. Kigo is a word that orients the poem within a specific season, and many haiku feature such a word or phrase. The word “wet” could be considered a kigo that orients the poem within a rainy, spring season.
Here are a few famous haiku. None of these English-language examples fit the 5-7-5 syllable structure required for a creative writing assignment, but they do showcase the brevity and specificity that make haiku so special.
The old pond
A frog jumps in—
The sound of the water
Spring rain —
Coming down on me again
This hood I’ve been wearing.
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway