What is Haiku?

What is Haiku?

Haiku - Japanese and English-language Equivalents

Haiku is an ancient form of Japanese poetry often containing (in English) a total of 17 syllables shared between three lines that are arranged in a pattern of 5-7-5. The fist line consists of 5 syllables, the second line 7, and the last line contains another 5 syllables.

Original haiku poetry was measured in sounds, or "breaths," not English syllables. The 5-7-5 approach was a rough approximation. Many traditional Japanese and English-language literary haiku is shorter than the 5-7-5 format of the West. That said, poetry is art and 5-7-5 is still popular today. Some poets still embrace the framework.

Still, Haiku Poetry is Far More Complex

For many young students, haiku begins and ends with 5-7-5. My then 9-year-old nephew came home from school one day anxious to share his first haiku:

Very athletic.
They go ooh ooh ooh aah aah.
They like climbing trees.

Delighted that he has been introduced to the world of haiku and impressed with the flexible use of "oohs" and "aahs" to meet a syllable count, I didn't have to the heart to tell him his monkey-inspired poem isn't technically haiku.

So what is missing?

What is Haiku? - Some Characteristics

  • An English-language haiku sometimes contains of 17 total syllables
  • English-language format is sometimes composed of 3 lines of 5-7-5 (syllables)
  • 2 simple subjects are often placed in juxtaposition
  • These 2 subjects are often separated by punctuation
  • A keen or unusual observation is made by comparing the two subjects
  • Haiku often contains a seasonal reference
  • Poems are traditionally about nature or the natural world

It's a lot more complicated than we thought, right? Traditional haiku usually focuses on two simple subjects while providing an unexpected perspective. Like a good joke, the first part can serve as the set-up, while the second part delivers the punchline.

Here is a classic example from the Japanese master Murakami Kijo (1865 - 1938):


First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father's face.

That's a poem that has everything:

  • Two simple subjects
  • Separated by puntuation
  • It contains a seasonal reference (autumn) that also has double-meaning
  • And it provides an interesting and unexpected perspective

Shifts in Modern Haiku

Some modern poets reject the entire notion of 5-7-5, preferring the shorter breaths of the Japanese originals (it should be spoken in one breath.) Many also choose to omit the seasonal reference. Photography has also joined the ranks of haiku, updating traditional haiga (Some modern poets reject the entire notion of 5-7-5, preferring the shorter breaths of the Japanese originals (it should be spoken in one breath.) Many also choose to omit the seasonal reference. Photography has also joined the ranks of haiku, updating traditional haiga (haiku with brush painting)

So... what is haiku? - Some Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to reject or embrace 5-7-5, or choose to work in modern styles, haiku is an amazing art form. While a child can understand the very basics of format and structure, truly mastering it can take a lifetime. Come as you are, get comfortable and join us as we continue to work on our craft together!

Haiku is Accessible... but Can Take a Lifetime to Master