What is Haiku?


Haiku is an ancient Japanese form of short poetry. Originally it was called Hokku until renamed by 19th century Japanese writer, Masaoka Shiki (technically, it was called Haiku [a portmanteau of Haikai & Hokku] in the time of Kobayashi Issa {1763-1828} but Shiki is most famous for elevating the term). The plural of Haiku is Haiku. Traditionally, it is characterized by these three main qualities:

  • The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related. In English, we have no such grammatical equivalent, so punctuation marks and such are used to create the aural pause.
  • Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as mora/morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 on respectively in one vertical line. In English, we translate on as ‘syllable’ and have 3 lines of 5-7-5.
  • A kigo (seasonal word), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words. In English, we do not have a saijiki (though I’ve seen a few lists online). Instead, we use words that allude to a particular season or directly reference it (snow is a winter reference, as is New Years, etc). These are known as kidai.

Modern Japanese haiku (gendai-haiku) are increasingly unlikely to follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of juxtaposition continues to be honored in both traditional and modern haiku.There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while haiku in English often appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku (although there are alternative formats, such as a single horizontal line, circle, one word, or a 15 syllable two line ‘fixed form’ ).

Below is a Haiku written by American writer, Richard Wright –

5 syllables – “Whitecaps on the bay:”

7 syllables – “A broken signboard banging”

5 syllables – “In the April wind.”

Notice how the colon takes the place of a kireji. The seasonal reference, traditionally (at least in the days of Matsuo Bashō), is never in the middle (7 on/syllable) line and rhyming (whether unintentional or intentional) was considered bad form and frowned upon.

Now that we have a little background on traditional Japanese Haiku, let’s discuss English-language Haiku. A haiku in English is a short poem which uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. It is a development of the Japanese haiku poetic form in the English language. As with Japanese haiku, the stock practices for composing haiku in English are near identical:

  • use of three lines of up to 17 syllables, traditionally in “5–7–5” form. (Japanese haiku are single vertical line poems).
  • allusion to nature or the seasons.
  • use of a caesura or kireji represented by punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break to compare two images implicitly.

Some English haiku poets do not adhere to the strict syllable count found in Japanese haiku, and the typical length of haiku appearing in the main English-language journals is 10–14 syllables (many have argued that, for English-language haiku to better mimic Japanese haiku, the syllable count should be around 10-12, as the standard. This would change the ‘5-7-5’ format and reinvent haiku in the West). These haiku poets are concerned with their haiku being expressed in one breath (there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if you don’t want to be a purist) and the extent to which their haiku focus on “showing” as opposed to “telling”, i.e., describing rather than explaining. Haiku uses an economy of words to paint a multi-tiered painting, without “telling all”. As Matsuo Bashō put it: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”

Personally, I stay true to the ‘original’ English version of the Japanese style of 5-7-5, kigo, and kireji. Not following these rules would render my Haiku as a Senryū or Zappai. More on that later. This was but a brief description for those unfamiliar with Haiku, to give a general idea. There is so much more to Haiku, much of it deeply rooted in Japanese culture and language (double meanings, cultural references, etc) that I will discuss in future posts. Thank you all for reading. I hope I was of some help.


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