misty forest

Haiku rules for poets

By BBC Maestro

Small and perfectly formed, haiku poetry can be beautiful, elegant and utterly captivating. Most of us are familiar with this compact form of poetry, possibly because it’s a primary school favourite.

While pupils tackle the subject with typical breezy confidence, the haiku format can pose a challenge for a poet. How do you capture your thoughts in such a small space, while adhering to the traditional rules of haiku writing?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how to write a haiku, along with examples from both the old Japanese masters and more recent haiku writers.

What is a haiku?

A haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, famous for being short and sweet. With just three lines and 17 syllables, the challenge for the poet is to say everything they need to within a confined space.

However, the compact structure is perfect for the classic haiku theme: focusing on one brief moment. The philosophy of the haiku is to express a sudden realisation or feeling, or to describe an immediate time or event. It’s one of the poetic forms Carol Ann Duffy discusses in her BBC Maestro poetry course.

“What I like about the Haiku is that it captures a moment, almost like a polaroid,” she says.

What is the haiku structure?

The traditional Japanese haiku is made up from three lines, totalling just 17 syllables. If you’re writing traditional haiku, you follow a 5 – 7 – 5  structure: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third.

At first glance, a haiku seems rigid, but within this structure, there are no further rules. There’s no rhyming scheme or particular metre to follow, and you don’t even have to use any punctuation.

In modern or western writing, the rules of haiku poetry are often loosened. The 5 – 7 – 5 format isn’t always adhered to, although the three-line structure does remain a consistent feature. While it doesn’t matter as much how many syllables are in a haiku, they generally come to more-or-less the traditional 17.

A haiku is intended to be read in a single breath. When you realise that, its whole structure makes sense.

What are the classic haiku themes?

In the traditional Japanese haiku, the subject is typically an observation of nature; however, the poem also represents a moment of insight. With this in mind, the haiku is often written in two parts: the opening observation followed by the insight or realisation.

Here’s an example from the 17th-century poet Matsuo Bashō, “the Master of haiku”.

The early summer rain.

Gathering it and fast

Mogami River.

It’s a simple and elegant account of the relationship between rain and one of Japan’s fastest-flowing rivers. An observation of the immediate (the day’s weather) becomes a comment on a much larger natural phenomenon, the water cycle.

The second part of a haiku can also be a reveal or a twist, like a punchline to the opening. This poem from Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is a good example of how a haiku’s meaning can turn.

From deep inside
the pretty flower –
a mosquito

The warning of hidden danger within beauty is clearly expressed, with close observation of the flower revealing an unpleasant surprise, a disease-carrying little insect.

If you’ve been counting syllables, you’ll notice that these two examples both deviate from the 5 – 7 – 5 structure we discussed earlier. This is because the translations focus on capturing the beauty of the words above the rigidity of the form, while the original Japanese follows the traditional format.

Haiku examples

We’ve looked at a couple of examples of traditional Japanese haikus. How has the form developed over time? Here’s a range of different approaches to give you some wider inspiration.

Bertram Dobell – You Laughed While I Wept

English poet Bertram Dobell published this in a 1901 collection, and at that time, the haiku form was so little known outside Japan that he had to add an explanatory note. As well as being a good example of an early British haiku, this piece is interesting for moving away from the traditional natural themes, and instead creating a snapshot of a troubled relationship.

You laughed while I wept,
Yet my tears and your laughter
Had only one source.

Jack Kerouac – American Haiku

Perhaps the most famous western version of the haiku was written by 20th century American beat poet Jack Kerouac, who created the American Haiku. He deviated from the classic structure, but still had a clear idea of what haiku should be: …a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.

The variation, Kerouac believed, came from how different American and Japanese speech patterns were, with the former “bursting to pop”.  

Here are three of Kerouac’s American Haikus, all following a classic Japanese theme: rain.

The bottom of my shoes
are clean
from walking in the rain.

After the shower
among the drenched roses
the bird thrashing in the bath.

Early morning gentle rain,
two big bumblebees
Humming at their work

Jennifer Wong – Koi

This beautiful haiku from contemporary poet Jennifer Wong is an example of how the classic haiku themes and structure can thrive in the modern world.

Among heart-shapes leaves

The white fish gleams, red tail

Soft lotuses sleep.

How to write a haiku

Do you feel inspired to pen your own poem after reading these? Here’s how to write haiku poems.

  1. Choose your moment. What’s your theme going to be? Are you sticking with the traditional themes of nature, the seasons or animals, or trying something a bit different? Just remember Carol Ann Duffy’s description of a haiku as a photograph, capturing a moment. It could be stepping under a warm shower or jumping into the cold sea. What do you want to observe?
  2. Think of the insight. How will your haiku finish? What’s the punchline, twist or reflection going to be? When you step into that warm shower, does the heat make your cold feet hurt?
  3. Remember your structure: three lines, 17 syllables and traditionally, a 5 – 7 – 5 format. Make a note of this in the margin to help you stick to it.
  4. Do you have what Carol Ann Duffy calls your “word hoard”? She advocates jotting down words and phrases you like in a notebook, to help you find the right word when you need it. In a short-form poem like a haiku, every word matters so it’s important you choose the right ones. Plunder your hoard for your haiku.
  5. Start writing. The easiest way is often to write down a thought then keep adapting and pruning it until it reaches the right number of syllables. ‘My cold feet feel strange in the warmth of the water’ becomes ‘My warmed feet tingle’, for example.
  6. Read your poem. Once you’ve written a first draft, read it out loud. Does it have a nice flow and rhythm? Can you read it all in one breath, like a medieval Japanese poet?
  7. Revisit and revise. Carol Ann Duffy explains that “you have to do your very best for that poem. And that involves drafting, re-drafting, thinking again, drafting again.”

Katsushika Hokusai even wrote a haiku on the subject.

I write, erase, rewrite

Erase again, and then

A poppy blooms.

If you like the basic idea of this poetic form but feel that a bit more space would suit you better, try writing tanka poetry[1]  instead. This old Japanese form of poetry begins with the 5 – 7 – 5 structure of the haiku, then continues with two more lines of seven syllables each. The result is a more generous five-lined poem or stanza in a 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7 format, with the twist or observation happening on or after the third line.

Whether you’re experimenting with haikus or tanka poems, enjoy playing with these elegant forms of poetry. And as you write, keep Matsuo Bashō’s words in mind to help you stay on track. A haiku, according to the master, is:

Simply, what is happening in this place at this moment?

If you are interested in discovering different poetic forms, take a look at our BBC Maestro poetry course. former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy explores a wide range of structures and themes through her lively and fascinating lessons. 

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