Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 6

The Art of Haiku

What do you think when someone says haiku? 5-7-5 ? 

Right? Wrong? 

There is much more to haiku than 5/7/5 format which apparently was a misconception to start with. In this section, we explore the world of haikus, read a few haikus written about masters and try to write a few of our own. I have researched extensively about haikus before writing this article and it only brought to my knowledge, how much more I yet have to learn. If you feel there are any mistakes or glitches, kindly bring them to my attention and I will be very grateful to you. So strap on your seatbelts as we explore the world of haikus. 


In the 15th century in Japan a poetic form called renga blossomed. Renga was composed co-operatively by a group of poets who alternatively added verses of 17 syllables (5-7-5) and 14 syllables (7-7) until they completed the poem which was generally comprised of 100 such verses but could run longer sometimes.

Renga was a dignified academic poem. Members were traditionally demanded to present their verses following the medieval aesthetics and quoting the classics.

In the 16th century it was haikai a humorous form of poetry that became popular. Haikai was s a poem made of verses of 17 and 14 syllables like renga, but it parodies renga introducing modern vulgar laughter. Haikai poets used plays on words and treated preferably things of daily life renga hadn't found interesting.

The first verse of renga and haikai is called "hokku". Haikai poets sometimes presented their hokkus as independent poems. These were the origin of haiku.

Structure Of A Haiku

A haiku is traditionally composed of 3 lines with two parts a situation and a revelation or a sudden awareness of the situation.  Traditional Haiku are situational poetry.... they are not of love, feeling, ranting etc. They are more of what a Poetic Reporter might write. The poet, observer, in a Zen state of mind sees the truth of a situation..... the Simplicity.... and writes about it WITHOUT personal interpretation or involvement. The haijin reports what he/she sees at the moment, in the present, without putting a personal, subjective slant on it.

So as you see, there is no first person or 'I' in haikus. Haikus are not about love or what happens to you. It is about day to day happenings which are seemingly unimportant but attain a lot of importance. 

Haikus are greatly influenced by the thoughts of Tchouang-tseu, philosopher in the 4th century B.C. The thinker Tchouang-tseu denied the artificiality and the utilitarianism, seeing value of intellect low. He asserted that things seemingly useless had the real value, and that it was the right way of life not to go against the natural law.

Traditional haikus have a kigo that is a strong seasonal reference. The season need not mentioned out right in the haiku but it must contain a hint which clearly specifies the season. Though non seasonal haikus are also written these days, for the purpose of this class, I will be using haikus with a strong kigo through out.

Evening shower
Trees dripping
- Francis Masat (taken from the magazine Simply Haiku)

The situation here is the evening showers and the revelation that raindrops dropping from the branches of the trees as also all the mosquitoes are leaving the leaves of the tree!. Generally the first two lines build up the situation while the last line is the revelation. The kigo here is monsoon. 

The 5-7-5 muddle

Many scholars originally considered the Japanese Onji to be equivalent to English syllables. As a result, English version of haiku kept a strict rule of 5,7,5 in syllable count totaling 17. Modern scholars have realized the error in that judgment and have suggested that poets using the English language try to write the poem in less syllables. but not more.

Japanese is an extremely mono-syllabic language while English is not. While haijins in Japan fulfill the need for 17 syllables with just 6 or 7 words in English it takes many more. Thus stuck with the 5-7-5 rule we sometimes tend to lose the crispness of the haikus. Haiku should be crisp and contain only as much syllables as needed to convey the thought. I personally prefer compressed haikus which may use as less as 8-10 syllables.  These days 5-7-5 are considered the traditional haiku form while the compressed one is called the contemporary but many masters feel that 5-7-5 is a misconception that has been carried too far. Many people are so stuck on the 5-7-5 rule that they think any short poem which is comprised of 3 lines and has 5-7-5 is a haiku which it most definitely is not. To be a haiku it should have a situation and a revelation. Kigo is preferred though not compulsory. There are rich resources available online for haikus but read them and assimilate with care. May of them propagate 5-7-5. Enjoy the good haikus at the references I will list at the end of the class and be smug in the knowledge that the world of haikus is not confined to 5-7-5.

Haiku: Techniques and Principles

Let me shortly summarize the principles relating to haikus. All these principles have to be followed to call a poem a haiku.

Two elements - situation and awareness


Nature - Not compulsory but preferred.

Karumi - This is a Japanese principle expounded on by Basho that the haiku should have a light characteristic about it. Haiku are not dark. Basho once said "shallow river over a sandy bed"...... when describing the lightness of haiku.



Reporting not telling

Haikus are on the spot compositions. The haijin is touched by something in nature like say a beautiful sunset and composes a haiku on the spot.


Writing a haiku

Now that you know the basic of haiku, how do you go about writing one? Before attempting one please remember that haikus is a very rich form and cant really be compressed into a single class,, read a lot of information, be open to criticism and follow the principles cited above. From this class on, I am willing to critique poems following the poetic form discussed in the week's class, post them in the forum for me to critique and I will leave my comments on them to the best of my capability. And please don't take any comments personally, I will leave a honest comment on your haiku so that you may take my vies into consideration and improve them. I am going to approach writing a haiku as a series of exercises. Practice them till you think you have the hang of it. I still follow these steps while writing a haiku.

Exercise 1

Imagine a scene with all the details, Better yet get out of your room and observe the nature. There are plenty of haikus waiting to be written out there. Write down the scene in your own words. Remember you have to report the scene in 3 lines in less than 17 syllables so be sure to keep the scene small.

As I look out of my window the scene I see is softly drizzling rain and fiercely shining sun. This will be my scene. I always prefer to write about what is actually happening as that way I actually look at the details instead of making them up.

Exercise 2

Find your kigo and work it into your scene. My kigo is going to be the rain and it is already present in my scene. If it isn't work it in now.

Exercise 3

Read your scene and make sure you aren't present in it. It should be from a third person point of view. No the sun shining on my window. It should be sun shines on the window.

Exercise 4

Split the scene into two parts the situation and the revelation. My situation is that it is raining and the sun is shining. My revelation would be that it is raining in summer. My kigo is summer too.

Exercise 5
Write your haiku. One pint to mention here is that the use of 'ing' is to be avoided for the simple reason that they are overused. They have their place when no other word works as fine as them like when you portray a moment in time. But if some other word would work as well, go ahead and use that word instead.

Similarly each line of the haiku must not be capitalized. Haikus are a single train of thought and use of capitals disrupts that. Grammar isn't very important in haikus. Reporting the thought is

Now lets look at my would be haikus. I want to convey that the sun is shining and it is raining simultaneously. I look closer at my scene, it looks like the sun is wet from the rain, good point, I will work it in my haiku

L1      Torrent of water
L2      drenches the sun
summer rain

Exercise 6

Once you have your haiku, tweak it around a bit and work it around. Try to see how it can be made crisper and more precise, I question myself about each of the principle asking myself a yes no question.

Does it have two parts?
Does it have a strong kigo? and so on

Writing haiku is an art. Even though it sounds very simple at face value, it takes lot of practice to write one. Masters of haiku say you have to write 100 bad haikus to get a good one. I am listing below a few more haikus. Before actually writing a haiku read them and identify the situation, revelation, kigo and so on.

When I first started learning to write a haiku, I would work reverse, I would write a scene for the haikus written by masters. You can try that if it works for you. 

Tongues of flame
licking the sky

Ripe apple hangs,
from a tree,
in hands of a monkey

The sun wakes up
spreading its rays
awakening me

After a while writing haikus is addictive. And reading good haikus becomes a way of life. Some of the websites I find useful for reading haikus are


Some acknowledged haikus masters are

Basho Matsuo (1644 ~ 1694)
Buson Yosa (1716 ~ 1783)
Shiki Masaoka (1867 ~ 1902)
Kyoshi Takahama (1874 ~ 1959)
Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887 ~ 1946)
Sekitei Hara (1889 ~ 1951)
Hisajo Sugita (1890 ~ 1946)
Suju Takano (1893 ~ 1976)
Kakio Tomizawa (1902 ~ 1962)
Koi Nagata (1900 ~ 1997)

I would suggest you google for their works and read them.

The world of haiku is full of information about old and new forms of haikus. Haikus were not meant to be written in English and have lost a lot and gained a lot in adaptation. I take some of the new and some of the old and write my haikus. 

I hope this class inspires you to haiku away too.      

Image (c) RK

Smitha Chakravarthula


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