Learning how to write a haiku is not as easy as you think, but this step-by-step guide will help you understand the poetry form and how to write it well.
Japanese poetry can be pretty fun to write. However, unlike English poets, Japanese poets focus on cadence and rhythm rather than rhyming. Therefore, when writing Japanese poetry, you need to count syllables and look at patterns rather than focusing on rhyming the end words in the lines.
Haiku is a popular type of Japanese poetry. It contains 17 morae, which is a Japanese unit of sound. Each phrase has 5, 7, and 5 morae, respectively. When translated into English or written in English, the morae become syllables. In the 9th to 12th centuries, Japanese poets started a tradition called “tanka.” This progressive poem allowed one person to write three lines with the typically 5-7-5 structure, and then the next person would add to it. The additional lines would each have seven syllables, but the beginning verse was called ao hokku.
By the 19th century, hokku became an art form in and of itself, and the word haiku comes from that. The word “haiku” is both plural and singular. Writing haiku can be quite a fun creative writing exercise because you must fit them together like a puzzle. However, to become a great haiku poet, you must know how to write a haiku correctly as they would in Japan.
This guide will walk you through the steps so you can create beautiful haiku poetry that could stand its own even in Japan.
- Materials Needed
- Step 1: Choose a Topic
- Step 2: Brainstorm Your Topic
- Step 3: Know the Haiku Form
- Step 4: Write in Present Tense
- Step 5: Capture a Moment
- Step 6: Know the Sections
- Step 7: Replicate Kireji
- Step 8: Add Season Words
- Step 9: Punctuate Properly
- Step 10: Capitalize Your Way
- Step 11: Ignore Sentence Rules
- Step 12: Review Your Poem
- Kigo word dictionary
- Haiku examples
Step 1: Choose a Topic
Haiku poetry is about more than just the number of syllables in each line. True Japanese haiku focuses on just one topic – the natural world. More specifically, a haiku must discuss someone’s natural world observations. This may mean it discusses a particular season or time of year, or it may mean that it talks about one particular aspect of nature that the poet observed. One of the most famous haiku poems is “Old Silent Pond” by Matsuo Basho. The Japanese poem reads:
mizu no too”
Fumiko Saisho translated it this way:
“The old pond-
A frog jumps in,
sound of water.”
This poem talks about nature by discussing a frog and a pond. Originally published, it was unique because it discussed sounds the frog made beyond “croak,” which Japanese poets typically focused on. Japanese poetry has another type of poem that uses the same three-line, 17-syllable pattern: the senryu poem. The senryu poem does not talk about nature but instead talks about humanity in a funny or ironic way. To write a haiku, your subject must be nature.
Step 2: Brainstorm Your Topic
Once you know the topic of your haiku, brainstorm some ideas about it. Haiku often contain sensory-rich words. Think about the part of nature you wish to write about. Jot down the ideas that come to mind when you think of that aspect of the natural world. Your ideas can be little more than words because a haiku is so short. Write them down, and then you will have some ideas to start your haiku.
Step 3: Know the Haiku Form
Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that has a very structured layout. It is a three-line poem with a specific number of syllables in each line. The first line and last line of the poem both have five syllables. The second line has seven syllables. You can break up sentences if you need to between two lines, but the syllable structure stays consistent in haiku writing. Keep in mind that this syllable count is a little flexible. While most haiku follow the 5-7-5 pattern, you can give yourself some leeway here. Generally, the second line should be longer than the first and last lines.
Step 4: Write in Present Tense
Haiku poems typically use present tense verbs. This is because a haiku captures a moment in time. Here is an example of a haiku about cherry blossoms by the Japanese poet Basho:
“From all four quarters
Cherry petals blowing in
To Biwa’s waters”
Biwa is a lake in Japan. The reader of this poem can picture the pink cherry blossom petals blowing in and topping the lake’s surface. The poet writes in the present tense to help the reader picture the scene. Think about all of your senses when you write a haiku. What do you experience? Capture that, at the moment, in your poem, with present tense verbs.
Step 5: Capture a Moment
The haiku form tries to capture a single, striking moment in time. It is a short poem, so you do not have room to wax eloquent on a topic. Another Basho poem, “In Kyoto,” shows this idea:
“Even in Kyoto –
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto.”
He weaves nature into the poem to fit the haiku form, but in reality, he is saying much more. For example, in a moment when he hears the bird, he realizes that he longs for his ideal of the city of Kyoto, even though he is actually in a real-life city.
Step 6: Know the Sections
A haiku has two sections. One section talks about the image. It sets the stage and setting for the poem. This is usually the first two lines, but this is not a rule. The second section is different. It connects to the first, but it suggests an interpretation of the image in the first section or a contrast to the section. This juxtaposition makes the reader stop and think about the poem’s meaning. It is what lends such rich meaning to the haiku. For example, in the haiku “the snow is melting” by Kobayashi Issa, the poet writes:
“The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
The last line, with children, appears utterly separate from the image of snow meeting in a quaint village. The contrast brings to mind almost instantly their image of a bunch of children running through the streets to celebrate the coming of spring. The final line does not have five syllables, likely due to the translation process.
Step 7: Replicate Kireji
In traditional Japanese haiku, kireji are special “cutting words,” end lines. These do not have direct translations in the English language. They work like punctuation, but they have a sound. Thus, replicating them is not perfect. The cutting word in a Japanese poem will be placed between the two main parts. It furthers the distinction between the two parts and helps the reader see that for themselves when reading the poem.
That said, one way you can replicate the idea of a cutting word is with a dash or punctuation point. It shows that the idea is done, and you are moving on to the next idea. This haiku by Michael Dylan Welch shows the idea of kireji as an ellipse:
“scattered petals . . .
the thud of my books
in the book drop”
In this poem, you break between the idea of scattered petals, which brings to mind spring, and the thud of the books in the book drop in the third line, which brings ideas of returning books to the library.
Step 8: Add Season Words
Another part of the Japanese haiku is the kigo, which is a season word. In Japan, haiku poets have classified words as specific to a particular season. For example, the word “frog” is assigned to spring. In this English translation of a Japanese poem by Masaoka Shiki, the word “flies” is the season word:
“I want to sleep
Swat the flies
If you do not have a list of Japanese kigo, you can decide on season words for yourself. First, think about words that would apply to a particular season and list them. Then, include one of those in your haiku. True haiku poets will always include a season word in their poems. Haiku poems include one season word per poem. In English, poets can replicate this by studying kigo and finding words that fit in the English language.
Step 9: Punctuate Properly
In haiku, punctuation is less about grammar and more about telling the reader when thought stops. Pause punctuation, comma, semicolon, and period are commonly used. Here is an example by Garry Gay that uses pause punctuation.
a red-tail hawk’s solemn flight
through burial grounds”
The semicolon after summer shows the reader that the thought stops and moves to the poem’s second part. Relationship punctuation includes the colon, dash, and ellipsis. It shows the relationship between different words or parts of the poem or, in the case of the ellipsis, the passing of time. This poem by David Wright shows this type of punctuation used well:
“Moving to the sounds
of the shrine river: two women
practicing a dance”
Here, the colon shows that the new part of the poem starts, but the two women are directly connected to the river they are dancing to. In this one by Margaret Molarsky, ellipses show the passage of time after the first incident before the third line.
“From a granite cliff
letting wind take his ashes . . .
some blow back to me”
Note that many of these haiku do not need end punctuation. So while including a final period is not wrong, it is also not a requirement.
Step 10: Capitalize Your Way
Capitalization is another way that haiku is different from traditional poetry. This poetry form does not require the writer to capitalize. While you can capitalize, it is not required. Some of this stems from the fact that Japanese does not have capitalization in its traditional language the way English does.
You can leave every line with a lowercase letter if you wish, or capitalize the first line and leave the rest lowercase. You can also choose to use sentence case punctuation. This is up to you. That said, if you use any proper nouns in your haiku, do capitalize those. You do not want to look like you made a mistake with your capitalization.
Step 11: Ignore Sentence Rules
Haiku are rarely written in complete sentences. Fragments are entirely allowed in this poetry form. This is why end punctuation and beginning capitalization are often not part of a haiku. Remember, when writing your haiku, the goal is to capture a moment in time and your observations of it, not to use good grammar. Writing with fragments also leaves the poem a little open-ended. But, again, this can make it more open to interpretation by the reader, and making the reader think about the work is part of the goal of writing a haiku.
Step 12: Review Your Poem
Haiku seems simple, but it’s challenging to get it right. When you try to follow the traditional rules, like adding season words and cutting words in the form of punctuation, it becomes more challenging. Once you have your poem, review and revise it. You may find that you can use more engaging wording or change a comma to infuse a different meaning.
One of the best ways to do so is to read the poem out loud. Does it evoke the feeling you are trying to capture? Does the cadence and rhythm flow well? Does the punctuation elicit a pause where you want it? Then, restructure your haiku if needed, and you will have a finished poem to be proud to display.
To learn more, check out our round-up of the best metaphor poems!
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