Jump Into Haiku

First published on the Vancouver Cherry Blossom festival website in April 2020 as a practical guide to getting started with haiku. Originally written in April 2020. See also “Becoming a Haiku Poet.”

        “Those who don’t jump will never fly.” ―Leena Ahmad Almashat, Harmony Letters

You’ve heard of haiku. You know it’s a short form of poetry from Japan. You might have friends who write haiku, at least occasionally, and you remember learning about it in school. You may remember that the teacher said something about counting syllables, but perhaps you’ve also heard that you don’t have to, and instead need to focus on capturing a moment of personal experience in three lines, often with a reference to the season—such as cherry blossoms for spring. But how do you get started? How do you jump into haiku?
        A good way to get going is to start noticing things. Pay attention to your five senses and be more conscious of the sensory input you absorb every day. What did you smell or touch on your afternoon walk? These are external seeds for haiku. How were you feeling when you scanned the news over breakfast or while you commuted to work or school? These are internal seeds for haiku. Haiku grows out of thinking about what causes your emotions—all the things you experience through your five senses. But don’t write about your feelings. Instead, be aware of them and focus on what may have caused them. Then write about those causes so that a feeling might be implied.
        But again, how do you start? Put a notebook in your pocket or start a file on your smartphone where you can jot notes. Focus on moments, on little observations. Take the things you see and hear and smell and touch and transform them into words. Pine boughs swaying in a gentle breeze. The sound of an ambulance as it speeds down the street. Seeds for haiku. Then put such observations together with another image to give the poem two parts. Maybe like this:

                pine tops swaying
                in a gentle breeze . . .
                a sparrow’s rising trill

                nodding geraniums—
                an ambulance wails
                down the boulevard

Do you see how these poems use specific references such as pine tops, a sparrow, geraniums, and boulevard? Make the most of your language in all its rich textures, but be careful not to add metaphors or similes that are detours to the objects you experience rather than the objects themselves. No titles or rhyme needed either. Do you see yourself there in the woods or on the street? Do you feel a sense of tranquility or peacefulness in the first poem, or maybe tension and concern in the second poem? These feelings are added by the reader, so you don’t need to say them in the poem. Just show images interacting and, with practice, the feelings will arise in each poem. Putting two things together is vital to making haiku work, creating an energizing or reverberating space, a space for you—and your readers—to jump into haiku.
        So, how can you write a haiku today? Try these steps:

  1. Go for a walk in a nearby park or around your neighbourhood. Take a notebook!
  2. Write down two or three details you notice through each of your five senses. These could be single words or short phrases that name or describe what you notice. Try to be factual rather than judgmental (such as saying a sunset has “red and yellow clouds” rather than saying it’s a “beautiful” sunset).
  3. On your walk or later, try turning each word or note into a longer phrase that presents the experience, and pair two descriptions together to create a haiku. It takes practice to pair the best elements together, but keep trying.
  4. Revise each poem to make it feel right, with no excess words, and maybe share it with friends to get their feedback—not just whether they like it, but what they like about it, or what might puzzle them.
  5. Make this a weekly habit and start filling your notebook with haiku seeds.

For variety, try these tips in different seasons of the year, at different times of day, and in the rain, snow, or in sunshine. The exact same walk will produce different experiences at these different times, giving you fresh seeds for haiku. And remember the words of poet Mary Oliver, who said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Jump in!