A Definition of Haiku

A. E. Housman once wrote  that “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” Perhaps the same challenge applies to haiku, but a basic definition can at least be a place to start (most dictionaries and textbooks, however, are surprisingly superficial and even misguided). If someone tapped any of us on the shoulder and expressed a genuine interest in knowing what a haiku was, all haiku poets would have some sort of explanation. So this is my answer. First published as a sidebar to “Ten Ways to Improve Your Poetry with Haiku,” an essay of mine that appeared in Poet’s Market 2005 (Writer’s Digest Books, 2004) and was reprinted in The Craft & Business of Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008). To order the book, please visit the F+W Media Bookstore. See also Kelly’s Pick. The following definition also appears in Haiku Journey (MumboJumbo, 2006), a computer game for which I served as the haiku editor, and more recently appeared in The Brief: Newsletter of the British Haiku Society (#88, June 2011, page 7), in Naomi Beth Wakan’s The Way of Haiku (Gabriola, British Columbia: Pacific-Rim Publishers, 2012, page 8), and in Constance Patricks haiku collection, Filling the Pondering Pool (Sedona, Arizona: Word Crafter Press, 2023, page 6). See also Notes on Japanese Forms. So here it is, my working definition for haiku.       +       +

Haiku in English is typically a three-line poem that uses concrete sensory images to convey or imply natural and human seasonal phenomena, using a two-part juxtapositional structure as well as simple and primarily objective language. Originally a Japanese genre of poetry, now written and adapted in many languages worldwide, traditional haiku in Japanese consists of seventeen sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a pattern of 5-7-5. Because of differences in language, this rhythm is generally not followed for literary haiku in most languages other than Japanese. As intuitive and emotional poems, haiku often capture a sense of wonder and wholeness in presenting existence such as it is. Rather than presenting one’s emotions, haiku present the cause of one’s emotions, thus empowering the reader to have the same intuitive reaction to an experience that the poet had.