Hello, everyone! When my daughter was ten years old, she wrote a handout called “How to Haiku.” When I teach haiku to adults, I have a “Haiku Checklist” I often share, but even the adults prefer my daughter’s handout, and you might like it too. What she wrote is informative, so I’ll share that with you to help you learn haiku. We’ll also hear cherry blossom haiku written by youth who have entered the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s annual Haiku Invitational contest.
So, let’s get started. You may be wondering, “What is haiku?” That’s the first question my daughter answered. She said, “Haiku is a short poem from Japan. In English, they’re usually in three lines, with no titles or rhyme. You don’t have to count syllables in English.”
Does that last statement surprise you? It surprises some people because they’ve been taught that haiku count syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern. That makes sense in Japanese, but not so much in English. That’s because the sounds they count are not the same as our syllables, and their words often have more syllables than our words for same thing in English. For example, when we say the word “cuckoo,” they would say “hototogisu,” which has more sounds. Most Japanese words are like that, so they use up their seventeen sounds more quickly. We can see another difference in the word “haiku” itself (俳句). In English, the word “haiku” is counted as two syllables (high-coo) but in Japanese it actually counts as three sounds (ha-i-ku). That’s not how you say it, but it is how it’s counted.
You can write haiku in a 5-7-5 pattern if you want to, but why not try shorter haiku? This way, your haiku will be closer to the size of what they write in Japanese [see “The Heft of Haiku”]. A friend of mine who lives in Japan once wrote, in a book about haiku, that if you write 17 syllables in English, that’s sometimes enough for two haiku in Japanese. So, 5-7-5 is not required in English, though a lot of people think it is. Writing a shorter poem is perfectly fine. So, don’t worry about counting syllables. There are actually more important targets to aim for, as we’re about to see.
The next thing my daughter wrote was how we should “write a haiku with your five senses, a reference to the season, and in two parts.” We’ll learn a bit more about these targets in a moment, but first, here’s a famous haiku from Japan, included in my daughter’s handout. It’s by the poet Issa, and here’s what he wrote more than two hundred years ago:
yuki tokete mura ippai no kodomo kana
snow melting . . .
the village is flooded
For a moment you think, “Oh, no! The village is flooded!” And then you get a happy surprise. “Ah, the village is flooded with children!” Why do you think that happened? I think it’s because the winter has been long and cold, and now the snow is melting. It must be warm out and all the children in the village are rushing outdoors to enjoy the warm weather, maybe splashing in puddles. And did you notice the season? The poem mentions snow, but it’s not winter. The snow is melting, so it must be spring. Haiku asks you to pay close attention to subtleties like this.
Here’s the next thing my daughter wrote in her haiku handout, about seasonal reference. She said that haiku traditionally refer to the season in some way. You could name the season, such as spring, summer, fall, or winter, or you can refer to something that is typical of that season. “In Japanese haiku,” my daughter wrote, “a season word is called a kigo” (季語). That’s spelled K-I-G-O. “It’s a word that refers to the time of year, the way snow usually tells us it’s winter or how certain flowers represent spring.” She also said, “Use just one seasonal reference in your haiku,” which is good advice, to give your haiku a sharper focus. You don’t want to write about too many things!
The next subject my daughter wrote about is how haiku rely on your senses. “Your five senses,” she wrote, “are sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. In a haiku, you want to show readers what you were sensing at a particular moment.” And that “moment” is an important idea too, because haiku are usually about things that occur in short moments of personal experience. They can record things that happen to you every day, such as eating a sandwich, running to catch a bus, or watching a leaf fall to the pavement. These are all seeds for haiku, and it’s up to you to water them so they grow into haiku.
Haiku are usually not things you completely make up or imagine. You can do that in other kinds of writing, but a haiku wants to show you ordinary things in ordinary life, so you can appreciate them more. The famous writer Jack Kerouac said haiku should be as simple as porridge. Do you have porridge for breakfast sometimes? It’s not a special food. It’s just something ordinary, and you can write about ordinary things like that in your haiku, things that you experience through your five senses. And you can write about them in a simple way. My daughter said, “See if you can include one or two lines about at least one of your senses in your haiku.”
The next thing my daughter wrote about might be the hardest challenge of all. But don’t think of it as something that’s hard to do, but something to try, to see if it works. My daughter wrote that “Japanese haiku are divided into two parts by what’s called a kireji or cutting word” (切れ字). That’s spelled K-I-R-E-J-I. My daughter explained that “We don’t have cutting words in English, but we can still give our haiku two parts.” She means that there’s a pause in the poem, making the haiku feel like it’s cut in two. One of those parts might be just a fragment of a sentence, such as “spring breeze.” That could be the first line of your haiku, and in this case it also lets others know the season. Then the rest of the poem could present something else that’s happening to you. For example, you could write about the pull of your dog on its leash, and that would fit with spring because that pull is youthful and energetic, like spring. To demonstrate, here’s a haiku my daughter wrote:
a Yorkie puppy
catching cherry petals
Can you hear the two parts? The first part is the breezy morning, which gives us a context or setting. The second part is the Yorkie puppy catching cherry petals. When you put them together the two parts paint a picture that most people can relate to. In this case she didn’t say “spring breeze.” Cherry blossoms appear at the end of the poem, which will tell us the season, so she didn’t need to say “spring” in the first line. But we can easily see this image, can’t we? A good haiku wants us to see and feel what the poet experienced. And it also wants to make us care about the image or experience in the poem. In this way, we can share the same experience as the poet, and feel empathy and connection—even joy—in knowing that others have lives similar to ours.
Do you think you could try haiku too? At the end of her handout, my daughter wrote, “Now it’s your turn! Can you write a haiku for each of your five senses?” And she closed by emphasizing two important recommendations: First, “Don’t forget to have two parts and a season word in each poem.” And then she said, “Have fun!”
And you know what else I’d say? Share your poems! That’s probably the most important step with haiku. In Japan, for centuries, haiku poets have shared their poems in a writing game, called renga, and in a friendly haiku meeting, called a kukai. And today we can share haiku in creative ways, too. How might you share your haiku? Write a few haiku today and share them with your friends or family, maybe with a photograph or painting, or in folded paper or other artwork. Things that happen to you every day, today, are seeds for haiku, and it’s up to you to help them grow.
So, here’s a summary of what we’ve talked about today. Haiku is short poetry from Japan, and you can write haiku in English. Haiku can help you pay closer attention to the world around you, and also pay attention to your feelings in reaction to your experiences. But here’s a final tip: Don’t write about your feelings. Instead, write about what caused your feelings. That can make a world of difference. This way, the people who hear or read your haiku can have their own feelings in response to your poem. That’s the secret of haiku! I hope this overview of haiku poetry inspires you to look for “haiku seeds” in your everyday life, whether at school or work, in a city, or out in nature. With practice, you can water and fertilize your haiku seeds and make them grow into haiku poems that you can enjoy sharing with others.
Thank you. Now write some haiku!