Haiku is a way of sharing moments of personal experience with another person. In Japan, where this poetry originated, traditional haiku uses a pattern of five, seven, and then five sounds (not to be confused with syllables) in a single vertical line. A three-line presentation is most common in English, with a growing practice of using one line to more closely approximate the Japanese form. Variations include visual or concrete haiku, vertical alignments, or other creative variations, which may all work well if the poem’s content remains primarily experiential in sharing a keenly perceived everyday moment. In English, ten to fourteen syllables is about the same length as the seventeen sounds in Japanese. In both languages, a traditional haiku employs a kigo or season word, telling readers when the poem is taking place. It also uses a kireji or cutting word to divide the poem into two parts. In English, this effect is created by giving the poem two grammatically separate parts (never three). The “cut” between the two juxtaposed parts is sometimes indicated with punctuation, often a dash or ellipsis. Even without punctuation, however, you should be able to observe a cut or pause in the grammar between the first and second parts of the poem, together with a shift of images. Haiku (the word is both singular and plural) dwell chiefly in objective images, minimizing any subjective commentary or analysis. They also use the five senses and present tense to help make the poem’s experience immediate and personal. Each poem should offer you something that you can taste, touch, smell, see, or hear—and also feel emotionally. A good haiku makes the ordinary extraordinary by offering its close attention, and as a reader your continued close attention “finishes” the poem.
Haiku do not have titles, and nearly always avoid rhyme, as well as overt metaphor and simile, but they can take advantage of assonance, consonance, and other poetic techniques to help make the poem lyrical and engaging. It has been said that haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon, and if the finger is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon. Certain poetic techniques are best kept to a minimum, seeming almost invisible, as if the words themselves vanish in place of meaning, implication, and emotional effect.
It is possible to write haiku about nearly anything—they need not be limited just to the beautiful. Indeed, haiku can be dark or light in their subject matter and tone. But regardless of the feelings they evoke, the best of these poems often celebrate ordinary, everyday experiences—Jack Kerouac said that haiku should be as simple as porridge. A haiku paints a clear and sharply focused picture for others to relate to in sensory and emotional ways.
This poetry has a rich tradition in Japanese, stretching back many centuries. Haiku in English began adding its own traditions more than a hundred years ago, and now haiku is written in many languages around the world. While haiku is often mistaught as being merely anything in a pattern of five-seven-five syllables, it’s worth moving beyond popular beliefs that are often oversimplified and even misguided to discover the more challenging disciplines—and rewards—of this poetic art.
To learn more about English-language haiku, it is useful to read some of its foremost books, such as William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, and Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Translations of the leading Japanese masters are also recommended, especially those featuring Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Chiyo-ni. Good books to start with are Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku, and translations by Stephen Addiss, Haruo Shirane, and Makoto Ueda, among others. The older translations of R. H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson have much to offer as well. But do not dwell only in the past or presume that haiku is just what was written hundreds of years ago, or think of it as a “Zen” art, which is how it is sometimes taught in the West. Instead, look for translations by recent and contemporary Japanese haiku poets as well, where you’ll discover a variety of approaches that typically have nothing to do with Zen. Haiku continues to be a living art in Japan.
Children also deserve good information. An excellent book for introducing children to writing and appreciating haiku is Patricia Donegan’s Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids. Be wary of lesson plans online that believe they have taught haiku successfully by telling students simply to count syllables.
Organizations such as the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, the British Haiku Society, the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, and Japan’s Haiku International Association are well worth joining to benefit from their meetings and news, and especially their journals, such as Frogpond, Haiku Canada Review, Blithe Spirit, and Geppo. Other journals worth reading are Modern Haiku, The Heron’s Nest, Acorn, Hummingbird, Mayfly, Bottle Rockets, and Presence, among many others, both in print and online.
You might also enjoy Haiku North America, the world’s largest haiku conference outside Japan, held every two years since 1991, which has served to be the haiku community’s most significant and inspirational gathering of the tribes. Smaller regional haiku retreats also take place annually in various locations, such as the Seabeck Haiku Getaway that I direct. In California, the American Haiku Archives preserves the world’s largest collection of haiku materials outside Japan, including books, journals, and ephemera. And be sure to look for local haiku groups that might meet near where you live. You can find these groups by networking with people who lead national organizations or by searching online.
The Haiku Foundation is perhaps the leading online repository for information about haiku in English. It offers discussion forums, featured poems, news and announcements, digital archives, lists of journal and contest submission deadlines, resources for teaching haiku, and a directory of haiku poets. The Haiku Society of America website also provides extensive information about haiku, as well as winners from its many contests for haiku, senryu, and related poetry. A map of the society’s various regional groups makes it easy to connect. The website for Modern Haiku magazine presents numerous essays and reviews from its past issues. Many personal websites and blogs feature haiku, senryu, and commentary, often with great enthusiasm, but some of these sites are unreliable sources of haiku information.
Social media also offers much opportunity for haiku sharing and feedback, such as the NaHaiWriMo page on Facebook, which encourages the daily writing of haiku—with writing prompts provided year-round, not just in the official month of February. Searches for haiku on Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Google Plus, and even LinkedIn reveal much to explore, but with the usual caveats about popular misperceptions.
Small presses that specialize in haiku include Alba Publishing, Bottle Rockets Press, Brooks Books, Press Here, Red Moon Press, and Snapshot Press, among others, all of which are well worth seeking out, especially the annual Red Moon anthologies.
Many organizations also have haiku contests that you might consider entering. Some charge a fee, which helps to support the organization, but you can also find a number of free English-language haiku contests around the world.
Haiku is widely mistaught in Western schools and textbooks simply as a syllable-counting exercise. Writing haiku with a five-seven-five syllable pattern is where many people start, which is always a choice that anyone is free to make, but haiku offers many rewards and challenges beyond painting by numbers. Above all, your pursuit of haiku should remain enjoyable.
You might also be interested in related genres of poetry, such as senryu (a more humorous or satirical variation of haiku), tanka (a much older genre of poetry than haiku, written in five lines in English), haibun (chiefly autobiographical prose with haiku interspersed or at the end), haiga (paintings with haiku added in calligraphy), shahai, or photo-haiga (photographs with typeset haiku), and linked-verse forms such as renku, renga, tan-renga, and rengay. I explore many of these forms on my personal website, Graceguts.com, which also offers numerous essays and reviews relating to the learning and appreciation of haiku poetry.
The way of haiku is never-ending. It is indeed a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. May your next steps with haiku include NaHaiWriMo, and much more, as you continue to share in the daily celebration of this inspiring poetry.