Poetry Form - How to write Haiku,
a breath-length poetry form from Japan


The Haiku Verse Form
by J. Zimmerman

* History. * Examples. * Form. * Your Composition. * Senryū.
* A Linguist's Comments on Sounds and Syllables in Haiku. * References.
* Notes adapted from poet Ebba Story on how to improve your Haiku.
* Members' Anthology of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society: 2006 haiku anthology.

The Haiku is a Japanese verse form, and its name is generally translated as "good words."

A haiku is just a tiny poem, the size of your breath. They are good for you.

THREE exercises to write haiku-like poems: haiku and senryu:

History.

The Haiku originated in Japan.

Historically, it derives from the haikai (a linked-verse poem) which was created by a group of poets as a long series of small stanzas (or links).

The first stanza, which was called the hokku ("starting verse"), set the tone for the subsequent poem. Usually it set the scene by including a reference to the location and season. Often the most honored poet of the group was invited to compose the hokku.

Poets would practice writing hokku, many of which were never used as opening links.

The creation of the Haiku as a form in its own right occurred in the seventeenth century, when feudalism was weakening in Japan while merchants and trade were strengthening.

The term haiku arose in the 1890's, largely through Masaoka Shiki. The haiku retained the "5-7-5" form of the hokku, and retained its inclusion of a reference to the season.

In Japan intense study is made of what are acceptable kigo (season words) and kidai (seasonal topics). Some English-language poets incorporate translated kigo (such as "snow") and some create new ones (such as "Christmas").

In Japanese Haiku, Kenneth Yashuda asserts that a haiku is a poem that:

Examples.

Among the most beautiful and powerful haiku are those written by the Japanese poets

Some of the best translations of their work are in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass.

The author of this essay is delighted to report that some of her haiku have been voted "Best of Issue" by readers of the haiku magazine Geppo.

Form.

There is great variation and discussion within Japan on "how to write a haiku" and even more argument outside of Japan on how to write non-Japanese haiku.

I advise you to try each feature of the haiku form, in order to learn from the inside what those attributes help you bring to your poems.

Those interested in 65 different "rules" for haiku can search the web for Jane Reichhold's essay Haiku Rules that have Come and Gone. As Reichhold comments: "Haiku, which seem so light, free and spontaneous, are built on discipline. ... Bashō had his motto: 'Learn the rules; and then forget them.' ... here are some old and new rules." Reichhold suggests that you decide on some rules from essays and haiku and other poems you admire. And that after you have used those for a while, and become skilled with them, you pick and explore other rules.

Here is a small set of rules to start with:

Your Composition.

Haiku is not just the form; it is a way of experiencing in the world around us.

Here are some steps to take in creating a Haiku:

  1. Look around you, where you are.

    Write phrases of what you see. The phrases don't need to be connected. Make at least one phrase for each sense.

    Write some more phrases, each with some words that reflect location. E.g., "on a withered branch."

    Then write some more phrases, reflecting the season or the time of year. E.g., "oak leaves budding."

  2. Some haiku doctrines require that you "compose on the spot," writing the haiku when and where you experience it. Some poets claim that this is the only way for a haiku to have true and fresh originality.

    Other poets "compose from recollection" hours, days, or years later. Some poets claim that this deepens the associations in the haiku, though letting your subconscious and conscious mind mull over the images.

    And other poets "compose from imagination." Some poets believe that the greatest creativity is shown in this method, provided that the result "feels" honest.

    We suggest that you try each method.

  3. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the form begins to feel forced, then the poem's content must be asserted.

  4. Traditionally, you only break the form's rules because you choose to, not because you lack the skills and devotion to make your poem work in the traditional form.

Some favorite construction techniques for haiku:

A Linguist's Comments on Sounds and Syllables in Haiku.

The following notes are taken from an e-mail to me by linguist Katsuhiko Momoi:


Some thoughts from a linguistic point of view.

1. "Onji" or "Jion" are simply inaccurate terms to use to refer to
   countable units in Haiku or Tanka poetry. Someone must have incorrectly   
   used these for that purpose at one point in history and somehow they
   "stuck". This type of incorrect identification and usage is fairly
   common in the annals of lexicography.

2. Though there is still some controversy, it is more or less accepted
   that Japanese have both syllable and mora.  A syllable is a unit that
   can bear a Japanese pitch accent or forms a coherent physical
   phonetically pronounceable entity. A syllable can be long or short.
   Mora(e) are used in "counting" in poetry and other language-related
   tasks. Long syllables are counted as 2 morae and short ones as 1 mora.

3. Haiku and Tanka generally use mora (or a counting unit) as the basis
   for determining 5-7-5(-7-7) lengths.

4. Here are possible syllable types in Japanese:

   (C)V
   (C)VV
   (C)VN
   (C)VC-

   where C = consonant, V = vowel, N = a mora nasal, i.e. "n". There could
   be also (G = glide, i.e. "y" or "w") after C and before V.

   The first type above is counted as 1 mora unit and the other 3 are
   counted as 2 mora units for a variety of counting purposes in Japanese
   including that in poetry.
    

Senryū

Humorous haiku are now called senryū, to distinguish these jokey little poems, often targeting their mirth on someone else, from the more austere and inward haiku. Some western groups differentiate them strongly, while others (in acknowledgment of their sometimes fuzzy boundary) do not; the premier USA journals Modern Haiku and The Heron's Nest do not currently differentiate.

See our blog for Haiku Humor: Wit and Folly in Japanese Poems and Prints (by Stephen Addiss with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto), a particularly delightful senryū collection.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Haiku, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a haiku may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form.

Other Books on Haiku.

Buy Essential Haiku The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa
edited by Robert Hass.
Enthralling essays by the past-poet laureate of the U.S.A. of the lives of three masters and inventors of the haiku tradition in Japan: Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa.
Buy Haiku World Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac
by William J. Higginson, Meagan Calogeras (Editor)
Over 1000 poems by more than 600 poets living in 50 countries and writing in 25 languages, presented in both English and their original languages. The tradition begun hundreds of years ago in Japan is now clearly international. See the companion volume, The Haiku Seasons, for the tradition of the haiku genre (particularly haiku, senryu, and linked poetry).
Buy Japanese Haiku The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, With Selected Examples,
by Kenneth Yasuda.
History of the haiku as it developed into a universal and adaptable poetic structure.
Buy Introduction to Haiku An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashō to Shiki
by Harold Gould Henderson (Editor).
Analyzes the development of Japanese haiku under the leadership of Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Includes the "Romaji" (or Romanized) transliteration of the Japanese, showing the original sounds of the poem. Henderson rhymes the first and last lines (sometimes awkwardly); his translations are mainly 5-7-5 English syllables (giving a heavy poem compare to the language of the Japanese).


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