Haiku is a type of poem that is an important part of the Japanese literary tradition. Certain factors make a haiku a haiku: a set number of words and a specific number of syllables. Haikus are mood poems, meaning their intention is to create or communicate a particular feeling. For this reason, haikus do not use traditional poetic devices like similies or metaphors, but are reliant on the choice and order of words to convey a feeling.

The History of the Haiku

By the 7th century, many Japanese Shinto religious rituals were preceded by short, melodic poems called "uta." The poems typically focused on harvests, celebrations, nature or prayer. One of the most popular of the uta forms was called "waka," and referred to a poem composed of 31 syllables broken into five lines. The five lines contained five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables respectively. It became a highly respected poetic form, and court nobility who excelled at writing waka were recognized for their talents. The form continued to spread in popularity throughout Japan, and the construction of linked poems that followed the structural rules of waka was known as "renga"and became something of a party game for the elite.

During the 16th century, the Japanese peasant class began to create their own poetry. At this time, renga began to take took on a lighter, less serious air. The themes of renga created during this period were sometimes humorous or off-color, comparable to a limerick. It wasn't until the 17th century when the educator, Matsunaga Teitoku, decided to teach the traditional elements of the poetry to his most learned poetry student Matsuo Basho that the haiku arrived at its recognizable form. Basho was one of the most famous writers of haiku in the medium's history. He embraced the values of lightness, simplicity and humility and wrote often about man's relationship to nature. Basho was a proponent and practitioner of on-the-spot composition, writing poems when inspiration struck no matter where he was. At the end of his life, he had written more than one thousand poems and had trained many students in the subtle art of haiku. Haiku poetry became popular in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, haiku poetry is traditionally describes a nature-inspired verse of three lines containing five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second, and five in the third. This is known as the 5-7-5 structure.

How to Write a Haiku

There are no wrong ways to get inspiration for a poem. Typically, haiku is a feeling poem about nature, so you may want to take a walk, look at photographs of the outdoors or remember a particularly striking experience you had in the natural world. Then follow these steps:

  1. Think about two images that are different, but which are striking when connected. 
  2. Without worrying about counting syllables, write down those images. 
  3. Try to turn the first image into two sentences and the second image into a third sentence. 
  4. Then, pare down the sentences so you are left with the smallest number of words possible that still express the image you had in mind. 
  5. From there keep removing words or collapsing ideas until your idea is expressed in the 5-7-5 structure. 

It may be helpful to read haikus before composing your own. Reading the work of other poets can help you understand the structure and tone and to learn to compose poetry in this challenging and very economical style.

What Is an Example of a Haiku?

This haiku is by the Japanese poet Basho:

"The temple bell stops

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers."

This poem has been translated from Japanese, so the syllable count is different in English. An example of a haiku written in English that follows the 5-7-5 rule is this tribute to Basho by the poet Philip Appleman:

Clouds murmur darkly,

it is a blinding habit –

gazing at the moon.

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