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The History and Form of the Haiku

written by: Eighty Six • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 12/10/2012

Haiku is a Japanese poetic form typically consisting of one five syllable line, one seven, and one five. Its simplicity and accessibility have allowed it to spread throughout the world. However, the austerity of the form demands care and precision from the author.

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    Statue of  Ishikawa Takuboku in the Public Domain The modern haiku evolved from the ancient tanka. Dating back more than a thousand years, tanka were built in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern and were typically grouped together by multiple authors into chains. These long poems were commonly spiritual and courtly in theme. Increasingly, poetry for ordinary people came into fashion. Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) aspired to write poems that were “made with both feet on the ground... not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal.”

    The hokku is the first three lines of a tanka. In the late 19th century, Masaka Shiki broke the hokku away from the traditional tanka, leaving the first seventeen syllables to stand alone.

    The haiku's sparse form and earthy descriptions made it popular throughout Japan. Translators such as Harold G. Henderson and R.H. Blyth spread the form into Europe and America. Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder carried it from there. Now the haiku has touched the entire globe.

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    Seventeen syllables is the Japanese rule for a haiku. In the Japanese language, the poem is written all in one line and it is up to the reader to ascertain where the breaks are. The English adaptation of the haiku has been the familiar 5-7-5 form. Some argue that a Japanese syllable carries less information than an English one, so an equivalent English haiku should be shorter.

    Modern haiku artists like Jane Reichhold believe that a 3-5-3 syllabic form or a 2-3-2 accentual form match more closely the intentions of the Japanese original. This form follows the accentual form:

    rain gusts

    the electricity goes

    on and off

    ~Jane Reichhold

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    Tools Specific to the Haiku Artist

    Power in a haiku comes from a break or a twist in the middle of the poem, either between the first and second lines or between the second and third. This is called the “cutting”. A skillfully built haiku will leave the reader to choose whether the first two or last two lines belong together. Here is an example by Ryunosuke Akutagawa:

    Cherry Blossoms Sick and feverish

    Glimpse of cherry blossoms

    Still shivering.

    I find it difficult to discern whether “sick and feverish” refers to the viewer of the blossoms or the blossoms themselves. Is the speaker shivering or the tree? In such a small package, the bound power of the cut makes a haiku stronger.

    With only a few words to use, economy of language is essential. Seasonal imagery is a traditional method to pack energy and meaning into compact diction. Spring, for example, is not only the space between winter and summer. It is rebirth, resurrection, transition, potential, anticipation, fragrant blooms instead of odorless snow, and so much more. A single bud about to burst open is a rich image filled with literal and figurative meaning. So is vibrant summer fading into dormant winter:

    First autumn morning:

    The mirror I stare into

    Shows my father's face.

    ~Kijo Murakami

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    As I say with every project: begin with free-writing. Grab your notebook and a familiar pen. Fill a page with your topic of choice. Seasons and nature are traditional, but the world is yours. With any writing job, especially one this small, write a lot about a little. Pick a tiny subject for a haiku and magnify it.

    Now select from your page the elements essential to your topic. Look for contrast. See how an ant is tiny and easily crushed, yet can lift many times its weight and is dominating in large numbers. Note that a shark is speedy and ferocious in the sea, yet helpless and withering in the sun. Once you have found this juxtaposition and have brainstormed on both sides, you're ready to build.

    In a syllable-dependent form like the haiku, dense words are essential. Find smaller synonyms for long words. Flip through the thesaurus until you find a monosyllable you like better. Capitalize on double-meanings. Choose words that echo. Does a ring on a finger make you hear the sound of a bell or imagine people dancing in a circle? What simple symbols have broader meaning for you and your readers?

    Modern Haiku

    Haiku's compact portability has been the key to its success. Across the world, people take a little time to build seventeen syllable landscapes. They are taught to young children. I wrote my first haiku when I was seven. Speakers of every language on the planet compose and share haiku.

    The smallness of the world created by the internet has revived this form. Poetry communities of all types, including fans of the haiku, have formed across the web.

    When the seventeen syllables of haiku met the 140 characters of Twitter, it was a perfect January-May romance. You'll find people sharing #haiku commonly, including @Twaiku and @Twaiku_poetry. Ryan Mecum (@MecumHaiku), author of zombie and vampire haiku books, often tweets haiku challenges. His Valentine's Day zombie challenge prompted me to write this:

    I only have eyes

    For you. The hearts were too ripe.

    They were out of brains.

    Not as deep and tranquil as the original masters', but fun exercise nonetheless.

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    • Brainstorm on a feeling, image or theme. Write four haiku using diction from each season.
    • Take your favorite of these haiku and write it as one line. Write it again as three lines, but in a different order than the first. Now try it as a 3-5-3 syllabic and then a 2-3-2 accentual.
    • Write a haiku about something extraordinary, but make it sound ordinary.
    • Choose your favorite. Find a haiku fan on the web. Tweet it to him or her and also @86ThePoet.

    About the Author: David Klenda, also known as Eighty Six, is a poet, journalist, cook and cocktail maker. He supports his wife and sons with a combination of freelance writing and hospitality. Flexible and adaptable by nature, he accepts all writing challenges.