Haiku is one of the most popular types of poetry around. And for good reason: writing a rudimentary, no-frills haiku is easy. You can do it in 60 seconds. However, if you want to go beyond the basics and create a truly amazing haiku, you’ll need to take your time and do a little extra work. And your first task is understanding just what the haiku form is all about.

What is haiku?

Haiku are short — very short — poems that originated in Japan in the 13th century. Traditional haiku don’t rhyme, are usually written in the present tense, and are limited to just 17 “on,” or “syllables.” When written in English, these 17 syllables are broken up into three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables, respectively. The theme of a typical haiku is “the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linked to human nature,” as the Haiku Society of America expresses it.

Haiku didn’t sprout from the soil of Japan as a fully developed poetic form. Originally, these tiny poems were just the opening salvo of a type of oral poetry called renga, in which several poets would take turns adding a stanza until the final poem was 100 stanzas long. The haiku functioned almost like a modern-day writing prompt. Around the 16th century, poets began to compose haiku as stand-alone poems, though they were frequently paired with prose or paintings.

The western world discovered haiku hundreds of years later, with haiku composition finally making the leap to English in the early 20th century. Today, original haiku are written around the world, with new poems being published in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, and Bengali, among many other languages.

How to write haiku

You can take your haiku writing to the next level by following five easy steps. To illustrate the process, let’s transform one of my most unimaginative tweets into an evocative springtime haiku.

Spring tweet

1. Describe “the essence of a moment”

So … what was I really trying to communicate when I hastily snapped a photo of a cluster of cherry blossoms and tweeted the ever-so-eloquent phrase, “Spring is finally here”? Let’s try to figure that out by making a list of “essences of the moment” that crossed my mind at the time.

  1. I live in Seattle, a land of dreary, extended winter where rain rules the sky for months on end.
  2. The calendar may say it’s spring, but the gray clouds, wet sidewalks, and lifeless tree limbs say otherwise.
  3. While out for a walk, I came upon a perpetually bare tree that had suddenly been seized by the power of spring.
  4. Pink flowers are pretty!
  5. I’ve got to tell people about this. Nobody will believe spring has finally come to town after a winter that seemed like it would never end. Everyone must know!

2. Narrow it down to two juxtaposing images

A haiku is built upon the consideration and comparison of two striking, often powerfully disparate, images. The two juxtaposing images that my tweet suggests are a monotonous, gray city ensnared by endless rain, and a single tree declaring that it has broken free of the seasonal shackles by blooming.

In other words, the man-made world trapped in winter, juxtaposed with the natural world liberated by the arrival of spring. Translating this concept into imagery, we have something like:

On a concrete parking strip, nothing blooms.
A single tree shouts its defiance in the language of pink flowers.

3. Connect the two images with a “cutting word”

The Japanese term kireji, or  “cutting word,” is tough to translate into English. The Haiku Society of America defines it as “a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem.”

Basically, it’s a word, element of punctuation, or other poetic device that either interrupts the imagery and cuts the poem into two thoughts, or cuts the poem off at the end to provide the reader with a sense of closure.

Though Japanese haiku poets came up with eighteen standard cutting words they could use at will, the terms don’t have direct English equivalents. As a result, English-speaking poets have come to rely on punctuation like the em-dash to signify interruption, the ellipses to suggest the trailing off of a thought, and “Ah!” or similar exclamations to denote surprise.

We can see the use of the ellipses as a cutting word in the English translation of one of 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho’s best-known haiku:

Old pond …
A frog leaps in
Water’s sound

Here, the ellipses functions to signal that the stagnancy of the old pond is about to be shattered, subverting the reader’s expectation that the poem is going to be about enfeebled entropy. If you want to truly “cut” the reader’s train of thought and force their imagination to go in a new direction, try using words like “but,” “however,” or “suddenly.”

If we add a cutting word to our two juxtaposing images, we have:

On a concrete parking strip, nothing blooms —
A single tree shouts its defiance in the language of pink flowers.

4. Add a “seasonal word”

More Japanese vocab! This time we’ve got the term kigo, or “seasonal word.” The seasonal word was exactly that: a word that conveyed which season the haiku was describing. Traditional seasonal words were compiled into lists called saijiki. Words like “frog” and “cherry blossoms” signaled “spring” to the Japanese reader, while “wild duck” or “narcissus” unmistakably meant “winter.”

Unfortunately, many of these seasonal words don’t convey the same seasons to Western audiences — especially 21st-century audiences who split their lives between the urban and digital environments. You can check out an extensive, multicultural list at the World Kigo Database. Or you can come up with your own location- and culture-specific seasonal words. In my neck of the woods, “pumpkins” and “fog” would convey autumn, while “tulips” and “bunnies” would be instantly recognizable as spring.

Adding a Seattle-appropriate seasonal word, we get:

On a concrete parking strip, nothing grows in the drizzle —
A single tree shouts its defiance in the language of pink flowers.

5. Whittle it down to 17 syllables

This is the simplest part … and the hardest part. Let’s review the standard structure of a haiku before we start trimming the text:

Haiku poem formula template

Remember, you don’t have to make your words rhyme. But the syllable count of each line must be exact. After some judicious chopping and the addition of a pun on our seasonal word, here’s what we’re left with:

Concrete parking strip
In the drizzle silence reigns —
A tree roars in pink

And here’s the revised tweet in action:

Haiku spring tweet

Much better than “Spring is finally here!” I must say.

Ready to write your own haiku? Follow me on Twitter @katherineluck so I can see what you come up with!

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

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