What is a haiku?

In English language poetry the haiku is typically understood to be a short, three line poem comprised of a set number of syllables, and which usually deals with nature. This is a bare-bones description, and haiku can encompass a lot more, but it’s a good starting point.

The best haiku is astounding. It’s also, at times, astoundingly difficult to compose. Haiku are deceptively simple and wonderfully brief poems—something which contributes to their striking nature—but how much brevity is too much brevity? Do haiku essentially say nothing beautifully, or say beautiful things with just a few words?

Haiku is perhaps one of the most misunderstood poetry forms in English language writing, perhaps due to the difficulties adapting the literary form from one culture to another. But it’s hardly impossible! Haiku adapts to language after language, place after place. Understanding a few key concepts, along with having a firm grasp on a few compositional techniques, can make all the difference.

The roots of haiku

Haiku has undergone a long evolution since it was known as hokku, or the lead verse in a renga, a form of collaborative poetry. In the 19th century Masaoka Shiki built upon what Bashō had done to separate the verse, renaming it the “haiku”. First brought to the attention of English speakers by the Imagists, haiku later gained wider exposure in the West after World War II through the work of scholar R.H. Blythe, where it then found favor with the Beats and other writers of the age. It’s now practiced in dozens of countries and languages.

Haiku syllable count

Traditional Japanese Haiku has a rigid form arranged around a set syllable count of seventeen. When translated into English, these verses are presented in three lines and follow the same pattern of syllables. This sort of structural requirement is one of the aspects of Haiku that differentiates it from free verse poems. Some of the thrill of writing haiku is to shape a poem around this form, the lines commonly following the “five-seven-five” pattern.

But that requirement isn’t set in stone for two reasons:

  1. The differences between the English and Japanese languages is vast, and

  2. Other combinations of syllable count per line can still equal seventeen syllables or less. In fact, what’s more important than syllable count is the notion that a haiku should be spoken in “a single breath”, an edict that can be achieved with various combinations and totals of syllables. Take, for instance, this famous verse translated from the master haiku-poet Bashō:

Summer grasses (4)

all that remains (4)

of soldiers dreams (4)

translated by Lucien Stryk

Or this one, by Australian poet Graham Nunn:

distant thunder (4)

each stroke of the oar (5)

stirs the clouds (3)

Neither total nor individual line syllable counts conform to the traditional structure of 5-7-5. Why is this so? Are Bashō and his translators deviants, gleefully breaking seventeenth-century conventions? Is Graham a crazed radical too? Of course not! Even if Bashō was sometimes known to break the rules, what these examples do is illustrate a difference between the two languages—namely, the difference between a syllable in English and a unit of sound in Japanese. In Japanese haiku, what we might call syllables are actually on or “morae”. This description of sound is actually more dynamic than a syllable. For instance, in English the word “haiku” has two syllables—”hai-ku”; but in Japanese it’s made up of three on and so it becomes “ha-i-ku”. Mostly this difference equates to English syllables being longer than on, and so a contemporary English language haiku written in seventeen syllables can often feel overlong, and isn’t necessarily true to the original form.

So what next? Generally speaking, a verse in English between 12 and 15 syllables is quite acceptable—and those spanning 10-17 can also retain the feeling of brevity that’s so important to haiku. So, in short: 5-7-5 and 17 in total is a-ok, but so is something a little shorter. Other aspects of the haiku are just as—or even more—important than slavishly counting syllables.

Examples of haiku cutting-words

Another structural feature of the haiku is the kireji, or “cutting word”. In Japanese, kireji is a word used as punctuation, often signifying a question or an emotional subtext, along with a break or pause at the end of a line. In English, cutting words are generally replaced by punctuation like exclamation marks, question marks, and dashes, or less often, commas or ellipses, depending on how sharp a “cut” the author is aiming for. See this haiku by painter and poet Yosa Buson:

utter aloneness—

another great pleasure

in autumn twilight

translated by Sam Hamill

Or sometimes there’s no punctuation at all, but more of an implied pause, as in this ku by lesser known poet Raizan:

for rice planting women

there’s nothing left unsoiled

but their song

translated by Sam Hamill

Examples of haiku season-words

In addition to these structural features, there’s one more requirement in Haiku: the kigo, or “season-word”, which is something in the haiku that locates the poem in a season of the year. Kigo are what differentiates the haiku from other, similar forms of Japanese poetry. Kigo are triggers that set off a seasonal association in the mind of the reader, sometimes with complex cultural and historical overtones that are absent when transplanted into another language or culture. For instance, the autumn kigokinuta” is translated as “fulling blocks” and signifies the mallets used to pound fullers’ earth through cloth in a traditional dry cleaning process. “The sound of fulling blocks was typical of an autumn evening in old Japan“. Due to this layer of meaning, formal kigo are not always used in contemporary English language haiku; instead, region-specific words, phrases, or other seasonal indicators may appear.

Season words are metonymic or associative in all cultures—we each have our memories about the seasons and the activities performed within them. Inclusion of a kigo, or at the least a seasonal reference, is important to haiku not just for subtly but for richness. They give the verse a bank of memories, images, and associations ro invoke in the reader without drowning the poem in words.

Here are two examples of kigo, both by Kobayashi Issa, another haiku master:


a scarecrow also ends up

in evening’s smoke

—&translated by David G. Lanoue*

Here ‘scarecrow’ is the kigo, invoking autumn with clarity and simplicity. Next, a verse where the kigo is taken to represent late summer—bet you can guess which word it is:

little monk—

deep in his sleeve

singing, a cicada

—&translated by David G. Lanoue*

Of course, the world is a big place, and different countries have different weather, customs, and traditions, so kigo may not always be understood by every reader. For instance, if I were to use the word “June” in a verse, then readers in the Southern hemisphere might think, “Ah, this poem is set in winter!”—but June is a summer month for parts of the world. Sometimes it might be better to choose a word or short phrase to hint at the season, or to just name it outright. Invoking features of nature works too—”summer grasses”, for instance.

Haiku rules and related poem types

As we’ve learned, haiku are defined by a few general rules. But if we leave out one of the rules, is what we’ve written still haiku? If not, what is it?

One of haiku’s close relatives is the senryu, which in modern practice is actually often interchangeable with haiku. A senryu focuses on humanity and its foibles, and it sometimes possesses a satirical edge. They don’t typically require a kigo, but may mention a season. They’re structurally the same as haiku, and often these verses are published as haiku, though dedicated journals and anthologies observe the distinction.

Another form that may appear similar to the traditional haiku is the gendai haiku, a verse which doesn’t feature kigo or even always an imagistic focus on nature or “zen” moments of revelation. This style of haiku came about during post war Japan, at a time when haiku was a fierce battleground and gendai or “modern” haiku poets were jailed for refusing to fall into line with traditionalists. Their school wanted to move forward while retaining a link to the past, and incorporated new topics, such as surrealism, politics and urban landscapes in addition to new approaches to form, which were not bound by the strict syllable count. Metaphor and simile were sometimes incorporated, something which isn’t often found in haiku (instead relying upon juxtaposition). Gendai haiku relates to both a style and a very specific historic period, but it’s sometimes described as ‘innovative’ haiku in English.

Here are three of my favourite examples of gendai haiku, demonstrating the progressive nature of the form. This one was written in 1955 by Kaneko Tōta:

like squids

bank clerks are fluorescent

from the morning

translated by Makoto Ueda

These two are by Hakusen Watanabe:

War was standing

at the bottom

of the hallway

translated by Keiji Minato

Horses annihilated

spread in the shape

of a swastika

translated by Keiji Minato

Understanding haiku format and composition

Haiku can be tough to write, but they’re worth the challenge, and there are a few techniques that can help during composition.


The first technique you can take advantage of—and if you’ve read haiku you’ll have seen it often—is the use of juxtaposition.

Jane Reichhold’s “phrase & fragment” theory is one of the most powerful techniques there is for involving juxtaposition a haiku. It has long been used in contemporary English haiku, and it’s also common in translated works. The theory suggests that a verse ought to be made up of both a phrase and a fragment. The fragment appears at line one or line three and usually dispenses with articles, while the phrase is made up of the remaining lines—lines two and three, or one and two. You can see this technique in the above examples—some feature it more strongly than others—and you’ll also notice that the “cut” is a vital part of this approach. Below is an example of another Bashō poem, where line one is the fragment:

waterjar cracks—

I lie awake

this icy night

translated by Lucien Stryk

The lines dealing with his wakefulness make up the phrase part of the poem. Now while this theory is the easiest way to achieve juxtaposition, it more importantly allows the poet to avoid the crowded feeling of the sort of haiku which has too much going on—haiku with something vivid in each line. Haiku with three or more images or ideas competing for the reader’s attention often suffer from this feeling of crowded-ness, and they seem to become list-like or are lacking internal relationships between images and ideas.

Juxtaposition thus seeks to compare or contrast fewer ideas, instead bringing them together in a single image. In the following example, one location is described and contrasted with the people visiting it:

church steps

lead to a beggar’s cup

sunburnt tourists

If we were to rewrite this with a vivid image in each line, we might end up with something like this:

speckled church steps

a beggar’s empty cup

the chatter of sunburnt tourists

See how it’s become crowded with description, and how the relationship between ideas and images becomes unclear because of the list-like appearance? Contributing to this new feeling is the removal of the phrase and fragment. This re-written version is too prescriptive in its description; it doesn’t allow the reader to infer information about the scene and its participants.

Here’s another haiku, written by Graham Nunn, featuring juxtaposition:

dawn sky

steam from the lamb’s


As you can see, juxtaposition is achieved by setting one image or idea in the “fragment” portion and contrasting it with a second, often related, image or idea in the “phrase” portion of the verse. By doing this, the haiku avoids overcrowding, retains a sense of lightness, maintains the “cut” or natural pause, and allows the reader to draw the two parts together in their mind. The phrase and fragment approach is also key to many other techniques and will improve the quality of your haiku if you’re facing difficulties keeping the haiku brief, or struggling with achieving either a satisfying internal structure or a sense of connectness between images.

Sense switching

“Sense switching” is a great technique for surprising and delighting the reader. A haiku poet might use it to engage the reader by introducing something unexpected in the poem or to connect two seemingly unrelated events or images. You can do this through careful placement of information across the phrase and fragment. Here, sense switching is illustrated by what’s perhaps the most famous haiku of all, Bashō’s “Old Pond” haiku:

old pond

a frog jumps into

the sound of water

translated by Jane Reichhold

The poem starts off by focusing on an image—on the visual—but by the end, the sense has been switched from sight to sound. Again, we see the use of phrase and fragment, where the visual aspect appears in the fragment and sound elment appears in the phrase. What’s especially impressive about this haiku is the way the movement of the frog leads to the transition from sight to sound, neatly tying the elements of the poem together and avoiding the “list-like” haiku.

Here’s one of my own verses, featuring the same switch:

through the shutters

a single fly

carries the chug of boats

This poem, while less graceful, uses different subjects but the same senses. The reader goes from watching the fly pass through the shutters to listening to the chug of boats enter the room.

Narrowing the focus

“Narrowing the focus” is a similar technique in that the change occurs over the phrase and fragment. A haiku begins with a broad description of a scene in the first line, then takes a progressively closer view of something over the following lines (generally the phrase portion of the verse).

This can be seen in the haiku by Graham Nunn, featured earlier:

distant thunder (4)

each stroke of the oar (5)

stirs the clouds (3)

Line one establishes a broad view before we shift closer with line two, to the moving oar, before the poem finishes with a micro view of the oar tip, as it stirs clouds which have been reflected in the water. “Narrowing the focus” can be achieved if you think of your poem like a camera—begin with an establishing shot, then move to the subject for a close up, and finally an extreme close up where the most telling detail of your poem is revealed.

This technique is favored by haiku writers seeking to establish an intimacy between subject and viewer, and can be useful in drawing attention to something seemingly insignificant—but which becomes poetic through either its position in the wider world or the lens through which the poet views it. In Nunn’s poem. the ripple of the water is both a disruption of the image of the clouds, and a precursor to the approaching storm, a kind of calm that’s depicted as always fleeting.


The last technique we’ll explore here is Shiki’s theory of shasei. In shasei, the poet attempts to “sketch from life” by writing directly and simply, without a focus on other techniques. Instead, this approach attempts to represent an experience “in the moment”, or an image or a scene “just as it appears”. These types of haiku strive for simplicity and reject artifice (which is especially unappealing in a traditional haiku). Here’s one from Shiki himself:

spring day

a long line of footprints

on the sandy beach

translated by Yuzuru Miura

It begins very simply by establishing the scene, written as a fact and showing something the writer has observed. This haiku could be reduced to very basic units; spring, day, footprints and sand. When the modifier “long” appears, a sense of time is introduced and we might ask ourselves, “who walked here before me?”

Actually, asking “who walked here before me?” is a useful way to describe the key to shasei—the directly observed experience. To write in this style, the poet personally experiences some sight or moment, then composes it “live”. The poet goes out and sees the footprints in the sand. This is part of the reason why the ginko or “haiku-walk” is popular: The poet actually goes outside, often into picturesque landscapes, and simply walks, unhurriedly, until a they see a striking image. If writing a haiku in the shasei, remember to state what you observe in the simplest of terms.

Now it’s time to write your first haiku

Try these techniques and approaches in your own haiku. You might find your work growing and evolving, hopefully for the better. While there are many other techniques out there, and trying them out is important, it’s just as useful to keep your observation skills sharp and to be direct in your expression.

Haiku has a long history and its evolution has sometimes occured simultaneously in multiple countries. What used to be scripture and what’s current practice can always be bounced off of each other—just as what works in one literary tradition or era won’t always have the same effect here and now.

And so instead of counting syllables, count a single breath: Does your poem feel like a mouthful? If so, maybe there are too many words. Remember the phrase and fragment approach, which incorporates the important “cut”—but remember not all cuts need to be sharp! Remember also that the phrase and fragment is the hinge upon which the haiku’s prosody hangs, and it can further serve as a compositional framework. Instead of searching for the perfect classical kigo, find a referent that suits your culture, your experience of the season. And finally, instead of cramming multiple ideas, images or techniques into one verse, write something that isn’t overburdened, and something that takes the reader somewhere unexpected.

Further Reading