On Writing Haiku

In my younger days I wasn’t a great fan of poetry. I found it hard going, requiring more effort to understand than I was prepared to expend on it. Then I stumbled upon Haiku. I met a Japanese girl at University and she changed the way I thought about a great deal of things. I began looking in to Japanese history and culture. Two books hooked me completely. “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon” was one. The other was “On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho”.

Basho (1644–94) is considered to be one of the masters of the genre, and it is his brief little micro-poems that finally allowed me to get my head around poetry.

So, what exactly is a haiku then? In essence it is a short, simple poem, usually of three lines and seventeen syllables, in 5–7–5 form. It is normally used to capture a single thought, a moment in nature frozen in time. There are often references to fauna/flora and seasonal feelings. For example,

weary old pigeon
sits alone on a roof top
warm autumn sunshine

For such a short poem, you can see it is possible to capture quite a lot of meaning. Even so, I prefer an even shorter format, 3–5–3. The seventeen-syllable idea originated in the Japanese language haikus. Japanese is a very different language to English and some linguists have suggested that seventeen syllables in English doesn’t capture the same brevity of expression that you have in Japanese haiku. Instead, they claim that eleven syllables is closer. Let me give you an example:

frosty spider’s web
the spider has long since gone
can’t say I blame him

frosty web
spider long since gone
don’t blame him

It is your choice which form you prefer but it is important to remember that it is an art form and there are no rules. You can use a different number of syllables entirely, or even a different number of lines. Of course, if you deviate too much there is the chance that people won’t consider it a haiku but at the end of the day it is up to you how you want to express yourself.

As with form, you can play around with meaning too. Seasons and nature are common…

summer rain
scent of new mown grass

But really you can write about anything you want…

my lover
so far away now


constant blink
hard disk is too old
so I wait

It is entirely up to you whether you want to stick to conventions or play loose with the guidelines. The thing is to read other people’s haikus and see which ones grab you. Then experiment with your own and have a bit of fun. But be warned, they can be addictive!