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What Is the Traditional Haiku Structure?
Defining haiku in terms of syllables and sentences becomes complicated once you translate the poetry across languages. Some translators argue that 12 English syllables would correlate more closely to the 17 sounds called on used by Japanese haiku poets. Another structural difference born out by translation is that Japanese haiku are written straight across in one line, while English-speaking poets use two line breaks to separate their poem into three lines.
However, there is a common structure that most haiku poems follow. It is the 5-7-5 structure, where:
- The entire poem consists of just three lines, with 17 syllables in total
- The first line is 5 syllables
- The second line is 7 syllables
- The third line is 5 syllables
4 Common Themes of Haiku Poetry
Nature themes and imagery evoking a specific season are the traditional focus of haiku poetry. Haiku poems often feature juxtaposition of two images.
- Nature and the seasons. Describing the season was the original purpose of haiku, and to this day poets often focus on the natural world and how it changes throughout the year.
- On. A Japanese haiku contains 17 on, or sounds. On are counted differently than syllables in English, which leads to translators’ lack of consensus on whether 17 English syllables truly captures the spirit of haiku.
- Kigo. Traditional haiku contains a kigo, a word or phrase that places it in a particular season. Signaling a season with only one word lends haiku its economy of expression. Some of the most classic kigo are sakura (cherry blossoms) for spring; fuji (Wisteria) for summer; tsuki (moon) for fall; and samushi (cold) for winter.
- Kireji. Known in English as the “cutting word,” kireji creates a pause or a break in the rhythm of the poem. The kireji is often deployed to juxtapose two images. Contemporary haiku may not always use a kireji, but juxtaposition remains a common feature of haiku.
What Is the History of Haiku?
The haiku has a long and storied history, originating in Japan.
- Rengu was the precursor to Haiku. Japanese rengu was a poetic form popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Rengu is a longer collaborative poem, consisting of lines written back and forth by two or more poets. Rengu was governed by a codified structure and complex set of rules, and composed in a formal setting over the course of a few hours. Rengu began with a short verse called a hokku, which set the tone and situated the poetry in a certain season. This opening verse, often written in three short phrases containing 5, 7, and 5 sounds, is the precursor to the modern haiku that we know today.
- Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) was a master of the haiku. Sixteenth century poets began experimenting with writing hokku on its own, without the renga. In the seventeenth century, or the Edo Period, a reformist poet named Matsuo Bashō developed and popularized a more relaxed and humorous form of rengu called haikai. With greater ability for expression and variations in tone, Bashō and other reformist poets found humor in describing seemingly mundane objects. In the nineteenth century, hokku came to be known as haiku, and was a fully independent form of poetry. Today, many stone monuments (or kuhi) throughout Japan feature haiku by Bashō.
- Haiku has now spread far beyond Japan. Haiku began to spread outside of Japan in the nineteenth century, first to the Netherlands and France, and soon to North America. American Beat poets in the 1950s were heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and haiku. The 1951 book Haiku by R. H. Blyth provided an entry to the art by offering translated Japanese haiku for English-speaking readers. Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro,” is considered by some to be an early American haiku, even though it does not follow the traditional 5-7-5 line structure. Notice how Pound juxtaposes two vivid images here: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.”
3 Classic Haiku Examples
Matsuo Bashō is widely regarded as the master of the art form. Read through a few of Matsuo Basho’s most popular poems, which perfectly marry the elements of haiku. Pay special attention to the last lines of the haikus.
An old pond!
A frog jumps in –
The sound of water.
this deep in fall –
still not a butterfly.
Hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.
How to Write a Haiku Poem in 4 Easy Steps
Follow this step-by-step guide to write the perfect haiku.
- Decide what kind of haiku you’d like to write. You can choose to follow the 5-7-5 syllable style, or decide you want to be more experimental with your structure and adjust the number of syllables. If you’re writing an English haiku, you’ll separate your poem into three lines.
- Determine your subject matter. Pay attention to small details around you. Nature themes are most common in haiku, so start to notice things like birds or leaves outside, the way the air feels, or even a smell in the air. Many haiku are about very simple natural elements of day-to-day life.
- Use short phrases that evoke strong images. Think of how Japanese poets use kigo, and choose images that symbolize a season (say, fallen leaves for fall or daffodils for spring) to set a mood with very few words.
- Use a kireji or “cutting word” to create a break in the meter. Remember to use punctuation in conjunction with a kireji to control the rhythm of the poem.
Whether you’re a practicing poet or a novice writer, haikus are an excellent poetic form to add to your creative writing routine. American Poet Laureate Billy Collins illuminates the fundamentals of reading and writing poetry in his MasterClass, where you can learn to look for inspiration in the everyday, and add lyricism and imagery to bolster your writing.
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides access to exclusive video lessons taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and more.