On Haiku

Haiku, 17 syllables, 5–7–5. Simple.


Not quite. A haiku isn’t just a syllabic form. There are style and meter requirements as well, and as with translating the poems from Japanese to English, translating the form has its own issues, and there are nuances lost.

So what pieces are needed to make a haiku? There are 17 syllables[1], in a 5–7–5 pattern. The theme of the poem is an observation of nature, with no commentary. There is a seasonal word, and a pause.

The seasonal word is to designate time, but doesn’t have to be ‘spring’ or ‘winter.’ It can be something like ‘snow’ or ‘pumpkins.’ Known as kigo, these words invoke a season.

The pause is a slight shift in the lines. It is usually something like:

5-(pause)–7–5 or 5–7-(pause)–5

The pause is not as dramatic as a stanza break, but rather a slight separation from one line to the other two.

Here, a poem by Master Basho[2]. In this we have all the things above: the seasonal word, frogs for the spring; the concise observation; and the pause between the second and third line:

Old pond
frogs jumped in
sound of water

Now, in modern poets, the seasonal word has become optional; however, the comparison, and the change are still fundamental to the form. As is the length.

So you probably didn’t write a Haiku

That’s cool. First off, you still wrote something, so, that’s awesome. Let me suggest what it might be. You see, there is another 17 syllable form called the senryu.

The senryu is more of a slice of life type of art piece than a haiku is. It is witty, humorous, and is often satirical or sarcastic as well.

Sound more like something you’ve written?

I want to read more!

Don’t we all? Here are some books I’ve been reading.

The best one I suggest is this one:

  • Japanese Haiku; Its Essential Nature and History by Kenneth Yasuda

It contains a breakdown of the haiku, a lineage history through Japanese poetry, AND some great haiku. If you get one book on this list, make it this one.

  • Far Beyond The Field, Makoto Ueda
  • Basho and his Interpreters, Makoto Ueda
  • The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Faubion Bowers

And one on senryu

  • Light Verse from the Floating World, Makoto Ueda

(ok ok, I totally bought almost all of Ueda’s books. I got the one on modern tanka as well, which will be a different post…)

Online Resources

Here are some more resources on haiku:


Poetry Foundation


  1. Another translation issue, as in Japanese they are not syllables, per se. For this reason, there was significant discussion early on as to whether the form should be shorter in English.  ↩
  2. Translation, Hearn.  ↩

So, You Want To Write Poetry, Part Four

Life, Death, Love

When we think of poetry, we often associate them with these three–attaching poetry with emotion, the spontaneous overflow, as Whitman called it.

These things, however, are too big for your poem. They will rip it apart at the seams. The weight is too much.

This is not to say you cannot write a poem with these elements. I dare say poetry and language itself owes quite a bit to these things.

But yours is not a poem about LOVE, rather it is about your love. But even then your love for someone is a huge thing, and will not fit on a page.

Instead your poem is about a moment–breakfast two years after your wedding; the wilted flowers in the vase from your first date; the stolen glance back when you saw them dancing as they walked away from your first kiss.

Don’t put a net around the galaxy and try to hold it in lines of poetry. Instead look at the moment for poetry, find the whole galaxy in the sparrow on the window sill.

Keep your images tight as well. “Love” or “Death” may bring a grocery list of things to mind, but a list of those things is not as strong poem as a poem about each thing is.

So focus your poetry on the moment, the specific.

And in these small moments, you’ll say what you need to about life, love and death.

Poetry Challenges, A Year in Review

At the begining of 2016 I proposed three poetry challenges for 2016. They were:

So how did you do? How did I do? Mixed, but overall good. Let’s take a look.

April Poems

April poems is something I’ve done a few years now, and suspect will continue to do for a while. Write a poem each day in April. It is the poetry nanowrimo, and for me, has had mostly good results.

This year was no different from 2011 and 2015, in that the collection was a bit random, with things from poems that came on strong, to the tired scribbles made before bed.

April Poems: Recommended!

1 in 12

This challenge was one I thought of. The idea was simple: write a poem in January. Then, write the same poem again in February, and March, etc. One poem, twelve times. The thought was that you would be editing, but also bringing in the elements of the year itself into the piece.

This one didn’t work for me. The reason was quite evident very early on: I didn’t like the poem I wrote in January.

And here is the hard part about this challenge: you have to start with a base that is worth coming back to 11 more times.

I think there is still something here in this challenge, and with a new take, or tweak on the bounds, it could very well be interesting. But for now…

1 in 12: Needs work….

Monday Poems

For Monday poems, the plan was simple: each Monday, take 5 minutes and reflect on the past week, then take another 5 minutes and write a simple poem.

This was fairly straight forward, and successful for me. Admittedly there were a few that weren’t written on Monday, but I did write one a week.

This too, I think I will keep going with. It is a good writing habit, and even if the poem made isn’t high art, it is both a good practice and a neat way to keep some memories.

Monday Poems: Recommended!


For 2017, I plan to do both April Poems and Monday Poems. Between now and the New Years, think of a new challenge(s?) to go along with them. I intend 2017 to be a year filled with art, and hope you’ll come along with me.