Haiku Monostich

One of the Haiku writers I’ve been reading, Hiroaki Sato, talks about how in Japanese haiku and tanka are written as a single line poem.

The three lines are a product of translation, and are an interesting discussion about ‘what makes a poem a poem’ and how that can change between cultures and languages.

In English the requirements for poetry have become less rigid over the years, especially in the last 100. Blank verse, free verse, prose poetry are all poems. But the same would not have always been true. Forms exist because there were rules about what made a poem a poem, and line breaks and stanzas were a major part of that.

Rhyme as well was a major piece of English poetry through most of its history, and as such you’ll see some older haiku translations include rhyme (A B A is the most common scheme I’ve seen). Since almost every word in Japanese ends in a vowel, rhyme is not a defining part of Japanese poetry.

So if haiku in Japanese is a single line poem, should it be translated as such? Sato thinks so, and his books have them as a single line.

I’ve been trying to write haiku, and have started writing them as a single line after reading Sato, and it works well for composition.

One of the principles of haiku that I’ve been working on is the poem is two parts. Usually this falls at a line break in translation, but that is not a requirement. By composing in a single line I can worry more about having the parts, independent of the line breaks, which impose an artificial constraint.

The other thing it does is it removes the initial urge to be rigid about the syllable count. (And yes, there is another translation discussion about English syllables and Japanese ‘sounds’ to be had)

For example, if a poem has 17 syllables, but you would have to beak a word to have a 5-7-5 line break, did you succeed? More importantly, would you have even picked that word if you were forcing yourself to have the line breaks?

For a constrained form, removing some of those constraints during composition, pushing them to editing, has helped. Because a haiku isn’t a 17 syllable poem, 5-7-5; it is a comparison of two things with a turn and seasonal word that has a syllabic constraint.

Now or “Now”, What’s in a When?

In Japanese Haiku, Yasuda talks about the seasonal word coming from the Renga, he talks that the hokka needed to be referencing now—the season they were in. 

That linked the poets’ experience as they made linked verses—they shared “now” as a frame of reference. 

“Now” is always an interesting thing for poets as we will often write about now later. Using the present as inspiration, but adding time to reflect. 

But there is a certain romantic ideal involved with this season observation—that the poem has more weight that one that was written later, after reflection. 

That “spontaneous overflow” all over again. 

Words have power—sure, but does the generation of those words also have power? Would a poem be the same, composed about war, but not in war? About love, not in or out of love? If the Irish shoreline weaves into a poem, does the distance between it and where I am sitting change the verses? 

Or do we simply search for the true names of gods that only have one name: the final product?

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.  ↩