Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 1

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll state that if you think you’re writing haiku, you probably are, of a sort. On the other hand, there is a spectrum of beliefs on what constitutes true haiku. At one end of the spectrum, we have those who consider haiku genuine only if they are Japanese haiku. At the other end, some believe that any compilation of 17 syllables broken into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables is a haiku.

The result looks like
This, without much more art than
counting seventeen.

Basics: UPDATE 5/11/2013: Added an example from Beilenson.*

The haiku is a Japanese poetic form. (Haiku are like fish or sheep in that the plural form of haiku is still haiku.) With some exceptions, haiku consist of seventeen syllables, usually divided into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Note that this division into three horizontal lines is more Western than Japanese.

There was an early form of Japanese poetry called hokku. These were intended as introductory verses for a longer type of poem, but the format is essentially the same as for haiku. I will use the term haiku to encompass both forms. Be aware that any haiku written before 1890 is likely to be a hokku.

Haiku could be thought of as the written counterpart of sumié, the Chinese painting style in which a human figure, animal, plant, or scene is represented by a few strokes of the brush or pen. Precise, photographic representation is not the objective of either sumié or haiku. Rather, an impression is to be evoked in the viewer’s mind through strokes (or words, in the case of haiku) that convey the essence of the subject.

Twilight whippoorwill:
Whistle on, sweet deepener
of dark loneliness


The rhythm of the haiku is said to parallel breathing: The first line is an exhalation, a statement of general scene or subject. The second is an imaginary inhalation as a particular detail or nuance is introduced. The last line is a large exhalation as the most powerful part of the image is expressed, the focal point of the poem. This is an ideal, not an infallible rule for writing acceptable haiku.

The three lines are always broken into two parts. Either the first line or the last line is constructed to stand by itself. The other two lines are connected into a single thought. A break between the two parts is sometimes indicated (in English) by a semicolon. Thus the first two lines may be thought of as one thought and the last line as a capper (Type A). Alternatively, the first line may be an opening subject line and the bulk of the imagery contained in the final two lines (Type B).

Type A:

One fallen flower
returning to the branch? Oh no!
A white butterfly

Type B:

Yellow evening sun:
long shadow of the scarecrow
reaches to the road

Do your haiku contain a firecracker at the end? Or are they more like ordinary free verse in 5 / 7 / 5 syllables? Read on in Part 2.

* Japanese Haiku, by Peter Beilenson, [1955]. Scanned at sacred-texts.com, April 2007. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed in a timely fashion as required by law at the time. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact in all copies.

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8 Responses to Why You Can’t Write Haiku, Part 1

  1. eskopoet says:

    Full moons and night skies,
    Madrid became our backdrop,
    Love became whispers.

    Picasso painted,
    Clouds over heavy moonlight,
    Heavy breaths and sighs,

    Bed covers and thighs,
    Lip stick stains leave love letters,
    On skin I still read…

    The moon cried sorrow.
    Two lovers with early flights,
    That night was goodbye…

  2. haikutec says:

    This anthology might be of interest:

    Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton 2013)
    ISBN 978-0-393-23947-8

    • jguenther5 says:

      Thanks for the tip. Haiku in English is for serious haiku groupies. It should be noted that there is extensive front and back matter in Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

      Or you could just buy the entire book. It’s not expensive.

      A very small number of the reviews and comments are harsh for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with haiku. “It seems almost churlish to point out negative aspects…” begins one such review. Almost?? Regardless of the carping, the reviews are heavily weighted towards five stars.

      Is it perfect? Well, poetry selection, let alone poetry itself, is very subjective. There are some wonderful, ethereal selections. Some of the pedestrian choices (often penned by famous writers, no less) provide a counterpoint to the former, like sleet down your collar on a summer day or like wasabi when you thought that little green lump on your plate was avocado.

      An ambitious effort. Well worth the paperback price.

      • haikutec says:

        Thanks Johannes,

        Pretty much every poetry anthology is imperfect, but there is beauty as well as getting the reader to evolve.

        Yes, both the Norton and the Amazon read inside features give so much you could choose not to buy the book.

        Haiku, and its predecessor genre of hokku and haikai verses (before and after Basho) will never get the coverage it deserves, but these anthologies certainly attempt to give a glimpse.

        It’s astonishing how much there is about haiku, the genre itself, that is never revealed. We need anthologies like this to continue to start and continue a necessary glimpse rarely allowed in other formats.

        warm regards,

        President, United Haiku and Tanka Society
        co-founder, Call of the Page

      • jguenther5 says:

        If I ever teach creative writing, I’d start with a month of haiku, which teach economy of word usage, as well as the other more generally useful features of the poetic form. A month is orders of magnitude short of the time needed for real proficiency in haiku writing, but it can introduce the basics, with the aid of a suitable textbook. Haiku in English would be that textbook.

  3. haikutec says:

    A month sounds great, just like there is a National Poetry Month in the USA, instead of Britain’s lone single National Poetry Day.

    Before I would allow myself to teach even a basic haiku workshop I made myself study, read, and attempt to write haiku for a whole five years. That was over 25 years ago, and I still like to think of myself as a student.

    Alongside my wife, also a long standing haiku writer, we run regular online haiku courses where lots of great participants from the USA; Canada; Europe; U.K.; India; and other countries take part.

    Whether for schools, colleges, campus etc… haiku does indeed help make every single word count, and in clear language.

    Haiku is highly rewarding for anyone and everyone, regardless of age, creed, culture etc…

    Wonderful stuff! 🙂

    warm regards,

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