Japanese Poetry Patterns

Haiku: A Definition

My Haiku
Haiku Definition
Mad Hatter Ku
Cathedral Haiku
Tanka Definition
Tan Renga
More Tan Renga
Renga Definition
Kasen Renga
Four Elements Renga

What is a Haiku?

The verse pattern we know as haiku is derived from the ancient Japanese hokku, the first verse in a classical renga. It is a brief verse which attempts to convey a feeling or experience through the use of images drawn from nature. Instead of merely stating a feeling, it says "This is what I saw; perhaps it will rouse in you a feeling similar to mine when I experienced it."

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weathered scarecrow
a black bird swoops from his arm
into sweet corn

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was often written in one long string, from top to bottom, using 17 onji (sound-symbols), the shortest unit of meaning. These onji were usually divided into 3 sections, with the middle one being slightly longer than the others; a pause at the end of the first or second section often divided the haiku into two thoughts or images which contrasted or combined to make a striking perception, usually involving nature. Some call this the Haiku Moment. Others refer to this moment of revelation shared by poet and reader as the ahness of the haiku.

Early translators, assuming that onji equaled syllables in our language (they do not), decided the English equivalent should be 3 lines containing 5-7-5 syllables respectively. Many poets still look for haiku in that pattern, though occasionally today’s verses may have from 1 to 5 lines and a varying number of syllables. Not all classical Japanese haiku had 17 onji, let alone 17 “syllables,” so if we insist on that pattern, it is out of habit, not out of respect for the original.

A more-reliable standard for haiku in English is a verse of 10-15 syllables in 3 lines having 2-3-2 beats respectively. If your verse falls outside those parameters, it needs other strengths to compensate. By all means, abide by the rules of the contest or editor you are writing for. If you know the preferences of the judge, so much the better.

from the impatiens bloom

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A haiku usually

• Is brief—no more than 17 syllables arranged in 3 lines—but reads smoothly (avoids the “telegram” effect)

• Pictures an experience of awe or sudden insight

• Refers to nature (other than human)

• Contains one seasonal reference—avoids redundancy

• Uses strong sensory images

• Happens in the present

• Is objective rather than subjective

• Avoids most poetic devices (metaphor, etc.)

• Uses punctuation sparingly and seldom is titled

• Emphasizes phrases rather than complete sentences: strong nouns and verbs, few adjectives or adverbs

Individual haiku frequently ignore one or more of these guidelines. However, if a verse ignores several, it should have extraordinary appeal in other areas, or judges and editors are likely to pass over it.

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nursing home
waiting for the rest
of his life

Here are 10 devices that can “turn off” experienced editors, judges & haikuists. You might want to avoid them or use them carefully:

A Title—Most haiku are untitled; a successful haiku usually speaks for itself. Instead of using a title, try revision.

Too Much Punctuation—Avoid periods. A haiku is one moment in a continuum; a period often destroys that illusion (so may beginning with a capital letter). Other punctuation—The average haiku has one break in thought or continuity, usually at the end of line 1 or 2 (sometimes, the middle of line 2). If punctuated at all, it is usually with a colon, dash or ellipsis. An occasional dash or ellipsis may provide emphasis either before of after the final word (or phrase). In general, shy away from punctuation unless you are sure of its benefit.

The Telegram Effect—Compress your haiku, but be sure the omission of words (especially the articles a, an & the) doesn’t chop it into ungainly pieces.

Lifeless Verbs—The is & have families result in pictureless & actionless verses. Use action verbs instead.

Past or Future Tense—Haiku usually happen now. Past & future tenses remove us from the action & often use more words—weak ones like has, have, will.

Adjectives and Adverbs—Use sparingly. Look for ones made from noun or verb roots. Avoid very, much, any, many, few, & all-inclusive words like every, all, always, never, everyone .

“I”: Overuse of 1st person pronouns—It’s more risky in haiku than in senryu. Put emphasis on the image, not the person.

Padding—Don’t throw in words just to conform to a 5-7-5 or other imagined pattern. Either revise to find 17 strong, useful syllables or go for a shorter verse.

Redundancy— One season word is enough: “Spring blossoms” is redundant: both identify season. Let strong words do their job: “pavement wet with rain” is redundant.

Abstractions Not Supported by Concrete Imagery—Let imagery suggest the point; don’t state it baldly. Proverbs masquerading as haiku are likely to run into trouble.

The best way to become familiar with haiku is to jump into a haiku moment. Then another. Then another. And enjoy!

in the orchard
still reaching for apples
my wife

Created 060102
Updated 080927

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