Write Bites: How to Write… a Haiku

Haiku

Small but packs a punch Not spicy, might make you cry From the Japanese. That’s not me talking like a caveman, that’s a Haiku about Haikus! Haiku’s are traditional Japanese poems that say a lot in just 17 syllables. The 17 syllables are divided into three lines: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. Haikus do not usually rhyme. They are often written about the beauty and intensity of nature, but can be written about just about anything that you would like to express! Here’s how to write a great one: Beginner:

  • First things first: what’s a syllable? A syllable is a single sound that forms a part of the word. Words can have one to several syllables. For example, the word pen has one syllable, pencil has two syllables (pen-cil), and the word pendulum has three syllables (pen-du-lum). Sometimes it helps to clap once for each sound in order to see how many syllables a word has.
  • Need inspiration? Get outside! Traditionally, haikus were written about nature, and Japanese writers would take walks in order to gain haiku inspiration. They would write about everything from a season in general to the smallest detail of a plant.

Intermediate:

  • Traditional haikus engage one or more of the senses. Use descriptive language to describe how something looks/smells/sounds/tastes/feels. Visual language is especially popular, especially details about color, shape, or movement.
  • It’s difficult to be descriptive when you are limited to just a few words, so use precise details. If you were describing the forest, “I hear the wind in the trees” doesn’t tell the reader a lot. How about “The wind howled, rustling leaves”? Now you can really hear the sounds of the forest!
  • Objective=facts, truth, what everyone agrees on. Subjective=one person’s feelings or perspective. So in a haiku about an ant, you might describe its color, or shape or the way it moves, but you wouldn’t actually tell the reader how watching the ant made you feel

Advanced:

  • A haiku often juxtaposes two ideas, two perspectives, or two objects. Juxtaposition is when you put two different things together that might not normally go together, to show an interesting comparison or contrast. In a haiku, these two things are divided by a kireji, which can be a dash, comma, or other punctuation.
  • The difficulty in writing a haiku is that you should use objective descriptions to evoke poignant, subjective meaning. Objective=facts, truth, what everyone agrees on. Subjective=one person’s feelings or perspective. So in a haiku about an ant, you might describe its color, or shape or the way it moves, but you wouldn’t actually tell the reader how watching the ant made you feel. You want everyone to experience their own emotions when they read your haiku. The easiest way to do this is to use simple language, no need to use fancy words or phrases!
  • Here is a sample traditional haiku to get your creative juices flowing:

An old silent pond… A frog jumps into the pond, splash! Silence again. -Basho Matsuo (translated from Japanese)

  • Now that you know some traditional haiku rules, feel free to experiment. Contemporary haikus don’t all adhere to the 5-7-5 rule. More importantly, they describe an observation in a very concise way. And haikus do not have to be written about nature. Try writing about anything that you like—a hobby, a food, or an interesting object!
  • Redraft, redraft, redraft! Because you are working with such few words, haikus require you to revise your work a lot. Read your poem aloud as you rewrite until you have found the perfect combination of words to describe your observation. Simplicity is deceiving: it is often much harder to be concise than it is to be wordy.
  • Still stuck? A great haiku to start with is one in which you describe something without telling the reader what it is. You can make the reader guess what your poem is about—like a riddle!

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