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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to write haiku

To write haiku in English, most poets start with the familiar three lines of 5/ 7/ 5 syllables, which we will talk about in a moment. More importantly, haiku conveys an up-close, insightful encounter with the natural world so your readers can enjoy a similar experience.

Traditionally, this means you will use a symbolic word or phrase, such as plum blossoms or snow, to bring to your reader’s mind one of the four seasons. With Basho’s famous frog, for instance, Spring springs from the page and hops onto the reader’s lap – splash!

A quick sound, a close look, or a touch of humor adds splash to your haiku.

During his lifetime in the mid to late 1600’s, the now-well-known Japanese poet Matsuo Basho was not known for his haiku but for hokku – the three opening lines of a renga, whose five lines have 5/ 7/ 5/ 7/ 7 syllables, respectively. However, a 5-line renga often does not stop there since, like haiku, a renga can become a linked poem that goes on and on for dozens – even hundreds – of stanzas.

But what about those individual little syllables mentioned earlier?

In the Japanese language, syllables do not exist as such! Instead, the shortest possible sound is called an onji, which is usually said with greater speed than an English syllable. Therefore, poets who write in English but want a rhythmic feel similar to lines written in Japanese might not use a 5/ 7/ 5 syllabic form but a shorter approximation such as 3/ 5/ 3 English syllables.

Some poets prefer three lines of 2/ 4/ 2 syllables, but an odd number per line seems truer to the ancient forms which typically used an odd number of short sounds or onji.

Having said all this, though, American and British poets have written haiku for so many years now that the 5/ 7/ 5 form has long developed its own English tradition. So the form you choose will depend on your personal preference and on the haiku market you have in mind.

If, for example, the guidelines for a haiku journal or contest specify the syllabic count, consider those instructions to be the hard-and-fast rule for that particular outlet or publication. Otherwise, how to haiku is up to you and the private moment with nature you give to your readers through your clear eye, sharp ear, quick insight, and maybe a fast dash of totally charming humor.


(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.


  1. Nice information. I love writing Haiku but since I prefer free verse poetry, I usually stick to the 5/7/5 format for structure.
    Check out my Spring Haiku on my blog at http://thedesertrocks.blogspot.com

  2. Thanks. Yes, I prefer 5/7/5 too. I've found if I write in that format often, my thoughts just seem to drift into haiku.

    Also, saw your blog (looks good!), but Blogspot froze up before I found your haiku.

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  4. This article is very informative. Even though my blog is not about poetry but i shared the articles you have to my students. By the way, I am a full time teacher.

  5. I find the strict 5/7/5 model useful as a writing exercise. It forces you to be concise rather than meandering, and to be creative in finding a specific word that suits both your meaning and the demands of the form. Applying these skills makes any poem, formal or free-verse, better.

  6. Thank you all for your encouraging words about this blog. If you see ads that interest you, I hope you'll check them out since that helps to keep the site going.

    Sandra, I totally agree with your assessment and find that haiku helps me to be more concise too. You mentioned meandering, which I love to do in writing prose poems, but for haiku, yes, it's best to focus, focus, focus. :)