Haiku is a traditional Japanese poetry form from the thirteenth century. Back then, what we now know as haiku were the first few lines of longer collaborative poems, called renga. Many false starts to the first stanzas of renga, known as hokku, were set aside, unused, but by the turn of the 20th century, the Japanese recognized these pieces as a form all their own, dubbing them haiku. A handful of ideas have been favored by poets for centuries to help you write a haiku of your own.
Stir up the Senses
Haiku are often thought to require seventeen syllables, divided into three lines. However, traditional Japanese haiku poets didn't count syllables, but rather the number of sounds in each line. Today, most English-written haiku are simply recognized as brief, three-line poems. In fact, scholars say the most important thing a poet can pay attention to when producing a haiku isn't form, but content and language. Haiku focuses is on scenes readers can experience in their minds, giving them something to see, hear, smell, taste or touch.
Recreate Lost Moments
The philosophy behind haiku dictates that a poem capture a single, fleeting moment in time. Most haiku are written in the present tense, avoiding complex grammar, syntax or diction. Haiku are explicit in details, rarely making use of metaphor or simile. The goal of the poet is to make a moment that has long since passed come to life again.
Look to Nature
Haiku concentrate on everyday experiences. The more the poet focuses on the natural world -- water, air, sun, stone or animals -- the better. Many haiku are inspired by the four seasons, often in their most delicate moments such as an icicle slowly melting from a tree branch, raindrops pooling on a budding flower petal, a turtle laid out on a rock to bask in the summer sun, or the sound of fallen autumn leaves underfoot. Inspiration comes from spending time outdoors in the natural world.
Collaborate with Others
Many poets still participate in a practice that touches on the origins of the haiku, artistic collaboration. One poet begins by writing a single haiku, then the next poet writes another haiku, one that is somehow connected, usually by subject, to the first. The next poet picks up where the second poet left off and the process continues until each poet has contributed one or more haiku, each haiku working as a single stanza of what becomes a longer poem for which all poets receive credit. This exercise captures not only the social traditions behind haiku, but also creates an environment in which poets receive immediate encouragement and inspiration.
- The Teacher's & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms: Ron Padgett
- Poets.org: Poetic Form: Haiku
- Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem: Wendy Bishop
- David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images