A Concise & Somewhat Mystical Guide to Writing Haiku

To a beginner, haiku often looks deceptively simple.  This view is often reinforced by the fact that it is often taught in elementary school.  Alas, nothing is further from the truth.


The original Japanese version has a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.  We tend to take more liberty when we write haiku in English, sometimes adopting a 3-5-3 form.  I tend to stick to 5-7-5 when I can but sometimes I break this rule.  Still, I like the 5-7-5 rhythm (provided the words are well chosen).

For me, the overall length of each of the three lines is important.  Somehow, a longer second line looks aesthetically pleasing.  The whole length of the 5-7-5 form is supposed to match the length of a person's breath (so I am told).  I have yet to fully convince myself of this - partly because I think that the utterance of words in English and Japanese differ.  If you have heard people talk in Japanese you will know what I mean.  I am still trying to discover if 5-7-5 suits the English haiku.  I suspect there are no fast rules. Certain images/lines fit perfectly, others do not.


As for the content of the haiku, there are usually two central ideas/images.  The first line (or sometimes the first two lines) usually sets the background (like the scenery in a painting) - it can be the time of the year, season, person, place, object.  Once the reader reads it, a vague image already occurs in his mind.  Then the second and third line (or the third line) either confirms the reader's image by sharpening it with an aptly chosen detail or surprises the reader with an unexpected image (but it should still be related the earlier line).  The latter can even be something humorous.  They can also be philosophical.  Sometimes, a haiku can have a very rich "texture" - taste, feeling, color, sound.


I tend to regard the choice of words as important.  I avoid difficult (or bombastic) words - those that would require the reader to check the dictionary.  While they reaffirm the writer's vocabulary prowess, they disrupt the reader's flow of thought while reading your haiku.  Nothing can be more frustrating than looking up the meaning of a word in a dictionary when one is on the verge of an "aha!".  In this case, the "aha!" evaporates!  Louise Gluck puts this succinctly, "I liked scale, but I liked it invisible."  The sound of the word(s) chosen is very important - for example, whether they are soft (e.g. leaf) or hard (e.g. leak).  Choosing the right-sounding word will reinforce the type of feeling in your haiku that you are aiming for.

The Mystical Part: Putting it all together

To sum up, the above are only few of the many elements to consider when writing haiku.  The best of haiku are probably written with a subconscious application of these elements.  They should neither be too rich nor too sparse - just enough ingredients to convey the moment.  And moments do change and differ from one place/time to another,  thus necessitating a flexible and fluid application of all the above.


April 21, 1999