Here’s a quick and almost painless introduction to what haiku is and isn’t. The first version of this discussion appeared in comments that I left at the weblog Villainous Companions (Jan. 15, 2005), when its editor, “Cassandra,” announced she was having another “haiku” contest [also see, e.g., hellish Texas lawyers.
As a lover of haiku poetry (writing and reading it), I’m often annoyed when I see the term “haiku” misused/abused by applying it to verse that don’t fit even the broadest definitions of the genre. So, I hope you’ll allow me to use your pulpit for a quick lesson on what haiku really is/are (“haiku” is both a singular and a plural noun). If you already know this, be assured that some members of your vast audience do not.
Quick Definition of Haiku: Haiku is a “one-breath” poem (no more than 17 syllables, but the best in English often have fewer) that relates nature to human nature, and usually compares or contrasts a pair of sensory images, which are separated by a pause. At its best, haiku lets the reader share in the poet’s “haiku moment” — a moment of insight or awe.
Quick Definition of Senryu: Senryu is a short poem similar in structure to haiku but featuring observations on human nature (often ironic, humorous and/or coarse).
What haiku isn’t
Not only is it untrue that haiku must be 17 syllables (in English-language haiku, shorter is better, and many of the best are 10 to 14 syllables), but it is especially untrue that any poem/verse set forth in the 5 – 7 -5-syllable format is haiku. Most of what we see on the internet — even if quite funny and imaginative — is (at its best) senryu, but most so-called haiku is really very light verse, or doggerel. It would be great if you could help correct the misconceptions by calling your next “haiku” contest by another name. Maybe “lowku” or “hipKu” or “hypeKu.” (“ku” means verse or poem in Japanese.)
Poet-editor Lee Gurga calls the pseudo-haiku “zappai,” borrowing the name of a separate and distinguished Japanese poetic genre. Using Gurga’s terminology, “zappai” is shorthand for short, irregular poems of many types, which do not realize the aesthetic goals of haiku or senryu.
In a chapter from Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (2003), titled “Not Exactly Haiku: Senryu & Zappai” (pp. 55- 58). Gurga explains: “Haiku relates nature to human nature, while senryu is concerned with human nature pure and simple. Senryu does not require a season word [or reference to nature], and it relies on wit, irony, and satire to comment on the human condition. Haiku, senryu and zappai are quite separate genres in Japan.” Gurga notes that while haiku are open-ended, senryu tends to be “end-stopped,” with the last line serving as a punch line. He says senryu are often easier to write by Americans, whose writing traditions favor intellectualism over intuition. Gurga admits that “While haiku and senryu differ in approach, they can be seen as existing on a continuum, with a large area of overlap.”
[Ed. Note: Western-style self-absorption also makes senryu more natural for Americans. The more explicitly a poem mentions both an element/item of nature and a human trait, the more difficult it can be to distinguish between haiku and senryu. Haiku makes the contrast or relationship in a more-subtle, open-ended way.]
Gurga continues, discussing his use of the term zappai:
“[T]here is a third genre in Japanese practice that includes light verses in haiku-like form written purely as a joke. . . . Zappai means ‘miscellaneous haikai verse’ in Japanese.
“Likewise, in the West, poems written in three lines and seventeen syllables, clearly not haiku in tone or feeling, have often been called senryu by those sophisticated enough to to differentiate these verses from true haiku. Even beyond senryu, however, lies that large class of poems writtten in parody of haiku or using the 5–7–5 haiku form and mock-Zen spirit as a vehicle for lowbrow humor. . .
“If a short poem sounds like an aphorism, epigram, proverb, or fortune-cookie wisdom, it is probably zappai. Whether we choose to refer to these kinds of light verse as zappai or pseudohauku, however, is not really important. What is important is that it be understood that, though their authors may choose to call them haiku, they are merely versified ideas in haiku-form, not poems of the haiku genre.
What is haiku?
No single definition can do haiku justice (nor achieve a full consensus among haiku lovers and poets), but haiku poet-teacher-editor-publisher Randy Brooks has captured the essence of haiku in a few sentences:
“The essential element of form in English-language haiku is that each haiku is a short one-breath poem that usually contains a juxtaposition of images. Each haiku has a break which makes it a deliberately incomplete literary artifact, prompting the reader to make a leap of imagination in order to complete the moment begun by the poet.
“The best haiku capture human perception—moments of being alive conveyed through sensory images. They do not explain nor describe nor provide philosophical or political commentary.”
The following “tips for writing haiku,” from two of the best-regarded English-language haiku poets, also offer a quick guide to determining what is “good” or “real” haiku:
Ten tips for writing haiku, by Michael Dylan Welch, from the haiku begin page of haiku world (April, 2003).,
[Ed. Note: It helps to have rules when you write haiku — you can pick your own rules, but should do so after informing yourself of traditions, issues and options. See Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands on Guide by Jane Reichhold, which has good suggestions on approaching and selecting your own haiku rules and improving your writing skills.]
- Write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables (some writers use a short-long-short format, but sometimes it’s better to just say what you need to say and not worry about form); haiku are usually not 17 syllables long in English.
- Try to include some reference to the season or time of year.
- To make your haiku more immediate, write in the present tense.
- Write about common, everyday events in nature and in human life; choose events that give you a moment of understanding or realization about the truth of things around you—but don’t explain them.
- Write from personal experience (memories are okay) rather than from imagination to produce haiku that are authentic and believable.
- Create an emotional response in the reader by presenting what caused your emotion rather than the emotion itself.
- Put two images together in the poem to create harmony or contrast, using words that are specific, common, and natural (avoid long or conceptual sorts of words).
- One image of the haiku can appear in one of the poem’s three lines; the other image can be described in two lines (either the first two or the last two); avoid creating haiku with three images (or three grammatical parts) because this weakens the energy created by the gap between just two parts.
- Avoid titles and rhyme (haiku virtually never have either) as well as metaphor, simile, and most other rhetorical devices (they are often too abstract or detours around the directness exhibited in most good haiku).
- Avoid awkward or unnatural line breaks and avoid dropping or adding words just to fit a syllable count (the poem should come across as perfectly natural and easy; anything that is choppy or unnatural will detract from the reader’s perception and enjoyment—make the words come across as so natural and easy-going that the reader doesn’t even notice them). And of course, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy experiencing life through your five senses!
George Swede has a thoughtful discussion “Towards a Definition of English Haiku” in the anthology Global Haiku: Twenty-Five Poets World-Wide. The following summary of Swede’s “guidelines” appear in a Writer’s Profile at the Millikin University Haiku website:
- George Swede’s Guidelines for haiku: In the Global Haiku intro, [Swede] outlines eight commonly used haiku guidelines, then eliminates a few to come up with his five ultimate rules of good haiku.
1. haiku must be brief: one breath long
2. haiku must express sense of awe or insight
3. haiku must involve some aspect of nature other than human nature
4. haiku must possess sense images, not generalizations
5. haiku must present an event as happening presently, not past or future
You can find out a lot more about the haiku literary genre — what I call “real” haiku — in my dagosan’s haiku primer (which goes into detail on the question of the number of syllables, as well as the necessary content of haiku) and “too many ‘tell-ems': psyku lower haiku quality” (June 3, 2007), as well as our compilation of quotes from haiku commentators and poets, “haiku’s essence: ‘show ’em, don’t tell ’em.” You’ll find a more complete, expert explanation about what haiku is and how to write it in “First Thoughts — A Haiku Primer” by Jim Kacian (available online here at f/k/a), and in Lee Gurga’s Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Modern Haiku Press, 2003). Gurga’s Chapter on “Writing and Editing Haiku” cab be found here, on the Haiku World website.
Of course, as with any literary form — especially one that has roots and branches in diverse cultures and centuries — nobody’s rules are sacrosanct, and there will be changes, as individual artists and schools within the genre stretch the boundaries and, along with their readers, evolve new definitions and aesthetics. They/we will sometimes bring about consensus and sometimes bring schism.