Writing haiku poetry
This inspired me to share a new lesson: how to write haiku!
What Is Haiku?
Japanese in origin, haiku is not based on rhyme, but on a pattern of syllables. At three lines long, haiku is a poem of economy. Traditionally, only 17 syllables are allowed, so a finished haiku may end up being just 12 or 13 words long.
By its nature, haiku is concrete and concise, capturing a single moment in a mere handful of words. It’s a tall order to write a poem full of rich imagery, paint a picture in the reader’s mind, and leave an impression on a heart or soul—and do so with so few words.
Every word counts, and that’s why—perhaps more than any other poetry genre—haiku is especially fitting for Words Matter Week.
Writing Haiku Poetry: An Experience with Nature
Choosing a Subject for Your Poem
Haiku poems celebrate appreciation for beauty and nature. Plants, animals, water, weather, and seasons are often subjects of haiku. Powerful yet sensitive, these poems communicate a mood or tone without actually using words to describe feelings.
Red and gold poppies
explode with fresh spring colors,
invading my yard.
Notice how this haiku expresses a crisp, springy, bright feeling. You can picture a tired winter garden coming to life. The words never actually say, “After a cold, colorless winter, I am so happy and cheered to see flowers again!” Yet this is the message the poem brings.
In the darkest wood
with heads hanging mournfully,
weeping willows cry.
This poem gives a feeling of sadness, even though the words don’t tell you how the poet feels, or how you should feel. Notice how personification helps to communicate this tone. When writing haiku poetry, think about the emotions you want your reader to experience. Paint a picture with your words to express a mood.
Formatting Your Haiku Poem
Some poetry forms require the writer to follow a certain format, or structure. You may remember that cinquains and diamantes, for example, call for you to use an exact number of words within an exact number of lines. Haiku, on the other hand, requires you to carefully count syllables instead of words. This form of poetry always uses 3 lines and 17 syllables.
Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables
When counting out syllables, listen to the beat within a word, silently tapping it out on the table. Usually, a syllable is marked by a vowel sound. “Butterfly” has three syllables (but/ter/fly). The word “cocoon” contains two syllables (co/coon). The word “exuberantly” has five (ex/u/ber/ant/ly). “Flight” has only one (flight).
If you still have trouble counting syllables, try Rhyme Desk’s online tool.
Because your entire poem is only 17 syllables, every single word must be carefully chosen to say exactly what you want to communicate. Rely heavily on a good thesaurus for terrific, specific words! Your thesaurus will also be useful when you need to find a synonym of more or fewer syllables that will fit better on a line of your poem.
What to Do if a Line Contains Too Few or Too Many Syllables
> Leave out or add articles (a, an, the) to shorten or lengthen the number of syllables. Example: a six-syllable line must be shortened to five syllables.
A/ small/ frog/ trills/ loudly = 6 syllables
Small/ frog/ trills/ loud/ly = 5 syllables (drop the “a”)
> Use your thesaurus to find a similar word that will fit.
Suppose your haiku looks like this:
Thunder clouds follow me (6)
booming from behind (5)
the sky is so mad. (5)
Do you see how each line has too many or too few syllables? Let’s look at them one at a time.
Example: the first line of a haiku poem must be 5 syllables long.
Thun/der/ clouds/ fol/low/ me = 6 syllables (it’s too long – you need 5 syllables)
Now, look up follow in the thesaurus. Can you find a one-syllable word that will fit? (chase)
Thun/der/ clouds/ chase/ me = 5 syllables (this will work)
> Look for a word to drop.
Thun/der/ clouds/ fol/low = 5 syllables (just drop the “me”)
> Find a different way to say a similar thing. Often your thesaurus will help, but sometimes you just need to think! How can you express the same message while adjusting the number of syllables?
Example 1: The second line must be 7 syllables.
boom/ing/ from/ be/hind = 5 syllables (it’s too short – needs 7 syllables)
bel/low/ing/ from/ a/ dis/tance = 7 syllables (use longer words)
Example 2: The third line must be 5 syllables.
the/ sky/ is/ so/ mad = 5 syllables
The number of syllables is correct—so what’s wrong with this line? Remember that you want to avoid “to be” words such as is, and empty words such as so:
the/ an/gry/ sky/ shouts = 5 syllables, OR
the/ black/ sky/ threat/ens = 5 syllables
While still expressing a “mad” feeling, these lines use more specific words that paint a fuller picture. Show, don’t tell.
OK, here’s the finished haiku poem:
Thunder clouds chase me (5)
bellowing from a distance (7)
the angry sky shouts. (5)
Should haiku have a title? Typically not. If you think it needs a title to better explain the poem, do your best to work the title into the poem by removing and replacing words. Use your new syllable skills to help when writing haiku poetry.
Photos: Autan, Chad King, and Geoff Gallice courtesy of Creative Commons.
Sign up for the WriteShop list to get your free 33 printable word bank prompts.