What Makes a Good Haiku?
Aside from it being a quick way to write a poem, the Haiku is a complex form of poetry with a history dating back hundreds of years.
According to Joan Giroux, author of The Haiku Form (1974), “A haiku is actually the first part of a waka , a highly conventionalized syllabic verse of five lines arranged in a sequence of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, also known as a tanka or uta.” With this in mind, elements of the form were abandoned and added to over time, which eventually gave rise to the word hokku during the mid 1800’s. Then, after the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the word Haiku, as it’s known today, emerged.
Altogether, with the history of the Haiku, its origins from Japan, and the early works from historic writers, such as Basho and Shiki, poets today can embrace a freedom to express their words in a wide light. However, there are some key things for you to consider before you start jotting down your ideas.
If you’re ready to learn more and start incorporating the style into your creative workflow, here’s what makes a great Haiku:
What Is a Haiku, Anyway?
Basically, a Haiku is a 17-syllable poem made up of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Historically, they’re meant to capture some sort of relationship between the poet and nature, expressing unity or understanding, but the subject matter is ultimately up to the writer.
A good rule of thumb to achieve the correct length and timing of a Haiku comes from writer Kenneth Yasuda. He explains that “the intent of all Haiku and the discipline of the form is to render the Haiku moment, to express the ‘ah-ness.’ By physical necessity, the duration of the state of ‘ah-ness’ is the length of a breath” (Giroux, 76).
So, imagine that you inhale and read your Haiku. By the time you’re done, your breathe should be comfortably released. Pretty cool, right? Of course, it’s important to remember that the Japanese language is spoken much quicker than English, but 17 syllables is a safe range to express ideas and make a lasting impression.
Here’s an example of a Haiku from poet J.W. Hackett:
A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.
Take a breath, read the poem, exhale, and see how you feel. There’s power there.
Why Do Haikus Have a 5-7-5 Arrangement?
The whole idea behind the 5-7-5 syllable arrangement is to promote balance.
17 syllables can’t really be broken up into equal parts, so this setup is one that offers the best equality for thought and expression. It’s also worth mentioning that since Haikus are about nature and harmony, the 5-7-5 structure produces the best foundation for insight.
Haikus Answer the Where, When, and What
Another important aspect to the 5-7-5 format is the idea that a good Haiku answers three questions: Where, When, and What.
For example, consider this poem by the Shakespeare of Haiku poetry, Basho:
On a leafless bough
A crow is perched—
The autumn dusk.
In the first line, Basho tells you where the action of the poem is taking place, offering you a visual to immediately connect with. Then, the second line emphasizes what is engaging with the bough—a crow that captures the center of your imagination, while complementing the surroundings. Lastly, Basho introduces when the crow perches itself on the limb—the dusk of Autumn, which creates a stark twilight that gives the reader a sense of despair or solitude.
You might have noticed that this poem actually answers the three questions out of order, offering the “When” in the final line as opposed to the second, but that’s the beauty of the Haiku! You have complete freedom to chop and change whatever elements you want to get your message across. Ultimately, poetry is subjective, and the most important thing is how you use your creativity to develop a poem that satisfies your thoughts and lends insight for the reader to have their own!
Have Fun with Haikus and Share Your Work
Now that you have the tools you need to start writing, always make sure to have fun with your Haikus and share your work with others!
In fact, there are some poets who experiment with 1-line Haikus that have 17 syllables across, or even 4-line Haikus with 3-4-3-7 syllable structures. No matter what you end up creating, feel free to use the principals outlined above to give you a foundation to work from. When you’re finished, share them with friends, post them on social media, or consider submitting them to the PSPOETS Poet of the Month contest!
Finding ways to get your voice out into the world is the whole point behind writing poems and stories. Your words can inspire enlightenment and change to more people than you think, so start writing today and make a difference!
*A huge thank you to Barnes & Noble for the awesome book by Joan Giroux.