School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson One
Haiku Basics

Haiku (HIGH-COO) is the Japanese word invented by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902 ). He made it by combining the word hokku (HOC-COO) which was the name for the first stanza in a renga (REIN-GAH) with the word haikai (HIGH-KIGH) taken from haikai no renga or the links within the renga. So Shiki, in effect, combined the stanzas in the renga with the first one to have a new category of poetry.

Since the beginning of English tranlstions we have adopted the Japanese word built from hai = with various kanji changes can be "ashes," "a cup," be defeated," "a fellow or young people," "an embryo," "certainly or very well!" "anti (as a preface)" and ku = verse or stanza. Because Japanese words have no plural (like our sheep or deer) it is commonly agreed that we should not attempt to make a plural of haiku by adding the 's' as we normally do. Therefore we have learned to use haiku for one or for many haiku - it is also a way of honoring the origin of this word we have borrowed.

The Japanese haiku and the English language haiku have several critical differences. In Japanese the haiku is composed of 17 sound units divided into three parts - one with 5 units, one with 7 units and another with 5 units. Since sound units are much shorter than English syllables, it has been found that following the Japanese example results in a much longer poem often filled up to make the count with unnecessary words.
The Japanese write their haiku in one line, in order to see clearly the parts of the haiku. In English each part is given a line. This allows the reader time to form an image in the mind before the eyes go back to the left margin for more words. The line breaks also act as a type of punctuation. The kigo, or season word, is a vital part of the Japanese haiku, but in English it is often ignored and not well understood. Therefore, a great number of English haiku do not have a season word and yet are considered to be haiku. The Japanese, because of their longer history of reading haiku, understand that there are two parts to the poem. In English these are called the phrase and fragment. One line is the fragment and the other two lines combine grammatically to become the phrase. Without this combining the two lines together the haiku will sound ‘choppy’ as the voice drops at the end of each line.

Now let us take each of these aspects one at a time to explore each more carefully. I would like for you to explore how differently a haiku becomes when you write it using the 5,7,5 count for syllables. Either write one or find one written by someone else that is based on this pattern.



Now rewrite the haiku by using as few words as possible and setting your new poem in three lines with one short, the next one a bit longer, and the final one approximately the same size as line 1.


Do you see what happens? Adverbs and adjectives are dropped. In doing this the poem becomes slightly more ambiguous, but this is a good thing as it allows the reader a wider choice of images.


Can you make the poem even shorter?



When does the poem lose its original meaning and when does it become a new poem - perhaps yours alone?

Next lesson



Haiku in English by Harold Gould Henderson. Charles E Tuttle Co., June 1967.

Haiku, A Poet’s Guide by Lee Gurga. Modern Haiku Press, May, 2003.

Haiku – One Breath Poetry by Naomi Wakan. Heian International, Inc., 1815 West 205th Street, Suite #301, Torrance, CA 90501. 1997.

Haiku Handbook : How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter. Kodansha - March 1992.

Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, With Selected Examples by Kenneth Yasuda. Charles E Tuttle Co.,1994.

Writing and Enjoying Haiku by Jane Reichhold. Kodansha International, June, 2002


Additional books on haiku.








Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2001.

Please give credit when borrowing.