School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Four
Writing Haiku - The Form

As you have seen, the inspiration for a haiku is one job that may be more complicated than you had expected. Still if you are reading this, it means you have figured it out.

Now comes the next big job - writing your inspiration into a haiku. Before we get to actual pen and paper there are a few things I want you to understand about haiku.

The haiku in Japan and the haiku of the rest of the world are almost two different genres. Though the haiku written in languages not Japanese have various common aspects, the Japanese haiku has a set of parameters not possible in other languages and cultures.
            In Japan, the haiku is composed of three parts containing five sound units in the first section, seven sound units in the second part and five in the final part or line. There have been a few experiments by Japanese ancestors to change this pattern but the feeling for the rightness of this is so engrained in their literary history that as a folk, they seem unable to give up counting the sound units (on or kana) in their haiku.


Counting Syllables

            Many people, when they learn even the most basic information about haiku, believe it should consist of seventeen syllables divided into three lines. You can take up this rule as one for your work if you wish, as a great number of people have done, but the method has several major problems with it for us which you should carefully consider.

  1. English syllables are much longer than Japanese on or kana – sound units. Thus, the English haiku with seventeen syllables will contain about a third more information than the Japanese haiku. This situation can be acceptable unless one tries to translate any of these seventeen-syllable English haiku into Japanese or wishes to write a modern haiku. Because when reading accurate – not padded out translations from the Japanese, contemporary writers have seen that the original haiku, put into in English, look and sound much shorter. Thus, we have adopted the method of using less than seventeen syllables in our haiku. You cannot have it both ways. You have to decide if you wish for your haiku to equate with the process – counting parts of the poem, or the product – the shorter haiku.
  2. The Japanese do not use punctuation marks as we do with a dot for a period but have words called “cutting words” – kireji – KEY-RAY-GEE, which is similar to our speaking or writing out "dash" or "comma". These words of punctuation, some as verb or adjective suffixes, are also used as emphasis and carried various emotional messages as well. Often these are translated as alas! or oh! This is the same situation as when we use the exclamation point to indicate the author feels emphatically about something. The employment of cutting words uses up one or two of the sound units, shortening the factual information package of the haiku by up to twelve percent.
  3. The Japanese author can pick from a variety of sizes of cutting words in order to make a too-short line fit the counting scheme without adding information. The non-Japanese writer has no help which is similar.
  4. The English language, though it has many five or seven syllable phrases, has even more that lack a  syllable or two. Thus, to make the phrase fit to the rule, the author adds extra words – usually unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. In a form where brevity rules, this is a sure way to add a distraction the haiku does not need.

            There have been authorities who have advanced various theories on guidelines we should follow in English that involve counting the beats in the haiku or the stresses so that we are all using the very same arrangement. If you wish to investigate this method (and if you understand beats in language and how stresses are viewed) you can follow a system of two beats / three beats / two beats.
            The real goal of all this counting is to use as few words as possible to set the signposts which lead the reader to follow the inspiration of the author. Therefore, it seems counterproductive to follow any set-up that induces the use of extra words or images just to fill up a preconceived quota.

One of the major markers of an English-Lanuage haiku are the three lines. If we do not count syllables we still need to show this form. I feel the use of the guideline to have one short line, one longer line and one short line does keep the haiku shape. It is interesting to note how many 'haiku' published these days fail to keep the shape.

If you can, find one (or more!) and then rewrite the haiku back into the haiku shape. I fieel that the haiku becomes stronger, in looks and meaning when this is done.

For example one of my haiku::

a home
the invisible heart
of wood and stone

I wish I had written this with the correct form as:

an invisible heart
made of wood and stone
a home

Find other haiku, either yours or those written by someone else, and began switching the lines arround. See which version pleases you, or not. Later when we get into the techniques of haiku you may find the names for what you are feeling.


Before I finish with this lesson, I want to say a word about what are often called "one-line haiku." Because the Japanese often write their haiku in one line, some English writers try to emulate this practice also.

One can write any haiku in one line:

an invisible heart made of wood and stone a home

but I feel that we are so used to reading a sentence with one swoop of the eyes, that we tend then to read the haiku as a sentence when it really is not. When the lines are broken up (they do this in the same way a Japanese person recognizes the phrases in their haiku), the reader can form an image of the first phrase in the time it takes for their eyes to swing from the right margin to the left. Also having each image on a line invites the reader to move them around just as you did in the previous exercise. Often this changing the relationship of images will cast new or other conclusions or messages from the haiku.

One-line haiku are 'dangerous' to new haiku writers because it is still too easy just to write a sentence. A haiku must be made of two parts and we will discuss that next.

Previous lesson

Next lesson








Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2001.

Please give credit when borrowing.