Haiku: Easy or Hard?

Haiku is one of the most popular forms of poetry; it’s also one of the least understood forms. And since haiku are so short, many writers think they can write them as easy (and nearly as fast) as snapping their fingers.

During the summer months, I’m even occasionally assaulted by Budweiser Summer Haiku radio commercials, which often come off like those Real Men of Genius commercials with less humor and less genius (so really not the same at all).

Haiku is descended from the Japanese renga form, which was often a collaborative poem comprised of many short stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga was called hokku. Eventually, haiku evolved from the left-over and most interesting hokku that were not used in renga.

Most haiku deals with natural topics. They avoid metaphor and simile. While (I think) most poets agree that haiku have three short lines, there is some disagreement on how long those lines are. For instance, some traditional haiku poets insist on 17 syllables in lines of 5/7/5. Other contemporary haiku poets feel that the first and third lines can be any length as long as they’re shorter than the middle line.

Haiku do not have to include complete sentences or thoughts. They do not have titles. The best haiku contain some shift in the final line.

I do not claim to be a haiku master, but here’s my attempt at a 5/7/5 line structure:

Clouds mushroom upward
where rain stampedes to the earth,
makes mud fresh again.

But I kind of favor this more contemporary revision I made in a 3/7/4 line structure:

Clouds mushroom
where rain stampedes to the earth,
making fresh mud.

And I could even get as radical as:

Clouds mushroom
where rain stampedes
fresh mud.

Anyway, as my pal S.A. Griffin would say, “It’s all about the process.”

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For a ton of info on haiku, go to http://www.ahapoetry.com/haiku.htm

Some more on haiku can be found at http://www.toyomasu.com/haiku/

Also, http://www.dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Poetry/Forms/Haiku_and_Related_Forms/

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Check out the Haiku Society of America at http://www.hsa-haiku.org

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Click here to check out other Poetic Forms.

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25 thoughts on “Haiku: Easy or Hard?

  1. Sharon Chaffee

    Well, here it goes. I have not written any poetry for a very long time, and a haiku, well, here it is.

    Dogs standing upright
    about the towering tree,
    scent of a raccoon.

  2. Carole Egler

    Haiku is not something I have ever done –
    so no claim that this is it . . . I just tried.
    I think typos might be an unconscious fitting for this form . . . ?!

    Day 21 Promrt – Haiku

    Cactus grows
    rows of symmetry
    Tall shadows

    #2

    clouds Scooting
    no chance of rain today
    Hunter shooting

    Carole

  3. Shirley Alexander

    FIRST: I am an extreme S. A. Griffin fan!

    PLEASE READ*****For all those people who post and repost because they found errors: Type it into Word first and do a spell check, then edit it for any other changes. You can copy and paste it into Asides. Saves Robert and the Judges a lot of time and headaches.

    ____________________________
    ____________________________

    I like haiku, might do more than one.
    I like the 5-7-5 form, with minimal words, and the 1st and 3rd lines being able to stand freely from the middle one. My spell check went nuts on this one because Bill Gates forgot to include "blog" and "myspace" in his dictionary.

    Here’s my first haiku:

    cat sits on keyboard
    masterpiece erased from blog
    myspace gets the butt

  4. Pearl Ketover Prilik

    (1)
    softly falling rain
    gathering in the gutter
    sparkling rainbow

    (2)
    freedom was haiku
    clear crystal simplicity
    shattered now shame rains

  5. angela readman

    wise for anyone not to claim to be a haiku master, so many feel so passionate about what it should or shouldn’t be. all we can do is try, play with it i think. fun to try though, be aware of the rules, then don’t use them always 🙂

    My first attempt is(rule following)

    on top of the trash-
    white space of your teeth, marks
    on green apple skin

    this has now become:

    on top of the trash-
    white of your teethmarks
    spaces in apple skin

    haiku being such a tricky one, i could end up with 30 more variations on this one alone- which would be better would depend on the very strong opinions people have on haiku in the person who is reading it.

  6. banana_the_poet

    oops posted on the wrong thread. I have improved on these now I think since reading Michael’s first comment here – they now read as follows:

    PAD Haiku I.

    Autumn Earthquake.

    An Autumn earthquake.
    The trees tremble dropping leaves
    but their roots hold firm.

    PAD Haiku II.

    Summer Storm.

    Summer hurricane.
    Trees uprooted crash to earth
    but grass merely bends.

    I like them better that way too. Thanks for the info that helped me improve these.

  7. banana_the_poet

    PAD Haiku I.

    Autumn Earthquake.

    The earthquake rumbles
    the trees tremble dropping leaves
    but their roots hold firm.

    PAD Haiku II.

    Summer Storm.

    The hurricane blows
    trees uprooted crash to earth
    the grass merely bends.

  8. Terri

    Michael you have helped me a great deal in my understanding of haiku and have been patient and encouraging concerning the attempts I have sent you. Some say I am missing the "aha" moment. That does tend to make one anxious. You start looking for the aha and you are bound to miss it. I think writing good haiku can probably only take place after lots of "sense awakening," spending time in silence with nature, and then many ill attempts and fine tuning. I refuse to give up, but I have taken a break in writing because it is beginning to become contrived. I need time to breath and experience without the worry of "creating" a successful poem.

    Terri French

  9. JEFF

    Haiku is so foreign to me. In the interest of meeting this poetry challenge, here goes:

    Lacy ice refrains
    Hints of warming sunshine peeks
    Winter needs to sleep

  10. Rodney C. Walmer

    My first Haiku ever follows, I have been writing poetry for 34 years now, and never ever have I tried to do a Haiku. Why did I do this one, I just want to stay in the contest. I truly hope I have not, or do not offend the wonderful artists and poets who do write in Haiku with my pathetic entry. But what follows next is it.

  11. Robert Brewer

    Thanks Michael.

    It’s more unwarranted fear–like speaking in public. I speak in public regularly, but I still get nervous every single time. The whole being afraid I’ll stick my foot in my mouth complex.

    Actually, I think every poet should be super-passionate. I think it’s a great thing that haiku has such a following and would love to see other forms follow suit. (My soft spot has always been for the sestina–probably because I’ve always had a love of math and patterns.)

  12. Michael Dylan Welch

    Robert, I think it’s something the haiku community should be aware of — and do something about — if its passion for haiku makes anyone terrified to write about haiku. What can we do to change that? I read on the WomPo discussion list a comment once that said "Haiku poets are touchy." I suppose we are, partly because of marginalization and the problems of pseudo-haiku or pop-haiku vs. literary haiku. But I’m unsure how the community could change so that it’s less touchy. How do you get the sense of the haiku community’s passion? At any rate, despite your terror, I think you presented a fine and balanced invitation to haiku.

  13. Robert Brewer

    Thanks, Michael!

    Yes, as mentioned in the piece, I am no master of the form, which is why I encourage checking out more resources on haiku. Your piece in Poet’s Market for Nancy was very good.

    And, Danny, thank you for sharing Haiku for You.

    To tell you the truth, writing up a post on haiku terrified me more than any other form, because while its size is quite small, it’s passionate following of poets is quite large (and with good reason, of course).

    Best,

    Robert

  14. Michael Dylan Welch

    Interesting post. My sense of things is that practically no current literary haiku writers believe the 5-7-5 pattern of syllables is applicable in English (in Japanese they count sounds, not syllables, which is why a one-syllable word like "scarf," in English, is counted as FOUR sounds when said in Japan, something like "su-ka-ar-fu"), so I’m not sure I’d call 5-7-5 a "traditional" viewpoint in English. More like a traditional misunderstanding. Some of the most traditional haiku writers I know pay no attention to 5-7-5. With only rare exceptions, most promoters of 5-7-5 in English tend to be rather new to haiku, or aren’t yet widely read in the subject (or English isn’t their native language).

    Rather, what matters most in the *tradition* of haiku is the kigo (season word) and kireji (cutting word), as well as objective sensory imagery (thus one wouldn’t say that rain "stampedes" the mud, because, as interesting as that is, it shows your interpretation and lacks the objectivity that lets readers have their own reaction to a carefully crafted image).

    For a taste of the reasons why folks writing literary haiku vastly pay no attention to a 5-7-5 syllable count in English, I recommend Keiko Imaoka’s essay "Forms in English Haiku" at http://asgp.org/agd-poems/keiko-essay.html (and elsewhere). At any rate, I always like to quote philospher Roland Barthes on haiku. He said that "The haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily." Paradoxically, haiku is both easy and hard.

    Meanwhile, I presume you’ve seen the article I wrote on haiku that Nancy published in the 2005 edition of Poet’s Market? In addition, perhaps my essay "Becoming a Haiku Poet" at http://www.haikuworld.org/begin/mdwelch.apr2003.html might also be of interest?

    Thanks for turning a brief spotlight on haiku!

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