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New to Haiku: The Elements and Craft of Haiku – Terri L. French

This week, New to Haiku presents a portion of beginner’s handout on haiku compiled by Terri L. French, board member of The Haiku Foundation and the co-editor of contemporary haibun online. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Terri! 

This summary contains some material sourced from Haiku: A Poet’s Guide by Lee Gurga with Charles Trumbull. This book is recommended reading for new haiku poets.

The Haiku Moment

The “aha” or “haiku moment” refers to finding the hidden or unexpected significance in the things around us — the “epiphany.” Haiku moments can occur anywhere at any time — and usually unexpectedly.

touching the fossil—
low rumblings
of thunder 

— Ruth Yarrow

Sometimes the “aha” of the moment only comes with the recollection of the experience.

graduation day—
my son and & I side by side
knotting our ties

— Lee Gurga

We use haiku elements and craft to convey the haiku moment and share it with our readers.

Haiku Elements

Basically a haiku in English must possess the following:

  • A brief form – usually three, but sometimes one or two lines and usually less than 17 total syllables, with the middle line generally longer than the first and third.
  • A season word – This is known in Japanese as the “kigo” and is said to be the “soul of the haiku.” (By the way, the term “haiku” is both plural and singular.)
  • A cutting technique – known in Japanese as the “kireji”which is used to create the pause that separates the poem into two parts.

Haiku Craft

The haiku craft is where you put the elements listed above into practice. Now we will go into more detail on the elements and what it actually takes to write a haiku you can be proud of and maybe even get published!

  • A brief form: brevity and lightness

Brevity is the hallmark of haiku. Japanese “syllables” – or actually “sounds” – are referred to an “on” (pronounced own). Japanese “on” are much shorter than English syllables. An “on” has the duration of our English syllable “be” as opposed to the longer single syllable sound in the word “heaved.” A haiku written in 17 English syllables would most likely be a much longer one than one written in 17 Japanese “on.”

For example:

heat before the storm
a fly disturbs the quiet
in the empty store

or

one fly everywhere the heat

— marlene mountain

Lightness is known in Japanese as “karumi.” This refers to the simplicity and clarity of the haiku. Here are some pointers to help you write simple, clear and precise haiku:

–Use capitalization and punctuation sparingly. (It’s only used rarely, for effect.)

–Use common but not boring language.

–Be specific and particular.

–Use nouns that are literal images. In other words, use concrete nouns to create your image, don’t be figurative. Don’t try to be “poetic.” Avoid simile and metaphor. Focus on things as they are.

–Be wary of “gerunds” which are nouns ending in “ing.” In other words, avoid nouns derived from verbs. Use vivid active verbs but be careful of “dangling participles.” For example: 

while reading Dickens
the airplane lands
in London

Is the airplane really reading Dickens!?

–Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. If a haiku feels overstuffed it is probably due to too many or unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

–Avoid judgement, intellectualization and explanation. Let the moment speak for itself.

–Avoid personification. Daffodils don’t weep and trees don’t dance!

–Avoid rhyme. Rhyme, especially end rhyme distracts from the haiku and is generally frowned upon, but literary devices such as consonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia, are used widely by haiku poets.

–Make use of “negative space” and pauses. Like negative space in art, haiku, too, uses negative space. This makes the reader visualize what’s not there. It involves the reader as a co-poet. Don’t give too much away!

–The caesura (“kire” in Japanese) is the pause between images in the haiku. The space between images is like a spark plug — if it is too small, the charge leaks out. If it is too wide, there is no spark.

  • A season word – the kigo

There have been some proponents who have tried to broaden or reform haiku by not insisting upon a kigo, but most Japanese and western haiku written today still follow tradition by including a kigo.

The association of a kigo with a particular season may be obvious or more subtle and sometimes even obscure. A kigo, of course, can change dependent upon where one lives geographically and according to the cultural adherence. A seasonal word or phrase does not have to be a reference to nature. For example:

after Christmas
a flock of sparrows
in the unsold trees

— Dee Evetts

What season does this haiku invoke?    

valley sunrise
from the barn a small parade
of night-born lambs

— Melissa Dixon

Can you think of some other obvious and less-obvious kigo?

  • A cutting technique – the kireji

“Kireji” or the “cutting word” refers to a specific Japanese poetic technique of using a word or sound to cleave the haiku in two. In English-language haiku, we often use punctuation instead, such as the em-dash(—), colon(:) or ellipsis(. . .), to give the same effect. This is one of the few times when punctuation is used in haiku. Other times, there is a natural pause in the reading of a haiku:

echo in the pines
the hoot owl tires
of answering me

— Terri L. French

More on Haiku Imagery

  • Juxtaposition and Internal Comparison

We talked above of the kire or pause in haiku. Juxtaposing or comparing two images within the haiku helps to divide it into two parts. For example:

Comparison of the two images:

the swell of her breast
against the watered silk—
summer moon

— Charles Trumbull

Contrast of the two images:

mounted butterflies
snowflakes
through the window

— Jerry Kilbride

  • Sense and Image

Visual images are most common in haiku, but sounds, smell and tactile imagery should also be used. For example:

sandpaper—
on the new cedar paddle
linseed oil

— Annie Juhl

  • Context

Interpretation can differ from what the poet intended. Obscurity and ambiguity – if not taken to the extreme – can be used very effectively in haiku. For example:   

a small girl. . .
the shadows stroke
and stroke her

— Michael McClintock

  • Avoid Stilted Language and “Grocery Lists”

Stilted language refers to haiku with missing articles (“the”, “a”, or “an”). While there definitely don’t have to be complete sentences in haiku, you also don’t want to cut out words that are needed to make the sentence flow.

For example:

horse scare
bad storm come
shelter

Also, don’t make your haiku into a “grocery list” of images. For example:

original:  

long auburn hair
her cheek
flecked with autumn

— Randy Brooks

grocery list:

her autumn hair
the trees across the lake
the freckles on her cheek

  • The Order of Perception

The haiku moment is much more likely to lodge in the reader’s mind if the images are presented in the same order that they were experienced. For example:

writing outdoors
a ladybug punctuates
my words

— Terri L. French

versus:

a ladybug punctuates
my words
writing outdoors

Which haiku do you prefer?

When trying to determine how best to divide a poem, it is important to consider what should go at the beginning and end of each line.

Consider these two haiku that I wrote. Which is better?

wind  
blowing on the child
blowing on the pinwheel

versus:

wind blowing
on the child blowing on
the pinwheel

Some say haiku must be experienced “in the moment.” If not, these poems are often referred to as “desk haiku.” Does a haiku have to be directly experienced to be authentic and effectual? For instance, many poets who did not directly experience the Japan earthquake and tsunami wrote haiku about it. Do you think this is okay? What about haiku written from memories or even the imagination — are they authentic?

As with any art form, you need to learn the rules before you can break them. You will find that many successful, published haiku poets bend and even break the rules at times.

For beginners, it is better to concentrate on the content/imagery than the form. You can always play with the form in the editing process. The most important thing in learning to write haiku is to become AWARE of your surroundings in order to find the imagery you will use in your poems.

Remember, to WRITE good haiku you must READ good haiku. Subscribe to or visit online journals, read anthologies, visit the Haiku Society of America or The Haiku Foundation websites. Always have pencil and paper – or your phone – at your disposal. You never know when or where you will find your haiku moment.

Terri L. French currently serves on The Haiku Foundation Board of Directors. She is also on the editorial team of the online journal, contemporary haibun online. Terri is past southeast regional coordinator of The Haiku Society of America and former editor of Prune Juice Journal of Senryu & Related Forms.
 
Now retired, Terri, her husband Ray, and dog Chaka, enjoy the nomadic lifestyle of full-time RVers.
 

Julie Bloss Kelsey

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Hello,
    I really appreciate, the top of the above paragraph, and especialy the Notion of : “EXPERIENCE IN HAÏKU” from Indian Teacher : Pr. Bushan Satya Burma – In His Thesis : ” SATORI IN 17 SYLLABES” – In 2005, this Exprience’ Notion, allowed me to be laureat of : “9TH Mainichi Haïku Contest” – “IN HAÏKU, EACH WORD IS AN : ” E X P E R I E N C E ” – Never Forget It…

  2. Thanks Terri, I consider myself a haiku novice and learned a lot from your article. Do you think haiku should evolve to express different cultures or modern life?

    1. Many do. If you are not familiar with haiku’s “cousin,” senryu, check out the journals Prune Juice and Failed Haiku.

  3. This is a good, concise compilation of the haiku dos and don’ts. It serves as a reminder to get myself back to the essence of haiku. Thank you for putting it together!

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