Perhaps you were assigned to write a haiku in seventh grade and haven’t thought about them since. Or maybe you are familiar with haiku but don’t recall the exact details. For those who want to take a crack at creating one or more haiku on National Haiku Day, here is a quick refresher.
The most well-known part of a haiku is its 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Traditional haiku also have some other features, however:
- There is typically a reference to a season (with the use of words like “cherry blossoms” or “snow” or “falling leaves”).
- The subject of a haiku is often nature, but it may aim to explain something about the very nature of life, for instance.
- Japanese forms also use a “cutting word” (kireji) — something not really found in English. The cutting word is used to separate the different parts of the poem, playing a role that punctuation might play in English. One of these parts might reveal something deeper about the other half, or their juxtaposition might reveal something new.
Now, there are editors from haiku journals who encourage writers to discard essentially all of the rules — even the 5-7-5 structure — when writing modern haiku in English. Others favor retaining the structure but dropping requirements like the seasonal reference or cutting word, or the opposite. Some argue these are too constraining and only really make sense when writing in Japanese.
Certainly some flexibility makes sense. But I try not to veer from the 5-7-5 pattern, and I look to incorporate the other features whenever possible. To be honest, I find the constraints can be liberating. This would not surprise those who take a brief glimpse at my haiku, since many center on paradox.
There are limitless opportunities and directions for creative expression. The rules can help narrow the focus and spur greater creativity, as they demand a succinctness and precision that is helpful. So feel free to depart from the traditional guidelines if it seems suitable, but I recommend following them if it makes sense.
Of course, writing haiku should not be an academic exercise focused on following a rubric. Inspiration is an essential element. I have rarely sat down to write a poem. Usually I am darting to find a pen or a napkin or my phone to jot something down that has just popped into my head. Sometimes it is complete in just a minute or two. Other times I might tinker with it over months, setting it aside then coming back to it, until I have the sense, That’s it — that finally expresses what I want to say.
Sometimes in a few brief words, I feel I’m able to capture what I could not in a full essay. I find this to be particularly true of paradoxes. Haiku can express a lived reality in a way that is not particularly suited for an exclusively intellectual reflection.
How can I write about what it’s like to be living back home again for a few months during the pandemic and driving my kids around through the streets my grandparents once drove me to get ice cream or see Christmas lights — yet without them. Is it still home? A different home? How can I describe a sensation that reflects the joy, rootedness, nostalgia, absence, and more that are interconnected in this experience?
How can I express the intimacy of a long walk with a friend when time seemed to stand still — yet I was still conscious of how fleeting it would be, knowing that I might not see them again for quite a long time, and maybe never again in such an ideal setting?
Sometimes ideas that have been percolating in my mind for months suddenly find their final form and full expression in 3 lines and 17 syllables. Sometimes the streets or a bridge or trees help to clarify those swirling thoughts and spark a brief moment of inspiration.
For writers who want to jump-start the process of writing haiku, I might consider those ideas that have been bouncing around in your mind but never made it into a complete essay or article. For those who don’t write essays or consider themselves writers, surely you too have experienced poignant moments that stayed with you and invited reflection. Start with those.
Of course, coming up with a modern haiku can just be fun, too. You don’t need to write something that unlocks a fundamental truth about human nature or modernity or existence. You might simply want to express yourself in a particular moment. Some of the best haiku describe light, fun moments and impressions.
I’ve written about an image of the Tennessee River bathed in orange sunlight, a wild dog running through a yard, the trees swaying in the breeze during a silent retreat — and I’ve written haiku that are meant to be funny or cheeky. Whatever pops into your mind, don’t be afraid to run with it. Giving expression to your perceptions can be a sign of gratitude; it can also sharpen and deepen what you see.