The Art of Haiku

Understanding the five principles behind writing powerful haiku poetry

Haiku is a Japanese form of short poetry. Born in the sixteenth century, it was popularized by poets Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoki Shiki. Consisting of three short lines of often broken phrases, this Japanese art-form aims to share images, moments, and experiences with readers in order to move and inspire them, like this famous poem:

old pond:
frog jumps in,
the sound of water
Mastuo Basho

The fundamental problem with writing haiku is the idea that writing three short lines is easy. This idea couldn't be further from the truth. Haiku, though simple in its appearance, is a delicate art-form, and like all simple art-forms, it can be very difficult to tell whether one has created a strong, engaging, and memorable haiku piece.

In my studies and experience, I've come across five fundamental rules for writing haiku. These rules are at play in almost every well-crafted haiku poem. Of course, like all rules, these five are made to be broken. However, it is important to understand what the rules are and how and why they work before you consider violating them.

Rule 1: Focus on a single, brief moment, event, or experience

All well-crafted haiku focus on a brief, yet unique experience. They do not connect experiences or events as you would a story, but rather they take a single moment and attempt to share it. This is known as The Principle of Singularity. The point of haiku is not to go in-detail about a thought or relationship or experience. It’s simply to give something to share, as if to say, “Look at this!”

When writing haiku, focus on one single, special, emotive experience or event. Focus on a moment that you feel you have to share with another person. Perhaps this moment taught you a valuable lesson, or perhaps it awoke something dormant in you. Nevertheless, it should be a single, short, yet memorable experience that you feel compelled to share with your reader.

Rule 2: Make your haiku as realistic and clear as possible

Unlike most poetry, most haiku do not make direct use of metaphors, similes, hyperboles, or other rhetorical techniques. Nor does it make use of opinions. This is known as The Principle of Accuracy. According to this principle, descriptions in haiku should be as realistic, clear, and depictive as possible.

When writing haiku, focus on first describing what is going on in the experience. Do not focus on your feelings, opinions, or thoughts on the matter. Instead, concentrate only on what you can hear, see, smell, touch, or taste. Haiku requires solid, concrete images. In other words, show, don’t tell.

Rule 3: Use easy-to-understand words and images

The aim of a haiku poem is to share an image with another person in such a way that they can experience the event you’ve experienced in their own minds. To do this, the image you present must not only be clear, but relatable. This idea is known as The Principle of Accessibility.

According to this principle, a haiku poem must utilize words and concepts that gives the reader a context under which he or she can quickly understand the scene of the poem. In old times, for example, haiku poets would use season-words (kigo) that either directly mentions or alludes to a specific season. By doing this, they allow the reader to easily imagine the scene, since most readers are familiar with the different seasons.

When writing haiku, focus on providing images that the reader can easily grasp. If you make your images too esoteric, then the reader has a harder time feeling the emotion of the piece.

Rule 4: Organize strongest details in the most natural or effective order

Haiku is a practice in minimalism. The idea is to organize details in the simplest or most natural order. This is called The Principle of Economy. According to this principle, all details that do not strongly contribute to creating the image (this includes grammatical constructions like adjectives, adverbs, verbs) must be taken out from the description.

The point of economy isn't simply to keep the poem short, but to make sure that the details included in the poem are organized to create the most impact on the reader.

Rule 5: Make your haiku sayable in one breath

All haiku must be sayable in one breath. This is called The Principle of Brevity. According to this principle, if a haiku takes longer than a breath to say, then the poem loses its emotive force.

Traditionally, haiku poets would write haiku with 5 onji (or phonetic sounds) on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 again on the third. Such a structure was consistent with the speaking rhythm in the Japanese language.

In the English world, we do not follow the same rhythm. Thus, we must stick with the principle of brevity and keep the haiku sayable in one breath. This makes the image easy to absorb and imagine for the reader. This principle works hand in hand with the principle of economy. In cutting out the unnecessary words, you must select words that allow the poem to flow in one breath.

For more information on the rules, violations, and techniques behind writing haiku poetry, please visit my website, The Way of Haiku.