A Haiku Primer

BY AUBRIE COX


There’s a day for everything, and today, April 17, is no exception. Happy Haiku Poetry Day!

You may have encountered haiku in grade school. A three-line poem that consists of 5–7–5 syllables focusing on nature. Does this sound familiar? If so, I’m sorry to say, but your teachers lied to you. Or maybe lied is too strong of a word. Your teachers misguided you. It’s true that haiku often include nature, and it’s true that haiku in English are often written in three lines (although not always). The complication arises with saying a haiku is a construct of 5–7–5 syllables, and that this is the driving factor of what defines a haiku.

So what exactly is a haiku? The Haiku Society of America defines haiku as “a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.” As you can see, there’s no mention of syllable count, or even how many lines. The conventions you may have encountered in grade school come from early translation efforts. Haiku is Japanese in origin, and the Japanese language doesn’t have syllables, it has on, or sounds. Haiku is about brevity and is engaging because it’s so short and focuses on an individual moment or experience. Japanese sounds are shorter than English syllables, so while haiku may work in Japanese with 17 sounds, in English 17 syllables is far too much. See this poem by Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) as an example:

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound
(Translation by William J. Higginson*).

Higginson’s translation is only nine syllables. To reach 17 syllables, one would have to add in details and words that don’t appear in the original poem. It would lose its crispness and vibrancy. So when writing in English, haiku poets try to keep the poem within one breath. Here’s one of my favorites from Peggy Lyles (1939–2010)**:

summer night
we turn out all the lights
to hear the rain[.]

Although this poem was written in English some three hundred years later, Lyles’ haiku shares several key structural elements with Basho’s. There’s a seasonal element, and there’s a pause between the first and second lines (called a “cut”). Both also don’t really tell the reader what to think or feel. Rather, these haiku offer up images that trigger our senses, memories, and emotions. There’s no agenda other than sharing an experience. This was one of the main draws for me when I discovered haiku seven years ago. When a writer composes a haiku, it’s only half finished. The reader is co-creator, and his or her reading can carry the poem out beyond the page and make it almost a new poem altogether. Where are you in Peggy Lyles’ poem? Are you out on a covered porch? Are you at a sleepover from when you were younger? These are just as accurate as any other reading. And sharing with others can trigger new readings entirely. These possibilities unfold because of careful word choice and juxtaposition.

The use of juxtaposition (and the cut, which is often formed by it) is what keeps a haiku from being just a phrase or a sentence. Or even just any other small poem. It brings two images together to create depth and resonance. The rain in Lyles’ haiku feels much different when we know it’s a summer night, and knowing the pond is old creates a feeling of quiet and isolation when all we hear is the splash in Basho’s. In the poem below, not only do the “wild narcissus” provide setting and season, but an allusion to Greek mythology:

the cool kids
walk arm-in-arm
… wild narcissus
(Roberta Beary***).

The cut happens at the end of line two, but serves the same purpose as the other poems above — it provides room for the reader to stop and ruminate, to take in what’s been presented thus far. After the cut, the first image shifts with the inclusion of the second. A good haiku, when the two images come together, will leave you with an “ah!” sensation. Beary’s haiku is one of my first haiku loves because of the way it made me feel. The warmth of spring sun, a breeze, flipflops on the sidewalk. The wild abandon and invincibility of youth. I’m sure someone else sees something entirely different in this haiku, which makes me love it all the more.

If you want to write haiku, or even just become a better reader of haiku, you have options. Treat yourself today. Explore The Haiku Foundation’s website, subscribe to any one of the print journals (I’m personally fond of bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, and Frogpond.). There’s also a number of publications online for free, such as The Heron’s Nest or A Hundred Gourds (which I help edit). Pick up a pen. Write. Breathe.


AUBRIE COX went to university to write a novel and came out writing haiku. It’s worked pretty well so far. She’s an editor for the online journal, A Hundred Gourds, as well as the upcoming Juxtapositions: A Journal of Haiku Research and Scholarship. Her poetry and prose can be found in publications such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, NANO Fiction, and WhiskeyPaper, as well as on her blog, Yay Words!. She sometimes tweets at @aubriecox.

Post originally published on 4/17/15