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A Poetic Look At: Haiku


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

So…why haiku this time?

Because they are popular, and I love them. Additionally, they are an interesting example of how other languages handle and organize sounds and words into poetry. In English, we use meter. Other languages do not use meter, or do not use it as English does.

But I know about haiku.

That’s great! It helps to build on something that we already know when trying to learn new things.

Okay, so…how do haiku work?

(I know I was taught a fair bit about haiku as a child, but I am going to talk as if you all don’t know many of these things. Therefore no one will be lost or confused.)

Haiku is a Japanese poetic form. Haiku have a single stanza of three lines. Line one is five syllables, line two is seven syllables, line three is five syllables again. This is what most people are taught.

In researching this, I discovered that haiku don’t have three lines when written in Japanese. They have only one; the three lines in English-language haiku point back to the three phrases that haiku have in Japanese.

Syllables, Morae and On

Japanese syllables are not syllables, but on (or morae). Japanese on are all the same length. Stress is more or less the same across all on. Since Japanese is a tonal language, you may hear high-tone on as stress. (Japanese has two tones. The other is low-tone.)

Haiku were once referred to as hokku. They grew out of renku (hokku is still the name for the first verse of a renku poem), and were viewed in that context for a time. In order to truly separate haiku from renku, Masaoka Shiki, a haiku author, suggested the name of haiku (an abbreviation of haikai no ku).

You told me that every poetic form has a recipe. What’s the recipe this time?

On (which we already talked about), a kigo, and the idea of kireji.


Traditionally, there is a kigo, or a season word, within the haiku. This is taken from a list of such words, called a saijiki. It is supposed to communicate the various elements of a given season.

A saijiki will divide each of the 4 seasons into early, middle, and late seasons. This gives 12 timespans. Kigo are also divided into 7 categories: the season, the sky and heavens, the earth, humanity, observances, animals, and plants.


Traditionally, a kireji (or cutting word) is placed at the end of one of the three phrases.

Let me explain this more fully. Haiku are meant to be a juxtaposition of two ideas. A kireji aids in this by either being placed at the transition point, or being placed in such a way that it highlights the juxtaposition.

In English, the spirit of kireji is often retained by juxtaposing without any kireji.

Modern Changes

In modern times, people are playing with the old rules. Some English language haiku dispense with the 5-7-5 pattern, and just go for a short poem with short lines — something like…following the spirit of compactness, without following the letter of the rule.

People have also chosen to depart from the nature/season-based subject matter, and brought haiku into different contexts.

Okay, so, show me some Japanese haiku, then some English ones.

(If you don’t have Japanese installed on your device, all the Japanese characters will look really odd. I’ll put in Romaji (Japanese written in the same letters used for English), so don’t worry.)

Japanese haiku

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
old pond . . ./a frog leaps in/water’s sound
— Matsuo Bashou

fuji no kaze ya oogi ni nosete Edo miyage
the wind of Mt. Fuji/I’ve brought on my fan!/a gift from Edo
— Matsuo Bashou

Sumizumi ni nokoru samusa ya ume no hana
In nooks and corners/Cold remains:/Flowers of the plum
— Yosa Buson

edo no ame nan goku nonda hototogisu
how many gallons/of Edo’s rain did you drink?/cuckoo
— Kobayashi Issa

Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew –/A world of dew it is indeed,/And yet, and yet . . .
Kobayashi Issa

(all Japanese haiku and translations sourced from Wikipedia’s haiku page, Wikipedia’s Issa page, and Wikipedia’s Buson page)

English haiku

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.
— Richard Wright

“Report Card”
Four days of the year,
One tiny piece of paper
Turns my stomach sour.
— Brian P. Cleary

an aging willow–
its image unsteady
in the flowing stream
— Robert Spiess

Just friends:
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.
— Alexis Rotella

meteor shower…
a gentle wave
wets our sandals
— Michael Dylan Welch

(all English haiku sourced from YourDictionary’s haiku page, Wikipedia’s haiku page, and Wikipedia’s Haiku in English page)

Hope that helped you understand more about haiku.


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About rootedphoenix

I am the owner and blogger on this site. Hi! :D I like sparkles, sweets, and being nice. But I also laugh at snarky things. So I'm a work in progress.

One Response to A Poetic Look At: Haiku

  1. rootedphoenix says:

    I want to share my experiment with this poetry form. Feel free to share your own, but, please, do not feel as if you have to.
    Royal Rubble

    the door is not there
    the castle wall has been crushed
    the guard is lost, gone

    (c) 2013 windy Johansen

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