A haiku is a form of Japanese poetry. When written in Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed on one vertical line. In English, haiku are written using three horizontal lines – the first and third lines contained five syllables, while the middle line contains seven syllables. Traditionally, the haiku will include a “season word”, the kigo, to refer to the season in which the poem is set or to refer to the natural world. Haiku, like sheep, is both plural and a single form of the noun.
While English verse counts “beats”, Japanese verse counts units of sounds, known as “on” and loosely translated as “syllables”.
A haiku is actually written in two parts – these are called “the phrase and the fragment”. In Japanese, words called kireji separate the portions; in English, the kireji are often replaced with commas, ellipses, or breaks in haiku.
Several rules provide guidelines to poets considering haiku. Some believe a haiku must combine two different images, with a focus on description. The kireji, or cutting word, must occur at the end of the first or second line. Also, the haiku should be written in present tense. These rules are bent and often broken by poets, especially outside the Japanese language.
The modern 5-7-5 syllable haiku often taught in English schools is somewhat incorrect. Since the Japanese do not count syllables, concentrating on beats instead, there are variations between the Japanese and English forms.
Modern English haiku follow three simple rules to creating poetry:
1. Use three lines (or less), with no more than 17 syllables.
2. Use metrical feet, not syllables. The haiku becomes three lines consisting of 2, 3, and 2 metrical feet. There will be a pause after either the second or fifth metrical foot.
3. Use the one breath rule. Take a deep breath. You should be able to read the entire haiku aloud without running out of air.
Basho’s “old pond” haiku reads like this in the original Japanese:
Roughly translated, the haiku becomes:
A frog jumps
The sound of water