Be Creative! / Writing

Economy of Words: Writing a Haiku

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō, by Yokoi Kinkoku, c....

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō, by Yokoi Kinkoku, c. 1820 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For my next badge, I had to write a haiku. But, what is a haiku?

Just seventeen sounds
haiku is a tough challenge–
No perfection here!

The structure of haiku, as it’s traditionally studied in the West, limits us to three lines of 17 syllables, generally in three phrases of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.

But there’s a little more to it than that.


Scouts are tasked with writing a haiku, and were I a scout approaching this task, I suspect I’d do the syllable count, turn in my work, and wait for my pat on the head. I suppose I could approach it now in the same way, but it seemed like I should learn, and share, just a bit more about this truly elegant form of Japanese poetry.

How to Write a Haiku:

Beyond 17 sounds, traditional haiku has generally included a seasonal reference (known as a kigo in Japanese), and this probably reflected the lack of anything remotely industrial in Japan when the form was developed. Modern haiku doesn’t necessarily follow this “rule” (although a seasonal reference is required of scouts for their own haiku for this task).  

One more tradition: (good) haiku’s beauty rests in its capacity to  juxtapose two ideas or images with a “kiregi” — or cut — that provides a contrast/comparison of ideas. See if this concept is clear in these haiku examples.

Haiku examples:

First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face
–Kijo Murakami (the year is coming to an end… and so is he) 

You rice field maidens!
The only things not muddy
Are the songs you sing.
–Raizan (compares both the beauty and filth of those gals)

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!
Matsuo Basho (the senses — sound and smell — contrast to make the “perfect” evening).

This technique of “cutting” creates a poem in which the sum is greater than the parts. Sure, Raizen could’ve written 17 syllables only on the mud in the rice fields, but the beauty of the maiden’s songs in contrast to the mud make it so much lovelier, no?

And note that while there may not be a specific reference to a particular season, they evoke a season (e.g., blossoms tell us it’s spring).

These three haiku examples are quite traditional, but it’s worth noting that modern haiku — particularly written by poets outside of Japan — rarely follow the 5-7-5 rule, or even the mention of a season. Look at this haiku written by Jack Kerouac:

The taste
of rain
–Why kneel?

See what I mean?

But now it’s my turn, and I am required to abide by the traditional rules. Now, I happen to write songs, which have their own forms, but writing haiku is not the same thing.

It’s a bit like asking an artist who works exclusively in oils to paint with watercolors; there will be a facility, but it’s not at all the same medium. So here are a baker’s dozen of (mostly) summer haiku jotted down over the past few weeks:

The Modern Mrs.
Doesn’t believe in summer–
No bikinis here.

My weatherman is
An honorable liar
He promised me rain.

The summer cooked me —
A smooth, broiled potato.
Eat me if you will.

The bees are hungry

There are few blossoms in drought
And I crave honey.

Nocturnal living:
Celestial pranks abound,
But you miss the light. 

The shaved ice vendors
Have become the summer’s cool,
Shady characters

The weekend cowboy’s
Pressing business out of town
Left her eating dust.

The fine summer sand

That stole home in your sneakers
Kisses your toes in fall

Seasonably mild,
The farmer’s Almanac lies!
Fodder for compost.

Records were broken
Cookies were baked on dashboards
And mixed with ice cream.

The signs of summer:
No shirt, no shoes, no service.
Now we add: no jobs.

We have all the sun
But you have all the water
Cousins, parched and drowned 

Hurry up and wait:
The migrating hummingbird
Promises autumn. 


4 thoughts on “Economy of Words: Writing a Haiku

  1. Pingback: Matsuo Basho: Haiku Poet | Legend of the Tengu Prince

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