How to Write a Haiku | A Short History and 7 Easy Steps

4576127693_94c35d2ae4_bInterested in learning how to write a haiku? Learn a bit about their rich history, and then take a stab at writing your own with the help of this guest post from Cherese Cobb, creative writer and self-proclaimed haiku nut:


Haiku comes from tanka, a short poem that has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable rhythm. It was originally practiced by Japanese noblemen and Buddhist priests. During the 9th-12th centuries, writing tanka became a game called renga, where one person wrote the first three lines of the poem and another person wrote the last two lines. In order to impress other gamers, poets began to write the first three verses before the renga parties started. These unrhymed, three-line verses began to be recognized as a form of poetry known as hokku. Masaoka Shiki, a 19th century Japanese poet, combined the phrase “haikai no renga,” which means comical linked verse, with the name “hokku,” creating the term haiku.

What is Haiku?

A haiku is a micro-poem, which is a poem that has 20 or fewer words. It is a three-line poem about nature or the human condition. The writer captures an ordinary moment by using simple and direct words. In other words, the poet shows rather than tells.

Haiku usually has a kigo, a seasonal reference, which can be obvious, as in using a word like “April” or “winter,” or it might be subtler. For instance, mentioning sakura or cherry blossoms, which flower during the spring, can suggest the season.

Note the kigo in this poem by Bashō:

yuku haru-ya (5) tori naki uo-no me-ni namida (12)

Spring passing—
birds cry, tears in the eyes of fish

Haiku often contains a kiru or two contrasting ideas. The writer creates a leap between the two parts, giving the poem a deeper meaning. Creating this comparison can be the hardest part of writing a haiku because it can be too obvious or unclear. Note the kiru in this poem by American poet Micheal Welch:

Meteor shower…
a gentle wave
wets our sandals

Although there are many types of haiku, the traditional pattern in English has 17 syllables. The first and last lines have five syllables each, and the middle line has seven syllables. The pattern of syllables looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1 2 3 4 5

Here are two examples of traditional haiku:

Surely that spring moon,
So yellow and so fragile,
Will crack on a cloud!
-Richard Wright

An aging willow–
its image unsteady
in the flowing stream
-Robert Spies

Keep in mind that there’s more than one type of haiku.

Most American poets do not use the 5-7-5 syllable rhythm when writing haiku. When poets started writing English haiku in the 1950s, they realized that 17 syllables in English conveyed more information than 17 syllables in Japanese, and have come to write haiku in fewer syllables, usually 14 syllables or fewer. Most American haiku still have three segments that follow a short-long-short pattern. This style is called “free-form” haiku.

Here are three examples of free-form haiku:

Spring morning
a goose feather floats
in the quiet room
-Bruce Ross

Snow in my shoe
Sparrow’s nest
-Jack Kerouac

Little spider,
will you outlive
-Cor van den Heuvel

A few American haiku poets have broken completely away from the three-line form of Haiku. The most common type of haiku is one line.

pig and i spring rain
-Marlene Mountain

an icicle the moon drifting through it
-Matsuo Allard

At its most minimal, haiku may consist of a single word, like the examples below.

-Cor van den Heuvel

-John Stevenson

-Cherese Cobb

Haiku can also sometimes have four lines with one or two words per line. This form of haiku is called vertical haiku. See the examples below:

She watches
satisfied after love
he lies
looking up at nothing

leaf mold
-Marlene Wills

American poet John Carley invented the fixed-form or zipped haiku. This form of haiku has 15 syllables divided between two lines. Each line has a pause that is double spaced.

buoyed up      on the rising tide
a fleet of head boards      bang the wall
-John Carley

How to Write a Haiku

To begin learning how to write haiku poems, just follow these steps:

  1. Select the type of haiku (traditional or free-form) you want to write.
  2. Pick a topic. You can write about Mother Nature or human nature.
  3. Decide if you are going to include a kigo (seasonal reference) or a kiru (compares two different ideas). Remember that traditional haiku usually have a kigo and kiru, but free-form haiku do not.
  4. Start writing. Don’t forget to count the syllables. Make sure that your haiku has 20 or fewer syllables.
  5. Center your haiku on the page like the poems above.
  6. Haiku poems usually don’t rhyme or use poetic devises like similes, alliterations, or metaphors. Don’t be afraid to break these rules! Most haiku masters have broken these rules several times.
  7. Have fun and share your poems with friends, family, or with me!

Cherese Cobb is a journalist, creative writer, and certified haiku nut. She can answer your questions about Haiku masters, contests, and writing via Twitter @Poemgirl88. Learn more about Cherese here.

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Photo by .reid.

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