Definition and length

Haiku is a form of Japanese lyric poetry that first emerged in the sixteenth century and continued to flourish until the nineteenth century. Each haiku consists of seventeen moras or sound units known as on, arranged in three sections of five, seven and five.

  • Since English verse operates more metrically than Japanese poetry, these on are usually regarded as syllables
  • Japanese haiku are written as a single line, but English translators and authors usually divide them into three lines.

A Japanese example

Here is an example from the Japanese, written by Basho (1644-94), the best-known Japanese haiku poet:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

This separates into on as:

fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu no o-to (5) 

and can be translated as: 

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water's sound

Notice that this literal English translation has fewer than seventeen syllables; this is due to the differences in word lengths in the two languages.

Subject matter

A Japanese haiku typically refers to the natural world, in that it normally contains a kigo, a word or phrase referring to the season of the year. The leaping frog in the Basho example is an indication that the poem is set in spring. The reference to the season is more direct in this example by Morikawa Kyoroku (1656-1715):

Autumn so soon:
Drizzling on the crags,
First tinted maples.

Here the translator has come much closer to the division into 5-7-5 units.

Twentieth century western developments

English and American writers first became interested in the expressive possibilities of haiku in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Imagist poets, who insisted on a direct concentration on the object to convey mood and tone, experimented with their own versions of the form:

Upon the maple leaves
The dew shines red,
But on the lotus blossom
It has the pale transparence of tears.
(Amy Lowell, 1874-1925)

The kigo is the reference to red maple leaves, suggesting that the season is autumn, while the poem has the air of melancholy that is characteristic of so many Japanese haiku. 

Ezra Pound (1885-1972), found a means of combining an evocative reference to nature with a modern setting, in this case the Paris underground:

On a station of the Metro 
The apparition of these
faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Stylistic discipline

Writing true haiku, which obey the 5-7-5 rule, imposes a discipline on the poet. It requires great concentration of thought and language and the elimination of any unnecessary words or phrases. Adjectives or adverbs describing feelings should be avoided, since it is assumed that the flowers, trees, animals and natural objects described will carry their own emotional weight. With these simple means haiku are capable of evoking profound ideas and deep emotions.

Modern haiku

Today, haiku is practised all over the world and there are many journals devoted entirely to the form. In Japan, they have even entered the world of the internet and are used for computer error messages:

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

And the author of this article marked a sad event in haiku form:

Where are my haiku?
They're trapped in this computer
That no longer works.



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