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Haiku - A Definition

Many gifted English-language haiku poets have written definitions of haiku. The definition below is derived directly from their definitions and from my own limited experience in writing and reading haiku.

Haiku is a minimalist form of poetry. The writer has 17 or fewer syllables through which to convey an experience. Here's an example of one of my published haiku. It has 11 syllables.

spring sun
cedar waxwings
fill the leafless plum

pubished in The Heron's Nest

Since the early 1900s, there has been a great increase in the number of English language haiku poets (the Japanese term is 'haijin). Because English is so different than the Japanese language, and because so few people now live in 'pure nature' the English form has evolved in its own way. When you read about haiku elsewhere, you will learn that there is a good deal of controversy about what an English haiku is – what its content may be and how it is formed.

Haiku Content:

The content of a haiku is typically, but not always, focused on what the writer witnesses in everyday life that is more outstanding or important than normal, something deemed worth reaching for in written expression. The something can pertain to any of the five senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling, for example, hearing – a bird's song, or seeing – light glistening on water. Some argue that a haiku must contain an obvious reference to a season and must be nature focused, but many of the English language haijin do not employ a nature focus. After all, for the most part we live in cities, not the rural Japan of several centuries ago when the haiku form was invented by a monk named Basho.

The content of a haiku might be about a everyday, but noticable event, or about an awe-inspiring experience, or about a transformational experience – an epiphany or special insight. Part of writing haiku is paying attention to the day's surprises – the 'awe' that is usually passed by without notice. The act of creating a haiku is the act of a focusing our attention more closely than we might otherwise do.

Haiku Form:

English-Language haiku is incorrectly said to have a prescribed form of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables and a seasonal reference. However, there is a great deal of debate about the form of English haiku and few agree that the3-line, 5-7-5 season reference form is the only acceptable form.

What then is the form of a haiku? Some of the critical aspects of haiku form that have been mentioned are:

  • Brevity: one to three lines totaling 17 syllables or less; the average length of published English-language haiku is about 13 syllables. Some suggest that a better measure of brevity is that when read aloud, a haiku can be completed in one breadth. Try reading aloud the spring sun haiku (above) and see if you can do it in one breath.
  • Two phrases: most (not all) haiku are composed of two distinct phrases. In the spring sun haiku the phrases are: 1) spring sun and 2) cedar waxwings fill the leafless plum.
  • Descriptiveness: haiku describe things, what case be seen, heard, tasted, felt or smelled. They don't prescribe or tell or intellectualize or state the poet's feelings about things.
  • Lack of poetic devices: avoidance of traditional poetic forms such as rhyming, simile and metaphor.
  • Juxtaposition: the two phrases are seemingly about different elements noticed by the writer, but the relationship between them is what provides the poetic spark. In the example above, the feel of the spring sun on the body is being likened to the sight of birds (cedar waxwings) filling up a leafless tree.

Haiku Purpose: Why Bother Writing Haiku?

Haiku also has purpose: communication and awareness. Along with other forms of writing and poetry, it is a vehicle for conveying feelings, sentiments, impressions, perceptions to other persons.

Haiku writing is a form of meditiation, starting with an intensification of 'noticing' what is going on in the everyday world, followed by the practice of mental writing – creating haiku in the mind and playing with the form and rhythm until it feels right – and finally putting the haiku to pen and paper – writing and rewriting the haiku. I wrote the following haiku after a walk in river valley near my home. The stream was flowing slowly and noiselessly, the birds were quiet, the breeze was too slight to make a sound in the leaves, and suddenly a mallard called to his mate with that sound that is so unique to mallards.

midday hush
the rasp of a mallard
calling his mate

pubished in The Heron's Nest

A key point if you are interested in starting to write haiku poetry is to make a decision about the form you will practice, how often you will practice and whether you will seek instruction or companionship in your haiku journey. These are the subjects of the links “getting started” and “haiku clubs”.

If you would like to learn more about the definition of English-language haiku, simply search the Internet with the key terms: "haiku" and "definition," and you will find numerous references.

You would also do well to visit the following online haiku genre journals which feature the work of the best English-language haijin (haiku poets):