How to Write a Haiku
by Bruce Lansky

Haiku poetry is a very short, centuries-old form of Japanese poetry that is an intriguing change of pace from the kind of rhythmic, rhyming poetry you’re used to reading. Haiku is like a photo that captures the essence of what’s happening, often connecting two seemingly unrelated things.

    Snow melts.
    Suddenly, the village
    is full of children.

    Written by Issa. Translated by Bruce Lansky. ©1999 by Bruce Lansky


    Frog sunning on lily pad
    as dragonfly darts by.

    ©1999 by Bruce Lansky

Although traditional haiku are often about nature or the changing seasons, they nonetheless manage to convey emotion. With just a few words, they call attention to an observation and in effect say, "Look at this" or, "Think about this." If they’re well written, we can’t help but do just that. The haiku calls the reader’s attention to the story behind the observation.

Traditional Japanese haiku had a total of seventeen syllables divided into three clumps (or lines):

    five syllables
    seven syllables
    five syllables

Some teachers think children should be taught to write haiku that conform to these rigid specifications. I disagree. The essence of haiku is the way it describes natural phenomena in the fewest number of words, making an indelible impression on the reader. The artistic effect, to me, is much more important than the number of syllables.

I think the best stimuli for writing haiku are nature hikes, nature photography, or art. Try this: Write down what you see when you go outside for recess or when you go for a walk in the woods over the weekend. Write down your observations on paper (or better yet, record them with a camera). Depending on the season, you might get observations of nature like the following:

    leaves blowing in the wind
    snow piling up on unused doors
    ducks swimming in a pond during a rainstorm
    the first buds on tree branches in your backyard
    the first daffodil poking it’s head through the dirt
    hungry bees buzzing around a flower garden

Next, try to find two images that create a striking impression when connected and write them down. You might get something like this:

    After it started to rain, fishermen steered their boats toward the shore. Then, I saw a family of ducks waddle over to the lake and swim across.

Okay, now you have to pare the sentence down so it still describes the scene while inviting the reader to marvel at nature. How’s this?

    Sudden spring storm—
    a family of ducks paddles
    around the deserted lake.

    ©1999 by Bruce Lansky

I think that haiku is a lot closer to photography or painting than it is to the kind of humorous poetry I often write. It teaches the power of observation and the importance of editing. You know you’ve done a good job of editing when the version with the fewest words makes the strongest impression.


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