by Katherine Raine
So you’ve had a vivid flash of perception. You want to communicate this clearly to others. And you’ve found fresh and original imagery to share your experience. You’ve formed it into a short poem.
But is it haiku? You can use the following checklist (a) to make sure your poem has the basic form and spirit of haiku, then (b) to refine it into an excellent haiku that uses the traditions of the form to maximise its expressive power.
Brevity: as short as possible
- Contemporary haiku in English are almost always shorter than 17 syllables
- Look carefully for what you can eliminate while still keeping the meaning
- But don’t leave out “a”, “an” or “the”, where these are necessary for a natural flow; haiku is not a telegram.
Dual phrasing: two images
- A haiku consists simply of two phrases
- One of the phrases is shorter, one longer
- The contrast or association of these two images creates the liveliness of the haiku; the way they relate to each other is often called “juxtaposition”
- Sentences are not necessary; if you do write a sentence, make sure to divide it two, giving it an internal break.
Line pattern: usually three lines, short/long/short
- The short phrase can form either the first or third line
- The second line is longest, containing the majority of the longer phrase
- The two short lines should be about the same length and convey similar amounts of essential information; it’s important that each line does significant work
- A skillful third line often contains a surprise
- This short/long/short pattern can be varied to create a subtle drama
- Blank spaces can also be expressive
- One-line haiku can work well, but should still contain two images
- Two-line and four-line haiku do exist, but are much more difficult to write successfully.
“Bare bones” style: in the Japanese tradition
Edit out features of the Western poetry tradition:
- “Poetical” and abstract language
- Philosophical musings
- Metaphors (“the moon is an eye”), similes (“the moon is like an eye”) and personification (“the moon opens her eye”)
- Capital letters at the beginning of lines
- Punctuation, except “–” and “…” between phrases if wanted
- Choose a small, modest subject; it can subtly point to a larger truth.
Directness: capturing the moment
- Be honest: be true to yourself, writing about what you’ve actually experienced, just the way you experienced it
- All haiku happens in the present moment, so if you use a verb, it should be in the present tense
- Use sharp sensory images, not intellectual concepts (focus on what do you feel, rather than what do you think)
- But don’t name your emotion, let your imagery suggest it
- Try using images from senses other than vision
- Find fresh, intriguing, unconventional language
- Really search for precisely the perfect words: each one counts.
Desirable options: Neither of the following points is necessary, but they give haiku an extra dimension of character, interest and relevance to readers:
- Use imagery that indicates the season, to connect your experience to the wider world
- If you’re a Kiwi poet, use imagery and/or language from our New Zealand environments and cultures, just as poets from other countries use theirs.
Recommended further reading: Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide by Jane Reichhold.
Katherine Raine judged the NZPS International Haiku Contest in 2018 and has written this checklist to help future entrants and those wondering why their haiku was not awarded.