Haiku Primer

“Haiku are short, brilliantly vivid poems containing visually complete descriptions of moments in a poet’s experience. In the space of their original 17 Japanese syllables, haiku express worlds of profound emotion and philosophical insight. Simple on the surface, yet fascinatingly complex on close study, haiku have universal appeal, and the number of languages into which they have been translated testify to this”.

Tom Lowenstein

Classic Haiku


All I wanted to do during the summer of 2008 was write a few haiku: A three-lined poem, five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, five again in the third. Easy.

you only have to

count the syllables to find

truth and happiness


I had written haiku before and had even assigned them to my middle school language arts classes. We had gone a step further and had strung them together in a sort of bastardized “renga”. (A renga is a long poem comprised of many haiku, or tanka really, written by several people at essentially a poem party. But more about that later).

I had even written a one-person renga, 36 verses of tanka (okay, so tanka is a haiku with an additional two lines, a couplet, in which each line has seven syllables). The renga I wrote was for my daughter’s graduation from high school. I outlined her life in tanka and interspersed pictures of her from when she was a baby up until graduation. I think it’s under her bed.

Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Anyway, I was determined to write some haiku. Besides the syllable count, I knew they were supposed to be about nature. This was to be expressed in part through kigo – a seasonal word. The kigo “implied not only a season but an emotion appropriate for it” (Lowenstein 16). With school out, I spent the first few weeks of my vacation working in my flower gardens. I had also put in a very small vegetable garden for the first time. So I let these gardens inspire me and jotted down a few haiku.

I thought a wind-blown

leaf had happened on my plant

toad clasped the stalk


drooping dry garden

under silent morning rain

perfect summer day

This was starting to get fun.

each day the garden

heralds a surprise a new

note in summer’s air

But I really knew there was more to it than that. There were a few other rules and guidelines. So I started reading about haiku and in my searching first came across a little bit of history. I learned that by the tenth century in Japan, tanka was starting to be split up into definite pieces. What was originally the choka (5-7-5-7-7 syllable tanka) was being written more and more often in two parts: the 5-7-5 haiku and the 7 -7 syllable couplet.

The very first 5-7-5 syllable verse of the renga was called “hokku”.  It was an honor to have your “hokku” start off the renga. Eventually, only a short 500 years later, by the sixteenth century, these hokku began to be written independently of the renga and came to be called haiku (Sato).

Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Kigo. Choka. Hokku.

And then in my sources, I was to read this line: “The simple syllabic structures of classical verse forms do not mean that tanka, renga, and hokku are rhetorically simple.” (Sato xxvii).

I should have put the book up and the pen down then. I should have gone back to my gardens. I should have taken a long run.

But as much as I love writing “free verse”, I love writing poetry with strict guidelines. It’s a challenge I can’t refuse, like the difficult equation for the mathematician or the scientist on the brink of a discovery who can’t leave the lab.

Besides, how complicated could it get?

I kept reading and learned about five main devices to use in haiku.  The first was makura-kotoba. From what I could tell, makura-kotoba was all about the first line and actually about each word in the first line. Makura-kotoba translates as “pillow word”, a word selected to set up the following word that is connected through the senses or through alliteration, or both. It is to set up the reader for the big reveal later in the poem. A tough job given the big reveal will come in about 1.8 seconds.

The next device was joshi. Joshi is the introductory phrase itself.  It’s when you bring in that word connected through the senses or alliteration.

While reading about the fine-tuning of haiku, and trying not to feel too panicked, I kept plugging away at my own.

the deep cello note:

frog’s morning call announcing

he still waits for love

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Kigo. Choka. Hokku.

Makura-kotoba. Joshi.

I wasn’t sure if I was following the rules but I was still enjoying the challenge. So much so, I started counting syllables in my head whenever I thought about something. I’d wake up in the morning, think of what I wanted to do and start counting on my fingers:

my necessities

poetry, a garden, wine

health to enjoy them

I would have a fight with my husband and count on my fingers:

there is nothing in

anger: white ice in my veins

burning to my tongue

Or I would simplify complex theories into seventeen syllables. For example, while on a flight to Minneapolis, my husband the scientist, read a complicated passage to me about the need for the vast universe in order to have the necessary possibilities that create our human make-up. I scratched a few words on my open notebook:

infinite cosmos

requisite for micro world

our complexity

He looked at me and went back to reading. I went back to staring out the window at 33,000 feet and counting syllables on my fingers.

(Later, when I was to the point of watching lectures of Haiku on YouTube, I learned this constant counting of syllables is a good thing).

But back to the Haiku elements.

I’d read about maiura-kotoba and joshi. The third device is kakekotoba. This is the “pivotal word” (Sato xxviii). A pun. A Japanese pun. A play on words that isn’t necessarily humorous as is usually the case in English.

And then comes mitate, the metaphor or simile. It was loud and clear you didn’t write haiku without a simile or metaphor (which in contemporary American haiku, isn’t necessarily a good thing, but that is for the someday sequel to this primer: The American Haiku).

There was one more poetic device to learn. Uta-makura or “poetic pillows.” More pillows. Not a bad thing to have, I guess. Uta-makura is essentially a place name. It is used to “evoke certain images and sentiments” (Sato xxix). In the past these were specific place names. Proper nouns. I could get that. They were taken from past poems of poets who had traveled great distances to visit and experience a famous place.

Being a person who loves to make lists, I took these five devices and organized the information as follows:

  • Set up the poem
  • Don’t reveal the meaning until the end
  • Use sensory language and alliteration
  • Include a simile or metaphor
  • Refer to a place (and in my liberal interpretation, I changed this from specific to general: garden, field, pond)
  • Include nature and a little surprise.

Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Kigo. Choka. Hokku.

Madura-kotoba. Joshi.

Kakekotoba. Mitate. Uta-Makura.

What I was beginning to realize was that, according to these rules, some of my haiku were not haiku at all. What about the poems written about emotions and experiences that don’t take place on the mountaintop or beside a tranquil pond? I decided, in my naiveté, that these would be my own new category of haiku. But with further reading, I soon discovered that this type of haiku has been around for several hundred years. Here is the story:

Karia Senryu, who lived from 1718 to 1790 was a haikai judge.  The poets at this time were beginning to write poems that did not follow all of the court-dictated rules. While still seventeen syllables, their poems included humor, common ideas and topics, and ordinary language. These poems were haikai, short for haikai no renga and eventually became known as “senryu” after the judge. The senryu opened up the haiku form to include psychological, emotional, and social situations or human artifacts. (Sato 529).

only penciled swirls

calm my mind, lessen the fears

thoughts are recorded

Still, most haiku are a combination of nature and human elements.  They are a hybrid of true haiku and senryu.

 under seas of stars

we whirl through space dark asleep

while worlds awaken

I thought this was about all there was to know about haiku. When would I learn? About the time I found myself counting syllables, reading about the finer nuances of haiku, and trying my hand at crafting some, I was also dabbling in photography. It didn’t take long before I realized that the beauty of nature that I was trying to capture with my camera was a perfect companion for a compact poem about it.

Naturally, I was soon to discover, this form of art, the combination of word and picture, was also an established Japanese art. Haiga.  Haiga – the marriage of art and words – were originally accomplished with the same calligraphy brust at the same sitting.  Upon completion of the few brush strokes needed to finish seventeen syllables, the artist would add a few more to complete a simple, accompanying picture. Today, contemporary haiga include photography.


 Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Kigo. Choka. Hokku.

Madura-kotoba. Joshi.

Kakekotoba. Mitate. Uta-Makura.

Haikai. Senyru. Haiga.

Was there still more to learn about haiku?



For example, there was haiban, the mixture of prose and haiku. This writing form is limited to five paragraphs which paints a scene in a detached manner. It ends with a haiku that heightens the sense of the prose – and doesn’t use any nouns, verbs, or adjectives that appear in the five paragraph text.

Try that one on for size.

There was “kanshi”, “a genre mostly neglected until recently even in Japan”. (Sato xliii). This is Chinese poetry (which was the original basis of haiku) with its own prosody.

There is “kyoka” which is a tanka told in satire.

And there is “hyakushu-uta” which is a collection of 100 tanka organized into sections on spring, summer, autumn, winter, love, and miscellany.

Haiku. Renga. Tanka.

Kigo. Choka. Hokku.

Madura-kotoba. Joshi.

Kakekotoba. Mitate. Uta-Makura.

Haikai. Senyru. Haiga.

Haiban. Kanshi.


 And there is more. There are discussions of syllable count. Does a haiku have to have five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third? As Higginson explains in The Haiku Handbook, “For haiku in English an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve, would yield a rhythmical structure native to English and at the same time approximate the duration of traditional Japanese haiku” (105).

So it’s not necessarily about over all syllable count but accented syllable count and where major grammatical pauses occur. Also, interestingly, the precursor to haiku wasn’t a three-line poem at all. Instead the poet’s creation was a single line that scanned easily, that flowed as one, and in which stated all that was needed.

I have written over one hundred haiku, following many of the classic rules such as syllable count, imagery, alliteration, and metaphor use. I have paired many with my photos. It is a collection I hope to revise and update periodically in order to continue to strive for the profound simplicity, which is the goal of the haiku form.


Higginson, William J., and Harter, Penny. The Haiku Handbook. New York: Kodansha International, 1985. Print.

Lowenstein, Tom. Classic Haiku. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2007. Print.

Sato, Hiroaki. Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. Print.