Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education
Introduction to Haiku
Imagine you are on a wonderful vacation (you pick the place). You are thinking about how much you wish someone back home could experience what you are and feel what you feel. Maybe it is the fresh air in the mountains. Maybe it is the clear water on a warm tropical beach. You are completely at peace.
How do you express that? Through a long letter detailing all of your activities and how you felt about each of them? Or, maybe, through a postcard with an image and just a few well-chosen words? Sometimes, less is more.
A haiku, which is an ancient Japanese form of poetry, is sort of the postcard version of poetry. They are extremely short, but when done well, they can powerfully convey a mood or illustrate a scene.
The structure of a haiku has several very specific requirements. First of all, a haiku generally has 3 lines and seventeen syllables, or segments of sound in words. The syllables are distributed so that five are in the first line, seven are in the second, and five are in the third. The number of words in each line does not matter as long as there are the correct number of syllables in each line.
Some people find it helpful to say the words out loud or even clap out the syllables of the words as they say them to make sure they have the syllable count right. Below is an example, first written out normally and then written with the syllables marked:
The snow begins its descent
Blanketing the ground.
The snow be-gins its de-scent
Blank-et-ing the ground.
Themes in Haiku
While many people primarily focus on the syllable count while writing haiku, it is also important to understand the common themes that this form of poetry is typically used to express. A haiku often illustrate small moments in nature and have a quiet, contemplative tone.
Traditional haiku often highlights contrasting elements or concepts, such as the softness of the snow and the hardness of the ground in the poem above. This contrast is often emphasized with punctuation, such as dashes, semi-colons, and ellipses.
There are also often words that will give you a clue as to what season inspired this poem. Matsuo Basho was a Japanese poet famous for his haiku poems that he wrote in the 17th century. Below is one of his most famous poems:
The old pond-
a frog jumps in,
the sound of water.
The punctuation of this poem contrasts the silence of the pond before the frog's jump with the splash at the end. The idea of a frog jumping into water calls to mind a warmer season.
Practice Writing a Haiku
The guidelines and examples above should give you an idea of what a haiku is and what it should look and sound like. Now, let's try writing our own by following these steps:
- Choose your topic and the kind of mood you want your poem to have. For example, in the first poem above, the topic is snow and the mood is peaceful. If there is a specific scene you want to illustrate with your words (like your peaceful vacation), get a clear image of it in your mind.
- Think about your first line. This will be a sentence or phrase about your topic. Count the syllables first--if it is more than five, think about how you can shorten your sentence, or if you want to, you can put the words with excess syllables on the second line. Once you have ensured that your first line has five syllables, you can move on to the second line.
- Think about some kind of action or movement to create your second line. What is the subject of your poem doing? Follow the same trial-and-error process that you did for the first line in counting your syllables.
- Wrap up your poem in five short syllables. Make sure that your last line helps reinforce the mood of the poem, whatever you want it to be. Your last line should finish illustrating the scene or mood you are trying to describe and should make a powerful impression.
The haiku is an ancient Japanese art form. To write one, you must make sure that you follow the structure guidelines: the poem should contain three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. A haiku can be a powerful way to convey a mood or illustrate a scene, and you can easily write one yourself by first identifying your topic and mood, then counting syllables while writing each line. This process sometimes involves trial-and-error and various adjustments to make sure the syllable-count is correct.
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