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Traditional Japanese Haiku

by Mel McIntyre

Haiku is a form of short Japanese poetry containing exactly 17 syllables.

In the traditional Japanese form, these syllables were all written on a single line. Today, however, it has become the norm to spread the syllables across three lines of text in a 5-7-5 pattern, especially when written in English:

Where can you enquire
when no-one knows the answer?
Just Google for it.

The idea is to stick to one main theme in a sort of problem - solution or question and answer scenario. The first two lines present the problem or ask the question, which the last line attempts to resolve or answer:

Red eyes in morning,
a heavy drinker's warning;
don't stay up so late.

It's normal to see a break indicated by punctuation (such as a comma or semicolon) after the second line. This helps to set up the final line and its resolution of the first two.

Haiku can also be used as a vehicle for humour, to show contrast, to highlight wordplay, to demonstrate a paradox, or to present a riddle:

Five, seven and five
feet I have but cannot walk;
write and set me free.

Haiku comes from an even older verse form known as hokku, which were used to introduce longer poems and verses. These often included a kigo or season word to tell the audience when the story took place:

Summer's lazy sun
filters through the far treetops;
even dogs lie still.

Many modern poets have taken to the short and often cryptic style a haiku affords them. It's now acceptable to write a haiku on its own, or as one of a set of haiku. Ezra Pound was one of the first 'serious' 20th century poets to give it importance in his poem which follows:

In A Station Of The Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

And of course, people being people, many writers refuse to stick to the 17-syllable form or the 3-line structure. But what's important in a haiku is the ability to encapsulate an idea and compare or contrast it with something else. It should be short, yes, but the rest is a matter of taste and judgement.

Some poets ignore the form completely and its association with all things Zen. Still others have taken it and used it to create something new, such as Tom Brinck who coined the phrase scifaiku (science fiction haiku) in 1995. Or you might remember seeing it in Stephen King's It, where Ben Hanscomb writes these words to Beverly Marsh:

Your hair is winter fire
January embers
My heart burns there, too

You'll notice that 'haiku' is both the singular and plural form of the word, while in contemporary circles it's acceptable to refer to these short poems simply as 'ku'.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of a haiku is that practically anyone can write one. These days it's common to see a 'ku' on a person's Facebook profile, or included in their e-mail signatures:

What is a haiku?
Seventeen syllables long;
Thoughts in written form.

It's a bit like flash fiction in that the goal is to present the essence of an idea in the fewest words possible. Whether that takes the form of a joke, a puzzle or a metaphor is entirely up to the author to decide.

Mel McIntyre is a freelance writer and author whose work includes articles, e-books, courses and children's books both on and offline. To find out more visit his site at

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