Sake no Hana’s haiku master Little Onion’s brief guide to writing and reading haiku

Japanese haiku poetry is one of the shortest and most beautiful poetry forms in the world. Though always and inextricably linked with Japan, it has been embraced by writers and readers from countries and cultures across the world.

In Japanese a haiku poem is traditionally just seventeen sounds long. In simple terms a haiku is a poem of seventeen sounds, we call them syllables in English, split over three lines like this: 5/7/5

Here is an example of an English haiku written in the strict 5/7/5 form. Read it out loud twice. Yes! Twice! We read haiku poems twice to invoke and experience a settling or deepening of interaction with the poem that comes with the second reading. Count the sounds, the syllables, on your fingers as you read it out:

nearly Mother’s Day
my best daffodils bent low
in the constant rain

Most haiku written in English and translations of Japanese haiku into English are not written in the strict 5/7/5 form which works so perfectly in Japanese. There are other just as important ‘guidelines’ such as writing our haiku in the present tense, the inclusion of a seasonal reference and a cut or pause which breaks our haiku into two parts, a phrase split over two lines and a fragment that sits on the first or last line.

Here is poem that doesn’t follow the 5/7/5 rule but is still as much a haiku as the Mother’s Day haiku that you’ve already read out loud:

winter wonderland
even the burnt out car
looks beautiful

Read it out loud. Can you feel the cut, the natural slight pause? It comes after the first line which is our ‘fragment’ then followed by our phrase ‘even the burnt out car looks beautiful’ which is split over line two and three. The season is of course winter which here is specifically named.

Our haiku poems seek to ‘show not tell’ and share with our readers a particular time, images, emotions. To draw them into this moment, our haiku moment, alongside us.

Don’t agonise over what’s right and wrong! Give it a go and jump right in, just like Basho’s frog!

old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water
Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694)

Little Onion March 2016