Haiku and Three-Line Nature Poems: Facts and Examples
The Nature of Haiku
A haiku is an often interesting and sometimes powerful poem. It consists of just three lines, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it's simple. A haiku is an expression of an observation or an experience in a brief moment of time. It's generally a nature poem and often includes vivid imagery. It frequently contains a seasonal reference and juxtaposition of different images or ideas. Sometimes the connection between the ideas is quickly understood. At other times, identifying the connection may require more contemplation. Occasionally, the contemplation may enable the reader to discover a relationship that hasn’t occurred to them before.
Haiku originated in Japan and has become popular in other countries. The word "haiku" is both singular and plural. Some writers have modified the pattern of the poetry by moving away from the traditional five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. The lines are still short, however, and the traditional juxtaposition often remains. Though some writers omit the technique, "cutting" the poem into two sections via juxtaposition is often considered to be important in the haiku tradition. Creating haiku can be an enjoyable challenge.
As the form has evolved, many of its regular traits—including its famous syllabic pattern—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment.— The poetry.org website (from the Academy of American Poets)
Syllable Count in Japanese and English Haiku
The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual event in Vancouver, British Columbia. A haiku competition is associated with the event. Barry Goodmann is a writer, poet, and editor who has written an article on the festival's website. He says that in Japan a 5-7-5 syllable pattern for haiku is still used. He also says that this pattern is often ignored outside of Japan, as some other sources say. The change is at least partly due to the fact that when a Japanese haiku is translated into English, the new version rarely has the 5-7-5 syllable pattern.
Some people still use the traditional syllable pattern to write English-language haiku. They may enjoy the challenge of using a specific number of syllables in their poetry and may feel that the strategy is more authentic than the use of shorter lines. Other people write lines that contain fewer syllables and are more succinct, as the example poems do and as I have done in my first set of poems below.
A Kigo and a Kireji
Although a different syllable count may be used, two traditions followed by Japanese haiku writers are followed by many people who write English-language haiku today. Traditional Japanese haiku contains a kigo and a kireji. English haiku often contains these devices or a writing technique that serves a similar function.
A Kigo or Seasonal Word
A kigo is a word that sets the poem in a particular season. The season may be named. Even when the season isn't specifically mentioned in a haiku, however, a hint about the approximate time of year often appears in the poem.
A Kireji or Juxtaposition
A haiku frequently contains a cut or juxtaposition that separates the poem into two halves. In Japanese, the separation is usually performed by a specific word, or kireji. In English, it's often done by punctuation (such as an em dash, an ellipsis, or a semicolon) or by a line break.
Juxtaposition in a Haiku
Ferris Gilli, a haiku writer and teacher, has written an article about juxtaposition that contains some interesting points. (The article is referenced below.) One point that she's raised is that in meaningful juxtaposition, each section of the haiku should have no "fundamental connection" to the other part and should be understandable on its own.
Even though the two sections of a haiku may be different at a fundamental level, they must have some connection. Understanding the connection, or experiencing "the sense of sudden enlightenment" that the quote above mentions, is part of the joy of reading many haiku.
On a branch
a cricket, singing.— Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), translated by Jane Hirshfield
Examples of the Poetry Style
In Kobayashi Issa's poem above, the first two lines belong together because they refer to a branch and its behaviour. The third line cuts to the somewhat surprising image of a cricket singing on the branch. A cricket is fundamentally different from a branch, yet in this poem the two items have a connection.
The third line of the poem could stand on its own and could be the start of a new poem. The Asian Topics section of the Columbia University website says that this is an important characteristic of the cut in a traditional haiku. The cutting line is sometimes placed at the start of the poem instead of the end.
In Maria Steyn's poem below, the last line at first may seem to be unrelated to the other two and is another example of juxtaposition. For me, the line links the idea of the golden light of late-season honey with the light of the autumn sun. One of the joys of haiku is that one reader may have a different understanding of the connection between the ideas in the poem from another reader or even from the writer.
Maria's poem starts with a lowercase letter and doesn't end in a period. This is often done to show that a haiku has captured a moment in time and that it's connected to what happened before and is open to what will happen afterwards.
the slow drip
of honey on bread . . .
late-autumn sun— Maria Steyn
The Heron's Nest is an online haiku journal that ceased publication in 2012. The poems in the journal are still available, however. I discovered the example below in the journal's February 2000 edition. I love the fact that the writer has created such vivid imagery in just three short lines. Each line provides its own image and the three lines together produce another one.
An Internet search for haiku websites, journals, or magazines brings up an interesting list of sites, many of which have been recently updated. Their haiku are interesting to read and are often educational and/or inspirational. It's enjoyable to read the poems and to analyze the techniques used by the writer. A good poem can be enjoyed whether or not it follows prescribed rules.
night of stars
all along the precipice
goat bells ring— an'ya, via The Heron's Nest, Volume II, Number 2
Following Rules for Writing Haiku
Some people find that following a set of rules for a piece of creative writing is an interesting challenge. Others find the process restrictive or even harmful with respect to what they are trying to achieve. They may find that forcing themselves to reach a certain number of syllables in a line of a particular haiku spoils the poem, for example. Another possibility is that they may feel that the use of strong juxtaposition is unsuitable for a particular poem or that it's jarring for the reader.
Some sources say that a haiku "must" contain a total of 17 syllables. Others say that this isn't essential and that other features of a haiku are more important to emphasize. The Vancouver Cherry Blossom festival is not concerned about whether the winning poems in their haiku competition follow the 5-7-5 syllable pattern and accepts multiple types, as can be seen in the video below. The poems are no longer than 17 syllables in total, however. Most people would agree that very long lines are beyond the style of a haiku.
The rules that should be followed to create a modern haiku (as opposed to those used for a historical one) are ultimately up to the writer. An exception would be if a particular website, competition, journal, or other organization that accepts haiku requires or expects specific rules to be followed.
The sections below show some of my haiku. The poems in the first set follow the more succinct style that is popular in many places outside of Japan today. The poems in the second set follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule, with the exception of one poem that contains a shorter line.
sweet and succulent
an arbor of love
in the colour of the sun
feed the Earth
Branches bare and gaunt
decorate the sky ...
life in disguise
The crow descends
humanity in winter
and meet the sun
Fruits for summer wine
berries ripening in the sun
finches flit and sing
Sun-warmed and content
in languid serenity
the cat basks in dreams
Rain falls on the trail
plants slake their summer thirst
Earth exhales her scent
Sparkling flakes of snow
bejewelled by the winter sun
The scent of the Earth mentioned in the third poem above is called petrichor. It's a distinctive and earthy smell released by dry soil when rain hits it. It's created by a mixture of volatile plant oils and a chemical called geosmin that is produced by soil bacteria.
An Interesting Challenge
Whatever rules one decides to follow or omit, writing haiku is an interesting challenge. For someone who loves nature as well as poetry, the challenge can be irresistible. The process may not be easy, but the attempt to write a haiku poem and improve one's skills can be enjoyable. Reading haiku created by others is also enjoyable. A poem containing only three short lines may have a lot to offer for both a writer and a reader.
- Haiku and its history from the Asian Topics section of the Columbia University website
- The Power of Juxtaposition by Ferris Gilli via the New Zealand Poetry Society
- Haiku facts from the Poetry Foundation
- Information about haiku from Barry Goodmann via the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website
- Haiku definition, facts, and examples from the American Society of Poets
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Linda Crampton