Haiku - A Brief Introduction

Haiku - A Brief Introduction

Haiku is one of the most recognizable and popular poetic forms around the world.

It originated in Japan from a pedigree of courtly refinement, and its precursors took shape as early as the 8th century.  Educated members of the Japanese Imperial Court entertained themselves and each other, as well as demonstrated their refinements, through their engaging in artistic and literary pursuits, especially poetry. The traditional forms of "waka" and literary games of "renga" - with their opening verse or "hokku" - were transformed by the 17th century poet Bashō into stand-alone poems that have ever since been recognized as literary jewels. The name "haiku" was actually invented and applied to the works of Bashō and following, by an early 20th century Japanese poet and literary critic, Shiki.

The classic characteristics of "traditional" haiku in Japanese are:
  • they are written in 17 'on' (the Japanese equivalent of English syllables), with 3 phrases structured into 5-7-5 on.
  • there is a juxtaposition of elements or ideas in the poem, separated by a "kireji" or "cutting word".
  • the poem is identifiably set at a particular time of year, through the inclusion of characteristic "seasonal references" or "kigo".
Although it originated in Japan centuries ago, the format has been adapted and transplanted by people all around the world as a form matching their poetic needs and desires.

There have been numerous attempts by English-speaking enthusiasts, poets, and even literary and poetic associations, to define how "Haiku" should be written in English.

Others insist that poets should be free to explore the impulse that Basho turned into haiku, and find the English form that can catch and hold that impulse for them. 

In my opinion, structures exist solely to assist people express their ideas, not to bind them. Since haiku is not a native poetic form in English, we should have more freedom to experiment. 

In some cases poets have found the discipline of a syllabic structure such as 5-7-5 eminently suited to their needs, and have written beautiful and profound records of their poetic encounters. Others have preferred not to be restricted to a particular syllabic count, but retained the triple-phrasal movement for their poems. And still others have written brief poems to record their encounters in the world, simply in a single line (which actually matches the written appearance of Japanese haiku, since these are written vertically in Japanese characters in a single line).

It seems to me that the "fact" of writing "Haiku" in English derives solely from the intent of the poet. If we are wanting to write a Haiku poem, then so we are. But it doesn't really matter what we call it, since the important thing is the quality of our poem. Did we capture the experience? How well? How lyrically? (or how brutally?) With what connotations and allusions? With whom will we share it? Ourself alone, or with others?

Poetry is a natural manifestation of mindful living - the thoughtful encounter between humans: with their hopes, desires and loves; and the cosmos, in all its manifestations. Poetry is therefore part of human nature. To be "a poet" is the birthright of every thinking and feeling human person, not the exclusive profession of a self-proclaimed elite.

Haiku, as such a brief and immediate form of poetry, is particularly suitable for fostering a continual, yet deep appreciation of life in all manifestations. 

Copyright © 2013-2014 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. Thanks for your blog. My interest in Haiku began with my piquing interest in Japanese culture, Alan Watts and The feature Fight Club. I am neither a elite, nor am I lyrical. Just hope I can appreciate to some extent the immediacy and intimacy of a Haiku.

    1. Welcome NADIR and thank you for your comment. It is always interesting to me what leads different people to haiku.

      Rest assured, it is definitely not an elite art, and also doesn't have to be lyrical. I now liken haiku to a snapshot taken with a smartphone: it captures a moment that has meaning for us as the poet, and hopefully other people will appreciate the aesthetic experience and share in it. That's it!

      By contrast, I see more traditional poems in English as more like an oil painting: usually telling a story and full of subtle details for "elite" viewers to recognize and enjoy.

      I hope you will embrace the versatility and potential of the haiku and experiment with some of your own! Feel free to share them here in the comments as well.



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Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!