Haiku is a short Japanese poetic form that we often teach kids in school, mostly because it doesn’t rhyme, so it’s a form they can feel successful at.
I love writing haiku. Something about them really connects with me. Maybe because they often capture a moment in nature, and that’s something I really like to do in poetry.
OK, so the basics. An American haiku traditionally follows a certain syllable count. There are 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 in the third. Japanese haiku in their native language don’t necessarily follow that count, and modern haiku writers also don’t feel constrained by that syllable count. The main point is that the poem is extremely brief! However, I like the 5-7-5 count. I like that skeleton to work within.
Other traditional haiku characteristics:
- Nature: Haiku are image-based poems. They generally try to capture a moment in the natural world.
- Season: Traditionally, haiku have some word or image that indicates the season. This doesn’t mean they have the word summer, spring, etc., in the poem. But perhaps snow will tip to the fact that it’s winter, changing leaves to fall, sprouting plants to spring, etc.
- One moment: This is my favorite thing about haiku. They are like a snapshot, a single moment frozen on the page. So a haiku doesn’t try to capture a general scene. Instead, it focuses in, in, in until it has zeroed in on one tiny moment, one tiny action happening right now in the natural world.
- Action: Another thing I love about haiku is the verb. Even though it’s focused on a tiny moment, poets use striking verbs to capture the tiniest movements of nature.
One of my favorite poetry collections (sadly out of print, but you can find used copies) is called Black Swan, White Crow, by J. Patrick Lewis.
Here’s are just two of the striking poems from that collection:
high tides erasing
Bison, shoulder to shoulder—
music of sleet and slow tongues
Aren’t those amazing pictures?
Here’s where you can find some more haiku for kids:
And I have two haiku collections in my 30 Painless Classroom Poems series:
When I′m writing a haiku, I either look at an image in real life or by photo, or I close my eyes and try to picture something striking in my mind.
Once I have an image I want to present, I also try to figure out what mood that image brings to my mind. I write a short three lines, trying to use concrete, sensory words to paint that image. I play around with it for a minute, and then I do a syllable count and see how I′m doing. I start cutting (usually) and substituting words (often) until I get the effect I want.
Here are a couple of haiku from my early poetry collections.
decorates delicate leaves
with glitter frosting
—Laura Purdie Salas, from Shrinking Days, Frosty Nights: Poems about Fall
Silver flash dances
from sky to earth in one leap?
–Laura Purdie Salas, from Seed Sower, Hat Thrower: Poems about Weather
If you struggle with haiku, here are a few tips I follow. Maybe they′ll help you, too.
- Just write your basic image/thought down first without worrying about syllable count
- Try to replace common, expected words
- See if you can work in a seasonal reference
- Use strong action verbs in present tense
- Picture in your mind the single moment you’re capturing
- Start cutting and rearranging until you get to the 5/7/5 count
- Try to get rid of as many words like “a,” “an,” “the,” and “is” as you can