A haiku is a non-rhyming 3-line 17-syllable poem, traditionally about the seasons or nature. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line has five syllables. (The word “haiku” should not have an uppercase H, except at the beginning of a sentence or in a title, and the singular and plural forms of the word are the same.
Traditional Japanese haiku are short non-rhyming poems which generally have the same three characteristics:
- Seventeen phrases—known as on or morae
- A cut between two ideas, represented by a punctuation mark or a cutting word
- A word associated with one of the seasons
Japanese haiku are not based upon 17 syllables, as many people believe. They are based upon 17 sound meters, known as on or morae. The on (sound meters), when counted the way syllables would be counted in English, can number anywhere from 14 to 18 or more.
Kiru (Cut) and Kireji (Cutting Word)
Kiru is the Japanese word for cut. It represents the idea that when composing a haiku, one’s thoughts are cut into two sections. In the modern haiga (haiku with photographic image) at the top of this article, my thoughts are cut between the second and third lines of my poem.
Kireji is the punctuation mark or word that figuratively cuts the haiku into two parts. In my modern haiga above, I used the ellipsis (…) to cut my haiku into two parts. The ellipsis is my kireji.
Kigo (Seasonal Reference)
A kigo is a word used in Japanese poetry to represent one of the four seasons. The word does not have to be the name of a season. It can be any word related to a season or nature. Translated into English, the kigo may appear as a phrase.
Seasonal Words (Kigo) to Use in Autumn Haiku
a little cold, apple, autumn air, autumn color, autumn day, autumn deepens, autumn dusk, autumn is clearing, autumn is deep, autumn rain, autumn sky, autumn wind, autumnal clear day, autumn’s voice, bright moon, chestnuts, chilly, chrysanthemums, coming of autumn, cricket, deer, desolate, dew, dragonfly, fleeting autumn, flower garden, fog, grapes, grasses, harvest moon, lightning, long night, mackerel clouds, migrating birds, Milky Way, moon, morning cold, mushrooms. new coolness, night chill, orchids, peach, pear, refreshing, remaining heat, soak to the bone, waiting evening, windstorm
Seasonal Words (Kigo) to Use in Winter Haiku
bed bugs , bonfire, charcoal, clear and cold, clear winter day, close of the year, cold, daikon, early plum, fallen leaves, fireplace, first snow, flowers out of season, freeze, frost, hawk, ice, icicles, Indian summer, narcissus, nearly spring, New Year’s Eve, north wind, onion, oysters, porridge, quilt, sea cucumber, short day, sleet, small brazier, snow, snow pellets, snowflakes, tea flowers, the cold time, the passing year, turnip, water dried up, waterfowl, wild ducks, winter camellia, winter fly, winter grasses, winter greens, winter moon, winter mountains, winter night, winter rain, winter seclusion, winter shower, winter withering, withered field, withered mums, withering wind
Seasonal Words (Kigo) to Use in Spring Haiku
avalanche, azalea, balloon, barely spring, beach combingb, birds enter clouds, blossom cool, blossom hazebl, blossoms, bugs come out, burning the hills, bush warbler, butterfly, camellia, cats in love, cherry blossoms, cherrystone clam, cloudy spring, colt, coming of spring, dandelion, deep spring, departing ducks, departing geese, east wind, end of snow, fiddlehead, first cherry blossoms, first spring gust, frog, haze, hazy moon, heat shimmer, herb gathering, horsetail, ice floes, kite, last frost, late cherry blossoms, light snow, lingering day, long day, many baby birds, melt off, melting snow, mulberry, mustard flower, passing spring, peach blossoms, pheasant, pinwheel, planting seed, plow, plum blossoms, pony, primrose, red plum blossoms, remaining cherry blossoms, remaining snow, returning cold, serene, shallow spring, shimmering heat, shining wind, silkworms, skylark, soap bubbles, sowing seed, spring clouds, spring dawn, spring day, spring equinox, spring evening, spring field, spring grasses, spring gust, spring lantern, spring light, spring melancholy, spring mountains, spring mud, spring night, spring noontime, spring orchid, spring rain, spring sea, spring sky, spring soil, spring thunder, spring tide, spring wind, spring-like, sprouting grasses, sprouts, still cold, swallow, swing, tadpoles, tea picking, thin ice, tilling a field, tranquil, tree buds, twittering, violet, warm, waters of spring, waters warming, wild rose, willow, wisteria, young grasses, young green plants
Seasonal Words (Kigo) to Use in Summer Haiku
afterglow, ant, autumn near, bamboo shoots, barley, blighted leaves, burning, burning hot, cicada, clear spring-water, cloud peaks, cool, cooling off, cooling on the porch, cutting grasses, dripping spring-water, drought, eel, eggplant, evening downpour, evening lull, fallen evergreen leaves, fawn, firefly, fireworks, fly, fountainhead, fragrant breeze, green leaf shade, green leaves, green plum, heat at zenith, hot, leafing cherry tree, lily, lotus, mandarin orange blossoms, melon, midsummer darkness, midsummer rain, morning cloudiness, mosquito, moth, multiflora rose blossom, myriad green leaves, night autumnal, peony, phoenix tree blossoms, pinks, rainbow, rainy season, river frog, shade of a tree, shady side, short night, smoldering, smoldering hot, south wind, summer cherry blossoms, summer grasses, summer grove, summer meadow, summer moon, summer-like, sunflower, swimming, thin clothes, thunder, trees newly green, waterfall, wellspring, wild iris, young leaves, young maple leaves
English Language Haiku
Haiku written in English developed from the traditional Japanese form of haiku, but there are differences between the two forms of poetry. Poetry written in English is concerned with meter, so syllables are counted when writing a haiku. Seventeen syllables is the norm when writing haiku in English, but fewer syllables is acceptable, and is not considered to be incorrect.
There aren’t strict rules for writing English language haiku, but there are some common characteristics for this type of poetry:
- No more than seventeen syllables — written on three lines or less
- A cut or cutting word between two ideas
- A word associated with a season or nature should be used, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional Japanese kigo. Baseball, for example, can be used as a kigo in a summer haiku. Football can can be used as a kigo in an autumnal haiku.