So, what is a haiku then?

Some generally accepted modern definitions of haiku in the west are:

1. Haiku are small poems generally staying within seventeen syllables. They may be written in one line (the monoku or monostich), two lines, three lines or sometimes more. Some modern haiku can be formed into different shapes for effect. Three lines is still the most common variant.

2. A poem based on two images, or an image and an idea which contrast, compare or work together. The contrast or synergy of the phrase and fragment are what gives a haiku its dynamism. You can write three lines on the same image (a sketch or shasei) and that can be effective. However, done too often it is dull. Feel free to work with both.

For example:

summer grass
all that remains
of warrior dreams

-- Matsuo Basho

You can see that the first line is the fragment and the last two, the phrase. Tall summer grass that is dry is an image we can all understand. The power of the poem comes from what Basho sees. Is that grass growing on a famous battle site at which many warriors died? Is he comparing old warriors to that dry, brittle grass? I don’t know but hopefully you can all see how this works.

In Japanese, the split between the phrase and fragment was usually indicated with a kire (cutting word). We do not have this in English but instead may use punctuation such as an em-dash. In the poem above this would have been placed after the first line to indicate a break. In most cases this should be obvious but, in some poems, the second line can be a pivot which is associated with either the first or second line, alternating which is the phrase and which is the fragment (clever,eh?).

3. A haiku should contain a kigo (season word). This is not always critical or enforced but haiku are rooted in time and place (this sense of presence and awareness in the moment having a clear resonance with Zen) and a good season word does this. Above, we can see that Basho specifies summer as the season but we can also do this through using words and phrases that evoke seasons e.g. snow, falling leaves, mist, certain flowers being in bloom etc.

In Japan there were manuals of which kigo were appropriate to each season but in the west we use any images which are relevant to where we live and the kind of animals, plants and weather we experience.

4. A haiku should have a moment of surprise or insight (often called the ‘aha’ moment!). We can write many technically sound poems that do not move anyone at all by virtue of their sheer mundanity or clichéness. For example

dark clouds
she senses
his anger

is perfectly fine but we all know the metaphor of dark clouds for an argument. There is no originality there. That is fine when we are beginning but the idea is to express a moment of insight or uniqueness.