What is a Haiku?

The multitude of definitions that surround the form serve to reflect a great diversity within the form itself, and also the many different approaches that authors take when writing Haiku.

So, exactly what is a haiku?

There are certain qualities that reverberate throughout the entirety of haiku poetry. In order to find out what these are, the American Journal Modern Haiku amassed a collection of eleven definitions that aimed to loosely define What is a Haiku through making clear its characteristics.

In the study, there was found to be a total of thirteen ideas about the haiku that were repeated in many different definitions of the form, and the most frequently mentioned characteristics were found to be:

1. Brevity

2. Base in reality

3. Nature/Seasonality

4. A moment’s duration

5. Insight/Intuition

6. Poem/Poetry

Painting is of a Wind God from the Edo Period (Artist Unknown)

A.C. Missias, the founder of the Acorn online journal of contemporary haiku was the leader of this project. She saw that by working with these six features we can begin to find a cleardefinition that can help us to see at what point of stylistic development the English language haiku has reached, and how different it has become from the original Japanese Haiku.

Haiku is originally a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, that evokes images of the natural world. The English Haiku is simply an imitation of this. The trouble is however, that because Haiku were originally written in Japanese, certain facets of their structure do not translate well into English. The Japanese language consists of one-syllable units, like Ji, Na, Ku or Sho. These units lend themselves to the production of strictly seventeen syllable haiku.

English Haiku however, are not so easily written within such syllabic limitations. Each haiku poet tries to channel what they perceive as the essence of haiku into their own work, which results in some interesting forms, like this example from Marlene Mountain:


the puddle:


We can note from observation that generally modern English haiku are a one stanza poem with no rhyme scheme that is usually organised into three lines.

The essence of haiku is economy of expression, something that has been a part of the form since its origin in the thirteenth century. Haiku rarely include complex literary devices, and are usually written in a very direct and observational manner.

An emotional response in the reader is often achieved through the juxtaposition of two directly contrasting images, one of man, and one of nature.

What is a haiku? for more ways of understanding the form, click here

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