Advice for Poets 14: How To Write A ‘Real’ Haiku

A haiku that conforms to the basic scheme in terms of the lines and syllables is a real achievement – the scheme is so restrictive and the poem length so short that to successfully convey a story or idea is impressive. They’re nice to read because they’re short and often witty or surprising.

However, there are a few more restrictions involved in the original form that it might be interesting for a poet to try to tackle. In fact, a few of our contributors have tackled this highly skilled poetic form in our upcoming book of poetry for sale called ‘The Wait’. Have a look at our very brief into the the haiku and see how hard they really worked.

Brief History Of The Haiku

Short, clever poems in Japan have existed since at least the 7th century in various forms, and the ability to create them leant great prestige the the nobles and intellectuals who mastered the art. The waka, which follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure, spread around the country and was often used in word game exchanges.

The practice declined in quality trough the centuries, until it was revived by a creative master called Matsunaga Teitoku who, through his and his students efforts, put much of the prestige back into the art. The actual emergence of the haiku is difficult to pin down to an exact date because, like any development in any language, it evolved gradually over time. A hokku is the name given to the opening lines of some longer traditional forms – it eventually came to be regarded as an individual form and the name evolved to haiku  along with it.

Simple Rules of Writing A ‘Haiku In English’

  • Must have three lines
  • Each line must have a set number of syllables: 5 – 7 – 5.

Interesting fact… based on these rules, this is in fact a haiku:

I see you driving
Round town with a girl I love
And I’m like, ‘F*** you’

The Harder Bits

The Structure

In Japanese, the Haiku form was originally written in a single line. However, the haiku in English has three lines, with a strict syllable count of 5-7-5. No cheating. 2394598089_15304566a3_m

The Seasons – Kigo

A reference to the seasons, or the changing of the seasons, is a must in the original form. Words in this seasonal language are called kigo. For example, the word ‘snow’ has associations with winter, ‘leaves’ with autumn, and a very common spring term is ‘cherry blossom’.

Not every single traditional haiku ever written includes kigo but it’s a strong theme that many do regard as a must-have.

Kiru – (Cutting, Separation, Juxtaposition)

Kiru means ‘to cut’. This element of haiku is about creating a cutting point between two juxtaposing or opposite ideas. They must of course relate to eachother in a way that conveys a larger message, but must be grammatically and thematically distinct from each other.

The ideas shouldn’t be so totally random that they make the poem have two shallow piece of imagery – ideally they should build to mean something. So you could write about a tiny seed:oak

no sound the seed makes,
it rolls on soft ground – the sky
skimming oak weeps leaves.

Okay, I made this up in about 40 seconds so it’s not the best example, but what I’ve tried to do here to illustrate is take the tiny seed and the big oak, which are two related but contrasting images, and put them together in a poem that has a bigger story than the 17 syllables alone tell. The whole lifecycle of a tree is shown here, indicating that the tiny seed could grow to be a giant oak and shed leaves in the autumn. See how the images are separate, contrasted, and cut at the point of the dash, but work together to tell a story?


A unit of sound in a Japanese poem such as a haiku is called an ‘on’. On’s are similar to syllables in that they represent units of sound, but because of the differences in Japanese and English language and pronunciation, 17 syllables doesn’t always exactly translate into 17 on.

When you’re writing in English, it’s unrealistic to try and figure out what counts as an on – it doesn’t really translate. So don’t feel bad about sticking with what you know and sticking to 5-7-5 syllables – that’s challenging enough!

The same goes for all the other tips, really – poetry is a creative pursuit, so if you think your way of doing it is better, then screw it!


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