• Literary Terms
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to Write a Haiku

I. What is a Haiku?

A haiku is a specific type of Japanese poem which has 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haikus or haiku are typically written on the subject of nature. The word haiku (pronounced hahy -koo) is derived from the Japanese word hokku meaning “starting verse.”

II. Examples of Haikus

For examples of haiku, consider these classic poems written by Japanese poets:

From time to time

The clouds give rest

To the moon-beholders.

— Matsuo Basho

Sparrow’s child

out of the way, out of the way!

the stallion’s coming through

— Kobayashi Issa

Over the wintry

forest, winds howl in rage

with no leaves to blow.

— Natsume Soseki

As is clear from these examples, most haikus examine natural themes , such as weather, animals and plants, and changing seasons. Haikus can be serious and meditative, free of mood, or playful and fun.

III. The Importance of Using Haikus

Haikus are important in that they are a highly traditional form of Japanese poetry which has been in existence as early as the 1600s. Haikus later spread to the west in the 1800s. Haiku shows that in as few as three lines and seventeen syllables, interesting observations about nature and life can be made. They show that poetry does not have to be about lofty subjects but can make an animal as small as the grasshopper or a subject as simple as the wind interesting, important, and mentionable.

IV. Examples of Haikus in Literature

Haikus are a popular form in poetry, as anyone can attempt to put together a brief poem of three lines and seventeen syllables. Here are a few examples of haiku in literature:

Mosquito at my ear— does he think I’m deaf?

This haiku was written by the famous Japanese poet Issa.

Old pond… A frog leaps in Water’s sound.

This is considered the most famous Japanese haiku, written by Bashō.

A whale! Down it goes, and more and more up goes its tail!

A playful poem of movement, this haiku was written by Yosa Buson, another famous Japanese poet.

V. Examples of Haikus in Pop Culture

A search on Youtube reveals that haikus have affected pop culture in more ways than one. The short form of haiku can be found in “Youtube Haikus,” or particularly short and typically funny Youtube videos. A similar pop cultural phenomenon has been Vines, or short videos of only six and a half seconds or less! Just as haiku takes advantage of brevity, saying and showing a lot with very little, pop culture prizes brevity in forms of video, Twitter tweets of 140 characters , and memes.

Goat making funny noise with tongue

This Youtube Haiku features a strange tongue-flicking goat in a video that lasts only ten seconds.

how singers laugh short vine video

This is an example of a Vine, lasting only five seconds.

VI. Related Terms: Haikus vs. Similar Poetic Forms

Haiku are not the only form of poetry which utilizes brevity, syllable count, and the subject of nature. Here are a few poetic forms similar to haiku:

A tanka is a thirty-one syllable poem with five lines divided into five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. Looking at form, tankas are very similar to haikus, with the first three lines in the same form and two added lines of seven syllables each. Tankas were written as early as the year 600 and were primarily written as songlike letters written to lovers as a gift. Here is an example of a tanka versus a haiku written by the poet Philip Appleman:

In the spring of joy, when even the mud chuckles, my soul runs rabid, snaps at its own bleeding heels, and barks: “What is happiness?”

(after Basho)

Clouds murmur darkly, it is a blinding habit— gazing at the moon.

As can be seen from these examples, tankas and haikus are both Japanese forms which pay close attention to syllable count and lineation. Tankas are simply the longer form.

Interestingly, the lune was a poetic form inspired by the haiku and is called by some the American Haiku. A literature professor named Robert Kelly invented the form, which is a shortened version of the haiku with three lines of five, three, and five syllables. Here is an example of a lune versus a haiku:

If not for the birds I’d not know That I cannot fly . — Lester Smith
Toward those short trees We saw a hawk descending On a day in spring. — Shiki

Although haikus, tankas, and lunes look very similar, the difference lies in form: tankas are longer and lunes are shorter.

VII. In Closing

Haiku is a classic Japanese form of poetry which celebrates nature and little moments in life in a brief three-line seventeen-syllable form. Haikus range from serious reflections and images to lighthearted and uplifting instances.

List of Terms

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What is a Haiku Definition Examples and Structure Explained Featured

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What is a Haiku — Definition, Examples and Structure Explained

  • What is a Stanza in a Poem
  • What is an Acrostic Poem
  • What is Dissonance
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What is a Haiku

  • What is Prose
  • What is an Ode
  • Types of Poems

W hat is a haiku? What distinguishes a haiku from other forms of poetry? We will provide a definition for haiku, explore the history of the form in Japan and around the world, and take a look at some of the most well-known haiku examples. Let’s get started with the definition of a haiku poem.

Definition of a haiku poem

The haiku is a type of short-form poetry that originated in Japan and is now popular all around the world. They are short but when they're done right, they pack a punch. When it comes to haiku in poetry, less is definitely more.

To learn more about all types of poetry, refer to our writer’s guide to poem structures .


What is a haiku.

A haiku is a three-line poem consisting of 17 syllables arranged as a five-syllable line, followed by a seven-syllable line, concluded with another five-syllable line. Haiku’s are language dependent as the number of syllables in each line can change when translated.

In Japanese, rather than syllables, words are broken into “on” which are counted in a different manner. Also, in Japanese, traditional haikus are not separated into three distinct lines but rather presented as one continuous line that is meant to be spoken within a single breath.

Some experts suggest that, in English, a haiku should more accurately consist of between 10 to 14 syllables to best match the sound and rhythm of traditional Japanese haikus.

The three lines of the poem do not rhyme and they typically avoid metaphor, simile, and exposition in favor of imagery and contrast. Traditional examples center around nature and/or the seasons and aim to capture a simple moment in time.

Haiku Structure:

  • 5-7-5 syllable structure
  • Originated in 17th century Japan
  • Language dependent

Haiku Examples

The history of haiku in poetry.

The haiku originated in 17th century Japan, but was preceded by the renga. Going all the way back to 13th century Japan, renga was a type of long-form poetry with a rigid set of rules and conventions.

Renga poems were created in formal settings as a collaboration between multiple poets trading lines back and forth. The first verse of a renga poem was known as a ho kku , which eventually became its own form of poetry that we now refer to as haiku. 

In the following video a professor of modern foreign languages explores different forms of Japanese poetry, including renga and haiku.

Renga, haiku, and waka explored  •  Definition of a haiku poem

As the popularity of the haiku structure grew, more style distinctions were added to the form. Traditional poems must contain a kireji and a kigo. A kireji is a cutting word which is typically used to juxtapose contrasting images and creates a pause in the flow of the poem.

A kigo is a word that grounds the haiku in a particular season without necessarily stating the name of the season. For instance, referring to ume , meaning blossom, to indicate the Spring, or referring to momiji , meaning colored leave, to refer to the Fall.

Some kigo are more abstract than others. A poem that does not adhere to these requirements would not be classified as a traditional haiku and would instead be labeled as a senryū .

The following video delves deeper into kigos.

Guide to kigos in haikus  •  What is haiku poetry

And this video does the same for kirejis.

Guide to kirejis in haikus  •  Haiku in poetry

Now that we know all about the history and form, let’s take a look at some haiku examples.

Related Posts

  • What is Subtext? →
  • How to Write Every Day →
  • Creative Writing Prompts →

What is a Haiku Example

Haiku examples.

As we look at these haiku examples, try to identify the kireji and and kigo in each poem. Let’s start with a video that showcases some of the most popular poems read aloud.

Popular Japanese poems read aloud  •  Define haiku poem

Now, let’s examine a few more examples in written form.

A world of dew,

And within every dewdrop

A world of struggle.

A World of Dew by Kobayashi Issa

In this example, dew serves as the kigo for Spring, and the poem is capped off with the kireji of struggle.

In the twilight rain

these brilliant-hued hibiscus -

A lovely sunset.

By Matsuo Basho

This poem was written by Mastuo Basho who is widely considered the finest haiku writer to ever live. This poem was written in the 1600s when the haiku structure was relatively new. Basho is credited with mastering, refining, and popularizing the form.

Everything I touch

with tenderness, alas,

pricks like a bramble

By Kobayashi Issa

This example is from Koboyashi Issa, another master of the haiku who was active from the 1600s into the early 1700s. Bramble serves as the kigo while pricks serves as the kireji.

  • What is Prose →
  • What is an Epithet →
  • What is a Stanza in a Poem →

Writer’s Guide to Poem Structures

We now know everything there is to know about the origin and nature of haikus and we’ve taken a look at some great examples. Up next, learn about the history and evolution of poetry, the different types and structures of poems, and read examples from each poem style.

Up Next: Guide to Poem Structures →

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Haiku (originally called hokku) is a form of non-rhyming poetry that evolved in seventeenth-century Japan, usually inspired by nature. It is a fun, playful way of composing a poem. Have you ever written a haiku? A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of…

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Save the explanation now and read when you’ve got time to spare.

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Haiku (originally called hokku) is a form of non-rhyming poetry that evolved in seventeenth-century Japan, usually inspired by nature. It is a fun, playful way of composing a poem. Have you ever written a haiku?

A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku , 1952)

Haiku Format and Structure

Haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables. The first line must contain five syllables, the second line seven, and the third line five.

The usual rules of grammar and punctuation do not apply: the poet can choose whether or not to use punctuation or capital letters, and how to structure their sentences. Haikus also tend to be written in the present tense to add a sense of immediacy. Perhaps because of their brevity, not all haiku have titles.

The haiku originally served to describe the seasons, and the natural world is still the main focus for many haiku poets today.

Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in.

  • Cherry blossoms for spring
  • Wisteria for summer
  • Moon for autumn
  • Cold for winter

Haiku Poets and Their Poems

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) further developed and refined the then-named hokku while living in Edo (modern Tokyo).

Fun fact: Basho means "banana tree". Matsuo changed his pen name a few times and adopted Basho after his disciples planted a banana tree outside his new home.

Who Was Basho?

If we do not begin with Bashô, our interpretation of haiku is bound to lack depth. … because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life."

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku , Hokuseido, 1951)

Basho was born Matsuo Kinsaku into a minor samurai family in the Iga Province, during the " sakoku" or "locked country" period (1633 - 1853).

Sakoku was the period of time when Japan largely isolated itself from foreign influences. This applied in particular to Portugal and Spain which posed a threat owing to their religious and colonial influence.

After his father died in 1656, Basho was employed as a page to the local lord’s son Tōdō Yoshitada at Ueno Castle. During his time there developed an interest in literature. Basho’s earliest known poem was published in 1662.

Yoshitada was a keen poet and particularly liked to compose collaborative poetry (called haikai no renga, or renku). The opening verse of a renku was called a hokku. One poet would write the hokku, then the next verse would be written by another poet, and so on. In 1665, Basho collaborated with Yoshitada and friends on a hundred verse renku.

Note: Around this period poets were starting to adopt the hokku formula for standalone poems that reflected the natural world; this formula later became the basis for the haiku.

Yoshitada died in 1666 and Basho moved to Kyoto to study Chinese and Japanese poetry and Zen meditation.

Basho taught in Edo for a few years and wrote his poetry under the pen name of Tosei ("green peach"); his poetry sought to be fresh and eternal, and drew on the natural world, history, and literature.

Basho’s Travels

In late 1684, Basho began the first of his travels across Japan. Below is one of his haiku’s describing his life as a traveller:

The year draws to its close:

I am still wearing

My kasa and straw sandals.

(Basho, 1685, tr. R.H. Blyth 1952)

The first line ‘The year draws to its close’, establishes the passing of time (suggestive of change), while the second and third lines show how he has spent this time: instead of teaching, he has been travelling.

Note: kasa is a kind of straw hat, useful for travelling under the bright sun!

His first journey took him to Mount Fuji, Ueno and Kyoto, returning to Edo in 1685. Initially expecting the worst (bandits were rife), Basho was pleasantly surprised and grew more confident; he met many friends and embraced the change of seasons and landscape. He continued writing hokku along the way, observing great truths in everyday things.

In 1686, after his return to Edo, Basho composed one of his best-known haiku:

The old pond -

a frog jumps in,

The sound of the water.

(Matsuo Basho, 'The Old Pond', 1686, tr. R.H.Blyth)

This became an overnight hit and poets from across Edo came to Basho’s home to join in writing a haikai no renga about frogs. Basho continued teaching poetry in Edo until 1687, when he began making trips. In 1689 - 1691 he made his longest journey of all, travelling with his disciple Sora to the north of Japan, to visit places near Kyoto.

Note: while the haiku in English is laid out in three lines, the original in Japanese runs as one line.

Original in Japanese characters (Kanji): 閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

Original in Japanese phonetics (Kana): Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe

Translation into English:

In utter stillness

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks

(Basho, 'Eternal Stillness' , tr. Masako K.Hirago, 1987)¹

Study tip: what do you think the above haiku is about? The cicada? The silence? The rocky landscape?

The last poem he wrote during his final illness is regarded as his farewell :

旅に病んで夢は枯野をかけ廻る tabi ni yande / yume wa kareno wo / kake meguru

Round and round the withered field My dreaming mind roves.”

(Basho, 1694, tr. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 2006)

There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashô, Buson and Issa; we may include a fourth, Shiki. Bashô is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku , 1951)

Other poets continued to develop this new kind of poetry throughout the Edo Period and include Buson, Issa, and Shiki . Another poet who was considered Basho’s heir in the mastery of haiku was Chiyo Ni, who became a Buddhist nun.

Let’s look briefly at each of these poets and their poetry:

Chiyo Ni (1703 - 1775)

Chiyo Ni was born in Matto (now Hakusan) into a family of scroll mounters and started writing haiku when she was seven, gaining popularity across Japan by the time she was seventeen.

She studied under two of Basho’s disciples and was widely regarded as Basho’s heir, both for her poetry and her simple way of living. Although she studied Basho, she also developed her own style which, while focused on nature, aims for a union between nature and humanity.

morning glory!

the well bucket-entangled,

I ask for water

(Chiyo Ni, 'Morning Glory', tr. Donegan and Ishibashi, 1996)

In this poem, Chiyo-ni is going to fetch water from the well. Entranced by the morning-glory flower growing across the well’s bucket, she avoids disturbing it and asks water of her neighbours instead.

Buson (1716 – 1784)

Both a poet and a painter, Buson carried on the haiku tradition into the late eighteenth century.

After studying poetry and painting in Edo, he followed in the footsteps of his idol Basho by travelling across Japan, following the route described by Basho in his ‘Narrow Road to the Interior’. Buson published his notes from his own journey.

He is considered one of the great haiku masters, with his style considered more sensuous and painterly than Basho.

In nooks and corners

Cold remains:

Flowers of the plum

(Buson, tr. R.H. Blyth)

In this haiku, Buson observes the arrival of spring - there are still chilly draughts (in nooks and corners of the house) - while plums begin to blossom. The first two lines are taken up with establishing the season and its climate (a chilly spring), leaving the third to symbolise the changes brought about (the plum blossoming).

Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828)

Born Kobayashi Nobuyuki into a farming family, Issa grew up in unhappy circumstances and spent much of his life struggling to regain his inheritance. He travelled through Japan, wrote a diary ( The Last Days of Issa’s Father ) and produced over 20,000 haiku, many of which were dedicated to plants and insects. Much of his work tended to be humorous as well as sorrowful, couched in intense language filled with a vitality which set him apart from the Basho tradition.

On the road to Shinano,

The mountain is a burden I bear, -

Oh, the heat, the heat!

(Issa, tr. R.H.Blyth)

The poet is on a journey, and the intense heat as he goes up the mountain makes him feel that he, the mountain, and the heat have all become one and the same.

Shiki and the Meaning of Haiku

Masaoka shiki (1867 – 1902).

Shiki was a poet, author, and literary critic during the Meiji period in Japan. He was born Tsunenori to a samurai family and his father died when Shiki was five. His mother’s father was a Confucian scholar who taught the boy to read Mencius. Shiki studied in Tokyo, where he became obsessed with the art of haiku, even though it was waning in popularity in modern Meiji society.

After reaching Tokyo, Shiki wrote and published a serialised volume of haiku. This was followed by more serialised work. Shiki concentrated on the 5-7-5 formula and coined the term "haiku". He had suffered from tuberculosis for much of his life and in 1888 or 1889 he began coughing up blood. The disease spread to his spine and he became bedridden, dying in 1902. During his short life, Shiki had restored the haiku and established it as a literary genre in its own right.

Come here and cool yourselves,

Wavering, wavering,

Spirits of the dead.

(Shiki, tr. R.H. Blyth)

Shiki composed this while staying at a sixteenth-century mansion. In this poem, he invites the phantoms of two celebrated warriors to join him in the cool air of the night. According to the translator, Blyth, this is an example of how the spirit world is perceived to be much closer to humans in Japanese culture than in Western.

Note: "Haiku" is a portmanteau that Shiki made of the two words "haikai" and "hokku".

Fearful fact: Tsunenori chose the name Shiki, which means "cuckoo", because in Japan there is a belief that cuckoos cough up blood when they sing.

The Haiku in Western Literature

Shiki’s work helped introduce the haiku to poets from across the globe, although the haiku continued to remain a little outside Western consciousness until after World War II, when R.H Blyth produced his 4-volume Haiku (1949-52). In 1958, An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson was also published, followed by Blyth’s History of Haiku in 1964 (the same year the Haiku Society of America was founded), and a trend was set.

While some continue to adhere to the classical haiku structure and themes, others have chosen to break with tradition, changing structure and adopting material unrelated to nature, such as the urban landscape, technology, the internet, and social media.

John Wills (1921- 1993) is considered one of the great nature poets who influenced the American haiku. While adhering to the traditional theme of nature, he also experimented with its form, as seen below in his one-line haiku (of 10 syllables as opposed to the classical 17):

rain in gusts

below the deadhead

(John Wills, 'Up a Distant Ridge', 1980)

As Sono Uchida, President of the Haiku International Association said:

Haiku has also developed as a poem that expresses deep feelings for nature, including human beings. This follows the traditional Japanese idea that man is part of the natural world, and should live in harmony with it. This differs considerably from the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as being independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of nature.

(Bruce Ross, Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku , 1993)

Haiku - Key takeaways

  • Haiku is a form of non-rhyming poetry that evolved in seventeenth-century Japan.
  • Originally called hokku it had to describe the season, time of day, and landscape.
  • The linked verse poem, or renga, is a collaborative work by two or more poets writing alternate 2-line or 3-line stanzas.
  • The term "haiku" came later in the nineteenth century and is a portmanteau of haikai (humorous poetry) and hokku.
  • Haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables. The first sentence must contain five syllables, the second sentence seven, and the third sentence five syllables again.
  • Haikus also tend to be written in the present tense, to add a sense of immediacy.

1. Masako K. Hiraga, "Stillness: A Linguistic Journey to Bashō's Haiku about the Cicada ," Poetics Today, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1987.

Frequently Asked Questions about Haiku

--> what is a haiku.

A haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables.

--> How to write a haiku?

A haiku is usually inspired by nature, and set in the present tense to add a sense of immediacy.

--> How many syllables are in a haiku?

Traditionally there are 17 syllables, although some modern poets use only 12.

--> What is the haiku format?

The first line must contain five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables.

Final Haiku Quiz

Haiku quiz - teste dein wissen.

What is a haiku?

Show answer

Show question

How is a haiku structured?

The first line contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables.

When was the haiku developed?

The haiku was developed in the 17th century in Japan.

Who developed the haibun?

Basho developed the haibun on his travels.

Who were the Great Four?

Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

True or False? Basho lived in Edo all his life.

False. Basho several journeys across Japan during his lifetime.

True or False? Basho coined the term Haiku in the 1680s.

False. Shiki coined the term in 1900s.

True or False? Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in. 

True of False? The first line and second line of a haiku must contain five syllables.

False: The first line and third line of a haiku must contain five syllables.

True of False?  Haiku are usually written in the present tense, to add a sense of immediacy.

Complete: Traditional haiku also contains a ... or word that explains which ... the haiku is set in. For example, … for spring, … for autumn.

Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in. For example: cherry blossoms for spring, moon for autumn.

 Complete the sentence: Basho means ‘...’. Matsuo changed his ... name a few times and adopted Basho after his ... planted a ... outside his new home.

Basho means ‘banana tree’. Matsuo changed his pen name a few times and adopted Basho after his disciples planted a banana tree outside his new home.

Complete: Basho’s final and longest journey to the ... provided the material for his best-known ...: Oku no Hosomichi, or ... Road to the ... 

His final and longest journey to the North provided the material for his best-known haibun: Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior. 

Chiyo Ni was born in ... (now Hakusan) into a family of ... and started writing haiku when she was ..., gaining popularity across Japan by the time she was ....

Originally called ... (the first ... of a linked verse poem), the haiku had to describe the ..., time of day and .,,.

Originally called hokku (the first stanza of a linked verse poem), the haiku had to describe the season, time of day and landscape.

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Definition of Haiku

Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry that consists of short, unrhymed lines. These lines can take various forms of brief verses. However, the most common structure of haiku features three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. A haiku poem generally presents a single and concentrated image or emotion. Haiku is considered a fixed poetic form and is associated with brief, suggestive imagery intending to evoke emotion in the reader. Though this poetic form originated in Japan during the thirteenth century, it is also a significant element of English poetry, especially in its influence on the Imagist movement of the early twentieth century.

Because of the haiku form’s brevity as well as fixed verse and syllabic pattern, it leaves little room for anything more than the presentation of a single and focused idea or feeling. Therefore, haiku poems are allusive and suggestive, calling upon the reader to interpret the meaning and significance of the words and phrases presented.

For example, here is a haiku written by Issa, a Japanese poet, and translated by Cid Corman:

only one guy and only one fly trying to make the guest room do

This haiku creates an image of a man and a fly in the same room. The phrase “guest room” is clever in that it implies that both the guy and the fly are welcome temporarily and neither have ownership of the room. This evokes a humorous response and sense of enforced coexistence between man and nature in shared space. Though the poem consists of a single image, presented with simple phrasing, it evokes humor and inspires thought and interpretation for the reader.

Common Examples of Poetic Images in Haiku

Historically, haiku is associated with describing the seasons and their changes. In fact, traditional haiku feature  kigo , which is a word or phrase that specifically indicates a particular season. This supports the brevity of the form as well as reference to the time of year. Many poets focus on the natural world and its seasonal changes as subject matter for haiku through the use of nature themes and imagery, which evoke corresponding emotions.

Here are some common examples of poetic images in haiku:

  • cherry blossoms
  • moon and its phases
  • cold (ice, snow , etc.)
  • Trees and boughs
  • flowers and petals
  • insects (butterflies, bees, caterpillars, etc.)
  • birds (herons, swallows, etc.)
  • forest animals
  • water (dew, pond, etc.)
  • light (twilight, dawn, candlelight, etc.)
  • landscapes (mountains, forests, seas, etc.)

Structure of Haiku

Traditionally, a haiku is a Japanese poem featuring three lines and consisting of simple, yet impactful, words and phrases. This language is structured in a pattern of 5-7-5 moras. Moras are rhythmic sound units that are comparable to syllables. When translating Japanese haiku to English or other languages, the balance between syllable count and meaning of words and phrases is complex. Japanese haiku feature 17 total sounds, or on , which some English translators argue is closer to 12 syllables rather than 17 total.  On are not the same as syllables in English and are therefore counted differently, leading to translation discrepancies as to whether 17 English syllables effectively represent haiku.

In addition, Japanese haiku are written in one line, unlike the form with two line breaks that is featured in most English translations. Japanese haiku often feature  kireji (a “cutting word”) that creates a pause or break in the rhythm of the poem, rather than a line break .  Kireji may be used to juxtapose images.

Overall, the common structure of most haiku poems is:

  • first line: 5 syllables
  • second line: 7 syllables
  • third line: 5 syllables

This 5-7-5 pattern and structure means that a haiku poem, as a rule, consists of three lines and 17 total syllables.

Writing Haiku

It may seem that writing haiku is simple due to the brevity of the form or by meeting the syllable count and pattern. However, this art form requires careful choices in language and the order of words to create effective imagery, evoke an emotional response from the reader, and allow for deeper interpretation and meaning. Here are some elements to keep in mind when writing haiku:

Subject Matter

When determining the subject matter for haiku poetry, it’s important to focus on singular images and smaller details. Nature themes are prevalent in this Japanese art form. Nature makes for interesting and beautiful subjects in terms of seasonal changes and the way our human senses interpret the natural world around us. Haiku poetry is effective in its portrayal and reflection of simple and natural elements of daily life.

Language and Wording

It’s important for poets, when writing haiku, to utilize short phrases that evoke strong images and emotions for the reader. In this case, it’s beneficial to consider the Japanese tradition of  kigo . This allows the poet to choose images that symbolize a season and therefore set the mood and tone of the poem with a select few words. For example, a poet can utilize the phrase “tender snowflakes” to represent winter and indicate a cold, perhaps peaceful, setting . This can evoke feelings of calm and quiet for the reader.

In addition to careful use of language and wording to create an effective haiku, it’s important for poets to consider using punctuation or a “cutting word” ( kireji ) for implementing meter and rhythm in the poem.

Examples of Haiku in Literature

Haiku is a style of lyric poetry that usually features intense emotion or a vivid image of nature. This is traditionally designed to lead to spiritual insight for the reader. This type of verse is considered a fixed poetic form, with three unrhymed lines in the pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. Contemporary poets occasionally vary the syllabic count and/or pattern in haiku.

Here are some examples of haiku in literature and their significance:

Example 1:  The Falling Flower (Moritake)

What I thought to be Flowers soaring to their boughs Were bright butterflies.

In this poem, Moritake utilizes the phrase “flowers soaring to their boughs” as  kigo , an indication of the spring season when plant life is blooming. In the third line of the poem, the poet establishes that the flowers are actually bright butterflies, reinforcing the warmth and renewal of spring . Additionally, in mistaking the butterflies for flowers and then realizing the actuality, the poet emphasizes the themes of balance, beauty , and relationships in nature. This perception allows the reader to witness this change in imagery and actuality, as the poet does. As a result, this haiku is significant in its representation of the natural world and the way it is interpreted by humans.

Example 2:  Lightning in the Sky (Matsuo Basho)

Lightning in the sky! In the deeper dark is heard A night -heron’s cry.

In his poem, Basho appeals to the senses of sight and sound in nature. First, the poet establishes the image of lightning in the sky. Following this lightning, however, is not a clap of thunder as the reader may expect. Instead, the subsequent sound that comes from the dark is the cry of a heron. This juxtaposition of lightning and the bird’s response evokes a feeling of connection between heaven and earth and their natural forces. This haiku is significant in its traditional presentation of nature themes, as well as the spiritual “communication” between heaven and earthly entities.

Example 3:  After Basho (Carolyn Kizer)

Tentatively, you slip onstage this evening, pallid, famous moon.

Kizer’s poem is both a haiku on its own and an homage to Matsuo Basho, a seventeenth century Japanese poet who refined the 17-syllable poetic form and established it as an artistic literary expression. As an independent poem, Kizer utilizes the moon as a subject matter which is common in haiku poetry. The moon is personified and “slips onstage” in the evening, just as the moon subtly appears in the night sky. Kizer incorporates this image of nature in a clever manner, as the moon appears to have a spotlight shining on it while “onstage” in the sky.

Kizer’s poem is also significant as a tribute to the poet Basho and a haiku in celebration of the person who enriched this poetic form. With this interpretation, the use of “you” in line one signifies Basho. Kizer implies that his presence and fame remain as the moon does each evening. This brings a spiritual element to the poem through remembrance and reverence in terms of Basho.

Example 4: c’mon man hold me  (Sonia Sanchez)

c’mon man hold me touch me before time love me from behind your eyes.

Sanchez’s poem is an example of contemporary haiku and how this poetic form crosses boundaries of time and place. The subject matter of this poem deviates from traditional themes of the natural world. Instead, the subject is human nature and the desire to be loved, physically and emotionally. Beginning the poem with the informal “c’mon” is strategic in that this word consists more of two moras rather than two distinct syllables. This is closer to the traditional Japanese on and use of sound. Most haiku written in the English language are dependent on defined syllables rather than phonetics.

In addition, Sanchez creates a different pattern of meter and rhythm in this poem by using several one-syllable words. Rather than flowing as a somewhat continuous thought, the language in Sanchez’s poem is almost choppy. This increases the pacing and punctuation of the poem while enhancing its sense of pleading and urgency. The poet’s intentions and desires are clear through the use of direct, commanding language. This evokes strong emotion in the reader in terms of identifying with the poet’s desire to be held, touched, and loved on an emotional level (“from behind your eyes”) as well as physical level. This emotional response supports the significance and universality of haiku as a poetic form.

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Definition of haiku

Note: A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poetic form that in English usually consists of 17 syllables arranged in three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. A haiku expresses much and suggests more in just a few words. The form first emerged in Japanese literature in the 17th century (though it did not become known by the name haiku until the 19th century) when Bashō, a Japanese poet considered by many to be the greatest practitioner of the form, elevated it to a highly refined art. A poem written in the haiku form or a modification of it in a language other than Japanese is also called a haiku. The Imagist poets of the early 20th century helped popularize the form in English.

Did you know?

A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poetic form that consists of 17 syllables arranged in three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. A haiku expresses much and suggests more in the fewest possible words. The form gained distinction in the 17th century, when Basho, a Japanese poet considered the greatest practitioner of the form, elevated it to a highly refined art. It remains Japan’s most popular poetic form. The Imagist poets (1912–30) and others have imitated the form in English and other languages.

Examples of haiku in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'haiku.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

1899, in the meaning defined above

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Cite this Entry

“Haiku.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haiku. Accessed 13 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of haiku, more from merriam-webster on haiku.

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