What Is a Haiku?

A haiku is a form of short, contemplative poem developed in Japan centuries ago. Traditional haiku have a set number of syllabi and juxtapose two images or ideas with a “cutting word” between them. The philosophy of haiku is to focus on a brief moment of time by using sharp and colorful details. The intention is to produce an epiphany, or sudden enlightenment, through the creative use of imagery and the careful choice of juxtaposition.

How Do You Identify a Haiku in Writing?

Traditional haikus follow a standard format. They are three lines, 17 syllables. The first and third line are five syllables; in the middle line, there are seven. Here is the concept of a Haiku, expressed in the form of a haiku:

Brief and to the point,

Epiphany with few words —

Very challenging.

Not even Japanese poets adhere to the traditional format anymore, and there are many modern variations. The most common is to lengthen the poem by making each stanza its own haiku — which is, in turn, a variation on the heroic couplet popularized by Alexander Pope. Other variations retain the simple brevity of the form but play with the number of syllables in a line or alter the total number of lines.

Examples of Haiku

Haiku Example 1. Ravi Shankar’s poem “Lines on a Skull” is composed of haiku stanzas:

“Start spirit; behold
the skull. A living head loved
earth. My bones resign

the worm, lips to hold
sparkling grape’s slimy circle,
shape of reptile’s food.”

Haiku Example 2. One haiku stanza from “Blind Boone’s Apparitions” by Tyehimba Jess.

“my motto for life

                      – merit, not sympathy, wins-

my song against death.”

Haiku Example 3. Ezra Pound’s famous haiku variation, “In a Station of the Metro,” is just two lines:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Haiku Example 4. Richard Brautigan’s “Haiku Ambulance” is another playful variation:

“A piece of green pepper
off the wooden salad bowl:
so what?”


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