A haiku is a three-line Japanese poem. The first and last lines of the poem have five syllables and the second or middle line has seven. Haikus are often interested in common themes and subject matter, such as nature, what can be found in it, and the changing of the seasons. Sometimes, especially in traditional haikus, there are two contrasting images in the poem. That which appears in the first two lines and that which follows in the third.
The poems on this list represent work by the masters of the haiku form as it originated in Japan and examples of how haikus have developed in the English language.
Best Haikus to Read
- 1 The Old Pond by Matsuo Bashō
- 2 A Poppy Blooms by Katsushika Hokusai
- 3 The Taste of Rain by Jack Kerouac
- 4 Birds Punctuate the Days by Joyce Clement
- 5 Spring is Passing by Matsuo Bashō
- 6 In the Moonlight by Yosa Buson
- 7 After Killing a Spider by Masaoka Shiki
- 8 meteor shower by Michael Dylan Welch
- 9 Plum Flower Temple by Natsume Soseki
- 10 Everything I Touch by Kobayashi Issa
Considered to be one of the four great masters of the Haiku, Matsuo Bashō’s poem ‘The Old Pond,’ is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about what haikus can do. This particular poem reads as follows:
An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond—
Splash! Silence again.
When a writer is engaging with a short poem, one in which there are very few words and even fewer lines, each word is considered carefully. In this translated version of the original Japanese, the repetition of “silent” or “silence” stands out. This helps create a peaceful mood and tone. The speaker is contemplative and clear as he watches the frog and then studies the sound and the silence which follows.
Katsushika Hokusai learned from Bashō and his influence can be felt in one of Hokusai’s most popular haiku’s ‘A Poppy Blooms’. The poem reads:
I write, erase, rewrite
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
The same kind of repetition, despite the length of the lines, is used in this poem. It draws a reader’s attention to the words “write” and “rewrite”. Through the simple language and the implied repetition of this action, the poem carries a lot of weight. It speaks to the process of creation, learning, and to traits such as perseverance and determination. There is also the traditional natural imagery in the end with the “poppy” blooming, a clear metaphor for the successful creation of written works.
The Taste of Rain by Jack Kerouac
One of the most surprising entries on any list of haikus are works by Jack Kerouac, the American writer best known for the novel On the Road. In this novel, he chronicles the American way of life as seen through the listless hitchhiking and working of its main character. In his haiku ‘The Taste of Rain’ Kerouac says quite a lot in his three lines. But, unlike traditional haikus, this one breaks with the common 5/7/5 structure. All together the poem only has six words following the meter of 2/2/2.
Birds Punctuate the Days by Joyce Clement
Another stand out, beautiful poem on this list is ‘Birds Punctuate the Days’. It is striking due to its first line/word, “Period”. This three-syllable word is all that’s used in the first line of the haiku. It is followed by the bright and memorable image of a blue bird’s egg that disappears suddenly in the third line. This sonnet gives the reader a glimpse into the world of the poet as well as describing poignant the process of life and death.
Spring is Passing by Matsuo Bashō
Another one of Bashō’s wonderfully evocative poems, ‘Spring is Passing’ neatly conforms to the rhyme scheme associated with sonnets. He speaks of the passing of spring while also speaking more deeply to the end of life. The “birds cry” he adds, and the fishes’ eyes are “With tears”. There is a very charming use of personification in these lines that might encourage a reader to think of these creatures as more like people, or representatives of people, than as only animals.
Buson wrote in the 1700s and is a well-loved maser of the form. In this poem, the poet engages with traditional imagery and utilizes the standard metrical pattern. The liens speak of “moonlight” and how it transforms the sight and experience of wisteria, a flowering vine-like plant. The three lines read:
In the moonlight,
The color and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away.
Its color and “scent” seem “far away” because of the atmosphere it is existing in. The mood of this piece is wistful and contemplative, allowing the reader a moment of calm in their life.
Shiki is credited today with reviving the haiku forming and allowing it to flourish anew in a different century. This particular poem is one of his best. It reads:
a spider, how lonely I feel
in the cold of night!
Like many haiku’s the subject matter and imagery in these lines are relatable. Through only a few words the poet is able to paint a clear picture of a dark, cold, and lonely night. The speaker thought that killing the spider was the right thing to do but now he is even more alone. This sonnet should inspire a reader to consider the spider as a symbol. But, a symbol of what is an even more important consideration.
meteor shower by Michael Dylan Welch
The founder of the National Haiku Writing Month, Welch is a prominent contemporary writer of haikus. This particular haiku is concerned with nature while strikingly not using any punctuation or capitalization. When first looking at the poem the lack of capitalization stands out. It is an interesting technique that allows the poem to exist without beginning or end. The lines speak to a moment of complete peace, but not stillness. Above the speaker, there is a meteor shower and at their feet, a “gentle wave”. This is a connection between heaven and earth, the unattainable, and the very real.
Plum Flower Temple by Natsume Soseki
Soseki, who died in 1916, wrote fairy tales along with haikus. Of his many publications, this haiku is one of his best. The lines read:
Plum flower temple:
From the foothills
The lines speak to mysterious and strange images, all of which are still connected to nature. A reader will likely leave this poem asking themselves what a “plum flower temple” is and who the voices belong to.
Another famous haiku poet, Issa, is responsible for some of the best examples of traditional Japanese haikus. His poems are clever and sometimes more light-hearted than the works of other writers. Here are the three lines of ‘Everything I touch’:
Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.
In these three lines, he’s making a simple and hyperbolic statement about tenderness, human nature, and perception. His speaker describes an effort to touch with tenderness. Every attempt fails and leaves him with nothing but prickly bramble. This could speak to romantic relationships, friendships, or to just general good deeds in everyday life.