Poetry Explained

How to Write a Haiku

Haiku is a form of traditional Japanese poetry that is known for its brevity and focus on capturing the essence of a moment or a feeling. Despite its simplicity, writing a haiku can be a challenging task.

How to Write a Haiku - Japanese Watercolor

Haiku has its roots in traditional Japanese poetry. The form was developed in the 17th century by the poet Matsuo Bashō, who is considered one of the greatest haiku poets of all time. At the time, haiku was known as hokku and was the opening stanza of a longer collaborative poem known as a renga.

A Brief History of Haiku

The first versions of haiku were written in the 13th century and were composed as the opening part of a renga or a poem that was read aloud. The opening “haiku” was only one small part of what was a very long poem. 

Haikus from poets are found engraved onto large stones throughout Japan, especially in scenic areas (to accompany the area it is in)

Haiku evolved to become a standalone form of poetry in the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of poets such as Masaoka Shiki, who introduced the term “haiku” and established the 5-7-5 syllable pattern that is still used today.

Haiku gained popularity in Japan and eventually spread to other parts of the world, including the United States, where it became popular in the mid-20th century as part of the Beat Generation literary movement.

Haiku is practiced by poets all over the world and has become a respected and valued form of poetry that is appreciated for its simplicity, focus on a single moment or feeling, and ability to capture the beauty of nature and the human experience.

What is Haiku?

Haiku is a form of poetry that consists of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. The traditional subject of haiku is nature, but modern haiku can be written about any subject matter.

Haiku is often characterized by its simplicity, its focus on a single moment or feeling, and its use of seasonal or natural imagery.

How to Write a Haiku

1. Choose a Subject

The first step in writing a haiku is to choose a subject. As mentioned earlier, haiku traditionally focuses on nature, but you can choose any subject that inspires you. Some common subjects for haiku include animals, landscapes, seasons, and emotions. 

It’s helpful to consider what comes to mind about a particular place, season, or emotion. For example, if you want to write about fall, what comes to mind? Maybe colorful leaves, cooler weather, holidays, family, etc. 

2. Focus on a Moment

Haiku is all about capturing a moment in time. Choose a specific moment or image you want to convey in your haiku. This could be as simple as a bird taking flight or a leaf falling from a tree.

The best haiku transport the reader, through only a few words, to a place or feeling. Basho is well-known for doing this. For example, in The old pond’ he writes: 

The old pond; 

A frog jumps in —

The sound of the water. 

The reader is meant to imagine this short, beautiful moment. The elevated focus on this scene inspires an appreciation for the natural world and all its simple moments. 

In terms of the haiku 5-7-5, the above haiku does not conform to this, as it was a translation from Japanese (so syllable count won’t be like-for-like).

3. Use Sensory Details

To make your haiku come alive, use sensory details to describe the moment you’re trying to capture. Use vivid language to describe what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. 

This is seen through the poet’s use of phrases like “swaying gently / All day long,” as seen in ‘Spring Ocean’ by Yosa Buson, or “Fishes weep / With tearful eyes,” as seen in ‘The passing spring’ by Matsuo Bashō. 

4. Stick to the Syllable Count

The syllable count of a haiku is 5-7-5. This means that the first line should have five syllables, the second line should have seven syllables, and the third line should have five syllables. It’s important to stick to this structure to create a true haiku. 

When you read famous Japanese haiku, the translation usually eliminates the syllabic pattern. (Additionally, many early haiku did not use the syllabic pattern.) So, when looking for good examples of how the syllable pattern actually works, take a look at English-language haiku. For example, ‘The West Wind’ by R.M. Hansard: 

The west wind whispered,

And touched the eyelids of spring:

Her eyes, Primroses.

5. Use Seasonal or Nature Imagery

While modern haiku can be about any subject matter, traditional haiku often include seasonal or natural imagery. This helps to create a sense of time and place in the poem. Look for ways to incorporate seasonal or nature imagery into your haiku.

6. Avoid Rhyme and Metaphors

Haiku is a form of poetry that relies on simplicity and understatement. Avoid using rhyme or metaphors in your haiku, as this can detract from the poem’s focus on a single moment or feeling.

Examples of Haiku

To help you better understand how to write a haiku, here are some examples:

Example #1: Everything I Touch by Kobayashi Issa

Everything I touch

with tenderness, alas,

pricks like a bramble.

In this haiku, the focus is on describing an effort to touch with tenderness. The attempts fail, and the touches keep prickling like “bramble[s].” This is a good example of how nature-related images can be used as symbols for something far deeper. 

Example #2: After Killing a Spider by Masaoka Shiki

After killing

a spider, how lonely I feel

in the cold of night!

This haiku captures a moment in time with the image of the spider and what happened after the speaker killed it. It was a simple choice that didn’t seem important at first. But, after the moment passes, it becomes clear that the poem is interested in the spider as a symbol

Example #3: In the Moonlight by Yosa Buson

In pale moonlight~

the wisteria’s scent

comes from far away.

This haiku captures the sound and scent of leaves and flowers at night, specifically the smell of wisteria as it wafts in. The use of the word “pale” paints a very clear picture of the night sky, even though the poem is so short. 

Haiku Writing Conclusion

Writing a haiku may seem simple, but it can be a challenging task to create a truly effective and impactful one. However, by following the basic principles of haiku and keeping it simple, you can create a beautiful and meaningful poem that captures a moment in time.

Remember to choose a subject, focus on a moment, use sensory details, stick to the syllable count, use seasonal or natural imagery, and avoid rhyme and metaphors. By incorporating these elements into your haiku, you can create a poem that is both simple and powerful.

With practice and dedication, you can become a skilled haiku writer and explore the many possibilities of this beautiful and unique form of poetry.


What are the three rules of haiku?

The three traditional rules of haiku are:
1. The poem must consist of three lines.
2. The first and third lines must have five syllables, while the second line must have seven syllables.
3. The poem usually focuses on nature or the seasons and usually contains a “cutting word” that emphasizes a contrast or a change.

What is the most famous haiku?

One of the most famous haiku poems was written by Matsuo Basho, a Japanese poet who lived in the 17th century. The poem is: “An old pond / A frog jumps in / The sound of water.”

Do haiku need to rhyme?

Haiku does not need to rhyme. In fact, traditional Japanese haiku rarely use rhyme, as the focus is on the syllable count and the juxtaposition of images or ideas.

Does grammar matter in haiku?

Yes, grammar does matter in haiku. While haiku is known for its brevity and simplicity, it still follows the rules of grammar and syntax in order to convey its meaning effectively.

How do you know if a haiku is good?

Judging the quality of a haiku is subjective, as it depends on individual taste and the specific elements that one values in a poem. The best haiku follow the syllable pattern, focus on nature-related imagery (often connected to the seasons), and evoke some kind of emotion.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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