What is a Haiku? Japan’s Beloved Poetry Format, Explained

A haiku is a type of traditional Japanese poetry that expresses the feelings that nature evokes. A three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable structure and no need for rhyme is the most typical haiku format.

Haiku poetry, which is short and concise, has withstood the test of time, transcended borders of language and culture, and is still one of the most read and written forms of poetry today. Let’s examine the structure, characteristics, and history of this intriguing literary genre to have a better understanding of it.

A poetry format containing 17 syllables

The basic structure of the haiku is built on 17 phonetic units, or “” in Japanese poetry, which are roughly equivalent to syllables. Haiku are now written in three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, despite the fact that they were originally written in just one line.

Here is a sample haiku written by Matsuo Bash, the poet most associated with the genre:

In the original Japanese haiku, the syllables do not adhere to the 5-7-5 pattern, although they do in this literary translation:

fu-ru i-ke ya (5) ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7) mi-zu no o-to (5)

While experimenting with new forms that were influenced by haiku, poets all around the world have stayed largely true to this pattern over time.

Beyond its structure, one of the fundamental qualities of haiku has always been its elegance and conciseness in depicting nature, the primary Muse of haiku poets.

Nature is a common central theme

Haiku poetry has long been influenced by the natural environment, which encourages poets to take in their surroundings and recognize seemingly insignificant but significant events. Nature has long been thought to be the perfect place to cultivate wabi-sabi (侘寂), a mindset that values simplicity and tranquility . When you are in outdoors, you can enjoy the sound of birds singing or reflect on the transience of life by watching fall leaves float.

Nature is described using “season words” (kigo, 季語) in the Japanese haiku form, such as the canola blooms of spring or the snowflakes of winter. In the next two examples, cherry blossoms signal the arrival of spring while chilly stars conjure up images of starry summer nights.

cherry blossoms

fall! fall!

enough to fill my belly

一 Kobayashi Issa

The lamp once out

Cool stars enter

The window frame.

一 Natsume Soseki

Haiku poets from different schools have argued over the years over whether the form should only be influenced by nature or be open to other issues. Although the verdict is still out (after centuries of discussion), reverence for the natural environment continues to be one of the driving themes of haiku to this day, coupled with the effective use of imagery.

Combining simple images to express an idea

A common goal of haiku is to convey a “insight”—an unexpected emotional reaction to whatever the poet is observing. This realization could be as superficial as a giggle or as profound as an awareness of how ephemeral life is.

Unlikely images united by an emotion

One image may be enough to convey a sentiment in some haiku poems, while multiple images may be connected together in others. Let’s look at two instances:

Even in Kyoto,

hearing the cuckoo,

I long for Kyoto.

一 Matsuo Bashō

The poet feels a sense of melancholy for a city and a moment that seem to have passed after seeing and hearing a cuckoo. This image’s uniqueness serves as a reminder of how memories sometimes only a single sound to transport us back in time.

The next haiku emphasizes the recurring theme of loss and separation by connecting insects, lovers, and stars.

Don’t weep, insects 一

Lovers, stars themselves,

Must part.

一 Kobayashi Iss

Juxtaposing images for emotional impact

The expression of understanding can sometimes be accomplished by contrasting two images. These pictures were chosen for their associations with one another rather than for their individuality or aesthetic appeal.

Let’s see an example:

A caterpillar,

this deep in fall 一

still not a butterfly.

一 Matsuo Bashō

In this poem, Bash uses the images of a caterpillar and a butterfly to portray a sense of potential that hasn’t yet been achieved or a longing for growth and evolution that hasn’t yet materialized.

Haiku fact! Traditionally, the juxtaposition of the two images is highlighted by ‘cutting words’ (kireji, 切れ字) — a poetic construct that can structure a verse in different ways. This break can be punctuation (like a dash) or simply with a word of emphasis (like “Oh!”). By directing the flow of the poem, the kireji helps to break the reader’s thinking patterns and facilitate the association between the images.

Since haiku poetry first became well-known in 17th-century Japan, the use of natural images to express insights and unexpected emotions has been a crucial part of the form.

The form dates back to the 17th century

Before haiku, there was renga, a type of collaborative and impromptu Japanese poetry. A succession of 7-7 verses were added after the introductory stanza (hokku, 発句 ) of 5-7-5 phonetic units in renga poetry, which were composed collaboratively by poets, scribes, and masters.

Poets believed the hokku required a unique level of sensitivity and expertise because it was seen as the starting point of the entire creative process. Due to the time and effort required to write a powerful hokku, word artists like Matsuo Bash began to treat it as a separate art form in the 17th century.

Bashō’s time in the wilderness

Despite becoming well-known as a renga poet, Bash’s wanderlust inspired him to visit remote areas of Japan, which was thought to be exceedingly risky at the time. Bash, who spent more time alone in the countryside, became more sensitive to nature and the passing of the seasons, and he tried to capture their essence in a collection of hokku.

Second-generation haiku poets

One of the most celebrated haiku poets of all time was and is Matsuo Bash. Many people were influenced by his collection of work, including Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa, to continue the haiku tradition in their own unique ways.

Here are two examples of their work:

A summer river being crossed

how pleasing

with sandals in my hands!

― Yosa Buson


O snail

Climb Mount Fuji

But slowly, slowly!

― Kobayashi Issa

The poet Masaoka Shiki dubbed the hokku as the haiku in the late 19th century, further solidifying its status as a distinct genre of poetry. Shiki shared Bash’s view that a haiku should be “a sketch from nature,” which is a recurring subject in the tens of thousands of stanzas he left behind.

green in the field

was pounded into

rice cake

― Masaoka Shiki

After Shiki, haiku poetry grew in acceptance, embracing a more flexible structure and expanding to explore contemporary issues.

Modern poets continue to write haiku

Many European and American writers developed a fascination with the form in the 20th century and began to compose haiku in a variety of languages, including English, French, and Italian. The Imagist movement, which was founded by T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell, was especially important because it attempted to “capture stills” of its subjects’ emotional states in only a few lines.

Later, American poets like Sonia Sanchez, Nick Virgilio, and Richard Wright contributed their own verses to the canon of the haiku. Some of their poems are as follows:

a blind musician

extending an old tin cup

collects a snowflake

一 Nick Virgilio


I am nobody:

A red sinking autumn sun

Took my name away.

一 Richard Wright


say no words

time is collapsing

in the woods

一 Sonia Sanchez

Some of these poems exhibit characteristics of conventional haiku, such as the 5-7-5 syllable structure, seasonal allusions, or the effective use of imagery. Other poems don’t fit this description: it’s usual for contemporary haiku poetry to deviate from the rules, maybe drawing inspiration from the busy city life rather than from nature.

The many unforgettable moments and experiences that we are exposed to every day are still attempted to be captured in the essence of a great deal of contemporary haiku poetry.

The history of haiku is still being created, from the poets of medieval Japan connecting verses together to contemporary authors drawing lines between skyscrapers in futuristic cities. Haiku will continue to exist as long as nature and living serve as unending, ageless sources of inspiration.

Phantom Writing