Creative Writing Writing 101 7 min2023-02-13 00:00

How to Write a Haiku: Format, Rules, Structure, and Examples

how to write a haiku

Do you like poems?

If you do, try a haiku.

It’s a lovely form!

Haiku are short poems that follow a specific three-line format, where the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the last line has five syllables again—just like the first line.

Read on to learn what a haiku is and how you can write one of your own.

What Is a Haiku?

A haiku is a short, concise poem that consists of three lines. Traditionally, the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the final line has five.

Each haiku is so short and succinct that you need to choose each syllable carefully. The art of haiku is all about expressing as much as possible in very few words.

This form of poetry originated in Japan. In its earliest form, it was known as hokku.

Japanese poets have been writing hokku for centuries, originally as parts of a longer collaborative poem known as a renga, which sometimes consisted of more than a hundred lines. Poets worked in groups of two or three to take turns composing three-line stanzas and two-line stanzas until they created a complete renga.

Around the 17th century, poets began writing short self-contained poems in the same form as the opening hokku of a renga. Late in the 19th century, renowned poet Masaoka Shiki renamed the stand-alone hokku to haiku.

Most traditional haiku describe a moment in time that captures the beauty or power of the natural world. Classic Japanese poets often used haiku to describe seasonal changes or other natural phenomena.

These days, people all over the world write haiku in various languages about countless different themes. Many poets even break the standard rules of how many syllables each line needs to have, choosing to adhere to the spirit of a haiku rather than the technical rules a haiku usually follows.

haiku definition

Haiku Format, Syllables, and Rules

The traditional structure of an English haiku consists of three nonrhyming lines with the following syllable counts:

  • First line: five syllables

  • Second line: seven syllables

  • Third line: five syllables

That’s it! If you stick to these syllable counts, you’ll be writing a haiku in no time. The hard part is choosing words that fit perfectly into this format.

Another important decision involves choosing the subject of your haiku.

If you want to stick with the traditional version of haiku, you should describe a moment of time that’s related to the power of nature. Traditional Japanese haiku are supposed to include a kigo, which is a seasonal reference.

Many haiku also juxtapose two distinct images, such as a small cricket with a large mountain or a laughing child with a bitter storm.

Ultimately, you can also use the form to write about anything that resonates with you, the same way you would use any other poetic form. You can write a haiku about love, death, parenthood, corporate office culture, or any other theme you care about.

The rules of haiku format vary between languages, since each language has distinct grammar, punctuation, and formatting conventions. There are some aspects of Japanese haiku format that don’t apply to English haiku format.

For example, traditional Japanese haiku include at least one kireji, which means “cutting word.” The purpose of a kireji is to make a “cut” in a sentence, which cements the end of a stream of thought or creates a pause between two separate ideas.

There’s no exact equivalent to kireji in the English language, so the English haiku format doesn’t include this rule. If you want, you can try to replicate the effect of kireji by using a punctuation mark that creates a “cut” in a sentence, such as an exclamation point, an em dash, or an ellipsis.

Examples of Haiku

The best way to learn poetry is by reading masterful haiku examples so you can learn from the greats.

Four of the greatest haiku masters of all time are Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), Yosa Buson (1716–1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828), and Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902).

Let’s look at a few examples of Japanese haiku written by these four masters.

“The Old Pond” by Matsuo Bashō

An old silent pond…

A frog jumps into the pond—

Splash! Silence again.

You can clearly see the contrasting images in this haiku by Matsuo Bashō, which describes a moment in nature. The pond in the poem is silent and still, while the frog is full of motion.  

These two images are separated by the kireji, which are represented in the English translation by the ellipsis and the em dash.

One common interpretation of this poem is that Bashō is using the pond as a metaphor for the human mind. External stimuli, like the frog, can momentarily disrupt a mind at rest, but soon, the mind returns to its original state.

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“Calligraphy of Geese” by Yosa Buson

Calligraphy of geese

against the sky—

the moon seals it.

Yosa Buson was a painter as well as a poet. He often wrote poems that depicted striking visual imagery.

This poem paints a clear picture, showing geese flying on a moonlit night. The kireji, represented in English by an em dash, creates a pause in the poem that separates the “calligraphy” of the geese and the “seal” of the round moon.

“A World of Dew” by Kobayashi Issa

This world of dew,

is a world of dew,

and yet…and yet…

“A World of Dew” is one of Issa’s most famous poems. He wrote this poem a month after his young daughter passed away.

Dewdrops are often used in Japanese literature to represent the transience of human life, since dewdrops vanish when the sun comes up. With this simple poem, Issa creates a nuanced feeling about life and death using only a few words.

“Pain From Coughing” by Masaoka Shiki

Pain from coughing

the long night's lamp flame

small as a pea

Masaoka Shiki contracted tuberculosis in his twenties, which eventually took his life. He often wrote poems that depicted short sketches of his life, including poems that described his illness.

In this poem, you can see a moment in Shiki’s struggle with illness. His description of the dwindling lamp flame evokes the image of a light going out at the end of a life.

More recently, many haiku poets have also written modern haiku poems that are powerful and evocative.

Here are some examples of haiku written in English.

“In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound was an American poet and critic. His poem “In a Station of the Metro” is widely considered the first English haiku, even though it doesn’t follow the three-line structure of a standard haiku.

Like traditional haiku, this poem captures a single moment in time. It also juxtaposes two distinct images: human faces in a busy metro station and flower petals on a tree branch.

“The West Wind Whispered” by R.M. Hansard

The west wind whispered,

And touched the eyelids of spring:

Her eyes, Primroses.

This poem won the first British haiku competition in 1899.

It personifies the west wind, portraying it as something capable of whispering and touching. Hansard describes the arrival of spring in a way that gives nature agency.

“Picasso’s ‘Bust of Sylvette’” by Elizabeth Searle Lamb

Picasso’s Bust of Sylvette

not knowing it is a new year

smiles in the same old way

Elizabeth Searle Lamb was a 20th century poet. The prominent poet Father Raymond Roseliep called her “The First Lady of American Haiku.”

In this poem, she portrays the arrival of a new year by describing a sculpture that has smiled the same way across all the years because it’s carved in stone. The poem captures timelessness and change in a single stroke.

“Haiku [for you]” by Sonia Sanchez

love between us is

speech and breath. loving you is

a long river running.

Sonia Sanchez is an American poet, playwright, and professor who was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement.

In this haiku, Sanchez compares love to speech, breath, and a long river running. All three of these things are natural and simple, which makes the love she describes feel just as instinctive and effortless.

Use ProWritingAid’s Word Explorer to Create Your Own Haiku

Writing a haiku is all about choosing the right words to express exactly what you mean.

ProWritingAid’s Word Explorer gives you a wealth of words to choose from. It gives you all the word options a dictionary or thesaurus would, along with plenty of other insights into that word.

The tool can let you look at a word based on alliteration, rhyme, pronunciations, common phrases, collocations, and more. It’s a great way to make sure each of the words you choose is perfect in as many ways as possible.

So, if you’re trying to write a haiku and you can’t think of a word with the right syllable count for that line, try the Word Explorer to find a perfect replacement.

Conclusion on How to Write a Haiku

There you have it—a complete guide to how haiku poetry works and how you can write a haiku poem of your own.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.