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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Haiku: what works and what does not

Writing haiku looks easy, so most poets eventually try this ancient form of syllabic verse. However, haiku has more to it than snapping 17 crisp syllables into three fresh lines of 5/ 7/ 5 syllables.

To recap:

Haiku draws from nature, including human nature.
Haiku almost always includes a word or a symbol for one of the four seasons.
Haiku usually presents an insight and/or an experience.
Haiku often has a dash of emotion or quick brush with humor.

As you write haiku, think of Asian art or lines lightly drawn to sketch a scene with a minimal amount of ink.

Also consider these dos and don’ts as you revise:

Omit end-line rhymes.

Tighten each line by removing articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, of, for) and conjunctions (and, but, or) whenever possible.

If you use those “business words” to be clear, do not end a line with them.

Think of haiku as a word game poets play and/ or a good exercise for using your poetic muscles to press content into a tightly compressed form.

If your poem packs too much into the small space, consider another form to say what you want to say without being cramped.

Sometimes, the tiny space will help you find The Word or image you might not have looked for if you’d had more room.

Remember: the Japanese language that developed haiku does not have syllables, but a shorter sound or onji, which translates closer to 4/ 6/ 4 English syllables than the 5/ 7/ 5 usually used. So experiment. Play! Have fun!


For more on this syllabic verse form, see the posting “How to write haiku.”

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler


  1. Thanks for the helpful tips, Mary!

  2. Haiku Journal just published 2 of my poems in Issue 2! To find both, scroll down the page - http://haikujournal.org/e-issues/