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What Is the Format for Haiku?

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  • Written By: Christian Petersen
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Haiku is a form of poetry that originated in medieval Japan, where it is much revered. Its basic format is relatively simple and consists of a non-rhyming three line poem of 17 syllables, with five in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. Haiku in Japanese must have a total of 17 on, which roughly correspond to English syllables but with some differences. This means that a haiku of 17 on may not total 17 syllables as spoken. This arrangement of syllables in an English haiku is really the only hard and fast rule, although many other traditional rules are often observed by haiku poets.

This Japanese art form usually deals with some aspect of nature, particularly the seasons and attempts to evoke a particular feeling or emotion in the reader. The author often tries to create this atmosphere and call to mind a particular season without actually naming it. Animals, flowers, insects, landscape elements, and natural phenomena are common in haiku and are often portrayed anthropomorphically or given some human quality or emotion. Most haiku are written with simple words and phrase structure.

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The three lines of haiku are often divided into two parts, called the fragment and the phrase. The fragment is so termed because it is a fragment of a sentence, while the phrase is a more complete thought. The fragment is usually placed in the first line or the third line. This arrangement and the natural pause that occurs between the two when the poem is read or spoken can give a haiku much of its character. Haiku of three fragments are often criticized as choppy but this is merely an opinion, and a haiku so constructed is in no way technically incorrect.

In Japanese haiku, a special word, called a kireji, is often used to emphatically separate the phrase and the fragment. This produces a pause between the two parts. In English haiku, punctuation such as a dash or comma is sometimes used, although this practice is falling out of favor with modern haiku poets.

Poets who are masters of haiku are able to evoke powerful feelings or images with a few words, often relying on words that call forth a memory of a particular sense, especially smells, sights, and sounds. Simile and metaphor are often employed in haiku as well, in a subtle and sparing way. A haiku will rarely contain more than one simile or metaphor and, when used, the subjects are generally sympathetic rather than very different. This means that the comparison does not require a stretch of the imagination and that one thing easily calls to mind the other.

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