How to write a haiku

Illustration of haiku written in copperplate-style calligraphy

Haiku are compact, self-sufficient and thoughtful 'mini-poems' in three parts. Here's how to write a haiku of your own – for your personal enjoyment, for others to read, or for copying out in beautiful script.

How to write a haiku in English

In English, the haiku has several characteristics which you might want to bear in mind:

• It's always three lines long, indicating the three sections or phases of a traditional Japanese haiku.
• Usually, an English haiku has five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third, following the Japanese requirement of seventeen 'mora' or short syllable-units per haiku. (Japanese syllables do not divide up the same as English syllables. A 'mora' is a specially defined short sound. The nearest equivalent in English is a syllable. There is more about this under 'haiku' at Wikipedia if you're interested.) 
• Often, following the Japanese tradition, haiku contain a word which refers to or symbolises a season. In Japanese, this word is called a kigo. There's no reason you need to know that. I just think it's lovely that any language should have a special word for 'a poetic word indicating a season'.
• Often, again following the traditional Japanese rules for how to write haiku, a special 'cutting' word is included which acts as a pause or break at the end of a line – in English, this can be shown by punctuation such as a full stop, semi-colon, dash or ellipsis (...). 

Haiku originated in Japan. They subsequently also became popular in translation; they're very satisfying to write. Today, many new 'haiku' have been inspired in languages other than Japanese. Modern Japanese haiku and non-Japanese haiku often bend the original rules but these poems are still nearly always made up of three short lines. They are therefore often quite terse, usually carrying a deeper meaning that emerges after a little thought. For me, this is definitely what makes haiku so likeable.

Here's a translation of one of the most familiar Japanese haiku by the master, Bashô. It's called 'Old Pond'.

Old pond ...
A frog jumps in
Sound of water

Because this is a translation, the syllables don't work out. In the original, there are seventeen mora or short Japanese syllables. But seventeen syllables are not absolutely necessary; once you know the basic rules of how to write a haiku, feel free to bend them.

You can see the three phases in the above poem quite easily. They are: line one, the presence of the pond; line two, the frog's leap; and, in line three, the result: a splash, and movement.

The reference to the season in the above example is the frog, signifying spring. (Not obvious in English because we don't especially associate frogs with a season; but in Japan, the emergence of frogs means spring has arrived.)

Finally, in the Japanese original, Bashô used a 'cutting word' at the end of the first line to indicate a kind of break or turn in the poem at that point. In English this is translated using three dots to create a pause.

Here's another example, composed in English this time, for calligraphers. I don't pretend that this is a particularly superior example of how to write a haiku in English. It's just an example :-)

Ready with pen-knife
Quietly stalking fat geese:
Hurry up and moult!

Here, the pause is at the end of the second line. The reference to the season is in the moulting. The three phases of the poem are: line one, the arming; line two, the pursuit; and in line three – contrary to any expectation of a gory climax – a private thought about having to wait for a feather to fall in order to make a quill-pen.

How to write a haiku in calligraphy: layout

In Japanese, haiku are written all in one vertical line, often in beautiful brush calligraphy. In English, haiku lend themselves to an elegant layout a little above the centre of the page, with the lines evenly balanced, one directly above the next (rather than 'left-justified').

To achieve this, it will help not just to count the words but each character, punctuation mark and the spaces between words. Draw a faint pencil line down the middle of your draft page, count, and so work out which letter should fall on that centre-line. You can then calculate where to start and end your lines so that they are centred.

Some letters are naturally wider or narrower than others – depending also on the script you decide to use. You may wish to allow for this while calculating how to write a haiku out which will be exactly centred on the page. For example, in most scripts, the letters 'm' and 'w' and capital letters are wider than others, so I allow them 1.5 in my counting where average letters count for 1. In the same way, the letters 'i' and 'l' and many punctuation marks are very narrow, so I allow them 0.5 instead of 1.

How to write a haiku centred: using word-processing software

Another easy (if rough) way to estimate the line width is by using a word-processing program. Type out the haiku quite large – for example, in 20-point – in a font such as Times New Roman or Verdana which allows different sized spaces for different widths of letter (so do not use Courier or similar).

Then, centre-justify the haiku – you can short-cut in Word and similar programs by pressing Ctrl-A and then Ctrl-E. Print the page out, measure half-way across it and draw a straight line exactly down the centre of the page. This will give you a fair idea of which is the middle letter in each line of the haiku, and where to start and end each line.

Bear in mind that your writing may well be larger than the 20-point font and so you may need to allow a wider space on each side of the centre line to fit the letters in.

How to write a haiku in calligraphy: which script?

Haiku, being rather elegant and restrained, don't lend themselves readily to scripts such as Gothic or curly roundhand which are flamboyant or highly ornamented throughout. Look for a script which overall has a clean, clear appearance and perhaps overtones of a calm or contemplative life. If you can then add a few flourishes around the text, so much the better!

Uncial is very suitable for haiku; so is a confident roundhand. Copperplate, too, as in the example above, brings an air of calm dignity to its texts.
Roman capitals or rustic capitals might seem a little assertive but they look wonderful in small quantities, so why not? Italics usually look better when there is more text -- but it's always worth experimenting. If the haiku is upbeat or a little humorous, as in the goose example above, you could even use some cheerful versals.

Last rule for how to write a haiku out successfully: always do a trial run on a piece of practice paper first, using the same nib or brush that you'll use for the final piece.

If you like composing your own poetry, how about sonnets or free verse? Here's more on how to write a poem.

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