The Haiku Manual

For those who’ve ever wondered about the mechanics behind how I write my haikus, here’s my manual of style.

Haikus were originally an expression of zen philosophy, so they had a particular set up outside of the syllable count.

Traditionally, haikus are written in the syllable form of 5-7-5.

This can be restrictive at times, given the differences between English and Japanese.

I allow myself more flexibility by expanding my syllable options without doing it away with altogether. My accepted formats are, 5-7-5, 5-6-7 and 6-6-6, but what I’ll frequently do with the 5-7-5 and 5-6-7 is mix up the order, so it may be 5-7-6, 7-6-5, or 5-5-7.

The first line sets up the scene, and in Japanese haikus invoke a season word called a kigo. So many times, in lieu of just a scene setter for the first line, a season can be evoked to impart a particular mood to the rest of the poem.

The second line is the moment. When an action has occurred in that setting. I equate this to the act in photography of trying to catch the decisive moment. Whenever you watch a scene, there’s always an ebb and flow. You look becomes something is about to happen, and you try to catch the haiku right when “something” has happened. This is also in line with Buddhist philosophy, regarding the zen of the moment, and haikus as an expression of zen in writing.

The third line is the enlightenment. A realization that takes place because of that moment that has changed your understanding of life. Basically every poem needs a point, or else its a collection of words.

The other rules that I’ve come to adopt (sporadically) is that haikus are meant to be pure expressions of zen moments without the floweriness of other poetry. It’s meant to be an anti-poem. The best haiku will let the moment explain itself, rather than have you describe your feelings on it. The tight syllable count requires you to stay simple, so a good haiku will have a preference for words of anglo-saxon origin over the latin.

Obviously these rules are subject to variation, but these are the rules I strive for, and I hope they give you the reader more of an idea of what I look for in my haikus.

March 21, 2009