Haiku is a very short poem form invented in Japan. They are snapshots in poetry, and the goal of the haiku writer is to communicate the essence of a specific moment in time.

Study abroad is a constant barrage of sensory experiences…so many that it becomes very difficult to pick any of them out. Haiku makes this easy because you simply don’t have room to pack everything you want to say in them. You have to say as much as you can with what you have. One photograph. One poem.

In Japanesese, Haiku are written in three lines, with a syllabic pattern of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables. Though Japanese in origin, haiku has become a global form of poetry. Writers of haiku in other languages don’t always follow the 5-7-5 meter, but they all try to stay true to the aesthetic.

Haiku are very condensed, keenly observed poems about a specific instant of time observed by the writer. They are often are about little details rather than grand themes.

Around 700AD, the famous Japanese poet Basho announced “The old poetry can be about willows; Haiku requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.” The imagery he is suggesting is brutally direct and totally specific. Yet the specificity allows the writer to make powerful associations. Here’s Basho:

Summer grasses 
all that remains 
of soldiers dreams.

Basho’s training in Buddhism had taught him that suffering (and ugliness) was a central part of existence, and that happiness cannot exist without sadness. So haiku draws on all sorts of observation, whether they are “beautiful” or not. Basho wrote this haiku:

Come, see the real
of this painful world

Deep, huh? But Haiku can also be light (a sense called karumi). Here’s a haiku by Issa.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

And by Basho:

Year after year
On the monkey face
A monkey face.

Haiku often have a turn in them when the initial meaning is subverted. Here’s a good example from Issa:

 The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

See how the ending subverts where you think the first two lines are going? Pretty wild for a short, three line poem. Even complicated emotional states can be represented by haiku. Here’s Basho:

Even in Kyoto 
hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto.

Writing haiku is fun and addictive. Start by watching the world around you, pick out a little detail, and try to write a haiku about it. It’s sometimes good to write your three lines, and then count out the syllables. Then you can tweak them to fit the form. Or forget the syllables, and concentrate instead on sharpening your eye for detail. Here’s one I wrote this morning on the walk to work, while I was thinking about this haiku project

Earthworms on sidewalks
move like fish out of water
in the water


The road forks two ways
Zora turns toward the school
Thinking of haiku

Go out and…watch. Look for details. Take notes. Make a snapshot of a moment in time. Haiku are a great little record of a single moment that will never come again.