On April 25 I attended a hands-on haiku workshop held at the University of Washington as part of the Writer’s Block Literary Festival.  (Thanks for the invite, Will!)  Renowned poet Michael Dylan Welch promised to uncover the myths about haikus — no, they don’t actually need to be written in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern — and teach anybody who would listen the essentials or ‘targets’ of haiku poetry.

At the workshop, Welch shared his checklist of targets to aim for when writing haikus.  (And, below, I share it with you.)  Bottom line:  It’s OK, if you don’t hit every single target when writing your haiku.  Because that’s what they are — targets. (However, some are more important than others if you’re trying to pen a more traditional haiku.  I’ll star them, so you’ll know.)

“Write your haiku first, ” Welch said.  “For haiku inspiration, look closely at everything around you in nature, at home, at school and at work.  Let yourself be free and creative.”

Then, and only then, should you ask yourself if you hit any of the haiku-writing targets in order to improve your poem.

1. Length:  How long is your haiku?

“It’s usually good to write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables,” Welch said.

Traditional Japanese haikus are written in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, where the first line contains five syllables, the second, seven, and the last line five again.  But syllables don’t translate well from Japanese to English — the Japanese pronounce every sound in a word seperately, with it’s own syllable — so the American equivalent of a Japanese haiku has about 10-14 syllables.

“Depending on who you talk to, some even think a haiku of 10 English syllables is too long,” Welch said.

2. Seasonality*:  Does your haiku name or suggest one of the seasons — spring, summer, fall or winter?

“In Japanese, a kigo or ‘season word’ tells readers when the poem happens, such as saying ‘tulips’ for spring or ‘snow’ for winter,” Welch said.

3. Juxtaposition*:  Does your poem have two parts?

A majority of haiku poetry will present something and then say something about it in one of two ways:  1) First there’s a setting and then there’s a focus, or 2) First there’s a focus and then the setting.

“In Japanese, a kireji or ‘cutting word’ usually cuts the poem into two parts,” Welch said.


A bitter morning:

sparrows sitting together

without any necks

-James W. Hackett

In Hackett’s poem, the bitter morning is the ‘something’ or the focus of the poem.  The image of sparrows sitting together without any necks is the ‘something about it’ or the setting of the poem.

4. Senses*: Did you describe the experiences of everyday events through your five senses?

Paint a picture for your readers using objective sensory details:  What did you see, smell, taste, hear and feel?

The keyword here is ‘objective.’  It’s important to stay objective when writing haikus because, essentially, haikus are unfinished poems.  They require readers to interpret and add to the poem by drawing from their own feelings and experiences.

5. Feelings:  Does your poem give readers a  feeling?

Show readers a feeling rather than tell them about it.

“Don’t write about your feelings — write about what caused your feelings,” Welch said.  “So others can feel what you feel, don’t explain what you describe.”

6.  Tense:  Is your poem in the present tense?

A majority of haiku poetry is written about specific moments, either static or dynamic, in the present tense.

7. Experiences:  Did you write from personal experience?

“When you write other kinds of poetry, you can make things up, but try not to do that with haiku,” Welch said.  But memories are fine.  (My favorite for writing haikus!)

8. Avoidances:  Did you avoid turning your haiku into another run-of-the-mill poem?

Haikus are essentially fragments, so there’s no need to punctuate, capitalize or write full sentences.  They don’t have titles and they rarely rhyme.  Rhyming and alliteration can distract readers from the essence of the poem, Welch said.

A good haiku will generally hit at least half of these targets.  Should you happen to write a poem that doesn’t use a majority of these poem-writing techniques, don’t throw it away just yet.  Remember, these targets are more like guidelines than actual rules.  You can always call it a senryu, or an alternative to the traditional haiku.

Welch is the coordinator of Haiku Northwest, a group for poets from the greater Puget Sound area dedicated to writing, studying and appreciating haiku poetry.  For more information about Haiku Northwest, visit the group Web site at http://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest or e-mail questions to Welch at welchm@aol.com.

Suggested reading:  The Haiku Anthology, edited by Cor van den Heuvel, W. W. Norton, 1999.