Whenever I encounter haiku in the Western world, the given definition is always along the lines of unrhymed three-line poem with seventeen syllables (written in a 5-7-5 syllable count), often about nature. Sometimes the theme is omitted. In reality there is much more than that to this traditional Japanese form of poetry. I’ll try to avoid boring you with its history and write mainly about the main principles one should follow when writing haiku.
There are only two points in history I’d like to mention. The first is haiku becoming an independent form. Haiku originated from renga poems, in which two or more poets take turns writing haiku — odd stanzas — and 7-7 syllable (More on syllables in a little bit.) verses — even stanzas. Take a look at one of the most famous renga, Three Poets at Minase, headed by Sōgi, one of the leading renga authors; the translator’s commentary is worth a read too, if you have the time and a bit of curiosity. The opening haiku in these poems set the theme and convey the atmosphere to the audience. While important, it was still just the introduction to a poem of two or a couple thousand stanzas. Renga effectively perished when liberal artists started using to entertain the public using crude language and immoral motifs.
The second point is actually a line — the life of Masaoka Shiki. Not only is he one of the aforementioned haiku masters, but he is also said to have coined the term itself. When haiku degenerated into vulgar poems to humor the masses, he called for its reform and return to a sophisticated art form. He penned several serials on haiku’s position in the literary world for a journal he worked with for most of his adult life, Nippon.
In taking the italicized definition above apart, I’ll start with the condition of three lines. Haiku were originally written in a single vertical line. Today it’s divided into three differently indented pieces as you can see on the photo to the right. (The fourth line is probably the calligraphy student’s signature and seal. I admit I don’t know.) The original form would look like the photo’s caption, no spaces or punctuation, only vertical. If you’ve at least glanced at the Three Poets at Minase link earlier you might have noticed that the original is not interrupted by spaces or line breaks, as opposed to the translation.
Have you ever taken interest in Japanese? Then you’ll know that the alphabet is actually a syllabary — the simplified definition is “a set of written characters representing syllables”. So while us, Westerners, say 5-7-5 syllables, the Japanese mean 5-7-5 phonetic units of their syllabary. I don’t want to get into Japanese writing systems (at least not today), so if you’re confused, please follow the Wikipedia link.
As for the organic themes in haiku, those are expressed by kigo, 季語 literally season words. Every season can be characterized by certain imagery. For example sakura blossoms or frogs symbolize spring, a waterfall summer, mist autumn and hot rice porridge (congee) winter. There are extensive, but finite, lists of kigo.
What didn’t make it into our definition are kireji, probably because they have no English equivalent. Literally cutting words, they make you pause and pay attention to the parts they emphasize. Since haiku are so short, they need kireji to carry additional information which couldn’t fit into the limited 17 “syllables” — abstracts such as feeling of assertion or high probability. (Quick note: Japanese often hides many meaning and nuances. Do you remember Kill La Kill? Read up on the multiple meanings in just the title of this anime on Charles Dunbar’s blog Study of Anime. Once again the whole article is worth a read.)
It may seem that haiku poets are bound by countless rules, but nowadays those constraints are loosening. Even the 17 “syllable” rule, oft-cited by Westerners, isn’t as strictly observed. A special case are haiku written in languages other than Japanese, like English. Let me part with a haiku by one of my favorite writers.
in the dark
— Jack Kerouac