Reading: Intro to Haiku

Posted: reading

Talking about Intro to Haiku by Harold Henderson.

The 17 syllable (5-7-5) structure of Japanese haiku doesn't necessarily translate well into English, so Henderson prefers English haiku in the realm of 12-15. There are a few interesting reasons for this difference:

  • There are no articles (the, a, an, etc.) and very few pronouns in Japanese.
  • Punctuation is replaced by cut-words that have no translatable meaning but increase syllable count.
  • Different grammar rules contribute to a very different sentence structure.

That said, even with a shorter syllable count, short-long-short is still the recommended structure for haiku. The general guidelines for writing haiku are as follows.

  • Follow a short-long-short rhythm with fewer than 17 syllables (often 12-15).
  • Include a single break in meaning that compares two adjacent, though dissimilar ideas.
  • Reflect on nature or one of the four seasons.
  • Try to share an experience of awareness with the reader.

Selected poems

(translations by Harold Henderson)


On a journey, ill,
  and over fields all withered,
    dreams go wandering still.
A lightning gleam:
  into darkness travels
    a night heron’s scream.


A new year starting, but—
  it’s still just as it stands here,
    this ramshackle hut!


The mists come;
  the mountains fade and vanish;
    the tower stands alone.
Night; and once again,
  the while I wait for you,
    cold wind turns into rain.
Icy the moonshine:
  shadow of a tombstone,
    shadow of a pine.