How to Write a Haiku

Haiku is a traditional form of short poetry that originated in Japan. In Japanese, haikus consist of 17 moras, 5 on the first line, 7 on the second line, and 5 on the third line. A mora is a sound unit similar to a syllable, but it can be smaller. For example, the word Tōkyō has 2 syllables in English but 4 moras in Japanese:

In English, haikus are written according to the syllable system:

five syllables first,
seven syllables second,
five syllables last.

Because syllables may be larger than moras, haikus written in English tend to be longer than haikus written in Japanese.

Early Japanese poets often used the haiku form to write pithy verses on nature, and man's relation to nature. The poems contained a reference to the season and presented two contrasting ideas, or an unexpected observation. Later poets used the haiku form to write on a wider array of topics and observations, and many poets today do not adhere to the 5-7-5 pattern. Some people call these looser poems "pseudo-haiku" to distinguish them from traditional haikus.

A Japanese poetic form that is similar to the haiku is the tanka. A tanka poem consists of 5 lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern; the subject matter is not limited to nature. The tanka form is much older than the haiku, yet the haiku is more renowned in modern literature.

Examples of traditional nature haikus and pseudo-haikus written in English:

A fallen flower
returning to the branch--no,
it's a butterfly.

No heaven above
nor earth below us--yet still
the snowflakes descend.

I sound the alarm!
The mailman comes to kill us--
look look look look look!

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