Five Techniques for Writing Haiku

There are numerous ways one can write haiku, but the following are the five main techniques to start with.  I suggest practicing writing haiku with each technique, as well as experimenting, so that you can develop your own haiku writing style.

TECHNIQUE 1: WHAT-WHEN-WHERE

The What-When-Where Technique is the most basic one for writing haiku.  With this technique, all you have to do is provide simple information for each of the following questions: whatwhen, and where.  Then you organize the information based on the effect you want to create.

Consider, for example, this famous poem by Basho:

on a barren branch
a raven has settled –
autumn dusk

“On a barren branch” answers where,  “a raven has settled” answers what, and “autumn dusk” answers when.  Do not be fooled by the simplicity of this construction.  After all, it is not the organization of the lines, but their content that truly makes an impact.  If you are starting out writing haiku, I suggest using this technique extensively.

TECHNIQUE 2: JUXTAPOSITION

Another strong technique is to take two distinct images and put them together in the poem.  This is called the Juxtaposition Technique.  The purpose of the technique is to express a certain relationship between the two images that lead to a certain realization or understanding.

Accordingly, there are three types of relationships produced with the juxtaposition technique: similarity, contrast, and association.  With similarity, the two juxtaposed images express a sameness with each other.  For example, consider this poem by Buson:

misty grasses,
quiet waters:
it’s evening

Here, the “misty grasses” and the “quiet waters” play a similar, and reinforcing, role in contributing to the image of a calm, pleasant evening.

With contrast, the two images juxtaposed express a stark difference, producing a sense of irony.  For example, read this haiku by poet Yamaguchi Seishi:

summer grass:
the wheels of a locomotive
come to a stop

Here, we see the strong contrast between something natural (grass) and something unnatural (the locomotive).  The irony here is that although the poem is written in haiku form, which traditionally glorifies nature, the focus of the poem shifts from nature to machine, which detracts from the beauty of the grass.

Lastly, with association, one image relates to another in an unusual or enlightening way.  Take, for instance, this poem by Issa:

people scattered
the leaves too scattered
and spread

Issa here associates the scattered people with the scattered leaves, perhaps alluding to the scene of a grave-site, with an array of tombs, and leaves scattered and spread atop these sites.  Thus, the association provides the reader with a sense of desolation.

TECHNIQUE 3: UNFOLDING

The Unfolding Technique is one in which the action or event of the poem is gradually revealed throughout the poem.  For example, consider this poem by Buson:

on a temple bell,
sleeping –
a butterfly!

Though the image is simple (a butterfly sleeping on a bell), the gradual way the poem reveals the scene presents an air of mystery and delight.  The key to this method is to use vague details to describe the scene, details that point to something that is still to be seen.  Then, on the last line, you provide the missing piece of information.

TECHNIQUE 4: ZOOMING

Another simple, yet powerful way of writing haiku is the Zooming Technique.  With this technique, you can either start with a background and then gradually focus (zoom-in) on a particular element in the environment, or start with a particular element and gradually widen focus (zoom-out) onto the background.  For an example of zooming-in, look at this poem by Penny Harter:

in the meadow
the cow’s lips
wet with grass

Here the eye jumps from the meadow to the lips of the cow to the dew-wet grass on those lips.  Contrast this with an example of the zooming-out technique, a poem by Kaga no Chiyo:

things picked up
all start to move
low-tide beach

Looking at particular things, we then refocus on the area where we are, and then we re-focus onto the whole beach.  This reminds us of our sense of smallness in dealing with the forces of the universe.

Thus, with the zooming-in technique, we draw attention towards something that would otherwise be ignored, underscoring its individuality, whereas with the zooming-out technique, we draw attention to the vastness of the environment, highlighting its power.

TECHNIQUE 5: SKETCH FROM LIFE (SHASEI)

The Sketch from Life (Shasei) Technique is one used since the beginning of haiku, but was highly promoted by haiku poet and critic Masaoki Shiki.  The purpose of the technique is simply to describe the scene in as realistic terms as possible.  There are plenty of examples of the “sketch from life” poem, but one that I particularly enjoy is from African American writer Richard Wright:

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

The poem describes exactly what is going on in the scene.  And yet from this description, we can absorb the experience, the situation.  Use the sketch from life technique to describe those events or experience in life that really touch you.

10 thoughts on “Five Techniques for Writing Haiku

  1. aloha Mark. excellent techniques. i’m curious about your thoughts on a “sentence” broken into 3 lines as haiku.

    as i see it, we each eventually define haiku in our own way(s) (and that is up to each of us), this for me is always shifting and evolving too.

    my thoughts are (regarding my own haiku) that if it’s a sentence then it’s not haiku, even tho it’s beautiful and haiku-like—otherwise any sentence under 17 syllables can be (is) haiku when it’s broken into 3 lines (and possibly when other haiku criteria are met—but not necessarily). for me, a sentence does not fit with my thinking of haiku at this time.

    [i’m also aware and accepting that altho haiku in English is often broken into 3 lines it does not have to be in 3 lines to still be considered haiku. as i understand it one-line, two-line and even 4-(and sometimes 5)line haiku are valid haiku when other criteria are met which bring the words into being haiku.]

    this last haiku in T5, which is beautiful (and i like just as it is), catches me a little on this issue of sentence vs—or sentence as—haiku, because it seems to me that it’s a sentence broken into 3 lines. many sentences can be haiku like, is that what makes it haiku then—being haiku-like? what are your thoughts on sentence-as-haiku? thank you. aloha, Rick

    1. It’s really difficult to say. I imagine haiku as providing an image that itself must be completed by the reader’s imagination. A sentence, by its nature, expresses a complete idea or thought. Therefore, the two seem, for the most part, incompatible.

      However, I think with the Richard Wright poem, there is ambiguity in how to interpret it. Although it is a sentence, you could interpret it two ways. The first way is that the laughing boy is having fun holding out his hands and making them white with snow. The second way is that the laughing boy holds out his hand only until his hands are white; then he stops holding them out.

      The first interpretation implies continuous play. The second interpretation implies a stop. It is up to the reader to play with these options.

      I’m not sure what effect, for example, would changing the verb from “holds out” to “holding out” have on the poem. I think putting “holding out” may lean us towards the continuous play interpretation, since the present participle suggests incomplete action. By putting “holds out,” the ambiguity is more pronounced and perhaps disconcerting.

      Thus, I am inclined to agree with your rule that haiku and sentences do not go together; however, as with all art forms, rules are made to be broken, and I think the Richard Wright poem helps show us that. I think the point of the rules isn’t so much to define haiku, but simply provide a way for us to bring its form to life. If a rule is broken, and especially broken deliberately, then the poem still manages to bring the form to life for us.

      1. yes, i agree with you that any “rule” can be broken (or maybe almost any rule) and excellent haiku or work still be the result. in fact that’s one of the ways things evolve, rule breaking. fun on that.

        again, yes, on the sentence and complete idea or thought vs the open movement toward completion in haiku by the reader.

        that’s an interesting shift—holds out to holding out. altho it makes for a lot of ing words in the haiku, one in each line. and still it works. altho i might feel it’s a little heavy on the ings.

        the idea that haiku is completed in the mind of the reader (or experiencer) appeals to me a lot. i think that is one of the hallmarks of excellent haiku. allowing the reader to complete it in their own way without telling the reader how to do so is a fascinating aspect of haiku (imo).

        i try to go after clarity in haiku rather than ambiguity. i’d say clarity is important, although it is not necessarily a clarity that allows for only one interpretation. a haiku that allows each reader to come to their own understanding (in fact, many understandings and new ones on each reading) is also an excellent trait in good haiku (again imo). so in that sense i prefer the clarity of many possibilities to ambiguity. which i think you are saying, yes?—there are alternate choices the reader can make. any of which are valid.

        i’ve also struggled with calling these things “rules” because they seem to be guides to follow more than something as concrete as a rule. in fact there are so many of these that it becomes a choice as to which to follow. it’s up to the individual as to which to pay attention to in any one haiku. . . . in some cases there are rules that are each valid and yet it’s impossible to follow both in the same haiku.

        yes, i think the Richard Wright haiku works as haiku too. which is why i was interested in your thoughts on this sentence issue. i appreciate your time to respond in this way. i like thinking about haiku in this way and then of course forgetting it when i write and just try to allow haiku to happen until it feels right to me. or maybe pushes my edges a little sometimes too.

        thank you again for your time and response. i appreciate this kind of dialogue. aloha.

  2. Hi Mark, thank you for using my haiku on your blog it has given me encouragement and also through especially looking at this techniques page I feel as though my haiku are quickly improving.
    I was wondering if I could ask your opinion on a couple of issues, firstly capitalisation. I notice that the majority of haiku you use as examples have none at all and also your haiku don’t feature any capitalisation. Although in one of the Basho haikus Nightingale has a capital N, which is more the line that I’ve been going down and only using them for the things that I think need it like animals, seasons. Do you think this is best left to personal choice or are there some definite directions that should be followed.
    The other point is a bit of a strange one and it concerns the naming of months, which I’ve only started to think about recently and which I can’t really recall being used in any haiku that I can think of. To me I see it as a useful tool for immediately putting things into the context of a season or time of year. Is there any guidelines to this or is it one of those frowned upon techniques by purists.
    I do have numerous other points but I’ll leave it there for now or else I’ll just go rambling on forever. Any thoughts you have on these two issues would be greatly appreciated, many thanks.
    Mark

    1. When it comes to capitalization, I don’t think it really matters. I’ve read many haiku that capitalize the first letter, and others that don’t. I’d say it’s up to your preference.

      As for the use of months, you are right that you don’t see a lot of haiku mention it. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever read a haiku that mentions it.

      That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t. If you can pull it off, I’d love to read it. As far as I know, it doesn’t break any rules.

      Keep the questions coming if you have anymore.

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