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: what, when, 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 –
“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:
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:
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:
the leaves too scattered
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,
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
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.