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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  How to write a haiku
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How to write a haiku

Penning the 17-syllable poems in Japanese comes with a set of rigid rules, but one can be fairly liberal with style when attempting it in English

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Haiku are fun and easy to write. Of course, the better you get, the more effort and time (and sweat) you will devote to making them not just functional, but beautiful. Here are some rules for writing your own haiku.

Keep in mind that most of these rules are guidelines, and that the haiku that I wrote for Bob Dylan: Haiku 61 Revisited violate nearly all of these rules. Some people would argue that I, in fact, wrote “senryu" (a more satirical short form of Japanese poetry) and not “haiku", but every discipline has its conservative and liberal practitioners. I’m firmly with the liberals.

Also keep in mind that the rules tend to be more strict for haiku written in Japanese than in English or other languages, for which these rules were never intended.

Write three short lines.

Five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third. (Japanese haiku typically use 17 “sounds". If you look online, you can find explanations of why a sound and a syllable might differ in Japanese. Even stranger, many haiku experts say that 11 syllables in English provides a similar rhythm to the 17 sounds in Japanese. Do what you want and remember to have fun.)

Edit superfluous words—and, or, a, an and the are not always necessarily. Keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum or eliminate them.

The topic typically is nature. There is a large but finite list of words in Japanese that you are supposed to use. I encourage you to use words and images from the seasons in your own home or wherever you live.

Rhymes, similes, metaphors and other typical devices of Western and Indian poetry are unnecessary and distracting. Be straightforward. The idea is that you get the meaning you are looking for by writing directly about a literal place, a literal action and a literal time of year. If the reader draws something more abstract from the haiku, so be it.

There often is a “cutting word" or a break in the middle of Japanese haiku. There’s no direct equivalent in English, but you often will see dashes, colons, ellipses and the like. They can’t approximate the Japanese sounds of these cutting words, but they are close enough for jazz. You are cutting the haiku in half, giving the first half some independence from the second, even though both halves are bound. Often, there is a small idea in one half, and a big idea in the other, and the second half reflects and illuminates the first. Don’t let this get in the way of writing your haiku!

Here are sample haiku based on my days spent in India. They are not particularly special, but I thought they might make an effective starter kit.

Storm in Delhi

Puppies whine, mother

Growls at the aandhi—too dark

For her to see!

Rongali Bihu

Fires on the mountain

Dancing and sweets: Rongali bihu...

Our fields are ready.

Noida street

Don’t gore me, bullock.

I’m just walking by while you

Nibble the hedges.


Monsoon winds blow in

My room. Go to bed dry, wake

Up soaked to the skin.

Mango season

Ilish swim to sweet

Water. When mango season

Comes, so do people.

Chiku time

No more chilly nights

In Delhi. I see chiku

On the fruit wagons.

Winter in Delhi

Smoke gets in your eyes

While stray dogs—in sweaters!—wait

To cross Tolstoy Marg.

And here are some haiku by undisputed masters of the form:

By Kaga no Chiyo

The morning glory!

It has taken the well bucket,

I must seek elsewhere for water.


my fishing line—

the summer moon.

By Basho

An old pond

A frog jumps in—


The first day of the year:

thoughts come—and there is loneliness;

the autumn dusk is here.

By Richard Wright

You moths must leave now;

I am turning out the light

And going to sleep.

All right, You Sparrows;

The sun has set and you can now

Stop your chattering!

By Kobayashi Issa

Winter seclusion—

Listening, that evening,

To the rain in the mountain.

By Masaoka Shiki

Consider me

As one who loved poetry

And persimmons.

Robert MacMillan is’s editor of global editions. He has worked at the news agency for more than nine years as a reporter and editor. He previously worked at The Washington Post as a website reporter and editor. He lives in New York City.

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Published: 06 Jun 2015, 11:40 PM IST
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