How to Write a Haiku

by Bruce Lansky

Haiku poetry is a very short, centuries-old form of Japanese poetry that is an intriguing change of pace from the kind of rhythmic, rhyming poetry your students are used to reading.

Haiku is like a photo that captures the essence of what's happening--often connecting two seemingly unrelated things.

Snow melts.
Suddenly, the village
is full of children.

(Written by Issa. Translated by Bruce Lansky. Copyright 1999 by Bruce Lansky, reprinted with his permission)

Frog sunning on lily pad
as dragonfly darts by.

(By Bruce Lansky. Copyright 1999 by Bruce Lansky, reprinted with his permission)

Although traditional haiku are often about nature or the changing seasons, they nonetheless manage to convey emotion. With just a few words, they call attention to an observation and in effect say, "Look at this" or, "Think about this," If they're well written, we can't help but do just that. The haiku calls the reader's attention to the story behind the observation.

Traditional Japanese haiku had a total of seventeen syllables divided into three clumps (or lines):

five syllables
seven syllables
five syllables

Some teachers think children should be taught to write haiku which conform to these rigid specifications. I disagree. The essence of haiku is the way it describes natural phenomena in the fewest number of words, making an indelible impression on the reader. That artistic effect, to me, is much more important than the number of syllables used.

I think the best stimuli for writing haiku are nature hikes, nature photography, or art. Try this: Tell your students to write down what they see when they go outside for recess (or what they see when they go for a walk in the woods over the weekend). Have them write down their observations (or better yet, record their observations with a camera). List your students' observations on the board. Depending on the season, you might get:

Observations of Nature:

leaves blowing in the wind
snow piling up on unused doors
ducks swimming in a pond during a rainstorm
the first buds in a tree in a backyard
the first daffodil poking it's head up through the dirt
hungry bees buzzing around a flower garden

Ask them to describe what they saw using as few words as possible. You might get something like this.

After it started to rain, fishermen steered their boats toward shore. Then, I saw a family of ducks waddle over to the lake and swim across.

OK, now you have to encourage your student to pare this down so it still describes the scene, while inviting the reader to marvel at nature. How's this?

Sudden spring storm--
a family of ducks paddles
around the deserted lake.

(Copyright 1999 by Bruce Lansky, reprinted with his permission)

I think that haiku poetry is a lot closer to photography or painting than it is to the kind of humorous poetry I most often write. It teaches the power of observation and the importance of editing. You know you've done a good job of editing when the version with the fewest words makes the strongest impression.

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