How to Write Killer Haiku

Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

Note: This essay originally appeared on Medium. I have republished it here with a few minor changes.

Haiku is a deceptively simple art form. A single poem is just 17-syllables long. In the original Japanese, a haiku could be whispered in a single breath.

How hard could it be to write a great haiku?

Pretty damn hard.

The compact form forces you to be economical with your language. You cannot dilly-dally like you can in prose with extravagant descriptions. Haiku are about precision.

The strict limits of haiku force you to be clever, clear, and concise. When executed correctly, a haiku becomes a stunning orange butterfly in the summer twilight — both transient and indelible.

Anyone who believes it is easy to write a haiku has probably never written a good one—they certainly have never written a great one.

What do I know about haiku?

I’ve spent the better part of the last four years writing haiku almost every day. I have a spreadsheet of thousands of haiku. Some of them are good; many of them are awful. I’m always working on writing better haiku.

I have published a book of over 400 haiku, and I am in the process of publishing a second book of haiku. I publish a haiku-heavy zine each month. I read dozens of haiku every day.

It is not just my favorite form of poetry—the haiku is also my favorite form of storytelling.

I’m a haiku maniac. I believe you can write a great haiku about anything. It doesn’t have to be about hummingbirds or waterfalls. I’ve written about pirates, serial killers, aliens, time travel, and a bunch of other weird stuff. But haiku can also be hummingbirds and waterfalls if that’s what moves you.

Here are five tips and techniques I’ve picked up for writing better haiku.

Write for the Reader

Of all the different types of literature, poetry tends to be the most masturbatory. Poets become obsessed with writing their true feelings. But poems that are birthed from the unfiltered ego of the poet are opaque and dull.

The best haiku are written for a reader. The true art of haiku is finding something universal in a personal experience or something personal in a universal experience.

If you want readers to connect with your work, you can’t make it all about you. That doesn’t mean you should write for everyone — you just need to write for someone.

Learning how to step outside of your own perception makes you a better writer and a more interesting poet.

Create Rules for Yourself

We often think that creativity is all about freedom. However, we are at our most creative when rules or limits constrain us. Limits force us to stretch in uncomfortable ways. With English language haiku, many poets ignore the 17-syllable construction because it does not accurately reflect the way haiku work in Japanese. Instead, these poets focus on the concept of a poem spoken in a single breath.

I choose to use the 17-syllable limit because I have no idea what a poem spoken in a single breath means. It’s too open-ended for me. By limiting myself to 17-syllables in the 5–7–5 pattern, I am forced to get creative with my word choice, my story structure, and my message.

You may find different limits work better for you. It doesn’t matter what rules you set for yourself, that is the beauty of poetry. All that matters is that you have some rules.

In a poem this compact, a single word choice, or even a single punctuation mark can change everythingTake this poem:

The moment we met

I was afraid you just felt

Sexual tension

I originally wrote it this way:

The moment we met

I was afraid—you just felt

Sexual tension

The em dash changes the entire tone of the poem. I decided to remove the em dash in the final version because in this instance I preferred the ambiguity. It is the limits of the haiku that gives poets room to be creative. Every syllable matters. Every punctuation mark matters. Everything matters in a way it never can in prose.

Write About Moments

Haiku are for small stories. The most profound haiku are about momentsThey are about the beating of the wings of the falcon, the cloud drifting in front of the moon, or the primal fear of seeing a strange shadow in a house you thought was empty.

If you can break a story or idea down into a single stirring moment, you will have created something beautiful.

When a haiku fails, it is usually because it is trying to do too much.

Leave Something Unsaid

The best writing advice I’ve ever received was from my high school drama teacher. He was talking about improv, but it applies perfectly to haiku. He said, “Always leaving them wanting more, instead of wishing they had less.”

Allow the reader to make some inferences about how the moment ends. Give them the freedom to fill in the details around the event. Don’t waste your precious space trying to say everything. Instead, focus on your artistry and trust your reader to write the rest of the story.

You will create a stronger bond with your reader when you trust them with everything you left unsaid.

Rewrite and Let Go

We all want our work to be perfect. You can drive yourself to despair if you’re not careful. Let your haiku sit for a few days after your first draft. When you revisit them, you will likely find you want to make a few tweaks.

Go ahead and rewrite your haiku. Then let them go into the world. What’s the point of being a writer if you never share your gift with anyone?

Even Emily Dickinson showed some of her poems to a few close friends.

Don’t agonize over a few syllables for days or weeks. Write your haiku and release them into the world to live lives of their own.

Once you’ve released your haiku, it’s time to begin crafting some more.

The world is waiting for you. We need your voice — especially if it’s a little weird.

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