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Haiku and Senryu

lanterns Below is an informative guide to writing Haiku and Senryu by Kathy Lippard Cobb including: Definition of Haiku, Helpful Hints, Juxtaposition in Haiku, Definition of Senryu, The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu, and also featured is a section on Tanka (above) by Kathy as well with informative links.

Definition of Haiku

1) An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment. Nature is combined with human nature. It usually consists of three lines of 5/7/5 (5 kana in the first line, 7 kana in the second line, and 5 kana in the third line) totaling seventeen kana.

2) A foreign adaptation of 1, usually written in three lines totaling 17 syllables or LESS.

As you will notice, there are two definitions. Definition #1 is where many get confused. People tend to confuse kana or a single unit in the Japanese language with the English syllable.

This is like comparing apples to oranges. Kana cannot be compared to syllables.

Unless you are Japanese, have been writing Japanese, or speak fluent Japanese, you will be writing definition #2.

The difference between the two is that in definition #2, you will be writing three lines of poetry, 17 syllables or LESS.

This means you do not have to write three lines of 5/7/5 (5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line, and 5 syllables in the third line). You may do so, if you can do it well without fluff words (many can't). If you write 5/7/5, that does not make your poem more of a haiku than someone who does not write 5/7/5.

An ideal haiku should be short/long/short - but that depends on the haiku itself. There is nothing wrong with 5/7/5, if that is what you want to write. However, the majority of modern haiku in most of the journals are not 5/7/5. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have its place.

However, it is all "haiku," not "haiku" and "other." It's just haiku. If you like, you can refer to 5/7/5 as "traditional" -- but even that is not entirely accurate, as it is quickly becoming more traditional to veer away from 5/7/5. The plural of haiku is also haiku, NOT haikus.

After you have been writing and studying haiku for a while, you may be ready to break a rule. This is fine, if it is needed to improve the quality of an individual haiku.

However, before breaking any haiku rule, you must learn and practice the rules.

Then after you are more experienced, you can determine which rule, if any, you want to break on occasion.

Break rules out of experience, not inexperience.

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Helpful Hints

1) Haiku is generally not written in one long run on sentence. It is generally written in two parts.

You have a fragment on the first or the last line, then you have the body of the haiku.


winter sun--
a cyclist pedals
against the wind

Copyright © 2000 Kathy Lippard Cobb, April 2001 Heron's Nest

or like this:

a cyclist pedals
against the wind--
winter sun

A good structure for beginning haiku poets is:

subject and action (on two lines)

2) Haiku is not written in the past, nor does it cover a long period of time.

It is in the moment. It is about taking ordinary moments, and making them extraordinary.

3) Haiku usually contains a season word (called kigo). It is not a requirement, but season words are a big part of haiku. However, it's best to avoid dual or conflicting kigo. Do not fill your haiku with them. Haiku is a short poem, and must contain some substance. It should not be just a weather report.

There are occasions once you are more experienced, that you may have two kigo in one haiku, however, one should clearly be the main kigo and not be redundant.

You only have dual kigo, if they enhance the haiku.

Example of dual kigo that are redundant:

Christmas Eve--
my daughter's note for Santa
under the cookies

Anyone knows that if the daughter left a note or cookies for Santa, that it must be Christmas Eve. So it would be better to use something else for line 1 - Christmas Eve is not needed.

You can find kigo lists online or buy books that contain them. Please see the links section for a free kigo list.

4) Haiku is usually not written in three sentence fragments. There is usually one fragment and a phrase on the other two lines.

5) Haiku does not use metaphor, personification, simile, or many other poetic devices so popular in other forms of poetry. It is about the essence of a moment, stated simply.

6) The majority of haiku do not use capitalization and use minimal punctuation (though you may see a few who do this). Periods are not used, and the only thing capitalized are months or holidays. However, many do not capitalize anything. Periods close in the haiku, so are to be avoided. Haiku should left open ended, almost unfinished.

7) Avoid "so what" moments. These are haiku that are stated so simply that they're boring. I call this grocery list haiku.


winter afternoon--
I walk to the store
and back again

There is such a thing as stating things too simply. However, the poetics in haiku is not due to flowery language, it's using juxtaposition between the two parts to create resonance.

However, if not using juxtaposition, the haiku must contain something to capture the reader's interest, let the reader see what the author was seeing at the time, but through the reader's own eyes. Yes, you can do this. Things simply stated can still be interesting.

8) Avoid photo haiku -- haiku that are nothing more than snapshots, do not focus on a specific moment or image, and have no real resonance or action.


crowded pub--
cocktail glasses line
the corner of the bar

It's not only boring, but it's too common of an image. It is not focusing on one specific moment.

This is just an overall picture in a bar, it doesn't really say anything. It's just a "so what" moment that occurs in every bar in the world.

You can make this more interesting, by focusing on something specific or a specific person.


happy hour--
a redhead scrawls her name
in the window frost

Here I even worked in a season word, "frost." I focused on one person, not the entire bar.

9) Avoid cause and effect in haiku -- where something in one part of the haiku causes action in the second part.


heavy rain--
my shirt clings
to my body

It's not only boring, it's too obvious. You can have cause and effect, IF it's contained in one part of the haiku.


a leaf spirals
in the summer wind--
his good-bye letter

This kind of cause and effect is o.k., as it's contained in one part of the haiku. Then, you can add something else for the third line, such as I did here. I used a good-bye letter to juxtapose with the leaf. These are two very lonely images. You can add whatever you like in the third line. Don't tell the reader they should feel lonely, show it.

There ARE haiku that have cause and effect, where something in the first part of the haiku, causes action in the second half.

However, usually, there is another level of meaning present. It's not just simple cause and effect, as in my "heavy rain" example.

10) Show don't tell. This is confusing to many writers. It certainly was to me. We all know that the English language, or ANY language, TELLS. I have never heard of a "story shower."

However, what it means to show don't tell, is that instead of saying that you are sad, lonely, or that you love someone, try to show it.

Instead of telling your emotions, show it by using concrete imagery.

Example of telling:

the funeral over--
the house is so lonely
without him

Example of showing:

the funeral over--
his aftershave lingers
in our bedroom

This shows loneliness. However, the phrase "I'm lonely" is nowhere in this poem. This is just one of many examples of show don't tell.

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Juxtaposition in Haiku

One of the other tools that help to write effective haiku is juxtaposition. This may be a new term for some of you. For those who are familiar with this term, you are a step ahead of the game. Juxtaposition is the act of placing two images side by side. They can be very different images for a contrast, or they can seemingly have nothing in common, but upon closer reflection, have things in common. If you effectively juxtapose two images, the poem resonates. However, if you don't get the juxtaposition in many haiku at first, that is o.k. The best method to gain understanding of juxtaposition, is to read a lot of haiku. Sooner or later, haiku that you didn't understand in the beginning, will be easily understandable later.

Example of juxtaposition:

rain fills
the deflated basketball--
our last good-bye

Copyright © 2001 Kathy Lippard Cobb, Starfish Summer 2001

Upon looking at this, you may think that a basketball and two lovers saying good-bye may have nothing in common. However, rain filling something that was once full, round, and used for entertainment, is a very lonely image. Now the basketball is a sad, deflated version of what it used to be. Just as two lovers who are saying good-bye for the last time, imply that there was a time when things were romantic and magical. Now they are saying good-bye, which could only mean that the magic is gone.

Haiku takes awhile to learn. It is not easy, it takes patience. Once you get more experience, you will learn to read between the two juxtaposed parts. Whether you always get the juxtaposition or not, you can still enjoy the haiku as a whole. It can still stand alone. However, once you are experienced, you will be able to read between the two parts of the haiku for an added bonus.

A good analogy is Cracker Jacks. You like them, because they taste good. However, when you find the prize at the bottom of the box, it's an added pleasure. However, not all haiku have juxtaposed images.

These are called "sketch of life," and are a perfectly respectable form of haiku. Juxtaposition is one of many tools at your disposal, a POWERFUL one, but only one.

Haiku is not just poetry, it's a way of life.

You will find yourself focusing on specific moments, and writing down phrases to remember later. It makes you appreciate the small things.

You may want to join a list, there are some good ones on the links page. Shiki workshop, shiki-temp, and WHC Beginners are all good lists for budding haiku poets. There are many veteran haiku poets, that will be more than happy to give you all of the help you need.

There is also a link to an exercise to learn how to write haiku. I used it, and it really helped me understand a lot about this form.

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Definition of Senryu

1) A Japanese poem similar in structure to haiku, but more concerned with human nature, and is often humorous or satiric -- usually in three lines of seventeen kana.

2) A foreign adaptation of 1, usually written in three lines of 17 syllables or LESS.

Again, unless you are Japanese, have been writing Japanese, or speak fluent Japanese, you will be writing definition #2.

A good structure for beginning senryu poets is:

subject and action (on two lines)

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The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu

The primary difference between haiku and senryu is the tone. Senryu is much more concerned with human nature, political issues, and satiric humor (making fun of things).

There is a big debate over what is or is not senryu. You will see many haiku in the senryu section of many journals or vice versa. Many poets just submit their haiku/senryu, and let the editor decide where it needs to be placed in their magazine, the haiku section or the senryu section.

There are views that all nature is haiku and all human nature is senryu. Many journals consider some all human nature poems "haiku." However, the majority of haiku combine both human nature and nature.

The major difference between haiku and senryu is the tone. They are similar in construction.

This is senryu:

men o pause. . .
the men suck in their guts
as a blonde walks by

Copyright © 2001 Kathy Lippard Cobb

This poem is all human nature, and is making fun of a group of people The men o pause is a play on the word "menopause." Basically, men pause when the blonde walks by.

Menopause is about the hormonal changes women go through. However, this shows how men behave during their own mid-life crisis.

Article written by Kathy Lippard Cobb. All Rights Reserved

For more information or questions, please contact: Kathy Lippard Cobb

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