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Haiku Rules

Updated on March 8, 2012

This hub is written to answer the question: "When written in English, the rules of Haiku generally dictate '17 syllables or less' rather than three lines syllabized 5-7-5. Why is this so and what other rules are relaxed when Haiku is written in English?"

In the United States, people typically only know haiku as a short poem with a 5-7-5 syllable count which is actually not true to the original haiku form. The "17 syllables or less" rule is a much more accurate guideline for haiku.

Some people think haiku in English should be no more than 14 syllables since 14 syllables in English is a better equivalent to the 17 syllables in Japanese. So, to have a very strict interpretation of making haiku that reflects the original Japanese intent of the extremely judicious use of words, the haiku poet would be best to limit themselves to 14 syllables.

The complete lack of understanding about haiku and its rules in the United States is due to how haiku is taught in the schools. Children are taught that a haiku is a poem that has three lines with 5-7-5 syllables. The students are usually asked to practice writing this new form.

This false rule about syllable count is the only thing that typically is taught about haiku. Most children end up thinking they know about haiku without even knowing that haiku can have any number of lines and any number of syllables under the seventeen syllable limit. Some teachers may instruct students to write haiku about nature, but they give no further instruction on the complexity and beauty of this challenging form.

One haiku rule that commonly is not known is the inclusion of a season word. Haiku not only describes a moment in time, but the poem describes the moment in time within the context of a season. The reader must be able to detect which season is the setting for the haiku. In Japanese haiku, this is done with the use of a seasonal word called a kigo.

A haiku seasonal word may be an animal that makes its appearance during a particular season or a word that refers to the weather of the season. However, the haiku poet can be creative in how the season is denoted in the poem.

When I am writing a haiku, I brainstorm a list of seasonal events, both natural and social, to help me think of the season in a variety of ways. In the illustrated haiku that I made which I share on this page, the seasonal description is the migration of salmon. It is the event being described rather than one word included in the haiku.

There are kigo dictionaries for people who may want help with this aspect of haiku. One thing to remember is that seasonal words are local and relative to the area. What is a seasonal word in one country does not necessarily describe the same season in another country. Some haiku poets prefer to use kigo that reflects a larger area while others like to express haiku that reflects the seasons of their geographic location.

A haiku contains two contrasting images. In Japan, these contrasting images are often separated by a vocal cue. In the United States, the contrasting images are often emphasized by separating them with punctuation such as a dash.

Another haiku rule that tends to be ignored is the prohibited use of anthropomorphism. Since haiku describes a scene as it occurs and allows the reader to interpret the meaning of the scene, anthropomorphism does not belong in haiku.

Herein lies a true challenge of haiku. Haiku poets cannot hold onto the haiku so tightly that they cheat in an attempt to deliver their own message and interpretation. Anthropomorphism is cheating. It's assigning attributes to the natural scene that are interpretation rather than reality.

Haiku is a truly challenging form, contrary to what is taught in schools in the United States. I encourage anyone to practice haiku. Embrace the challenges of the haiku rules and find peace in description and sharing rather than interpreting.

For more information about the haiku rules, please visit my other hub on the subject: How to Write Haiku: Moving Beyond 5-7-5


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    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you for your comments, Audrey. Even though haiku are short, they are a delightful challenge.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      8 years ago from California

      I love the smaller forms!

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you, Kris, for your feedback and letting me know about the error in the definition of haiku on Hubpages. I'm not sure how to get that changed. I have reported it as a technical problem since it doesn't fit into the "moderation problem" category. It's not easy to correct people's long-held beliefs, however wrong they may be. There are many who will argue that the 5-7-5 format is the correct and only form of haiku just because that's what they were taught. They can't accept that they were taught wrong. One article at a time, one illustrated haiku artwork at a time, one book at a time, one correction of misinformation at a time may slowly promote a more accurate view of haiku's true beauty.

    • KrisL profile image


      8 years ago from S. Florida

      Voted up & useful: a good description of how this whole 5-7-5 nonsense started.

      It's even in the HubPages description of haiku

      Do you know how we could get that changed??

      Check out my haiku hubs if you're interested: I believe I cite you in one of them (if not, I will).

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Good luck in your haiku endeavors, dragonbear. Enjoy the journey!

    • dragonbear profile image


      9 years ago from Essex UK

      Thanks Sheila - a revealing and useful Hub on Haiku rules. I've just begun to explore Haiku - I've attempted two in the 5-7-5 format, but will explore further in the 14 syllable form. Glad I came across you!

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you, Keri. It's good to hear from someone who is trying to explain the spirit of haiku to others. One thing that I find irritating is the misinformation that abounds on the Internet about haiku. You've probably seen some videos on YouTube about haiku that are just all wrong. But, I'm learning to pick my battles. It's not up to me to be the "haiku police." (I like that!) I've had poets come to me for help with haiku. I'd rather be available in that sense and write about haiku than try to stop the haiku mayhem. I'll just keep working on my own illustrated haiku and hopefully get a book project on Kickstarter soon. Wish me luck!

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 

      9 years ago from West of England

      Sheila, this is a very good explanation of haiku and the problems with explaining to people about 5-7-5. It's very difficult when someone has worked really hard to make a 5-7-5 poem to encourage them tactfully to try to really get into what haiku is about. My husband teaches haiku, and it's embarrassing sometimes when he's in a school and the teacher doesn't/won't agree with him! It needs a great deal of tact. We also know people who TEACH haiku like this to adults because they are experienced in other areas of poetry - but the way they are teaching it makes the poet less likely, not more, to get published, and they are often seeking the tuition because they are ambitious for their work and have publication as a goal. We joke about being "the haiku police", but it's a free world and we accept that we have no right to interfere. However, your writing about it here is really helping people to get to grips with it all, and I'm really encouraged that writers are starting to move on. I've noticed on HubPages that this is so.

      And congrats on being a contest winnner!

    • Sheila Wilson profile imageAUTHOR

      Sheila Wilson 

      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you, Ruby! Yes, Irob, the belief that haiku is any short poem that is 5-7-5 format is deeply ingrained. I wish I knew a way to explain it to more people. I am working on a book about haiku. I hope it will reach more people.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      9 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      I love your in depth presentation of Haiku Rules. I love these poems. The one you wrote about the salmon and bear is very good. I love the pictures too. I am bookmarking and congratulating you on the contest win too. Way to go!

    • Irob profile image


      9 years ago from St. Charles

      I remember someone trying to explain that at a poetry group I belonged to in the 80's-90's and it didn't go over to well with many LOL, because of what you mentioned about the schools


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