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What is a Haiku?

Updated on February 9, 2013

A haiku is poetry. It is short poetry - succinct in style, but yet conveys great meaning or emotion.

How short? It should be around 17 syllables broken into three lines (typically 5-7-5 rhythm). Think of it as poetry on Twitter. Twitter limits your tweet message to 140 characters. Similarly a haiku limits you on the number of syllables that you can use.

Actually, I say "around" 17 syllables and broken into three lines. But in English haiku, a strict count is not strictly followed. And "syllables" is not precisely the right term either. I explain why later. But for the purpose of learning a new concept, this is close enough.

Haiku Meaning that is Important

In any case, it is the meaning of the haiku that is important. The best way to explain is by way of examples.

Some good haiku examples can be found in the book "Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart". In fact, you can find 108 haiku in the book, each one conveying an meaning, insight, or emotion. (The plural of haiku is still haiku; there is no such thing as haikus.)

The number 108 is not random. It was chosen by the author Patricia Donegan because 108 is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. It has been said that there are 108 difficulties (or 108 delusions of the mind) to overcome in order to "become awakened". In Japan, the bell is rung 108 times at the end of the year.

Here is an example of an haiku by Penny Harter that was in the book ...


the homeless man
takes off his shoes before
his cardboard house 

" (used with permission by author Penny Harter)

In a few concise words, it describes a complete scene that expresses dignity. That is the spirit of a haiku. Haiku does not need a title and is derived from the first line of the poem if needed.

Haiku is Japanese Poetry

Okay, to understand why "17 syllables in 3 lines" is not precisely correct, we have to understand how haiku is originated.

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry. In this form, the poetry (in Japanese language) follows strict rules in order to be considered haiku -- and the rules are fairly clear.

However, in English haiku there is no consensus as to what those rules are and a strict count is sometimes not followed.

Japanese haiku is constructed with 17 moras.

In linguistic, a mora (also spelled "morae") is a a unit in phonology that determines syllable weight. In Japanese, they would call it an "on". An "on" is the Japanese word for "sound".

A mora does not necessarily correspond to a syllable. A short syllable is one mora. But a long syllable is two moras. Think of a mora as a syllable weight.

Although rare, there can syllables that have the weight of three moras. These syllables are called trimoraic. Similarly, a bimoraic syllable is a syllable that has two moras. And when a syllable corresponds to one mora, that syllable is called monomoraic -- not to be confused with moronic.

In Japanese haiku poetry, these 17 moras are broken into three phrases with the first line containing 5 moras. The second line containing 7 moras. And the third and last line containing 5 moras. This gives you 17 moras total.

Note that we say "three phrases" instead of "three lines". Unlike English where you read left to right, in traditional Japanese writing, a phrase is read from top to bottom. The words of the phrases are printed in a vertical column. Furthermore, the columns are order from right to left (not left to right as in English). So after reaching the bottom of each column, the reader continues at the top of the column to the left of the current one.

What I have described is the traditional Japanese writing system known as tategaki, which follows the Chinese writing system. However, Japanese has another more modern writing system called yokogaki which is horizontal and read left to right -- just like English.


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