Haiku: Structure and Poetics

Haiku Structure:

If you studied haiku in school and learned that the structure of haiku is 17 syllables presented in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables (e.g., a symmetrical arrangement), much of the following information will surprise you.

Structurally an English-language haiku as composed by most contemporary haijin (haiku poets) consists of:
• 17 or fewer syllables with published haiku averaging 13 syllables.
• 3 unrhymed lines, either symmetrical or not symmetrical
• 2 independent phrases

Did you notice the3-line poem in the image above? Here it is:

hunter's moon
pond frogs
sing the blues

Most CEL haiku don’t employ capitalization or periods. The average published CEL haiku can be said in one breath. Take a breath, and try reading it aloud.

If you did read it aloud, did you notice that there’s a natural break (pause) between the first line and the second line? That’s because the syntax tells your reader’s mind that the first line is independent of the second line. The poem is composed of two distinct phrases. Thus the three lines don’t read as they would if they were a sentence.

Examine the structure of the haiku above more closely:

Syllables: 12
Lines: 3
Phrases: 2 – this aspect can be a bit more difficult to ascertain. What’s a phrase?

A phrase is a group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, usually a noun often with an article and/or an adjective. e.g., “a red rose” or “high-flying kite.”

A sentence contains an independent subject and verb and expresses a complete thought, e.g., “A red rose is in the vase.”

As such, “hunter’s moon” doesn’t express a complete thought, but “pond frogs sing the blues” does. Sentences are also considered to be phrases, but not all phrases are sentences.

The two phrases in this haiku are independent. It’s the way they work together that creates the haiku’s poetic effect:
phrase 1 has a noun (moon) and an adjective (hunter’s) and expresses a concept.
phrase 2 is a sentence with a subject, verb and object. But the second phrase doesn’t have to be a sentence.

“hunter’s moon pond frogs” isn’t an independent phrase. It doesn’t make sense. To be a sentence, it would have to read something like, “under a hunter’s moon, pond frogs sing the blues.”

Is there a poetic effect with the way these two phrases interact. The writer (me) would like to think so, but you may not.

Elaboration: Structure vs Poetic Essence:

The haiku structure presented above fits most haiku found in published contemporary English-language haibun journals. But, you’ll find a good deal of variability in the simple structural formula presented above when you read contemporary published haiku. It’s simply a good starting point for beginners for understanding the structure of haiku and beginning to learn to write effective ones.

The Haiku Society of America (HSA) offers an extension of the above definition of Haiku:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition. . . . Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today’s poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements.

Perhaps the most important part of this definition isn’t the structural aspect, but is instead contained in the words, “. . . uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience . . . ” The information first presented relates to the structural properties of English-language haiku, things you can count like syllables and lines. The HSA definition also hints at poetic concepts as essential.

What does imagistic language mean? In all writing genres, one set of ideas is of key importance, the notion of Show vs Tell. Haiku has a focus on “show” (imagistic) language rather than “tell” language (thoughts, generalities, philosophical musings, etc.). “hunter’s moon” is a phrase that tends toward “showing people images” rather than telling them about the setting. So what would be “telling” language? “Beautiful moon” “Romantic moon” “My favourite moon” are more tell than show. These are general terms.

But isn’t a hunter’s moon a concept? you might ask. In fact, it’s a moon that appears at a specific time of month as does the harvest moon that appears as a full moon in September at harvest time.

A Hunter’s Moon is the full moon that appears in October after the Harvest Moon. … According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the Hunter’s Moon gets its name from the Native Americans. After the harvest, animals would come to the fields for scraps. A good time for hunting under the light of the moon.

One of the best treatments of “show” vs “tell” in haiku composition is by haijin George Marsh. As he puts it in his “In the moonlight a worm” website:

Show Don’t Tell is the most fundamental poetry lesson ever, demonstrating the principles of creative writing. These principles apply to screenwriting and the novel as much as to haiku, but because haiku are so short they offer the best way to learn them.

Here’s Marsh’s approach to teaching “show vs tell.”

Two of the best online English-language haiku journals are The Heron’s Nest. (haiku, online) and Modern Haiku (haiku and haibun, print with examples online).

Visit the published haiku by some of the best writers of CEL haiku. Check the structure by counting the syllables and lines. Look for 2 distinct phrases. Note the variability and check the imagistic (show) character of the haiku. You’ll find some tell phrases, but on balance, the haiku will rely on a pair of imagistic (show) phrases.

Two Caveats:

  1. There’s more to understanding haiku’s poetic essence than the show vs tell distinction. More about that in a later post.
  2. I picked a poor example for this exposition on the structure and essence of haiku because many would call my 3-liner a senryu, aka, not a haiku.

The Haiku Society of America defines senryu as follows:

A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break.

I would add that my 3-liner personifies the pond frogs. Who know what they’re singing about? I’d guess either lust or the joy of being alive. And that the second phrase in lines 2 and 3 is a bit too tellish. But I like it and so there it is. Still, is you’re interested in a 3-liner variation that some editors might consider as a haiku, here’s a possibility:

hunter's moon
the silence of 
pond frogs

There will be more to come on the poetic essence of haiku. I hope that for those of you who are still following a structural formula you learned in school or online somewhere, this will give you a better target to aim at in your initial attempts at haiku composition and in assessing your present poems.

If you’d like to know more about why CEL haiku don’t follow that 17-syllable, three lines of 5-7-7 syllables definition, read about it in the Haiku Society of America’s definition. Here’s the key distinction:

. . . Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.

In short, some early translators of Japanese haiku didn’t understand that 17-on sound units in Japanese don’t translate to 17-syllables sound units in English.

~ end ~

If you have questions or comments or if you’d like me to comment on one of your haiku, please feel free to either contact me by email or post a comment on this page and I’ll respond: -> ray’s email

2 thoughts on “Haiku: Structure and Poetics

  1. Thank you, Ray. This helps!

    Some comments and questions:

    a. re: ‘”hunter’s moon pond frogs” isn’t an independent phrase.’ – Isn’t it as valid a phrase as “hunters moon”?

    b. Is there an accepted, known aspect of haiku that involves a ‘play on phrases’, where the the number of phrases depends on how you group the words?

    c. If it is really about juxtaposing two, and only two phrases (which makes sense), What can we do in English to provide a kireji (“cutting word”)? I have seen punctuation used, but that seems like cheating, somehow[?].

    d. re: ‘5 | 7 | 5′ vs. ’17 OR FEWER syllables’ – To me, there is an aesthetic violated if the second line is not longer than the other two. Am I making this up? #symmetry

    e. re: ‘There will be more to come on the poetic essence of haiku’ – looking forward to these; I have, as you say, ‘been seeking a better target’ than the simple word count formula. What I gained today was a better awareness of the phrasing. Thank you. This helped, too: “The subject is not merely nature, but nature combined or juxtaposed with human nature.” [Ester Spurrill-Jones https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-write-haiku-fa5fe7792661%5D Ester also emphasizes ‘show; don’t tell’, a frequent personal shortcoming.

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  2. Greetings “The Guern” … I just enjoyed an excursion into your extensive and highly varied blog. A few replies to your thoughts below, but keep in mind that there’s much ado about English-language haiku these days. Visit The Heron’s Nest to get an idea of the variations aka innovations among what one might call ‘mainstream’ haiku in English. (https://www.theheronsnest.com/index.html)

    a. re: ‘”hunter’s moon pond frogs” isn’t an independent phrase.’ – Isn’t it as valid a phrase as “hunters moon”?

    I think if you asked people what either a “hunter’s moon” or “pond frogs” refer to, they’d be able to say, albeit, even if most people don’t know what a “hunter’s moon” is, a quick excursion to Google will provide an answer, aka, even Google’s links know what a hunter’s moon is. Whereas, if you asked what “hunter’s moon pond frogs” refers to, I think many would scratch their heads. This isn’t to say that it’s not a judgment call. Nor is it to say that a some might consider a string of words like ‘hunter’s moon pond frogs” appearing in a prose passage or as a line in free verse would be confusing. When I read that phrase in a haiku, I sense that there are two separate things being jammed together and they’re begging for at verb or more as in: Pond frogs sing under a Hunter’s moon. I might still want to google for “Hunter’s moon” but even without knowing exactly the meaning, I could be happy as a reader.

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