History:

Previously called Hokku, Haiku was given it’s name by Masoka Shiki around 1900. Hokku, meaning starting verse, is the opening stanza of a Japanese orthodox collaborative linked poem, renga, or of its later derivative, renku (haikai no renga), and its establishment as an independent verse form is credited to Basho and his disciples. Around 1644-1694 Hokku began appearing as independent poems, and Haiku now applies to all Hokku independent from renga or renku.

Structure:

There’s a common misunderstanding about the Haiku, which is both what the structure is, and that this structure is what defines it as a Haiku. For this reason, you find tons of Haiku about things such as fried chicken, irritations at work, and ironic annoyances. What most people don’t learn is that the structure is actually more fluid that English speakers are led to believe, and that what defines a Haiku as Haiku is the content and the organization of the message and meaning itself, not just syllable count.

This misperception is understandable, as it began with well meaning teachers trying to translate a practice from a language consummately and completely different from English at its core. In Japanese, syllables aren’t counted, sounds are. Which is why ‘Haiku’ is considered two syllables in English and three in Japanese. Another big difference is the difference between Japanese, as well as Chinese and Korean, characters versus English ones. In Japanese, Chinese and Korean, their written language characters are essentially pictograms, and can mean several different things. In English, a letter is just a letter, and cannot itself convey meanings unless paired with other letters. Therefor, when Haiku is adapted into English, there are differences. Mainly, that the 17 syllable count needs to be fluid to allow for the more important structure of how the meaning and message is conveyed.

So, that said, let’s lay out what is necessary for you to call your poem a Haiku. The first point is copy and pasted from the Wikipedia article on it because it says it pretty concisely.

  • Haiku (俳句) (plural haiku) is a very short form of Japanese poetry in three phrases, typically characterized by three qualities:
    1. The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru).[1] This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them,[2] a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colours the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
    2. Traditional haiku often consist of 17 on (also known as morae though often loosely translated as “syllables”), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 on, respectively.[3]
    3. A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such terms.
  • Rephrased,
  • Haiku are subtle. They don’t state, they imply. You relay a moment of perception of nature or human nature not by writing about your reaction to a thing (using abstract descriptors like beautiful, etc) but about the thing that caused that reaction. A good Haiku conveys the reaction via writing about what caused it.
  • Juxtaposes two elements or parts-one of which is conveyed via two of the three lines, centered around a pause, or caesura, which is the Kire.
  • And finally, it has to have a seasonal/nature reference. Without this, it’s not a Haiku, it’s a Senryu, or one of several other Japanese forms which also use the 5-7-5 structure.

Have more than is here to contribute? Let us know!

Sources:

Greene, Roland, and Stephen Cushman. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 2012.

http://www.graceguts.com/further-reading/what-is-a-haiku-and-what-isn-t

http://www.graceguts.com/essays/becoming-a-haiku-poet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku