Writing haiku poetry

Writing Haiku Poetry with Kids

Words Matter Week: Day 1

Every single day, almost without fail, the poetry lessons draw more folks to this blog than any other article (with the two most frequently accessed posts being Writing a Diamante Poem and Cinquain Poetry).

This inspired me to launch right into Words Matter Week by introducing a brand-new lesson: how to write haiku (and offer a fun contest too)!

What Is Haiku?

Japanese in origin, haiku is not based on rhyme, but on a pattern of syllables. At three lines long, haiku is a poem of economy. Traditionally, only 17 syllables are allowed, so a finished haiku may end up being just 12 or 13 words long.

By its nature, haiku is concrete and concise, capturing a single moment in a mere handful of words. It’s a tall order to write a poem full of rich imagery, paint a picture in the reader’s mind, and leave an impression on a heart or soul—and do so with so few words.

Every word counts, and that’s why—perhaps more than any other poetry genre—haiku is especially fitting for Words Matter Week.

Writing Haiku Poetry: An Experience with Nature

Choosing a Subject for Your Poem

Haiku poems celebrate appreciation for beauty and nature. Plants, animals, water, weather, and seasons are often subjects of haiku. Powerful yet sensitive, these poems communicate a mood or tone without actually using words to describe feelings.

Red and gold poppies
explode with fresh spring colors,
invading my yard.

Writing Haiku Poetry | Red and Gold Poppies

Notice how this haiku expresses a crisp, springy, bright feeling. You can picture a tired winter garden coming to life. The words never actually say, “After a cold, colorless winter, I am so happy and cheered to see flowers again!” Yet this is the message the poem brings.

In the darkest wood
with heads hanging mournfully,
weeping willows cry.

This poem gives a feeling of sadness, even though the words don’t tell you how the poet feels, or how you should feel. Notice how personification helps to communicate this tone. When writing haiku poetry, think about the emotions you want your reader to experience. Paint a picture with your words to express a mood.

Formatting Your Haiku Poem

Some poetry forms require the writer to follow a certain format, or structure. You may remember that cinquains and diamantes, for example, call for you to use an exact number of words within an exact number of lines. Haiku, on the other hand, requires you to carefully count syllables instead of words. This form of poetry always uses 3 lines and 17 syllables.

Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables

When counting out syllables, listen to the beat within a word, silently tapping it out on the table. Usually, a syllable is marked by a vowel sound. “Butterfly” has three syllables (but/ter/fly). The word “cocoon” contains two syllables (co/coon). The word “exuberantly” has five (ex/u/ber/ant/ly). “Flight” has only one (flight).

If you still have trouble counting syllables, try Rhyme Desk’s online tool.

Because your entire poem is only 17 syllables, every single word must be carefully chosen to say exactly what you want to communicate. Rely heavily on a good thesaurus for terrific, specific words! Your thesaurus will also be useful when you need to find a synonym of more or fewer syllables that will fit better on a line of your poem.

What to Do if a Line Contains Too Few or Too Many Syllables

> Leave out or add articles (a, an, the) to shorten or lengthen the number of syllables. Example: a six-syllable line must be shortened to five syllables.

A/ small/ frog/ trills/ loudly = 6 syllables
Small/ frog/ trills/ loud/ly = 5 syllables (drop the “a”)

Writing Haiku Poetry | Jungle Frog

> Use your thesaurus to find a similar word that will fit.

Suppose your haiku looks like this:

Thunder clouds follow me (6)
booming from behind (5)
the sky is so mad. (5)

Do you see how each line has too many or too few syllables? Let’s look at them one at a time.

Example: the first line of a haiku poem must be 5 syllables long.

Thun/der/ clouds/ fol/low/ me = 6 syllables (it’s too long – you need 5 syllables)

Now, look up follow in the thesaurus. Can you find a one-syllable word that will fit? (chase)

Thun/der/ clouds/ chase/ me = 5 syllables (this will work)

> Look for a word to drop.

Thun/der/ clouds/ fol/low = 5 syllables (just drop the “me”)

> Find a different way to say a similar thing. Often your thesaurus will help, but sometimes you just need to think! How can you express the same message while adjusting the number of syllables?

Example 1: The second line must be 7 syllables.

boom/ing/ from/ be/hind = 5 syllables (it’s too short – needs 7 syllables)
bel/low/ing/ from/ a/ dis/tance = 7 syllables (use longer words)

Example 2: The third line must be 5 syllables.

the/ sky/ is/ so/ mad = 5 syllables

The number of syllables is correct—so what’s wrong with this line? Remember that you want to avoid “to be” words such as is, and empty words such as so:

the/ an/gry/ sky/ shouts = 5 syllables, OR
the/ black/ sky/ threat/ens = 5 syllables

While still expressing a “mad” feeling, these lines use more specific words that paint a fuller picture. Show, don’t tell.

OK, here’s the finished haiku poem:

Thunder clouds chase me (5)
bellowing from a distance (7)
the angry sky shouts. (5)

Should haiku have a title? Typically not. If you think it needs a title to better explain the poem, do your best to work the title into the poem by removing and replacing words. Use your new syllable skills to help when writing haiku poetry.

Happy Words Matter Week . . . and happy writing!

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Copyright © 2010 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Photos: Autan, Chad King, and Geoff Gallice courtesy of Creative Commons.

A Haiku Contest for Words Matter Week!

Now it’s time for your children  to write some haiku! Everyone who posts a haiku poem in the comments before March 7, 2010 will be entered in a contest. One winner will be chosen randomly to win your choice of a $10 Barnes and Noble gift card or a $20 WriteShop gift certificate.

The Rules

  1. Only one entry per person is allowed, so pick your best poem.
  2. Your haiku must be formatted properly in order to qualify for a prize.

This contest has ended.

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25 comments ↓

#1 JoJo Tabares on 03.01.10 at 5:57 am

Sounds like fun, Kim! I’ll pass this around!

#2 Martin on 03.01.10 at 7:09 am

Born as falling snow
Water skates by dim street lights
Then hat tricks to ice

#3 Kim on 03.01.10 at 10:11 pm

Thanks, JoJo. And thank you, Martin, for getting the ball rolling. I’m looking forward to reading others’ haiku poems this week.

#4 Amy W. on 03.02.10 at 2:12 pm

for Anna

Tangled hair, happy smile,
overalls, turtleneck, slippers,
my daughter is CUTE!

Did I do it right?

#5 Anna on 03.02.10 at 2:37 pm

What is a Wookie?
Tall, furry, good cooking skills;
they are people too!

Anna

#6 Andrew on 03.02.10 at 4:54 pm

YELLOW JACKET by Andrew K. 9yrs

buzz-black, yellow bug
in garden flying, eating
stinging all the worms

#7 Jaron Tubbs on 03.05.10 at 7:30 am

My Town

The park turf is green.
Fans are swarming in the gate.
The team hits the field.

#8 Joey Colvin on 03.06.10 at 6:46 pm

Storm Clouds Joey Colvin age 13

The storm rages on
like a cataclysmic quake
equipped with rain clouds.

#9 Rachel on 03.07.10 at 4:24 pm

A new day dawning
Yesterday’s troubles behind
God’s mercies renewed

#10 Amy on 03.07.10 at 4:33 pm

The Storm

Angry thunder claps
hasty lights flash; darkness flees
rivers rush from sky-

#11 Javen on 03.07.10 at 4:35 pm

Little Red

Little red flower
on a moss covered tower,
here is your bower.

#12 Cullen on 03.07.10 at 4:37 pm

The grasses are green
dew is sparkling here and there
earth’s morning beauties.

#13 Molly on 03.07.10 at 5:16 pm

Dawn

A breeze blows my hair
As I gaze at the sunrise
Of a brand new day

by Molly
(age 13)

#14 Briyah on 03.07.10 at 6:54 pm

Spring is in the air,
and I really yearn for it.
It is beautiful.

-Briyah B., age 7

#15 Shaiya on 03.07.10 at 6:58 pm

I’m waiting for spring.
Amidst sunshine and blossoming flowers.
Please spring won’t you come.

#16 Sharra Badgley on 03.07.10 at 7:02 pm

Warm sun smiled on me,
glimmering rays of beauty.
I feel alive now.

-Sharra B.

#17 C. M. Badgley on 03.07.10 at 7:09 pm

Come greens and blossoms,
Stretching heavenward above,
Hearts overflowing.

#18 Kim on 03.09.10 at 7:43 am

Amy W.: Now that the contest is over, I’m happy to answer your question. If you were a student, this would be your first draft—and almost every first draft benefits from a little editing. :)

Even though your haiku veers from the traditional nature theme, I think it’s a fun topic. I love how you clearly delight in Anna! You also get good marks for using concrete words in the first two lines. Now here’s where a bit of editing will help:

1. Line 1 has six syllables rather than five: tan/gled /hair/ hap/py /smile (you can tap out each syllable, tan-gled-hair-hap-py-smile). Try finding a one-syllable word to replace one of the two-syllable words. Example: Tangled hair, broad smile or Tangled hair, bright eyes
2. Line 2 has eight syllables rather than seven: o/ver/alls /tur/tle/neck /slip/pers. Again, one of these words needs to be replaced with a word of fewer syllables. Example: turtleneck, jeans, and slippers or overalls, sweater, slippers.
3. Line 3 contains a “to be” word (is) and a weak word (cute). You could try something like: Anna makes me smile or Anna fills my heart.

Here’s one option for a revision:

Tangled hair, bright eyes
overalls, sweater, slippers
Anna makes me smile.

Haiku needs to create a snapshot—an “in the moment” picture. The next two examples run with your original ideas but create a more “haiku-ish” feeling. (Notice how reordering the first two lines and using prepositional phrases can help too.)

In jeans and slippers
happy girl with tangled hair
Anna fills my heart.

Slippers, overalls
happy child with tangled hair
Anna makes me smile.

There you go! Does that help? Remember that writing haiku takes practice. It’s all about creating a mood, picking strong, vivid words, and counting out your syllables. Hope you’ll try again, Amy.

#19 Amy on 03.09.10 at 9:17 am

Oh, YES! That helps!

I’d choose a few from each line

Slippers, overalls
happy girl with tangled hair
Anna fills my heart.

Aw! And reading these brings tears to my eyes! Yep, you’ve got Anna there!
Now she wants know if she did hers (the Wookie) right? LOL! It never ends!

#20 Kim on 03.09.10 at 10:24 am

Amy W.: Everyone is just learning, so I hesitate to offer too many suggestions. But I’ll give a few tips.

I mentioned earlier that a haiku is much more than 5-7-5 syllables. The heart of a haiku should capture a single moment. That said, clever as it is, Anna’s poem really isn’t a haiku. Yes, it has the right number of lines and syllables, but it’s not a Kodak moment! :) Second, Anna uses two “to be” words (is and are).

Instead of making it “informational,” Anna should try to put the Wookiee in a particular mood. Will he be thoughtful? Frustrated? Helpful? Here’s one idea:

Tall, furry Wookiee
weeps into his cooking pot
the bantha has burned.

Have fun!

#21 poetry hunter | POETRY on 03.19.10 at 5:03 am

[...] Writing a haiku poem â?? In Our Write Minds [...]

#22 sandra on 07.16.10 at 5:26 pm

Hello Kim,

Have found your site through Google – I like the clear instructions given for writing haiku.

However, may I respectfully point out that the vast majority of haiku written in English do NOT adhere to 5-7-5, one of the reasons being the very suggestion that you make to use a thesaurus to find a synonym to get the syllable count right. Forcing a poem into a syllable count often results in a poem with/without necessary words, while dropping articles means haiku undeservedly have a general reputation for being “short hand” or “telegraphese”.

If you work on the idea that a haiku should be able to be said in one breath, you will get it right – something like 12-20 syllables. Most writers in English opt for a pattern of short-long-short lines instead.

If you would like to find out more about how most people write haiku in English, this article is a good place to start and contains lots of examples. It also gives a little background on the Japanese tradition.
http://www.poetrysociety.org.nz/node/283

Kind regards,
Sandra

#23 Kim on 07.19.10 at 10:33 am

Sandra: Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful reply. I love the way you describe a haiku as a poem that should “be said in one breath.” Beautiful picture. I look forward to visiting your site and learning more about your haiku style.

#24 Writing a Christmas carol haiku — In Our Write Minds on 11.30.10 at 7:33 am

[...] there are variations, the typical haiku poem contains three lines with a specific syllabic [...]

#25 Striving to Follow Him A is for All Things Writing » Striving to Follow Him on 05.02.14 at 2:20 am

[…] you would like to learn more about writing haikus. Kim, of Write Shop, offers Writing Haiku Poetry, a terrific guide for teaching your children about this fun type of poem! (or maybe for yourself!) […]

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