Haiku is an unrhymed, syllabic form adapted from the Japanese: three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Because it is so brief, a haiku is necessarily imagistic, concrete and pithy, juxtaposing two images in a very few words to create a single crystalline idea. The juxtaposed elements are linked in Japanese by a kireji, or “cutting word”—poets writing haiku in English or other Western languages often use a dash or an ellipsis to indicate the break or cut between the linked images.
Haiku poems first appeared in Japan 700 years ago, but the form did not migrate into Western poetry until the 19th century, after Japan’s harbors were opened to European and American trade and travel, when several anthologies of haiku were translated into English and French. In the early years of the 20th century the Imagist poets adopted the form as an ideal poem, writing what they called “hokku” in the three-line 5-7-5 pattern. Mid-century Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder were also enamored of the haiku form, and it has flourished in contemporary poetry, particularly American poetry.
Because the form has been brought into English from a language written in characters, in which a haiku appears on a single line, many poets writing haiku in English are flexible about the syllable and line counts, focusing more on the brevity, condensed form and “Zen” attitude of haiku. Traditional Japanese haiku requires a seasonal reference, or kigo, drawn from a defined list of words pertaining to the natural world. The related short form of senryu is distinguished from haiku as being concerned with “human nature” or social and personal relationships.
We have English translations of some haiku written by the classical Japanese masters here in our About.com Poetry library:Allen Ginsberg’s American Sentences—his own variation on the haiku form which dispenses with line breaks and unites the 17 syllables in a single sentence.
See our library of haiku, senryu and tanka links to read more haiku written in English around the Web.