by Margaret Coats

The required 5-7-5 syllable form alone does not make a haiku. A good haiku

⦁ presents an observation of nature, or of human activities in nature
⦁ uses present tense (“goes” or “going,” not “went” or “has gone”)
⦁ has a seasonal word or image, known in Japanese as a “kigo”
⦁ has two parts or two images or two aspects
⦁ offers an intriguing insight that arises from interaction of the two parts

Below are examples of good haiku, chosen from runners-up and other entries last year. They fulfill ALL the above haiku requirements, but are grouped to allow for easy discussion of one requirement at a time, in the paragraph that follows each group. Information and advice about the seasonal requirement, including a link to a kigo list, with an analysis of last year’s winner, can be found HERE. A more detailed article on haiku by G.M.H. Thompson is HERE.

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The 17 Syllables in English

These first four haiku show how poets writing in English can naturalize the required Japanese syllabic form by using features of English poetry, including rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. These things are neither required nor specially favored in this competition. However, they add beauty to the poem and demonstrate the poet’s skill with language.

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Dark branches stripped bare
cold and sad, quite unaware
stirrings down below

―Linette Eloff

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Snow falls through the night
Dressing farm and field in white—
Dazzling dawn in sight!

―Martin Rizley

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one lone(ly) mallard
ignored by his own echo
quacks again, hoping

―James Ripley

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Curious concert—
crickets croon to a cornfield
of indifferent ears

―Martin Elster

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Linette Eloff captures late winter in three lines appropriately rhymed and metered. The third line, with the same number of syllables as the first, has more word accents or stresses. It thus has more of the deep “stirrings” it mentions—and it breaks away from the “bare”/ “unaware” rhyme and tone of the other lines. Contrast Martin Rizley’s winter haiku, which exhibits regular English rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration in all three lines. These suit the exuberant tone of his poem. James Ripley uses another tactic. His parentheses in the word “lone(ly)” emphasize the meaning he can add to his first line with the required fifth syllable. The quacking mallard is both “lone” (solitary) and “lonely” (forlorn). Martin Elster makes every syllable count, accompanying his farm concert with both alliteration from the noisy crickets, and a pun on the indifferent ears of corn in the audience.

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Artistry of the Present Tense

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end of the summer—
the calm surface of a lake
absorbs the twilight.

―Marek Kozubek

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Looming laden clouds
Blanket Bombay’s bustling streets
And storms paint the sky

―Stuti Sinha

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taste of morning tea
the delicate ray of sun
through an icicle

―Daniela Misso

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The group above shows varied artistry employing the required present tense. Marek Kozubek uses a single present tense verb (“absorbs”) to describe minimal action, but it manages to fill his noiseless scene with light and color. Stuti Sinha’s poem brims with action: present tense verbs “blanket” and “paint,” present participles “looming” and “bustling,” along with the past participle “laden,” acceptable in haiku because used as an adjective. These combine to build up a picture of increasingly wild weather over a busy city. In Daniela Misso’s haiku, there are no verbs at all. Present tense is presumed in the action of a human observer who notices the sunlit icicle while sipping tea.

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The Two-Part Haiku

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black skyscrapers scratch
at something beyond the gray
as white flakes drift down

―Spencer Green

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As winter draws near
Fabulous floral worlds bloom
The solace of books

―Mia P Solomonides

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Wisteria blooms
Along a sidewalk café
Coffee in the air

―Ravi Kivan

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watermelon patch
I let the weathered scarecrow
try on my straw hat

―Darrell Lindsey

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Like new fallen snow
Seabirds rest then I approach
White riot of flight

―Mike Bryant

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A haiku should have two parts or two images or two aspects. The two things contrast or combine creatively to produce the poem’s overall effect. Spencer Green’s skyscrapers do not wait passively for snow, but actively scratch it out of the gray sky. Mia Solomonides teases readers with a flagrantly impossible winter scene—then explains that it exists in the books one can comfortably read indoors on a cold day. Ravi Kivan makes clever use of the related words “café” (a place) and “coffee” (a beverage served in such a place) to appeal to the two senses of sight and taste. In all three poems, Part One is the first two lines, and Part Two the final line. This is usual among haiku, but not universal. Darrell Lindsey sets the scene in his first line, then enters and alters it in the remaining two lines. Mike Bryant’s poem is a very unusual haiku that divides exactly in the middle, where the quiet scene moves to action. His ninth syllable, the word “then,” is something like a Japanese kireji or “cutting word,” but such words have functions in Japanese that are unfamiliar in the English language. Poets writing in English shouldn’t save a syllable to slice lines, but simply make sure that each haiku has two elements that can interact in an interesting way.

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The Intriguing Insight

How can haiku demand an original insight in every poem? Remember, first of all, that this most difficult requirement is simply a special perception from the poet’s own carefully observed scene.

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Boughs froth with new blooms
when the monsoon rain sweeps through
trees toss their bouquets

―Rachel Nel

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How short is freedom
gained by the cherry blossom
released from the branch

―Germain Droogenbroodt

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Falling August stars
The sky is full of beauty
So many wishes

―Vita

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All three of these poems view something beautiful falling. Rachel Nel sees monsoon rain sweeping frothy blooms from boughs; she thinks of a bride tossing her bouquet to others as the wedding celebration ends. Good thought—and no more is needed. The poem is done, and the poet doesn’t have to picture anyone catching soggy flowers. The more philosophical Germain Droogenbroodt reflects on the distance between branch and ground when a cherry blossom falls. To him, this brings thoughts of short-lived freedom. Again, enough insight for an excellent haiku, expressed in terms of the bloom being released from the prison of the branch. Vita sees stars fall during summer meteor showers. The additional light and motion brighten and beautify the already starry sky—and the observer gains hope for many wishes fulfilled, in accord with the proverb, “to wish upon a falling star.”

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Quality Alone Cannot Qualify

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What is a Haiku?
Beautiful words . . . not many
Alas! Not these words

―Norma Pain

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This clever poem in haiku form is good and true and beautiful, but it is not a haiku. If you don’t know why not, please read over the Examples and Explanation again. Looking forward to your haiku!

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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20 Responses

  1. Roy E. Peterson

    Outstanding essay and presentation on haiku. I made my own analysis a couple of years ago, but for clarity, in depth analysis and beauty I must save this for my own future use. I particularly liked the “Intriguing Insight,” not only for the things falling, but for the interpretation.

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    I’m not sure a good
    Haiku exists in English
    But it’s worth a try

    Reply
  3. Joshua C. Frank

    I’ve read haiku, and some are great,
    A snapshot on a bite-sized plate.
    But rhyme and meter, that’s the way
    I’ll do my poems any day.
    When haiku I try to write,
    It’s just okay, it’s not quite right;
    Because I’m Western, through and through,
    I just can’t do a great haiku!

    Reply
    • Patricia Redfern

      Hi Joshua!

      My dear poet brother.
      Rhyme is like no other.
      Some Haikus do have rhyme.
      A treat to pen, anytime!

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      I guess it’s time to eat my words
      Since (how surprising!) I just heard:
      One haiku (who knew I could?)
      Made the list of “very good!”
      So if, as I once did, you think
      At haiku you really stink,
      Don’t stop batting at the plate;
      You might write one that’s really great!

      Reply
  4. Norma Pain

    Thank you Margaret for your most appreciated comments on my attempt to write a Haiku poem, and for using it as an example of all that is missing in this endeavor. Thank you also for the article, suggestions and examples.

    Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    Five syllable line;
    then seven, then another
    five more syllables.

    By Jove, I’ve got it!

    Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Kip, these look like your entries to “Haiku Competition 2022.”
    I’ll ask the moderator to post them there. We have multiple links between two posts, which may have caused confusion about where to enter haiku for the contest. Anyone else who may notice this, please go to “Haiku Competition 2022” to post your entries. Comments on the essay “What Makes A Good Haiku?” belong here. Thanks!

    Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    Kip Rosser, the haiku you posted here have been moved to “Haiku Competition 2022.” Thanks for your contributions! This comment space is intended for responses to the essay, “What Makes A Good Haiku?” There are multiple links between these two posts, and that may have caused a slight problem, but your haiku are now where they should be as entries in the competition.

    Reply
  8. Greg love

    As a raindrop falls,
    A thirsty plant awaits it,
    Raindrops are not fools.

    The wave hits the beach,
    The water erodes the beach,
    The sea has to eat,

    The tree bears a fruit,
    I eat with naivety,
    The tree bears more fruit,

    Reply
  9. Mary Alamu

    No man is useless,
    He is so good at something,
    And calls it talent.

    A deserted hut,
    Provides full space for creepers,
    To build a palace.

    I love writing it,
    A form of poetry it is.
    You just read haiku.

    Reply
  10. Teri Jo Rask

    Red no longer flows,
    Goodbye is sometimes easy.
    A breath in, then out.

    Wild exquisite night!
    A blanket sky shimmering
    Joy envelops me

    Despite my efforts
    Omicron got me real bad
    Wear a mask, be cool.

    Reply
  11. Judy Eldawy

    Covid, life changing
    Nurses fighting to save us all
    Our souls are weary

    Reply
  12. Judy Eldawy

    Night’s cacophony
    Crickets chirp and leaves rustle
    Lullabies for sleep

    Reply
  13. Judy Eldawy

    Night’s cacophony
    Crickets chirp and leaves rustle
    Lullabies for souls

    Sorry- I did not mean to use sleep in the above haiku. Above is what I intended.

    Reply
  14. Endurance ogbefun

    Time ticks like a bomb
    Wearing the soul to the call
    Of the dreadful tomb

    Friends will come and go
    Like the leaves of a grapetree
    Family are roots

    Chirpings of song birds
    leaves carpeted on brown earth
    beauty of summer

    Reply
  15. Grace Elina

    What if one day you
    Build roads to bridges to space
    What if one day we

    Reply
  16. Millard Lowe

    The rain stopped falling…
    Happy worms came up to play…
    Hungry birds joined them…

    A web trapped a fly;
    A spider crawled to the catch:-
    A frog enjoyed both…

    Raging flames ashed trees,
    We prayed for rain;
    Mudslides stole our homes:-

    Reply
  17. Larry Coltin

    I want to mention the elephant in the room. I hope I am not out of line. I loved Martin Elster’s clever Haiku about the crickets. But the last line has 6 syllables. A stylized spelling of indifferent, (Indif’rent), I suppose could solve the problem, or is it a problem? Is there an exception to the rule?

    Reply

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