Columns > Published on March 1st, 2021

Why Every Author Should Write Haiku

I am not a poet, except maybe in the sense that if you ever write something, you can call yourself a writer. So, I have written poems. I’ve even written a few not assigned by teachers in grade school. But I’m not a poet, really. Many of you reading this may not be either. So, why am I pushing the idea that you write haiku?

What is Haiku?

Haiku is a form of short poetry that originated in Japan. It contains a total of 17 syllables over three lines or phrases, with a pattern of 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 syllables in the last line. 5-7-5.

Traditional haiku was often part of a bigger poetic presentation. There were specific words required, there were seasonal references, and poems usually focused heavily on nature. Deviating from any of these rules often placed a poem in a different category than haiku.

Modern haiku, however, is often defined by the rules it breaks. Some stick with 17 syllables, but not always the 5-7-5 pattern. Others will incorporate more lines. Others arrange the words to create a shape with the poem.

Some of the modern drift in form was a byproduct of haiku being explored in other languages. Once it was written in Spanish, French, English, and other tongues, it was separated from the strict connection to Japanese tradition it previously held. These new haiku stood apart from the original framework in subject, too, and were influenced by other literary traditions within the various cultures where they were practiced.

Becoming Something More

If for no other reason, you should consider having children for the story content, but that is an idea for another article.

As I worked to grow my Patreon page, I shared 31 Stories for Halloween in October of 2019. Each day that month I posted a new short story, from the first through the thirty-first. I had a lot of trunk stories. I still do. So, I used them to provide content for the event.

It went over well, so I did 31 Horrors for the Holidays in December of 2019. Another story a day each day from the first through New Year’s Eve. I have a lot of trunk stories. Since then, I’ve been writing new stories, and was able to do the events in October and December of 2020. I’m already loading in stories for 2021’s events.

After December of 2019 and before the 2020 pandemic got going, I considered that maybe I had gotten Patreon supporters used to getting material daily. I couldn’t do a month of stories every other month, but I thought it might be good to do some other type of event. But what?

The younger of my two sons was learning about haiku with his reading/writing program in school, as we tend to do in grade school in America. He wrote a haiku about a panda that he was particularly proud of. My wife found it this morning as I was discussing writing this article. There were 29 days in February of 2020, so I decided to write a haiku for each day that month.

I get a number of story ideas from my children. One time my sons were playing 20 questions. The older boy worked to narrow down what the younger boy had picked. It turned out it was something that used to be alive. In frustration, with his final question, the older boy asked, “Are you a dead animal?” The younger boy said, “Yes.” “Which one?” the older one asked in an illegal twenty-first question. The younger brother answered, “I am all the dead animals.” I used that for the title of a story about a telepathic serial killer.

Another time, my older son had to write a new ending or a sequel to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". He discussed the assignment with me at length. After that, I wrote ten Christmas stories set after the events of Sleepy Hollow, each one providing a different explanation for the horseman, ranging from funny to extreme. If for no other reason, you should consider having children for the story content, but that is an idea for another article.

This time it was haiku. I wrote my 29 haiku and scheduled them for February. I didn’t advertise the event because I’m no poet and didn’t consider it a draw for new supporters as much as a fun little thing for current supporters. Turns out, people really liked it. Some of them were moved.

I was not goofing around with the form or treating poetry as a joke, but I didn’t take myself too seriously with it, either. I just didn’t expect it to “mean” something to the readers, which I suppose is a foolish way to write anything.

Some of those first 29 haiku were humorous. A couple were about supporters on the Patreon page. Others dove into feelings around writing. I went for depth with more than a few. I used subjects of nature in a couple to harken back to the traditional origins of the form as best I could. There was enough interest that I wrote 28 more for February of 2021.

Easy Entry, Difficult Mastery

Even if you are not a poet, modern haiku has an easy entry level. It’s the sort of poetry that has you counting on your fingers to match up the syllables, words, and lines. It’s so much more than getting the counts right, though. If that’s all it was, it would be about as fulfilling as shortening a clever tweet to fit the character limit on Twitter.

I’ve read haiku from poets, both historic and current, that make me question if I truly understand what words are capable of. There are poets in all forms within my circle of professional connections that leave me staring at the page wondering how it was possible to put words and emotions together so well. It’s easy to count syllables, but I’m barely scratching the surface of what language can achieve in this form. I am going deeper than I ever expected with it, though.

The next 28 haiku I wrote was a more serious exercise. I put my foolishness aside and tried to dig as deep into each topic for each poem as I could.

Haiku Writing Can Make Non-Poets Better Authors

I’m not certain of my abilities as a poet, but I am certain that writing haiku is an underutilized path for improving as a wordsmith.

Poetry is meant to communicate a lot in the fewest amount of words. The concise nature of haiku can help writers practice economy of thought in a way freeform poetry might not. It can help with selecting the strongest word for the moment. It can show the power of description using words other than adjectives and adverbs. It gives isolated practice on cutting unnecessary fat. Writing haiku provides a micro-lesson on creating rhythm. It requires authors to cut to the very core of what’s being communicated. This is all stuff we’re told about prose writing over and over. Haiku, however, provides a unique opportunity to break our habits and really focus on these principles.

As we start to get the feel for creating powerful emotions in short verse, there is an opportunity to tap into that creative pathway when trying to invoke emotion from readers as we write prose. When the syllables, words, and pages are limitless, we might be tempted to say too little by writing and describing too much. With a passage meant to carry the reader forward or transport them to another state, lessons learned from the poetic side of language might be the tool needed to achieve this.

No Cheap Syllables

One of the creators I follow on Twitch is a typewriter poet who streams under the name of WalkingMallPoet. As far as I know, he still goes out in public and types poems live as people watch.

On a recent stream, he was typing haiku that had been commissioned for a wedding to be distributed around the tables for people to read, keep, or leave behind for others. All of the haiku were wedding related from ideas about love, the ceremony, the future, and more.

In the stream, he talked about trying to find the right words that did not require extra articles or conjunctions to cheat out the syllable count to make the poems work. I’m guilty of that. Throwing in a “and” or a “the” to get seven syllables in that middle line. He wanted no cheap syllables, no throwaway words to clutter the words that really cut the soul.

In one poem about the toast, he was going to use “garish gratitude,” but then decided he wanted a different adjective. He was willing to give up alliteration to get the right word with just the right meaning. It had to be two syllables though. He finally settled on brassy. The search for the right word is a ritual any writer can relate to. The journey to finding “brassy” for that haiku had a different depth to it for me as an observer, reader, and a writer. The act of trying to find that word was as beautiful to me as the poem itself, banging into life on that typewriter. No cheap syllables. No throwaway words.

No Disrespect to the Form

My suggestion that prose writers should experiment with haiku is meant as no disrespect to the form. My implication is the opposite. There is so much to learn and develop by exploring this rich form, even at a beginner level.

I doubt I will ever master haiku as an artform. I doubt many masters through history would claim to have mastered it, even if they did recognize their own skill. Just as mastering short story writing or writing the “Great American Novel” are precarious goals, you want to utilize every tool at your disposal to close in on those goals. I’m not certain of my abilities as a poet, but I am certain that writing haiku is an underutilized path for improving as a wordsmith.

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About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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