The Far Eastern art of haiku

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Simple three-line verse, the Japanese way to write. Alan Peat explains Illustrated by Gerry Ball

Haiku is a wonderful form of poetry for primary children, but teachers sometimes overemphasise its formal structure of 17 syllables divided into three lines of five, seven and five syllables. Although it can be useful to impose such a structure when first approaching this old Japanese form of poetry, a deeper understanding of the component parts is essential to a clear appreciation of the form and its purpose.


Five-seven-five haiku are often referred to as "strict form" and poems without this structure are known as "free-form". In the main, however, haiku writers arrange their poems over three lines, with the second invariably longer than the other two.

English language free-form haiku are on the increase as more people notice that English can provide the same amount of information in fewer syllables than an equivalent Japanese work.

Strict form haiku

Young couple kissing -

a mother looking through them

and into her past.

Free-form haiku

On the bare walls

shadows of paintings,

Moving house.

What is good haiku?

To have the right approach, Bill Higginson's The Haiku Handbook tells us: "When we compose a haiku we are saying, 'It is hard to tell you how I am feeling. Perhaps if I share with you the event that made me aware of these feelings, you will have similar feelings of your own'."

The best haiku often break all the rules, but first we need to know what they are and what aspects make them successful.

l Use of the present tense to create a sense of immediacy. This engenders empathy through implied involvement and lets the reader see through the eyes of the writer.

* Infrequent use of adjectives: too many adjectives only spoon-feed an image to the reader.

* They avoid of simile, metaphor and personification.

* Redrafting: although some haiku are created spontaneously, redrafting, particularly with reference to unnecessary words, is useful. In the introduction to The Haiku Hundred, James Kirkup wrote: "If the poet wants to make every word count, then every word has to be justified."

* The suggestion of something more than the incident or object described. "Haiku isI like oriental art, suggestive of something not stated, a craft of speaking emptiness that leaves space for the reader's mind to work in," says Kirkup.

The last of these aspects is the most difficult to teach. Hwever, with examples to hand and a willingness to discuss the concept of suggestion, remarkable results can be achieved. Take these haiku:

Early Spring morning

only the sunlight playing

on the climbing frame

The grey-black

of a lolly stick

in October's gutter

The first suggests the loss of childhood through the absence of children, whereas the second refers to a lolly stick, reminding the writer of summer. In October this can be a depressing experience, as the poem suggests.

Subject matter

Traditionally, the natural world is the main subject matter of haiku. Japanese poets often include a kigo, a season word used to denote the time of year in which the haiku is set. An English haiku might use "snow" as a kigo for winter or "lambs" as a kigo for spring.

If a kigo is not used, traditional writers usually include a kidai, a seasonal activity. "Picking daffodils" would function as a kidai for spring in a British haiku.

This haiku features a kigo.

From a frosty path,

upended swimming pools

wearing reductions.

This example has a kidai.

Break from leaf-clearing,

reading a travel brochure -

on each page a sun.

Modern haiku do not require references to a season and most recently written haiku are seasonless. However, the national literacy framework includes an objective in Year 6, term 3 (text level work, to write a sequence of poems linked by theme or form, for example a haiku calendar) for which the teaching of both kigo and kidai would be appropriate.

It is also worthwhile introducing the concept of a renga, a connected chain of haiku written by a group. It also allows for paired writing.

The point to remember is that writing haiku has more to do with "sharing moments of our lives that have moved us," as Bill Higginson wrote, than adhering to a syllabic formula.


* The Haiku Handbook by William J Higginson, Kodanasha Europe, Gillingham House, 38-44 Gillingham Street, London SW1V 1HU

* The Haiku Hundred, by James Kirkup, Iron Press, 5 Marden Terrace, Cullercoats, North Shields, Tyne and Wear NE30 4PD

Alan Peat is an advisory teacher with Oldham Education and Leisure Service. Haiku in this article were written by Alan Peat, whose work appears in the British Haiku Society journal, Blithe Spirit; in his collection of poems, Electric Obituary (Redbeck Press,pound;3.95) and in his new book,The Key Stage 2 Poetry Pack (Questions Publishing, pound;12.99)

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