What is A Good Haiku?

by Amy

Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, has captured the hearts and minds of poets and readers worldwide with its simplicity and depth. This article explores what makes a haiku exceptional by examining its structure, essential elements, and the emotional resonance it can evoke. We will also provide examples of renowned haiku and practical tips for writing your own.

Definition of Haiku

A haiku is a brief, three-line poem traditionally composed of 17 syllables, arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern. Originating from Japan, haiku emerged as a distinct form during the Edo period (1603-1868), evolving from earlier forms of collaborative linked-verse poetry called renga. The modern haiku was popularized by Matsuo Bashō, one of Japan’s most famous poets, whose work emphasized the beauty of nature and the simplicity of everyday moments.

In Japanese, haiku are typically written in a single vertical line, but when translated into English or other languages, they are often formatted into three lines to maintain the 5-7-5 syllabic structure. While contemporary haiku in English sometimes deviate from this strict syllable count, the essence of capturing a fleeting moment with clarity and depth remains central.

Essential Elements of a Good Haiku

Kigo (Seasonal Word): A fundamental characteristic of traditional haiku is the inclusion of a kigo, or seasonal word, which situates the poem in a particular time of year. This practice grounds the haiku in the natural world, reflecting the changes and cycles of nature. The kigo is not merely a decorative element but serves to deepen the reader’s understanding and emotional response to the poem.

Kireji (Cutting Word): The kireji, or cutting word, is another critical element in traditional haiku, used to create a pause or a sense of closure. In Japanese, kireji are specific words or sounds that provide a rhetorical break, adding emotional depth or contrast to the poem. In English, this effect is often achieved through punctuation such as a dash, ellipsis, or a colon.

Imagery and Sensory Detail

A good haiku relies heavily on vivid imagery and sensory details to evoke emotions and create a strong visual picture. The power of haiku lies in its ability to capture a moment in time with precision and clarity, often focusing on small, seemingly mundane details that reveal deeper truths.

Effective haiku use concrete images that appeal to the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This sensory engagement draws the reader into the poem’s world, allowing them to experience the scene as if they were there. Consider this haiku by Kobayashi Issa:

The snow is melting
And the village is flooded
With children.

Here, the melting snow and the resulting activity in the village are depicted with simplicity and directness, creating a vivid picture that resonates emotionally with the reader.

Simplicity and Clarity

One of the hallmarks of a good haiku is its simplicity and clarity. The language used should be straightforward, with each word carefully chosen to carry weight and meaning. Haiku eschew elaborate descriptions or metaphors, instead opting for a direct presentation of the subject.

This simplicity allows the reader to engage directly with the poem without the distraction of superfluous language. The clarity of expression ensures that the haiku’s message or insight is conveyed effectively. Shiki Masaoka, a reformer of haiku poetry, emphasized this principle in his work:

Night; and once again,
The while I wait for you, cold wind
Turns into rain.

The straightforward language and clear imagery convey the sense of longing and change, without unnecessary embellishments.

Emotional Resonance

A good haiku should evoke an emotional response or convey a profound thought or feeling. Despite its brevity, a haiku can capture complex emotions and invite introspection. The emotional impact of a haiku often lies in its ability to suggest rather than state, allowing readers to draw their own connections and interpretations.

This emotional resonance is achieved through the combination of imagery, seasonal reference, and the interplay of contrasting ideas. For example, consider this haiku by Bashō:

In the cicada’s cry
No sign can foretell
How soon it must die.

The haunting cry of the cicada, a symbol of the fleeting nature of life, evokes a sense of impermanence and poignancy. The haiku’s power lies in its ability to stir these emotions through a simple yet profound observation of nature.

Tips for Writing Good Haiku

For those inspired to write their own haiku, here are some practical tips and exercises to help you craft effective and resonant poems.

Practice Observation

Spend time observing the natural world and everyday moments. Pay attention to small details, changes in seasons, and fleeting moments. Jot down your observations in a notebook, focusing on what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

Focus on Nature

Traditional haiku often centers around nature and the changing seasons. Use this focus to ground your haiku and connect with the larger cycles of life. Look for seasonal words (kigo) that can enrich your poem.

Experiment with Juxtaposition

Use juxtaposition to create depth and contrast in your haiku. Place two seemingly unrelated images or ideas next to each other to prompt reflection and emotional response. Experiment with kireji or punctuation to create a natural pause or shift in the poem.

Keep It Simple

Embrace simplicity in your language and imagery. Avoid overly complex words or descriptions. Aim for clarity and precision, ensuring that each word serves a purpose. Remember that less is often more in haiku.

Evoke Emotion

Think about the emotions or thoughts you want to convey through your haiku. Use sensory details and imagery to evoke these feelings subtly. Trust the reader to make connections and find meaning in the poem.

Read Widely

Read haiku by renowned poets, both traditional and contemporary. Analyze their work to understand the techniques and elements that make their haiku effective. Learning from established poets can provide inspiration and insight for your writing.

Write Regularly

Like any form of writing, practice is essential. Write haiku regularly to hone your skills and develop your unique voice. Don’t be afraid to revise and refine your poems to achieve the desired effect.


A good haiku is a delicate balance of simplicity, clarity, vivid imagery, and emotional depth. By understanding the essential elements of haiku—such as kigo and kireji—and focusing on sensory detail and juxtaposition, you can craft poems that capture the beauty and poignancy of fleeting moments. Whether you are a seasoned poet or a beginner, the art of haiku offers a profound way to connect with the world and express the inexpressible.

FAQs about Haiku

1. What is Considered a Good Haiku?

A good haiku is characterized by several key elements that together create a concise and evocative poem:

  • Structure: Traditionally, a haiku consists of 17 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern across three lines. While modern haiku in English can sometimes deviate from this strict syllable count, maintaining brevity and focus is crucial.
  • Kigo (Seasonal Word): A good haiku often includes a kigo, a word or phrase that signifies the season, grounding the poem in a specific time of year and enhancing its natural imagery.
  • Kireji (Cutting Word): The use of a kireji or a cutting word creates a pause or break within the poem, juxtaposing two images or ideas to add depth and invite reflection.
  • Imagery and Sensory Detail: Vivid imagery and sensory details are essential. A good haiku paints a clear and impactful picture, engaging the reader’s senses to evoke emotions and create a lasting impression.
  • Simplicity and Clarity: The language in a good haiku is simple and clear, with each word carefully chosen for its weight and meaning. Avoiding unnecessary complexity allows the poem’s essence to shine through.
  • Emotional Resonance: A good haiku often conveys a profound thought or feeling subtly and effectively, evoking an emotional response in the reader through its imagery and juxtaposition.

2. What is the Most Popular Haiku?

One of the most popular and widely known haiku is by Matsuo Bashō, a master of the form:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond—
Splash! Silence again.

This haiku is celebrated for its simplicity, vivid imagery, and the profound stillness it captures. The juxtaposition of the frog’s sudden action with the enduring silence exemplifies the use of kireji and creates a moment of reflection that resonates deeply with readers.

3. What is an Example of a Haiku Poem?

Here is a traditional example of a haiku by Yosa Buson:

A field of cotton—
As if the moon
Had flowered.

Buson’s haiku uses striking visual imagery to create a serene and beautiful scene. The comparison of the cotton field to a moonlit landscape evokes a sense of wonder and tranquility.

Another example by contemporary poet Richard Wright:

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

Wright’s haiku captures a vivid scene with sensory details—the sound of the signboard, the sight of whitecaps. The kigo (April wind) situates the poem in a specific time, adding to the atmospheric quality.

4. How Do You Write a Perfect Haiku?

Writing a perfect haiku involves understanding and applying its essential elements while practicing observation and creativity. Here are some steps to help you craft a haiku:

  • Observe and Reflect: Spend time observing nature and everyday moments. Note small details and changes in the environment, focusing on what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.
  • Choose a Moment: Select a specific moment or scene that resonates with you. Haiku often capture fleeting instances that reveal deeper truths or emotions.
  • Include a Kigo: Incorporate a seasonal word to ground your haiku in a particular time of year. This can add depth and context to your imagery.
  • Use Juxtaposition: Create contrast or a shift within your haiku by placing two images or ideas next to each other. Use punctuation (such as a dash or ellipsis) to create a natural pause or break.
  • Keep It Simple: Embrace simplicity in your language and imagery. Avoid elaborate descriptions and focus on clarity and precision.
  • Evoke Emotion: Aim to convey a subtle emotion or thought through your haiku. Use sensory details and vivid imagery to evoke feelings and invite reflection.
  • Revise and Refine: Write multiple drafts and revise your haiku to achieve the desired effect. Each word should carry weight and contribute to the overall impact of the poem.

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