A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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Haiku is one of the most enjoyable and challenging forms of poetry to write. The goal is to capture the physical movement of a specific moment in three tight lines. For the sake of this exercise, work in the standard English-language haiku form of 17 syllables, divided into lines of 5-7-5. Once you get the hang of haiku, you may opt to write leaner lines, or extend yourself into other Japanese forms such as tanka (5-7-5-7-7) or renga (a series of tanka, linked together).

Haiku are written in three lines, with a distinct grammatical break (called a kireji) between either the first and second lines, or second and third lines. The Japanese language has specific kireji words, such as "ya," but we must be content with punctuation marks. Colons and em dashes will dramatically set up the next segment of the observation. Commas will slow the eye and voice, while periods will clearly separate the haiku’s two distinct moments. Limit yourself to one punctuation mark per haiku, since your objective is to create space for a juxtaposition of the poem’s two parts. Although you write it as a moment in time, the reader interprets the implication of the relationship between the two parts – hence its enduring value.

While every word in a haiku is vital, the first line is doubly so. The first line sets the tone of the poem and sets the reader’s eyes on a precise image. Look at the first line of this haiku by Robert Spiess:

an aging willow–

See how Spiess created an immediate sense of timelessness, or at least elderly wisdom? The aging willow connotes seasoning and a sense of patient observation. We don’t know where the poet is going, but the first line sets up the action because of the presence of the em dash at the end of the line.

its image unsteady

Now we feel the age of the willow, its shakiness of stature and root…

in the flowing stream

…but wait. The flowing stream created the unsteady image, not necessarily the age of the tree. Spiess clearly wrote this poem with a pause at the end of the first line, so that lines two and three would define the relationship between the world and the tree. The universal theme is one of flowing with the aging process.

Try to write a haiku–or several haiku. Before you do, go to a natural setting and study a specific area. Visually create a circle thirty feet in diameter, and keep your eyes trained on that spot. When your observation connects with a specific movement, write your opening line. The movement may carry you through two lines, or just one. Either way, look for the juxtaposition in the relationship – aging willow/image unsteady – and use the rest of your haiku to write it out. Write sparsely and with precision. When you’ve completed your written observation, hone it to a 5-7-5 syllable count but leave nothing essential out.