What Is Haiku – essay by Gautam Nadkarni

Here is the first of a series of essays by Gautam Nadkarni on the art of haiku writing.


What Is Haiku

                   Before one sets out to write haiku, one must know what haiku is and how it differs from other genres of poetry. I will not give definitions of haiku, for there are scores of them, but will give a description with examples to give the reader a chance to figure it out for himself .

Traditionally, a haiku is meant to capture a moment in time, and freeze it for eternity; a moment of beauty, sadness and realization experienced by the poet. This moment is referred to as the ‘haiku moment’.


calm and serene

the sound of a cicada

penetrates the rock

~ Matsuo Basho


In this haiku by Basho, the point of time when the ‘sound of a cicada’ penetrates a rock [in a literal or metaphorical sense] and is heard by the poet, making him feel ‘calm and serene’, this point of time, frozen in the poet’s psyche forever, is called the haiku moment or the ‘Aha moment’. The purpose of writing a haiku is to convey this moment to the reader, so that it finds an echo in the reader’s mind, and gives him an insight into the poet’s consciousness. The reader should himself experience what the poet felt. Brevity and precision are attributes of good haiku; the Aha moment would be lost if the poem were cluttered with unnecessary verbiage, so also the profundity and impact. This is what makes haiku different from other genres of poetry, like free verse or mainstream poetry, which are often plagued with detailed descriptions and clever turns of phrase, which would kill a haiku.

Structure-wise, a haiku in English traditionally consists of 3 lines. These 3 lines are broken into 2 parts, one part being the ‘fragment’, and the other part being the ‘phrase’.

The fragment is brief and usually gives the kigo [seasonal word] and the setting or backdrop for the poem. Perhaps it would be judicious to mention here, that most editors insist on a haiku containing a kigo or seasonal reference. This fragment is followed by a long pause which is expressed by an em-dash [kireji – in Japanese]or sometimes a comma, but never by a full stop, semi-colon or exclamation mark. Also, the fragment comes either on line 1 [in which case there is a punctuation following it] or on line 3 [in which case there may be a punctuation preceding it]. Sometimes, when the long pause is obvious, or understood, due to the wording of the haiku, there may be no punctuation at all.

The phrase is the body or soul of the haiku and links two images by way of comparison, contrast, or association. This phrase occupies 2 lines of the poem; the first two, or the last two, depending on the placing of the fragment. For example:


caught in a sudden shower

huddling sparrows

vie to get at the grass leaves

~ Yosa Buson


Here, line 1 [L1] — ‘caught in a sudden shower’, is the fragment, containing the kigo, ‘shower’, which represents the summer when it rains, and also provides a backdrop or setting for the phrase to follow. Obviously then, ‘huddling sparrows / vie to get at the grass leaves’, is the phrase, consisting of the 2 images, ‘sparrows’ and ‘grass leaves’, linked by the verb ‘vie…’. Note that the images are disparate — one usually does not associate sparrows with grass leaves, which makes the haiku all the more interesting.

Another haiku, this time in the original English, a contemporary one, to give the reader a clearer idea of fragment and phrase. The haiku by the Japanese masters sometimes suffer in their translation into English, and the readers must bear this in mind, in order not to be misled one way or the other.


morning prayers —

a rain of champak flowers

on the deity

~ Gautam Nadkarni


Here, ‘morning prayers’ followed by an em-dash, is the fragment, which in this case gives the setting or backdrop for the phrase to follow. Clearly then, ‘a rain of champak flowers / on the deity’, is the phrase which links the two images, champak flowers and the deity. ‘Champak flowers’ here, is the obvious kigo, for summer.

A word about the structure of haiku to clear one of the misconceptions that the layman or beginner has about the poem. Although in Japanese language haiku there are a total of 17 on-jis [sound parts], distributed over 3 lines in the 5-7-5 format, these on-jis are not the same as syllables in the English language. On-jis are typical only to Japanese and MUST NOT be confused with syllables. The word haiku contains 3 on-jis in Japanese, that is, ha-i-ku, but only 2 syllables in English, hai-ku. A few haiku poets still write in the 5-7-5 syllables format even in English, and it is considered as acceptable by editors, as long as the poem does not get over-padded with words and awkward or heavy. The vast majority of haijin, however, have discarded the 17 syllables format altogether and strive merely for brevity well within 17 syllables.

In the next episode, we will learn something about how to read haiku — something which is a necessary prerequisite to writing haiku, and is considered even more difficult than the latter activity.