haiku definitions

These are short definitions of some common terms used in haiku and related poetry. Please contact me if you'd like some other terms defined or find any of the definitions unsatisfactory.

Forms: haiku | scifaiku | tanka | waka | renga | rengay | haikai no renga | senryu | haibun | haiga
Viewpoints: shasei | karumi | renso | hosomi | fukyo | kanjaku | wabi | sabi
Related terms: haijin | haigo | hokku | kigo (season word) | kire-ji (cutting word) | uta-makura | haiku moment
People: basho | buson | issa | shiki


haiku Haiku is a traditional Japanese poetry form composed of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. Actually, in Japanese they're usually written in one line, but still considered 3 separate units. Contemporary international haiku usually relaxes the syllable-count restriction. In English haiku, 1-3 lines of 17 syllables or less is the norm (14 syllables is often recommended). Haiku are poems about nature and generally follow the principles of minimalism and immediacy. Immediacy refers to the sense of a scene being directly presented to your senses. A haiku tries to capture a concrete image in place and time. A season word is usually required in the traditional form to place a poem in a specific season. A cutting word is also common to direct the flow of the poem.
scifaiku SciFaiku is a form derived from haiku with a science-fiction theme. Like haiku, SciFaiku poems stress minimalism and immediacy and are approximately 17 syllables or less. SciFaiku also frequently strives for insightful commentary on the human condition.
tanka Tanka are 5-line poems of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables respectively. They are often composed of 2 parts: the 5-7-5 part and the 7-7 part, though this division varies. Unlike haiku, they are not generally restricted to nature or to the use of season words. The term "tanka" often refers strictly to modern poems in this form, whereas "waka" refers to pre-20th-century poems.
waka Like tanka, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable poems. "Waka" usually refers to pre-modern poems.
renga A renga is a series of linked poems of alternating 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable stanzas. Renga is traditionally written collaboratively so that a group of writers alternates in writing each part. Renga stresses continual change. A renga never tells a story but instead is a series of stanzas where each stanza connects with its preceding stanza to form a meaningful unit, but no 3 stanzas in succession are intended to make sense. In fact, the emphasis is on adding a new stanza at each step which surprises in the way that it interprets the portion that immediately preceded it.
rengay A rengay is a modern 6-stanza form similar to renga, except that in contrast to a renga, a rengay is intended to deliberately carry a theme throughout, such as a common topic or a narrative. Rengay are intended to be collaborative -- with 2 authors (A and B), the number of lines for each stanza is A3 B2 A3 B3 A2 B3, where each successive stanza is written by an alternating author. With 3 authors, the sequence is A3 B2 C3 A2 B3 C2. Syllable count for each line is flexible, but 3-line stanzas are typically short-long-short (e.g. 5-7-5) and 2-line are typically long-long (e.g. 7-7).
"Haikai no renga" refers to a non-courtly form of renga, the kind that Basho wrote, a form of renga that stressed colloquial language, common experiences, and de-emphasized poetic flourishes. Haikai was often written for more humorous and less high-minded purposes, which allowed this form of renga a certain amount of vitality over the years.
senryu Senryu is structurally identical to haiku, that is, a 5-7-5 poem, but has a much more flexible content, in particular discussing human emotions and relationships as opposed to nature themes.
haibun Haibun is a prose form inspired by haiku. The form still stresses a certain conciseness of expression, but uses full prose sentences. It is used, for instance, for travel diaries, which include numerous references to natural scenes and contain good descriptive material. Haibun includes a number of haiku poems strewn throughout the text.
haiga Haiga is haiku-inspired art. Usually it is an illustration of a haiku with the haiku written on the picture. Haiga tends to be a fairly minimal style of painting.


These are terms used for various philosophical and stylistic approaches or attitudes to writing haiku.

shasei Shasei is the principle of "sketching from life" in a haiku, especially advocated by Shiki. The idea is that a haiku should be descriptive of a scene rather than be about abstractions or thoughts on the scene. Furthermore, to be true to a scene, most haiku should be written from actual experiences directly experienced as opposed to imagined scenes. Haiku should also be written while directly observing a scene and not generally from memory (which may distort an element of the scene). Thus, it may be considered inappropriate to write a "summer" haiku during the winter, since you couldn't possibly have been viewing a summer scene at that time.
karumi "Lightness", as opposed to heavy-handedness. A light tone suggests talking about very ordinary things and presenting them in ordinary ways. This presents a very personal and comfortable poetry, and is related to the whole haikai approach of producing common poetry, less tied up with court traditions.
renso The loose association of disparate images. A common approach to writing haiku is to mention 2 separate images and then in the 3rd line link them together in a surprising or unusual way.
hosomi "Slenderness". This principle advocates the use of short, simple, and understated language. Modest and unpretentious.
fukyo "Poetic dementia". Basho, and others that followed him, liked to delight in being mad poets. This eccentricity allowed a twisted view of the world in haiku, which was also consistent with the haikai spirit of being less formal and more playful.
kanjaku "Supreme quietness". Tranquility and meditation are often sought as a mood for haiku.
wabi Austere beauty. Beauty in loneliness and misery, in poverty and simplicity. Wabi and Sabi, I'm told, are not terms used much in the discussion of modern Japanese haiku, but reflect an important mindset and value system in the writing of traditional haiku.
sabi Quiet elegance. Elegant loneliness, simplicity, or deprivation. Elegance in antiquity and simplicity.

Related Terms

haijin The Japanese term for a haiku poet, as opposed to "shijin" which translates more directly to "poet".
haigo A haiku pen-name. Also haimyo.
hokku A hokku is the opening stanza of a renga. Historically, haiku derived from the fact that it became popular to prepare the opening stanza of a renga ahead of time as something that would be impressive for a renga session. Eventually, the hokku began to be written and appreciated more and more independently of renga...
kigo A kigo is the season word that is used in a haiku to place the poem in a particular context. For example, "snow" would be a word that denotes winter and "pumpkin" would be one that denotes autumn. Over time, Japanese kigo became highly conventionalized so that there are thousands (or more) season words whose connection to the particular season is relatively arbitrary rather than strictly meaningful.
kire-ji A kire-ji is a cutting word that indicates a transition or "thought-pause" in a haiku. Cutting words are apparently very common in Japanese haiku. In English haiku, some conjunctions may have a similar effect, but more common is the use of punctuation to indicate a transitionary point in a haiku, e.g. the use of dashes, ellipses, colons, periods, and exclamation marks:

--   ...   :   .   !
"Poetic pillow". A location which is traditionally famous because poems are written about it.
A moment of transcendence after reading a haiku and the imagery has its sensorial impact on you. Probably the idea of a haiku moment was meant to be parallel to the brief moment of enlightenment after reflecting on a Zen koan. A haiku moment is a sudden sense of urgent immediacy as, upon completing the reading of a haiku, you feel yourself thrust fully and tangibly into the scene described.


basho (1644-1694) Matsuo Basho is by far the most famous haiku poet of all time and, as so many poets aspire to, was designated a Shinto god! He aspired to live a life according to a poetic ideal of poverty and a little poetic craziness. He wrote lots of haiku and participated in many renga sessions, and is probably most famous for this frog haiku:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

an old pond,
frog-leaping :
water's sound...
buson (1716-1783) Yosa Buson was both an artist and a haiku poet. His experience in visual art reflects itself in his haiku with sharp observation and vivid images.
issa (1763-1827) Kobayashi Issa was a famous haiku poet who had a particular sense of humor and a sensitivity for the small and helpless things of this world: insects, small animals, children, etc.
shiki (1867-1902) Masaoka Shiki is the most famous of the more recent haiku poets and is credited with the modern revival of haiku. He particularly stressed imagery and direct experience in writing haiku.