Kayko's Haiku Room


Above stormy seas,
    the crane's wings brush the wave tops
    before winter's rest.
                      –Kayko Miyazaki

Kayko Miyazaki is a character in The Raintree Rebellion who writes haiku.  Haiku is a form of poetry that developed in Japan centuries ago, and is practiced by people all over the world today. It's not surprising that I write haiku, like my character Kayko. I often write haiku when I'm travelling, because it's hard to write anything longer when you're moving around, and because I find the new experiences of travel make me more aware of my surroundings.

I was in Halifax in 2004 in the aftermath of hurricane Juan. The city was covered in fallen trees, and people were driving around looking at them, which struck me as odd. This is what I wrote:

The hurricane goes.
Broken trees lie silent now,
people come to stare.

A few years later, I was travelling through Saskatchewan for Children's Book Week in November. The flat, mostly treeless landscape of Saskatchewan couldn't be more different from the rocky, spruce covered hills of my home province of Newfoundland at first glance. But as I travelled around by bus, hour after hour, I noticed that little farming towns stood out against the snow in the way that reminded me of Newfoundland outports seen from the sea. I wrote this haiku:

On winter prairies,
Settlements look like islands
in vast seas of snow.

I like to teach haiku writing when I do workshops with young readers because the form is simple and easy to master, and nobody has to worry about writing a great haiku. All the poems are small and simple. If you're interesting in writing your own haiku, follow along with me.

What is a Haiku?

A haiku is a short poem about nature. In Japanese, the haiku has its own form. In European languages, we write haiku in three lines, with five, seven and five syllables. If you look at the examples above and count out the syllables, you'll see the underlying haiku form. Some people don't follow the five/seven/five form strictly, but I like to encourage students to try to as much as possible. This limitation forces us to think carefully about language, which is the whole point of writing poetry.

A haiku aims to catch a small moment in nature. Sometimes, poems are about things that shock or disturb or bother us, but haiku is not the form for this type of poetry. Haiku aim to create a sense of peace. The writer's feelings are not included; the moment is allowed to speak for itself. We also try not to use imagery in haiku. A cloud is not like an angel's wing, it's just a cloud. In Japan, haiku are often based on "season words." Certain words represent certain seasons. If you use snow in a poem, for example, the reader will understand that it's set in winter. In Japan, if the word "frog" is used in a haiku, the reader will understand that the poem is set in spring. We don't have this idea in the west, but the concept of season words is useful when writing haiku.

Another important concept is "the haiku moment." Sometimes, when you're outside, something happens that catches your attention. It might be as simple as the way the light shines through the trees, or the way the wind blows the snow. It might be something more special, the sight of the first robin in spring, or the first red leaf in fall. These moments are what we try to capture in haiku, so they can be called "haiku moments." Traditionally, the writing of haiku poetry is related to Zen Buddhism. This religion encourages people to live in the present moment, and to fully experience the world around them. Haiku does the same thing. When we write haiku, we try to capture a single moment exactly as it happened, without adding the kinds of emotions and images that would distort or interpret the picture.  

How to Write Haiku
Haiku are not difficult to write. Begin with the season you are now living in. Go outside and take a look around. Pay attention to the way the season makes you feel. The summer sun feels very different from the winter wind. How can you tell what season this is? Engage all of your senses. Are the sounds of fall different from the sounds of summer? Does spring smell differently from winter? This kind of awareness is important to the writing of haiku. If you have a chance to walk every day, start to pay more attention to everything going on around you.  
Make your own list of "season words" to go with the season you are in now. This will help you write your own haiku.

What you don’t have to do when you write haiku:

You don’t need to write complete sentences, as long as you make pictures with the words.

A haiku does not need a title.

You don’t need to tell what your feelings are. This isn’t important.

You don’t need to add modifiers, words that describe. If you write “Winter wind,” you don’t need to add anything about cold. Winter wind is always cold.

You don't need to use articles, words like "the" or "a" can be left out.

What you do want to do when you write haiku:

You want to create a picture of some small moment, connected to nature in some way.

You want to write your poem in three lines. If possible, the first and last lines should have five syllables, and the second line should have seven.  You can break this rule when necessary, but  see if you can stick to the haiku form whenever possible.

 Haiku Templates

To get started, here are some examples of haiku with missing lines. You can start off by adding a final line to these haiku templates, then go to the next level, where you write two lines to complete the haiku. In the final section, I'll give you some ideas to fill in to create your own original poem.

Spring Haiku Templates 

No ice on the lake
Seagulls fly in cloudless sky
(write the last line).

Soap bubble flying
(write the last two lines)

Fall Haiku Templates

One yellow leaf falls
against summer-green trees
(write the last line)

The fall wind brought it
(write the last two lines)

Winter Haiku Templates

Sun goes down early
shadows short against the snow
(write the next last)

All day the snow falls
(write the next two lines)

Template for Any Season

Line one: Say what
Line two: Say where
Line three: Say when