Haiku, which originated in Japan, is one of the most popular forms of poetry in the world.

A haiku poem is usually divided into three lines of 17 syllables (5, 7, and 5 syllables) or fewer in English. A haiku usually records a significant moment in time as reflected in nature or a person’s experience. It is like a Japanese ink brush painting.

These days many haiku poets in Japan and around the world do not adhere to the more established 5-7-5 syllable format. Rather, they have adopted an even briefer form that more closely mirrors the traditional sense of haiku as embodied in the brevity of the Japanese language.

Generally speaking, haiku are not rhyming poems. But repeated sounds are often key in deepening the sense of emotion that a poet is trying to convey. Three of the most famous Japanese haiku poets are Basho, Buson and Issa.

Here are a few classic haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound
–Matsuo Basho (translated by William J. Higginson)

Summer grass—
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams.
–Matsuo Basho (translated by Robert Hass)

evening breeze . . .
water laps the legs
of the blue heron
–Yosa Buson (translated by William J. Higginson)

Sleeping late—
stuck to the soles of his sandals,
cherry blossoms.
–Yosa Buson (translated by Robert Hass)

oh, don’t swat!
the fly rubs hands
rubs feet
–Kobayasji Issa (translated by William J. Higginson)

the woman
leads into the mist—
low tide beach
–Kobayasji Issa (translated by William J. Higginson)

In the early 1900s, haiku had a profound influence on the Imagists. In particular, Ezra Pound is known for a famous poem written in the haiku spirit, “In a Station of the Metro,” and many arguments have ensued about whether or not it is a haiku:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
–Ezra Pound

Since then English-language haiku has branched off in many different directions. There are many schools of thought today, some adhering to the traditional 5-7-5, while others experiment with one-word haiku or combinations of words.

Here are some of Rick’s favorite haiku books, from which you can learn more about the history of haiku and its foremost practitioners:

Haiku in English, by Harold G. Henderson – a slim volume and great introduction to haiku.

The Haiku Handbook, by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter – a thorough introduction to haiku and its teaching.

Haiku (in four volumes), by R. H. Blyth – just an incredible series that is still the best in terms of its introduction to haiku and its translation.

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa, edited by Robert Hass – a terrific collection of haiku and other Japanese forms by the three main Japanese haiku masters.

Nick Virgilio: A Life in Haiku by Nick Virgilio – One of the masters of haiku in English, Virgilio wrote some exquisite nature poems as well as others about life in Camden, NJ, and the loss of his younger brother in Vietnam. This volume was published by Turtle Light Press when Rick discovered a cache of hundreds if not thousands of unpublished poems by Virgilio in the Rutgers-Camden University Library.

And here are two websites that can serve as springboards to a wide range of haiku sites and contests, organizations, haiku blogs, learning sites, or more:

The Haiku Society of America is a great place to start to learn more about haiku and meet people all over the U.S. who are fond of the art form. If you’re interested in haiku, consider joining a haiku circle near where you live and thereby get to know haiku poets in your area.

The Haiku Foundation is a fount of information. It has forums about haiku, poems by many of today’s top haiku writers, lists of haiku contests, and the latest news.