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Screen-Free Poetry: Haiku

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This is a guest post from Megan White, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. Note from Sasha Dowdy: I had the pleasure of advising on this post. I grew up in Japan during my formative years and continued studying the language and culture – I even earned my BA from the University of Maryland in Japanese! Haiku and Japanese literature are close to my heart, so helping out a little on this post that makes haiku accessible to young people is a delight and an honor. I hope you all enjoy!

The change of seasons is a good time to get outside with kids to explore nature–or perhaps cozy up in front of a cold window–and decompress. Writing poetry with pencil and paper can create a mental and physical break to allow children (and adults) to process emotions and practice mindfulness. Short haiku are a great place to get started.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the 17th century haiku master, wrote what is probably the most well-known haiku:

“Matsuo Basho” by Taiso Yoshitoshi. Prints and Photographs Division.

The old pond—
The frog jumps in:
The sound of water

Two of my favorites from Basho are:

as I clap my hands
with the echoes, it begins to dawn –
the summer moon

autumn wind’s
mouth at the sliding door
a piercing voice

And here is another example of haiku from 20th century poet Yoshino Yoshiko (yes – she is 105 years old!):

like a ninja
a crow on the paddy
always alone

Haiku are still one of the most popular forms of poetry today. Many American poets have experimented with haiku, some using the traditional format, and others taking a more free-form approach. Ezra Pound’s short poem about a metro station is often considered the first American haiku:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
petals on a wet, black bough.

When you look closely, cities are full of natural and wild elements. Ask your children if they can think of times when they have noticed nature in the city. Maybe it was a pigeon, wild flowers growing through the cracks of a sidewalk, or clouds racing across the sky. What natural elements can you find?

Here are a few other modern American haiku. Notice how some of them use imagery from the city and note that some of them follow the 5-7-5 syllable format while others don’t.

Elizabeth Searle Lamb (1917-2005)

on the winter balcony
first star

Gary Snyder (born 1930)

A great freight truck
Lit like a town
Through the dark stony desert

Edith Shiffert (1916-2017)

A leaf of bamboo
drifts down to the balcony,
the old cat bites it.

Write Haiku Together

To begin, print a copy of this post, head outside together, and find a nice place to read these poems. Ask your children to count the syllables in the poems by Basho and Yoshino. They’ll notice that they often don’t have the proscribed number of syllables.

These poems were translated from Japanese. Because each word doesn’t have the same number of syllables in English and Japanese, the translator had to choose between capturing the essence of the poem and using words that match the syllable count. Most translators will opt to capture the essence of the poem.

You might also ask:

  • What season do you think is represented in each poem? What word makes you think that?
  • What changes or transformations do you notice in each of these poems?
  • What emotion did you feel with each poem? What words made you feel that emotion?
  • What do these poems have in common?

Then, write your own poem. As you do, remember to:

  1. Aim for three lines, with five syllables, then seven, then five. Count these syllables together.
  2. Stretch your senses. First pay attention to sound… maybe you hear a motorcycle as it roars seven blocks away or maybe you live in the country and you hear a bird in the valley below. Notice each sound as you try to hear farther and farther away. Do this with each sense: smell, sight, touch, maybe even taste if you brought a snack.
  3. Notice a transformation, some small change around you that catches your attention. Then see if you can write a haiku that creates a picture of that change. Haiku in English should represent a change in a moment.
  4. Incorporate kigoKigo is a word that references the season or the time of day to root the poem in a very specific moment. Ask your children if they can find the kigo in the poems above. Note that, while examples in this post mention the season by name, most haiku kigo are indirect. For example, bamboo represents summer, dragonflies = fall, plum blossoms = early spring, hibernating animals = winter.
  5. Remember the rules, but also remember that expressing yourself is important. When you’re done, share your haiku with us in the comments. We’d love to read them!
“Teahouse at Koishikawa the morning after a snowfall” by Hokusai Katsushika, Prints and Photographs Division.

Looking for more inspiration? Explore the Library’s digital collection of Japanese woodblock prints, and check out these haiku collections for children:

  • “Haiku: Japanese Art and Poetry” by Judith Patt (Pomegranate, 2010)
  • “My First Book of Haiku Poems: a Picture, a Poem, and a Dream” by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen (Tuttle Publishing, 2019)
  • “H is for Haiku: A Treasury of Haiku from A to Z” by Sydell Rosenberg (Penny Candy, 2018)
  • “Hi Koo!: A Year of Seasons” by Jon J. Muth (Scholastic, 2014) – this title is available in the Library’s braille collections at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled!

We look forward to reading your creations!

Comments (2)

  1. I am elated and honored that you have included Sydell Rosenberg’s H IS FOR HAIKU in your lovely article (Penny Candy Books; illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi). This collection of piquant poems was honored by the National Council for Teachers of English as a 2019 “Notable Poetry Book.”

    Sydell was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America in 1968. I’m a member today. Her new chapbook, POISED ACROSS THE SKY, has just been published by a fine small literary press, Kattywompus Press —

    Thank you so much!

  2. I learned that Haikus are mainly about nature and how they are typically very simple. I learned that Haikus are made to tell simple stories through 17 syllables within 3 lines. The collection of Haikus all has something in common, they were all about nature. My favorite Haiku in the list above was the on about the frog jumping into the pond because of its simplicity and imagery.

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