Haiku Checklist

I provide copies of this checklist at most of the haiku workshops I give. Not previously published, but later published in Ouachita Life in the Autumn of 2013. See also my longer essays, The Practical Poet: Creating a Haiku Checklist and Lorraine Ellis Harr’s ISN’Ts of Haiku. Other useful checklists for writing haiku are available on the Literary Kicks site, by Joshua Gage; on Writinghood, by Myron Lysenko; and on Baymoon, by Ebba Story and Joan Zimmerman. For additional information on writing haiku, including its myths and realities, please read Becoming a Haiku Poet and Further Reading. Read a translation and discussion of this checklist in Russian, and Linda Naiman’s blog entry in which she shares the following list and poems she crafted after a haiku walk I led.

 

“I’m sure that writing isn’t a craft, that is, something for which you learn the skills and go on turning out. It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration. That can’t be taught, it can’t be what you use in teaching.” —Robert Lowell

 

“The first discipline is the realization that there is a discipline—that all art begins and ends with discipline, that any art is first and foremost a craft.” —Archibald MacLeish
 
If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an artless art growing out of the Unconscious.”
—D. T. Suzuki, in his introduction to Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery
 
For haiku inspiration, look closely at everything around you in nature, at home, at school, and at work. Write your haiku first, letting yourself be free and creative. Then ask the following questions about your haiku to help you improve them.
  1. How long is your haiku? It’s usually good to write in three lines of about 10 to 17 syllables. In English, haiku don’t have to be in the pattern of 5-7-5 syllables—the following questions are much more important.
  2. Does your haiku name or suggest one of the seasons—spring, summer, fall, or winter? In Japanese, a kigo or “season word” tells readers when the poem happens, such as saying “tulips” for spring or “snow” for winter. This is one of the most important things to do in haiku.
  3. Does your poem make a “leap,” by having two parts? In Japanese, a kireji or “cutting word” usually cuts the poem into two parts (never three). Giving your poem two fragmentary parts is also one of the most important things to do in haiku.
  4. Is your haiku about common, everyday events in nature or human life? To help you do this, describe what you experience through your five senses.
  5. Does your poem give readers a feeling? It can do this by presenting what caused your feeling rather than the feeling itself. So others can feel what you felt, don’t explain or judge what you describe.
  6. Is your poem in the present tense? To make your haiku feel like it’s happening right now, use the present tense.
  7. Did you write from your own personal experience? When you write other kinds of poetry, you can make things up, but try not to do that with haiku. Memories are okay, though.
  8. How did you capitalize or punctuate your poem? Haiku are usually not sentences (they’re usually fragments), so they don’t need to start with a capital, or end with a period.
  9. Does your haiku avoid a title and rhyme? Haiku are not like other poems, which may have these things. Haiku don’t have titles and rarely rhyme.
  10. What can you do with your haiku? Can you illustrate them, collect them in a notebook, or display them? You could write haiku in your journal every day, enter them in a contest, publish them, or share them at a poetry reading or online.
With practice, you won’t need to ask yourself these questions about your haiku. Japanese haiku master Bashō said to “learn the rules and then forget them.” What I believe he meant was that it’s good to internalize the rules (or targets, as I like to call them) so thoroughly that you no longer have to think about them, the way a chess grandmaster no longer thinks of making bad moves. Have fun with your haiku and enjoy noticing life more closely through your five senses!
 

   

Comments or questions? Please contact Michael Dylan Welch.