A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression.

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History of the Haiku Form

Haiku began in thirteenth-century Japan as the opening phrase of renga, an oral poem, generally a hundred stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from renga in the sixteenth century and was mastered a century later by Matsuo Basho, who wrote this classic haiku:

     An old pond!
     A frog jumps in—
     the sound of water.

As the form has evolved, many of its regular traits—including its famous syllabic pattern—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment.

This philosophy influenced the American poet Ezra Pound, who noted the power of haiku’s brevity and juxtaposed images. He wrote, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” The influence of haiku on Pound is most evident in his poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which began as a thirty-line poem, but was eventually pared down to two:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Other examples of haiku include “The light of a candle” by Yosa Buson; “Haiku Ambulance” by Richard Brautigan; and “5 & 7 & 5” by Anselm Hollo. Also read the essay “The Haiga: Haiku, Calligraphy, and Painting” to learn more about the history of haiku and how it has impacted visual art.