Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Writing Haiku by SJ Rozan

Gulls sit on pilings 

While starlings sweep, race, land, peck,  

Eating all the moss.

 SJ ROZAN: Every Saturday morning for the last ten years or so I've written three haiku.  If I'm in New York I go to the Hudson, two blocks from my apartment.  If I'm elsewhere, I try to find a body of water, or a park, a yard, someplace quiet, though I've written my Saturday haiku in planes, on trains, and in hotel rooms.

Haiku, as I'm sure you know, is a three-line, 17-syllable poetry form, in the pattern 5-7-5.  Each line is expected to be a phrase; not necessarily a full sentence, but a concept that's understandable without the next line.  If the last line can deliver a small twist, all the better, though that's not required.

Those are the English rules; the Japanese scanning rules are a little different, dealing not in syllables but in on, which are analogous but not the same.  Since I don't speak Japanese, though, and certainly don't write in it, this post will stick to English.

Haiku derives from an older form, called hokku, also of 17 on, which was written as the opening stanza of a specific type of longer work called a renga.  By the 17th C.  hokku were being written to stand alone.  The independent hokku were renamed haiku and voila! -- a form was born.

As the haiku became standardized it was generally accepted that as far as content, each poem should freeze a moment of time in the natural world.

Orange-legged mallard 

Busily grooms her feathers 

While floating backwards.

Because our surroundings are not necessarily the natural world, though, city haiku are also written.

Building skeleton
Engulfed by rising tide of
Gold insulation.

17-syllable, 5-7-5 poems that freeze a moment in human nature, not the world around us, are perfectly permissible, and called senryu.

Standing in the rain
Drinking tea, watching ducks float.
What an idiot.

Abstraction is not welcome in either the haiku or the senryu, nor is generalizing from the particular, at least, not by the poet.  That's left to the readers.

Why do I write them?  The requirement to be specific and of the moment is of endless value to writers.  It's the meaning of "show, don't tell."  Doing haiku every week keeps me on that narrow path of specificity that's so easy to stray from.

The above haiku and senryu were all mine.   Some of them, and many more, appear in my e-book, 211 Haiku.  If you like them, here's the link

That's pretty much all there is to it.  If you want to try it, that's all you need to know.  Enjoy!
SJ Rozan, a native New Yorker, is the author of fourteen novels, under her own name and, with a co-writer, under a new secret identity as Sam Cabot.  She's won the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, and many other awards.  Her latest book is Sam Cabot's BLOOD OF THE LAMB. 

And there are two prizes today for folks brave enough to try their hand at a haiku. These will be chosen strictly by random drawing--no judging of merit! Simply post your poem in the comments...


  1. The haiku poetry is lovely; I enjoy reading it, but I’m not so sure I’m good at writing it. Nevertheless . . . .

    Glimmer, glitter, glow
    Across the velvety night
    Stars beyond my reach.

  2. Sky lightening now
    Five stars twinkle in pale dawn
    Crescent moon sets bright

    Thank you, SJ! That made me go outside and appreciate the beautiful cool dawn today.

  3. "Curse you, Red Baron!"
    Mutters the dying beagle.
    War is for the dogs.

  4. Hi SJ. I love haiku and I've been driving through rainy Nova Scotia so a perfect time to try one:

    Rain washes landscape
    Canada as watercolor
    Where are you, sun?

  5. Oh you guys are amazing--and so early in the morning! I'll run over and tell SJ how well her students are doing...

  6. Hi, SJ! I'm another one who eschews poetry... love to read it, especially aloud. Never think I'm any good at writing it. But I'm encouraged by the requirement of being specific... So here goes:

    Resting on my plate
    A fragrant crusty bagel
    Yearns for glist'ning lox

    (OK, I cheated. And yes, It's Saturday morning and I'm hungry)

  7. Yellow leaves drop down
    Crinkle underfoot, wind swirls
    Harvest moons glows orange

    Every writer, no mater what genre he/she works in can benefit from taking a couple of poetry workshops/classes. It has helped my writing tremendously.

    I enjoy reading your yesterday haiku.

  8. Nippy autumn air
    Sunlit dappled day indoors
    Focus on the work.

  9. At first I can't sleep
    Energy draining though my fingers
    And now I can't wake


  10. Oops...line 2 is 9 syllables.

    At first I can't sleep
    Anger spilling through fingers
    And now I can't wake

  11. Breakfast tasted so good
    More than the comfort of food
    Artful talk of craft.

  12. The trains engine purrs.
    Passengers sleep, so content!
    Forward. Do they know?

    On the way to Seascape! Hey SJ--xoo let's olan.

    And I love how this made me think. Thank you! Very peaceful.

  13. Mountains in the sky
    Distant but appear close by
    Mountain fog hides truth

  14. True story, just now.
    Conductor takes ticket; frowns.
    Says: "You don't exist."

  15. If we were judging on content, Hank Ryan's second one would win! Made me laugh.

  16. Dog adheres to me.
    Thunder in the near future.
    Weatherdog never wrong.

  17. I rarely write poetry, but on occasion, a sonnet or a haiku will just happen. Here are two that did:

    Re the first, we had a flood here a couple of years back, with the water running down the street like a raging river. The houses on the next block flooded. Afterward, I was out walking the dog when this haiku with a two different pronunciations of a single word happened:

    Apres le deluge,
    The detritus of people's
    Lives lives on the curb.

    And one winter morning, I was scouring the bathroom with bleach and the scent reminded me of a place and activity that I love, hence this:

    Haiku for Swimmers

    Chlorine-scented steam
    Rising on a cold morning.
    Swimmers feel at home.

    I think I might have a water thing going here....

  18. Sticky, messy rooms,
    Frustrating behavior quirks...
    Good thing kids are cute!

    Or, conversely (and, coincidently, usually when they're asleep...):

    Sparkly ideas,
    Shiny perspectives on life,
    These kids are brilliant!

  19. I just don't get it -
    why seventeen syllables -
    who came up with that?

  20. s j rozan here
    words take flight to entertain
    tumble, turn and -- Gasp!

  21. Son of Bichon growls.
    Man yells "my dog won't hurt you",
    As Bichon dog bites.

  22. SJ, you never cease to amaze me! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  23. Red, orange, yellow
    Leaves put on autumn colors
    Nature at its best.

    A most beautiful fall day here in Maine. All my siblings were together and took my 93-year old Mom to an orchard for apples and to the harbor to watch cruise ships leave.

    THEN, I went to an event and listened to Julia read from THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS. I get so fan-girly! LOL

  24. I sit in my chair
    Roll slowly through the moonlight
    Kiss the sky goodnight.

  25. Selling mysteries
    So much more than just a job
    Now my life's passion