Haiku are one of the most recognizable Japanese poetic forms. These small poems can seem either overly simple or obscure, but once students gain an understanding of the form and see that haiku depend upon a certain way of looking at the world, they begin to appreciate their elegance, humor, and appeal.
The Japanese poet Issa is considered one of the great masters of haiku. His poems are humorous, insightful, and provide a good introduction to the form. In a lesson that focuses mainly on his work, students will be asked to identify the features of haiku. Then the teacher will lead a discussion of poems by Issa. Finally, students will write original haiku to demonstrate their understanding of the form.
- To encourage students to identify and describe the nature of haiku
- To develop a reliable list of haiku features
- To compare images within haiku and articulate logical relationships between these images
- To find and appreciate humor in Issa's haiku
- To develop a stronger understanding of word meanings--definition and connotation--and how poetic images are constructed
- To write an original haiku that meets the criteria identified in class
Grade Level: 7-12
- One to two class periods
- Selected Haiku by Issa QuickTime Video
Before the Lesson
- Explain that haiku are short poems that may look simple, but they have a very distinct form and depend upon a specific way of looking at the world. Then show students these two haiku by Issa on an overhead projection or on the blackboard.
Only one guy and
only one fly trying to
make the guest room do
careful! I'm rolling
- Brainstorm a list of haiku features based on student observations of these two poems. With any luck, students will come up with some of the following:
- They are short
- They don't have to follow a set pattern of syllables (a common misconception is that haiku follow a 5-7-5 syllabic count)
- They are written in the present tense
- They often contain some aspect of nature
- They have a person in them
- In some, the person addresses the natural object or animal
- They don't have an abundance of adjectives and prepositions
- They seem to look at a specific moment
- Some are funny
- They look at very ordinary things very closely, even intensely
- They don't include figures of speech
- The reader has to figure out what's going on
- They show; they don't tell (with concrete images rather than explanations)
- They can't really be interpreted like other poems
- There's often a contrast of images (a juxtaposition) within the haiku
- For each haiku, identify the speaker's situation and the specific incident that makes the "haiku moment."
- Identify the mood of the haiku.
- Read each haiku line by line to gain an understanding of how meaning is affected by line breaks, double meanings, and word connotations (the word "be" in the poem above, for example, can be read in more than one way).
- Stress that it's easy to overanalyze a haiku and that the images in haiku shouldn't be treated as "symbols" or allegorical figures. The images may imply various things--the time of year or something about the speaker, for example--but they always remain grounded in literal description.
Part I: First Reading
1. Briefly explain the features of haiku--or highlight the ones students have already articulated.
- They are short: In Japanese, haiku are written vertically. In English, they are typically written as three short lines, sometimes just two. (Note: There is no set number of syllables in haiku.)
- They make a reference to nature or a season: Because they help us understand the world we live in, haiku look concretely at nature. Sometimes this reference is subtle or even personal; often it is conventional or made by association, the way that a reference to Christmas would signal winter, or a description of baseball players warming up for opening day would signal the arrival of spring.
- Haiku explore a specific moment: This "haiku moment" is one of discovery--and reflects a heightened awareness of the world and the ways in which things are connected. Thus, haiku are generally written in the present tense.
- They include specific concrete images: Haiku are not abstract. They describe the world with vivid sensory detail that "shows" a moment rather than "tells" the moment's significance to the reader.
- Haiku contain an internal comparison: Haiku almost always have two images, one on each side of a break. It is the reader's job to compare these images and intuit the relationship between them. The images the poem juxtaposes are often connected by a word or phrase that lingers long enough to refer to or influence both.
Part II: Looking More Closely at Selected Haiku by Issa
2. Give students a handout of the haiku translated and read by Robert Hass. Remind students that these are translated from Japanese.
3. Have them work alone or in groups to annotate the Issa poems and identify the features they have discussed as a class. (When identifying the contrasting images, students might insert a symbol, "#" or some other mark, to show where the images are separated.)
4. Ask students to explain in writing what makes each haiku elegant. In other words, how does the poem show the complexity of simple moments? For example, in the haiku about New Year's day, the speaker talks about feeling average in a way that draws out the tension between the individual and the world around him. Ask students to brainstorm possible implications or meanings of the haiku.
Part III: Watching the Video
5. Prior to watching the video, ask students to identify moments in the haiku that the audience might react to.
6. After watching, ask students if the reading "fit" their interpretation.
7. Did they hear the internal comparisons within the haiku, and how the reader treated the ending of the poem a little like a punch line?
8. Where they surprised by the audience's laughter? How did the poem's humor add to their perception of the "haiku moment" described in the poem?
Part IV: Learning More by Writing
9. When students are familiar with the form and function of haiku, they should try to write their own. You might let students start from scratch or provide them with a first line--which ensures that the poem will have a break and a seasonal element. Here are some possibilities: "April snowstorm," "Last day of school," "Halloween night," or a variation of one of the Issa examples.
Remind students that when writing haiku:
- Make every word matter. Include few adjectives, shun needless conjunctions.
- Set your poem in the present and capture a moment intensely.
- Write about something that you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, then make an observation about that sensory detail.
- Try to create an inner comparison in your haiku.
10. Have students write their own "favorite" haiku on the board or share it in a small group.
Part V: Further Activities/Assessments
- Read some modern American haiku. Sources include the Haiku Society of America and the journal Modern Haiku. Two novelists that students might have heard of in other contexts also wrote extensively in the form: Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright.
- Write a haiku--or a series of haiku--in response to one of the haiku you've read. Set your poems just before or after the original.
- Write a series of celebration poems. On New Year's Day, everyone in Japan writes a haiku, so choose a special day and commemorate it however you like. Trade with other students and write a haiku in response to someone else's haiku. This underscores the idea of haiku as gifts.