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In a nutshell

Haikus (also sometimes referred to in the plural sense as 'haiku') are a type of short form poetry. They originate from Japan and follow a very strict set of rules. Because there is a limit on the length of haikus, poets have to be discerning with the language they use and the way they present things, finding a way to create poignant poetry in a very limited structure. In this summary, you will learn how to identify haikus.

History of the haiku

The haiku form was initially called 'hokku', and it originated in 14th century Japan. These poems were usually prefaces to longer Japanese poems called 'renku'. Around the 19th century, Japanese poets started writing these hokku poems as individual pieces, and they became known as haiku.

In 1899, there was the first known competition for haiku writing in English, held by a literature publication in London called The Academy. The winner of the competition was R.M. Hansard, and this was his entry:

    The west wind whispered,
    And touched the eyelids of spring:
    Her eyes, Primroses.

Since then, many poets have written haikus in English, and many poets have been influenced to experiment with non-haiku poems by the rules of haiku.

Rules of the haiku

Haikus have very strict rules by which they must abide. They are as follows:

  • Haikus only have three lines.
  • The first line has five syllables.
  • The second line has seven syllables.
  • The third line has five syllables.
  • Haikus do not follow a rhyme scheme.


Toward those short trees
We saw a hawk descending
On a day in spring.

(Haiku by Masaoka Shiki)

Theme and content

Haikus are often about nature or the natural world, and there is often a moment of change or a shift in focus in the poem. Although this is not always the case, it is frequent enough to be considered a convention of the haiku.

Want to find out more? Check out these other lessons!

Features of poetry

Poetic devices

Rhythm of poetry: beats and metre

Identifying form in poetry

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


  • Question: Do haiku have to rhyme?

    Answer: No, poems which use the haiku form do not need to rhyme.

  • Question: How many syllables does a haiku have?

    Answer: A haiku has 17 syllables: five in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the last line.

  • Question: How many lines does a haiku have?

    Answer: A haiku only has three lines.



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