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A haiku must be about something you have experienced, such as a walk in the rain. No daydreams or speculation. “It is about a moment, a feeling that you want to share,” said Professor Charles Inouye.

The Life-Changing Simplicity of Haiku

A course on writing these tiny poems promises that small verse can broaden the mind

Just three lines, a total of 17 syllables. At barely a mouthful of words, the haiku is so brief that, unlike some other forms of poetry, many people are willing to try writing one. “That’s a good thing about haiku—it’s something everybody thinks they can do,” said Charles Inouye, a professor of Japanese and chair of International Literary and Cultural Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. “But it turns out that it’s not so easy.”

That’s because those three lines, if done correctly, draw on centuries of Japanese culture, a distinct philosophy of seeing the world, and a heavy dose of humility.  

Inouye has long taught haiku writing as part of his Introduction to Japanese Culture course. This summer, he taught a new course dedicated just to the poems, called How to Write a Real Haiku. He will teach a semester-long version of the course in the fall.

Even elementary school children learn the basics of haiku: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.

But then there are many don’ts. Don’t rhyme. Don’t try to be flowery. Don’t use metaphors. Don’t use too much description.

“I would stay away from adverbs and adjectives,” Inouye said. “Your verse should be really noun-y.”

The point is to leave the poem wide open to the reader’s interpretation. Take a haiku about snow. Was the snow bitterly cold? Or soft and silent? If the poem offers the unadorned word “snow,” the reader gets to decide.

“The simpler, the more powerful, because simpler means that you’re not closing off options for people,” Inouye said. “It allows every possibility to happen.”

Non-negotiable: the poem must be about something you have experienced. No daydreams or speculation.

“It is about a moment, a feeling that you want to share,” Inouye said.  

That’s not to say that haiku deal in intangibles. They are very much about the objects that cause those feelings, and in particular, the relationships between the objects, as in this poem by Andrea Liu, E24:

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Rain, a bowl of soup, and a pair of eyeglasses. “Those images are going to resonate, reverberate. They are going to expand each other,” Inouye said. “You can’t be a poet if you don’t see the connection between one thing and another.”

Inouye has his students keep journals of the moments they come across and the poems they inspire, which they workshop in class. Chloe Cheng, A24, wrote about cooking dinner and how, even when they feel alone, it can be comforting to feel alone next to someone:

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Inouye relates haiku to the concept of animism. Animism is the belief that all things—animals, plants, rocks, spoons, shirts, the computer you are looking at right now—have a spirit. It is part of ancient religions, such as Shintō and Buddhism, and has strong roots in many Asian cultures. Inouye said you can see its influences in Japanese life today, from the way a carpenter reverently joins wood to the way a cashier thoughtfully handles money when she makes change.

Inouye himself spent a year putting animism into a practice. He calls it “thing therapy,” showing gratitude for objects as he uses them. Thank you, toothbrush. Thank you, car.

“The practical effect is it makes you less clumsy,” he said. “Generally, it just makes you happier to be in the world. It makes thankfulness your default.”

And that’s where the humility of haiku comes in. Writing haiku gets away from “the anthropocentric notion that humans are smarter and better and more worthy than anything else,” Inouye said. “It’s not ‘how do I think about things?’ but ‘how do things think about me?’”

Liu, a biomedical engineering major, took a while to find their poetic voice, Inouye said, but eventually turned out poems like this, where water has sentience:

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Inouye praised its karumi, or lightness. “It’s fun to think about raindrops feeling wet.” 

If you’re meter aware, you may have noticed that the last line of that poem has six syllables, breaking the five, seven, five rule. Overstepping the bounds by a syllable may earn a dry remark from Inouye (“way too long” he commented to one student) but it is not a dealbreaker. Still, it’s meaningful to know that five, seven, five is inherently a Japanese rhythm, found in much of the culture’s writing, even its street signs.

More important than getting the beats right is being able to feel the significance in small moments and see the connections between things. If you can do that, you’re on your way to the Buddhist concept of mu, or nothingness, where differences melt away.

“Our best moments come when we lose the walls, when the distinctions that separate us fall away,” Inouye said.

It’s not hard to see why Inouye thinks writing haiku has great promise for helping humans through the great challenges of today. If we’re one with nature, we can solve the environmental crisis. If we’re one with our fellow man, social divisions crumble. It is a tiny poem with huge potential.

“If you learn to write this kind of poetry,” Inouye said, “it’s going to make your life and the life of people around you better.”

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