Word therapy?

Can writing (and reading) haiku poems be therapeutic?  Can these mini poems help us adopt more positive attitudes and experience greater contentment?  I think they help…

Perhaps it’s the ‘rules’ of haiku that do it, though they’re not rules in the strict sense.  They’re guidelines from which we can make choices.  In this post you will find my favourite haiku ‘rules’ and how I believe they link to wellbeing.


Birds. Hiroshige , Utagawa, 1833 – 1837 (Rijksmuseum collection)

Use the present Tense

Traditionally haiku are written in the present tense and are inspired by a moment in time.  This can be related to the practices of ‘ici et maintenant’ (‘here and now’, a favourite of Fred’s), and mindfulness meditation.  When in the realms of meditation, we can say that haiku quietens the mind… After this meditative space, we can think more clearly.

Write about the natural world (beyond us humans)

In haiku, we focus on the natural world, but with ‘cold detachment’.  We describe ‘what is’ without expressing our emotions about it.  In fact,  we tend to omit ourselves from haiku altogether and escape from egocentricity.  It is healthy to step outside and look at the wonders around us, gaining perspective, yet becoming aware that we are part of all this too.

Of course, we are free!  We can bring ourselves into the haiku if we wish.  Some poets do this by writing the personal pronoun as ‘i’ rather than the standard ‘I’.  Others add two extra lines onto the end of their haiku to transform the poem into a ‘tanka’, which has a human element.

Feelings can be read ‘between the lines’ though, such as that of ‘sabi’.

Include humour (if you can)

Still a favourite, although I haven’t learnt to use humour in haiku and likely never will. Rarely do I make people laugh (intentionally). If you can add a light touch to your haiku though, why not?  You could use wordplay, including double meaning.  Haiku generally describes ‘what is’ and can appear serious, so perhaps this breaks one of the other ‘rules’.  I’m not sure…  but you can’t argue with laughter!

One poem, one language.

This is probably one of the hardest ideas to follow.  If we consider English, it is such a rich language that the lines between what is and what isn’t an English word are blurred.  I also don’t want to get over the top about this point.  To me, the spirit of this rule is to keep the haiku in a language which is accessible and inclusive by using vocabulary which is not aloof, exclusive or overly cryptic.  Instead use words that have a directness to them, that you know in your heart.  I felt the effect of this ‘rule’ when I replaced the scientific plant name ‘sedum’ with the common name ‘stonecrop’.

June storms

round stonecrop growing

green on grey


I wrote my haiku during stormy June and was inspired by the tenacity of this little plant on our flat roof. It has lived through much and been around for many of our human transitions and memories. Still it grows, slowly but surely…

Use a set structure

Haiku are small, concise and apparently uncomplicated.  Yet as we follow rules and adhere to structures (as described below), thought and problem-solving go into their creation.  This is exercise for the mind in itself.  In this context, Chopin’s quote sums it up “Simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties ……’.  These poems have a hidden complexity but a simple end result.

Read on to find out how, in the case of this poetry, less really is more…

Write three Lines

In traditional Japanese haiku, there is just one line.  In Western cultures, haiku are usually written with three.  Each poem has a fragment (one line) and a phrase (comprising the other two lines).

The fragment is usually related to, but at the same time detached from the phrase.  The two lines of the phrase clearly flow together.  The fragment is usually instinctively felt as standing alone, it might be that the fragment is providing the setting, i.e. ‘June Storms’ and the phrase is describing a living thing, i.e. the ‘stonecrop’ in my haiku.  This can be like relating to life on micro and macro scales, an awareness of environmental conditions, but also of a tiny plant on a roof.  Again we gain a sense of perspective.

Note:  Sometimes there can be ambiguity as to where the phrase begins, adding a puzzling element and multiple meanings as the poem can be read two ways (this is within the ‘rules’ too!).

Add extra flow…

Here we have extra puzzle-solving…  The fragment is the first or third line of the poem.  Although there is usually a break between the fragment and the phrase, ideally the first and third lines of the haiku should still have subtle linking of meaning when read one after the other too (if the second line were to be removed).  Therefore, there is a flow between the fragment and the part of the phrase most distant to it.  In my haiku ‘June Storms’ and ‘green on grey’ could work together.

Count the beats

We are often told that haiku should be written according to syllables following a 5-7-5 pattern.  Jane Reichhold suggests in Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a Hands-On Guide that if we know how beats and stress patterns work, we could use these instead.  Using and hearing stressed syllables ( or beats) is not second nature to me yet, so the challenge is reason enough to give it a go!  Lines of two beats, three beats then two beats again, sound good too.

Beats add music (some writers accompany their haiku with tunes) and we know how this is good for us even without erroneously quoting Plato.  My favourite dubious internet Plato-quote being “Music lets the soul know of its virtue.”.  A beautiful one, whoever thought it up…

On the practice in its entirety

Absorbed then in our haiku moments (to me these include when we’re searching for inspiration) we can detach from the concerns of our human lives and egos.  We become present, meditative and mindful of the world around us.

Once we have chosen our rules from the ‘pick ‘n mix’ selection (as there are many more than I have listed), we begin to use constraints as a basis to be creative and put our observations on paper.  Some of us who may not feel as imaginative as others do well with this framework.

If we wish, we can share our recorded haiku moments with others, communicating our experiences and allowing them to develop further meanings.  As the poet Kayo Chingonyi says, when this happens ‘the poem really lives’ as it has ‘a life outside’ that of the author.