Welcome to the teacher’s page of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival! We have prepared the following materials to introduce haiku to both teachers and students. Here you will find information on the following topics:

All the material here can be copied and used freely in an educational setting. In return, we ask you to spread the word about the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival and its Haiku Invitational. And please consider entering our Haiku Invitational yourself!

History

Haiku (the word can be either singular or plural) is a short Japanese poem. In Japan, it is usually written in a single line that can be broken into units of 5, 7, and 5 sound units, a pattern that is usually not followed for literary haiku in English, despite popular misperception.

Haiku first came into prominence in the seventeenth century when Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world. This period saw a cultural renaissance in Japan, not only in haiku, but in the arts of the puppet theatre, flower arrangement, woodblock print, and tea ceremony as well. During this time Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) raised the writing of haiku into a high art. His compositions remain a marvel for their freshness and depth:

a crow settles
on a withered branch—
autumn evening

coming along the mountain path
I am somehow moved
by these violets

After Basho’s death, the spirit of haiku was kept alive in the poetry of his ten disciples and, later, by poets like Yosa Buson (1716–1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827), and Masaoka Shiki (1869–1902), each of whom brought a unique sensibility to the form:

perching, resting
on the temple bell—
a butterfly

Yosa Buson

Spare the fly!
he prays with his hands
he prays with his feet

Kobayashi Issa

I bite a persimmon
and a bell sounds—
Horyu Temple

Masaoka Shiki

Haiku retains its popularity in Japan to this day, with hundreds of journals being published and millions of people enjoying or writing haiku.

Haiku began to be appreciated outside Japan in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1917 the poet Ezra Pound modeled this famous poem on haiku:

In a Station at the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Western poets produced haiku intermittently in the following decades, though the novelist Richard Wright wrote thousands of haiku towards the end of his life and the Beat poets—including Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and especially Jack Kerouac—composed some fine haiku in the middle of the century. In the early 1960s, the journal American Haiku nourished a strong interest in haiku that continues today. Haiku Canada and the Haiku Society of America promote haiku in North America, while prominent journals such as Frogpond and Modern Haiku provide a forum for some of the thousands of haiku written each year. We at the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival are proud to be one of many international contests that promote the understanding of haiku.

Techniques

How do haiku work? Poets have developed dozens of techniques to strengthen their haiku. Some of the main ones are:

  • Brevity. Each haiku focuses on one or two images. In English, images are often separated with a dash or other punctuation.
  • Suggestiveness. From these images, we can imagine an entire scene: a desolate autumn evening, hiking in the mountains with its spectacular scenery, or a peaceful garden.
  • Objectivity. Haiku present objects and sensuous details. Emotions, when they are mentioned directly (as in “I am somehow moved”), are not dwelled upon, but are stated simply and directly.
  • Connection to Nature. Haiku usually include a kigo, or word that sets the poem in a particular season.
  • Depth. From the imagery, we can often sense a deeper meaning. For example, the crow, withered branch, evening, and autumn in “A crow settles / on a withered branch— / autumn evening” by Basho are all symbols of death, and the poem evokes melancholy or even despair. Or, by ignoring the mountain scenery in favour of a humble violet in “Coming along a mountain path / I am somehow moved / by these violets,” Basho is declaring his love of small, delicate things (like the violet) over the spectacular and sublime (like the mountain scenery). A single haiku can evoke an entire way of life.

When teaching haiku to students, focus on the content rather than the form. In our experience, children learn more by writing concise, imagistic haiku than by counting syllables. In fact, most haiku poets writing in English do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable count, reasoning that the differences between English and Japanese make the 5-7-5 pattern awkward in the West.

Sample Haiku with Questions

Here are a handful of classic Japanese haiku, each followed by a sample question.

a cherry petal
flies back up to its branch—
oh, a butterfly!

Arakide Moritake (1473–1549)

Q. What do you think the speaker sees in this poem? What is the surprise at the end?

a small frog
rides a banana leaf
trembling

Kikaku (1600–1707)

Q. Why would it be hard to spot a small frog on a banana plant leaf? What is the surprise in this poem?

showing no sign
of an early death—
a cicada’s voice

Matsuo Basho

Q. What is the theme of this poem?

under the tree
in the soup, salad, and everywhere—
cherry blossoms

Matsuo Basho

Q. Describe the scene and the mood of this poem.

a giant firefly
flickers
and then moves on

Kobayashi Issa

Q. How much time passes in this poem? Could you write a ballad or sonnet on a similar subject?

a lightning flash—
and piercing the darkness
a heron’s shriek

Matsuo Basho

Q. Discuss the mood of this poem.

a morning glory
has entangled the well bucket—
I beg for water

Chiyo-ni (1703–1775)

Q. What is the speaker’s attitude toward nature in this poem?

Suggestions for Teaching Haiku

Because they are so approachable, haiku may be introduced to students at the beginning of any poetry unit. They are ideal for emphasizing literary concepts like symbolism and imagery. Haiku can also help students develop precision in their writing.

Here are some specific suggestions for writing assignments involving haiku.

Elementary

  • Ask students to visit a park and compile a list of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and things they can touch. They can then combine elements from their lists into haiku.
  • Ask students to think of objects that correspond to their feelings. “Sadness,” for example, might make students think of a wilted flower, a tree struck by lightning, or the ashes of a fire. “Excitement” might be a balloon, slice of birthday cake, sunrise, or drumbeat. They can then craft these images into a haiku. This would also work well as a class brainstorming session, where the children suggest images on a theme as the teacher writes them on a blackboard or overhead.
  • Ask students to write a paragraph about an object that has a story behind it. Then ask the students to write a haiku about the object.
  • Hand out a selection of haiku and ask the students to draw a picture for one or two of the poems.
  • Encourage your students to write a haiku about cherry blossoms and submit it to the VCBF Haiku Invitational!

High School

  • Ask students to write paragraphs explicating the haiku presented on this web site. Students should discuss the imagery, implied scene, literary devices, mood, and theme.
  • Ask students what objects or places best symbolize Canada or Vancouver. Then ask the students to write haiku on these objects.
  • One of the interesting uses of haiku is to combine them with prose. Ask students to write a short prose composition (one to three paragraphs) on a personal experience and then end their composition with a haiku with the same theme or mood.
  • Ask students to research haiga (haiku illustrated by a painting) and other combinations of poetry and images such as the illustrations of William Blake. How do illustrations and poetry interact? How closely are they related? In what ways do the text and pictures conflict?
  • Encourage your students to write a haiku about cherry blossoms and submit it to the VCBF Haiku Invitational!

Our section on further resources contains links to specific lesson plans that are available on the internet.

Further Resources

We recommend the following web sites about haiku. The Pacifi-kana web site, hosted by the B.C. branch of Haiku Canada, includes further links and book recommendations. We also encourage you to explore the other haiku pages on this web site, including the past winners and the youth section of our contest, to familiarize yourself with contemporary haiku.

Haiku Portal Site

Organizations

Introductory Essays

Lesson Plans

While teachers can find numerous lesson plans that involve haiku online, many of them misrepresent haiku, especially those written in the West. We have found the following lesson plans to be both accurate and useful:

Books

Finally, we highly recommend Patricia Donegan’s book Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids (Tuttle; Asian Arts & Crafts for Creative Kids) and Naomi Beth Wakan’s Haiku: One Breath Poetry (Heian International).