Haiku: The Power of Nature and Emotion
Introduce your students to the famous Japanese Haiku with these great ideas for the classroom.
By Jennifer Gunner
The Japanese haiku is a powerful resource in any Language Arts class. Many people are under the impression that a haiku is simply a seventeen-syllable poem about anything. However, a true haiku presents an emotion through the imagery of nature and seasons. The structure is usually a five-seven-five syllable count in three lines, and often employs a punctuation mark within the poem as well as a “cutting word.”
Though a haiku is short, its effects are long-reaching. The writing becomes easy when the rhythm becomes intuitive. Once students understand the true essence of a haiku, it can be a valuable tool for them whether they are working on self-reflection, literary analysis, or a history lesson.
Who Can Write Haiku?
Besides creative writers and deep thinkers, haiku are great for students with learning challenges. Because the form requires only a few lines, students can encapsulate their thoughts within comfortable constraints, rather than an open-ended essay question. You can accommodate these learners with modified instructions (perhaps a less rigid syllable structure). Additionally, advanced writers can work with the punctuation break that often divides two parts of a haiku. This activity is a good opportunity for them to really work on their technique and mindful writing.
Have your students complete a freewrite; just one short paragraph. The topic can be an important day in their lives, or even how today is going for them. Once they are finished, have them write another paragraph that describes their emotions. Are they angry about a fight with a friend? Sad that their parents are getting a divorce? Happy that their birthday is coming up?
With these emotions in mind, tell your students to choose one word that describes their emotional state at the time. Tell them to close their eyes and visualize something in nature that reflects this emotion. Does the tumult of a thunderstorm accurately depict fury? What about a meadow gleaming with sunshine as an image for serenity?
Students can then work on their haiku. With the constraints in mind (5-7-5 syllable lines, nature imagery, emotional words), some advanced writers might take to the activity with aplomb, while your more reluctant poets might need to write a descriptive paragraph about a thunderstorm or meadow before they continue with their poetry.
I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.
(Richard Wright, Haiku: This Other World)
Characterization has never been more poetic than in a haiku. While you are reading a class novel (I have done this activity with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne), have students repeat the steps above – except this time, have them write from the perspective of a character. For example, with Into the Wild, students can write a paragraph about Chris McCandless’s independence and freedom, or his fear and impending doom. Once they have inferred the character’s emotional standpoint, have them write any number of Haikus (one for the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end, or even one before and after a major conflict). The activity is easier when the book has a plethora of nature imagery, but can work without it if students brainstorm the images.
History and Social Studies
Why stop at literature? Bring Haiku poems to your history and social studies lessons using the steps above. Instead of a character, assign historical figures or events to students, and have them write haiku to reflect the person’s mindset. Be sure that students are still using nature as their imagery, which could help with setting the geography of the event as well.
Study the history and historical examples of haiku in this lesson, which provides a good background to any haiku activity.
The lesson focuses on a video about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and incorporates those images into a haiku activity. This resource lists many additional anthologies and books of haiku.
Innovative and interesting, this lesson couples photography and poetry as students write nature-based haiku based on their own photographs.