The following descriptions are the way we (the UHTS) believe these forms to be best defined, but as we all know, there are many schools-of-thought (which are also always evolving since poetry is a "living art form").
Haiku is a succinct poem that is arranged in 1 line, 2 lines, or in 3 lines. However, what do matter are the basic requirements, which are:
1) It captures a sensory perceived moment,
2) It contains either a kigo (season word) that directly indicates a season, or other words that indirectly evoke a feeling of the natural world we live in,
3) It has juxtaposition with a kireji (cutting word) that creates a conscious pause.
Most Modern English haiku have three unrhymed lines of fewer than seventeen syllables, and whose line lengths vary along with their arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen "sounds" (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximate the duration of seventeen Japanese (on)). Traditional Japanese haiku include a "season word" (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a "cutting word" (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes (if used) must be extremely subtle. An in-depth discussion of what might be called "deep metaphor" or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of actual definition.
Senryu is a cousin to haiku, however its mood is more ironic and/or satirical. Also, senryu doesn’t necessarily require a season word or juxtaposition. Haiku focuses more on nature-nature while senryu is typically more about human nature. Yet, both haiku and senryu can focus on people, so it’s attitude that determines which is which. Haiku honors its subjects, whereas senryu makes fun of, or scorns human folly.
Many modern senryu, in both Japanese and English, avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also "borderline haiku/senryu", which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them. In fact, many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, and miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudo haiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all.
Haibun is a Japanese genre that permits an author to express more than haiku via the addition of personal prose. It allows a wider scope of subjects, such as nature orientation, literary allusion, intimate story-telling. It is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku. The secret to composing a successful haibun is the subtle pairing of haiku with prose while linking and shifting, similar to the way each verse in a renku leaps away.
Most haibun range from under 50 to 200 or 300 words. Some longer haibun may also contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. The connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious. The haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse. Japanese haibun apparently developed from brief prefatory notes occasionally written to introduce individual haiku, but soon grew into a distinct genre. The word "haibun" is sometimes applied to longer works, such as the memoirs, diaries, or travel writings of haiku poets, though technically they are parts of the separate and much older genres of journal and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun).
Tanka (firstly known as waka during the Heian period from 794-1185 CE) which means "Japanese poem or song", is presently known as "tanka" having been coined by Master Masaoka Shiki in the late 19th century in an effort to bring traditional Japanese poetic forms into the modern age. It is a non-rhymed nature poem consisting of 5 lines down total with a short, long, short, long, long rhythmic count. The concept of mono no aware or the pathos of existence is frequently a key element in all Japanese poetry, but particularly in tanka.
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