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Haiku

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English Literature

Haiku (originally called hokku) is a form of non-rhyming poetry that evolved in seventeenth-century Japan, usually inspired by nature. It is a fun, playful way of composing a poem. Have you ever written a haiku?

A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku, 1952)

Haiku Format and Structure

Haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables. The first line must contain five syllables, the second line seven, and the third line five.

The usual rules of grammar and punctuation do not apply: the poet can choose whether or not to use punctuation or capital letters, and how to structure their sentences. Haikus also tend to be written in the present tense to add a sense of immediacy. Perhaps because of their brevity, not all haiku have titles.

The haiku originally served to describe the seasons, and the natural world is still the main focus for many haiku poets today.

Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in.

  • Cherry blossoms for spring
  • Wisteria for summer
  • Moon for autumn
  • Cold for winter

Haiku Poets and Their Poems

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) further developed and refined the then-named hokku while living in Edo (modern Tokyo).

Fun fact: Basho means "banana tree". Matsuo changed his pen name a few times and adopted Basho after his disciples planted a banana tree outside his new home.

Who Was Basho?

If we do not begin with Bashô, our interpretation of haiku is bound to lack depth. … because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life."

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku, Hokuseido, 1951)

Basho was born Matsuo Kinsaku into a minor samurai family in the Iga Province, during the "sakoku" or "locked country" period (1633 - 1853).

Sakoku was the period of time when Japan largely isolated itself from foreign influences. This applied in particular to Portugal and Spain which posed a threat owing to their religious and colonial influence.

After his father died in 1656, Basho was employed as a page to the local lord’s son Tōdō Yoshitada at Ueno Castle. During his time there developed an interest in literature. Basho’s earliest known poem was published in 1662.

Yoshitada was a keen poet and particularly liked to compose collaborative poetry (called haikai no renga, or renku). The opening verse of a renku was called a hokku. One poet would write the hokku, then the next verse would be written by another poet, and so on. In 1665, Basho collaborated with Yoshitada and friends on a hundred verse renku.

Note: Around this period poets were starting to adopt the hokku formula for standalone poems that reflected the natural world; this formula later became the basis for the haiku.

Yoshitada died in 1666 and Basho moved to Kyoto to study Chinese and Japanese poetry and Zen meditation.

Basho taught in Edo for a few years and wrote his poetry under the pen name of Tosei ("green peach"); his poetry sought to be fresh and eternal, and drew on the natural world, history, and literature.

Basho’s Travels

In late 1684, Basho began the first of his travels across Japan. Below is one of his haiku’s describing his life as a traveller:

The year draws to its close:

I am still wearing

My kasa and straw sandals.

(Basho, 1685, tr. R.H. Blyth 1952)

The first line ‘The year draws to its close’, establishes the passing of time (suggestive of change), while the second and third lines show how he has spent this time: instead of teaching, he has been travelling.

Note: kasa is a kind of straw hat, useful for travelling under the bright sun!

His first journey took him to Mount Fuji, Ueno and Kyoto, returning to Edo in 1685. Initially expecting the worst (bandits were rife), Basho was pleasantly surprised and grew more confident; he met many friends and embraced the change of seasons and landscape. He continued writing hokku along the way, observing great truths in everyday things.

In 1686, after his return to Edo, Basho composed one of his best-known haiku:

The old pond -

a frog jumps in,

The sound of the water.

(Matsuo Basho, 'The Old Pond', 1686, tr. R.H.Blyth)

This became an overnight hit and poets from across Edo came to Basho’s home to join in writing a haikai no renga about frogs. Basho continued teaching poetry in Edo until 1687, when he began making trips. In 1689 - 1691 he made his longest journey of all, travelling with his disciple Sora to the north of Japan, to visit places near Kyoto.

Note: while the haiku in English is laid out in three lines, the original in Japanese runs as one line.

Original in Japanese characters (Kanji): 閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

Original in Japanese phonetics (Kana): Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe

Translation into English:

In utter stillness

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks

(Basho, 'Eternal Stillness', tr. Masako K.Hirago, 1987)¹

Study tip: what do you think the above haiku is about? The cicada? The silence? The rocky landscape?

The last poem he wrote during his final illness is regarded as his farewell :

旅に病んで夢は枯野をかけ廻る tabi ni yande / yume wa kareno wo / kake meguru

Round and round the withered field My dreaming mind roves.”

(Basho, 1694, tr. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 2006)

There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashô, Buson and Issa; we may include a fourth, Shiki. Bashô is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.

(R.H.Blyth, Haiku, 1951)

Other poets continued to develop this new kind of poetry throughout the Edo Period and include Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Another poet who was considered Basho’s heir in the mastery of haiku was Chiyo Ni, who became a Buddhist nun.

Let’s look briefly at each of these poets and their poetry:

Chiyo Ni (1703 - 1775)

Chiyo Ni was born in Matto (now Hakusan) into a family of scroll mounters and started writing haiku when she was seven, gaining popularity across Japan by the time she was seventeen.

She studied under two of Basho’s disciples and was widely regarded as Basho’s heir, both for her poetry and her simple way of living. Although she studied Basho, she also developed her own style which, while focused on nature, aims for a union between nature and humanity.

morning glory!

the well bucket-entangled,

I ask for water

(Chiyo Ni, 'Morning Glory', tr. Donegan and Ishibashi, 1996)

In this poem, Chiyo-ni is going to fetch water from the well. Entranced by the morning-glory flower growing across the well’s bucket, she avoids disturbing it and asks water of her neighbours instead.

Buson (1716 – 1784)

Both a poet and a painter, Buson carried on the haiku tradition into the late eighteenth century.

After studying poetry and painting in Edo, he followed in the footsteps of his idol Basho by travelling across Japan, following the route described by Basho in his ‘Narrow Road to the Interior’. Buson published his notes from his own journey.

He is considered one of the great haiku masters, with his style considered more sensuous and painterly than Basho.

In nooks and corners

Cold remains:

Flowers of the plum

(Buson, tr. R.H. Blyth)

In this haiku, Buson observes the arrival of spring - there are still chilly draughts (in nooks and corners of the house) - while plums begin to blossom. The first two lines are taken up with establishing the season and its climate (a chilly spring), leaving the third to symbolise the changes brought about (the plum blossoming).

Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828)

Born Kobayashi Nobuyuki into a farming family, Issa grew up in unhappy circumstances and spent much of his life struggling to regain his inheritance. He travelled through Japan, wrote a diary (The Last Days of Issa’s Father) and produced over 20,000 haiku, many of which were dedicated to plants and insects. Much of his work tended to be humorous as well as sorrowful, couched in intense language filled with a vitality which set him apart from the Basho tradition.

On the road to Shinano,

The mountain is a burden I bear, -

Oh, the heat, the heat!

(Issa, tr. R.H.Blyth)

The poet is on a journey, and the intense heat as he goes up the mountain makes him feel that he, the mountain, and the heat have all become one and the same.

Shiki and the Meaning of Haiku

Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902)

Shiki was a poet, author, and literary critic during the Meiji period in Japan. He was born Tsunenori to a samurai family and his father died when Shiki was five. His mother’s father was a Confucian scholar who taught the boy to read Mencius. Shiki studied in Tokyo, where he became obsessed with the art of haiku, even though it was waning in popularity in modern Meiji society.

After reaching Tokyo, Shiki wrote and published a serialised volume of haiku. This was followed by more serialised work. Shiki concentrated on the 5-7-5 formula and coined the term "haiku". He had suffered from tuberculosis for much of his life and in 1888 or 1889 he began coughing up blood. The disease spread to his spine and he became bedridden, dying in 1902. During his short life, Shiki had restored the haiku and established it as a literary genre in its own right.

Come here and cool yourselves,

Wavering, wavering,

Spirits of the dead.

(Shiki, tr. R.H. Blyth)

Shiki composed this while staying at a sixteenth-century mansion. In this poem, he invites the phantoms of two celebrated warriors to join him in the cool air of the night. According to the translator, Blyth, this is an example of how the spirit world is perceived to be much closer to humans in Japanese culture than in Western.

Note: "Haiku" is a portmanteau that Shiki made of the two words "haikai" and "hokku".

Fearful fact: Tsunenori chose the name Shiki, which means "cuckoo", because in Japan there is a belief that cuckoos cough up blood when they sing.

The Haiku in Western Literature

Shiki’s work helped introduce the haiku to poets from across the globe, although the haiku continued to remain a little outside Western consciousness until after World War II, when R.H Blyth produced his 4-volume Haiku (1949-52). In 1958, An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson was also published, followed by Blyth’s History of Haiku in 1964 (the same year the Haiku Society of America was founded), and a trend was set.

While some continue to adhere to the classical haiku structure and themes, others have chosen to break with tradition, changing structure and adopting material unrelated to nature, such as the urban landscape, technology, the internet, and social media.

John Wills (1921- 1993) is considered one of the great nature poets who influenced the American haiku. While adhering to the traditional theme of nature, he also experimented with its form, as seen below in his one-line haiku (of 10 syllables as opposed to the classical 17):

rain in gusts

below the deadhead

troutswirl

(John Wills, 'Up a Distant Ridge', 1980)

As Sono Uchida, President of the Haiku International Association said:

Haiku has also developed as a poem that expresses deep feelings for nature, including human beings. This follows the traditional Japanese idea that man is part of the natural world, and should live in harmony with it. This differs considerably from the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as being independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of nature.

(Bruce Ross, Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, 1993)

Haiku - Key takeaways

  • Haiku is a form of non-rhyming poetry that evolved in seventeenth-century Japan.
  • Originally called hokku it had to describe the season, time of day, and landscape.
  • The linked verse poem, or renga, is a collaborative work by two or more poets writing alternate 2-line or 3-line stanzas.
  • The term "haiku" came later in the nineteenth century and is a portmanteau of haikai (humorous poetry) and hokku.
  • Haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables. The first sentence must contain five syllables, the second sentence seven, and the third sentence five syllables again.
  • Haikus also tend to be written in the present tense, to add a sense of immediacy.

1. Masako K. Hiraga, "Stillness: A Linguistic Journey to Bashō's Haiku about the Cicada," Poetics Today, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1987.

Haiku

A haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables.

A haiku is usually inspired by nature, and set in the present tense to add a sense of immediacy.

Traditionally there are 17 syllables, although some modern poets use only 12.

The first line must contain five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables.

Final Haiku Quiz

Question

What is a haiku?

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Answer

A haiku is a 3-line non-rhyming poem composed of 17 syllables.

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Question

How is a haiku structured?

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Answer

The first line contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables.

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Question

When was the haiku developed?

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Answer

The haiku was developed in the 17th century in Japan.

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Question

Who developed the haibun?

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Answer

Basho developed the haibun on his travels.

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Question

Who were the Great Four?

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Answer

Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

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Question

True or False? Basho lived in Edo all his life.

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Answer

False. Basho several journeys across Japan during his lifetime.

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Question

True or False? Basho coined the term Haiku in the 1680s.

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Answer

False. Shiki coined the term in 1900s.

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Question

True or False? Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in. 

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Answer

True.

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Question

True of False? The first line and second line of a haiku must contain five syllables.


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Answer

False: The first line and third line of a haiku must contain five syllables.

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Question

True of False?  Haiku are usually written in the present tense, to add a sense of immediacy.


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Answer

True.

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Question

Complete: Traditional haiku also contains a ... or word that explains which ... the haiku is set in. For example, … for spring, … for autumn.

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Answer

Traditional haiku also contains a kigo or word that explains which season the haiku is set in. For example: cherry blossoms for spring, moon for autumn.

Show question

Question

 Complete the sentence: Basho means ‘...’. Matsuo changed his ... name a few times and adopted Basho after his ... planted a ... outside his new home.

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Answer

Basho means ‘banana tree’. Matsuo changed his pen name a few times and adopted Basho after his disciples planted a banana tree outside his new home.

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Question

Complete: Basho’s final and longest journey to the ... provided the material for his best-known ...: Oku no Hosomichi, or ... Road to the ... 

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Answer

His final and longest journey to the North provided the material for his best-known haibun: Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior. 

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Question

Chiyo Ni was born in ... (now Hakusan) into a family of ... and started writing haiku when she was ..., gaining popularity across Japan by the time she was ....

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Answer

Chiyo Ni was born in Matto (now Hakusan) into a family of scroll mounters and started writing haiku when she was seven, gaining popularity across Japan by the time she was seventeen.

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Question

Originally called ... (the first ... of a linked verse poem), the haiku had to describe the ..., time of day and .,,.

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Answer

Originally called hokku (the first stanza of a linked verse poem), the haiku had to describe the season, time of day and landscape.

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