The haiku originated in Japanese during the Heian period (700-1100) since society required one to be able to recognize, appreciate, and recite Japanese poetry. Short forms (tanka) became popular over long forms (choka), yet rigid lifestyles required every poem to have a specific form, so they approved the 5-7-5 triplet followed by a seven-syllable couplet—this was the Japanese equivalent to Shakespeare’s iambic petameter in England.
Linked verse poems (regna) and chains of linked verse (kusari-no-renga) were popular amongst the elite; however, the mid-sixteenth century brought the rise of “peasant” poetry and a rebirth of a lighter and airier tone, called haikai but later renamed renku. The haikai began with a triplet called a hokku, which was considered the most important part of the poem, and it had two primary requirements: a seasonal word (kierji) and a “cutting word” or exclamation.
In the late seventeenth century, poet Basho transformed the hokku into the independent poem that became known as a haiku. He was a fan of spontaneous prose that became so popular throughout Japan that Tenro, a contemporary school of haiku, included two thousand members from all over the country that met in designated temples to write a hundred haiku a day out of dedication. Since Basho, these poems have mirrored the Zen ideal and gone through many transformations, but a good haiku today is similar to when Basho developed the form.
Haiku should be an observation of a natural, commonplace event in the simplest of words without verbal trickery—or is best known to be effective because of its sparseness. It’s a simple snatch of memory and non-fiction observations as a shorthand used to help remember events.
Most are written in present tense, in ordinary language, and work best when two images spark off each other. They should include one or more of the senses beyond sight since they don’t tell, or simply describe, instead, they allow the reader to enter the poem in their own way.
Here are some notable examples:
Hokushi was another famous Edo Period (1603-1868) Japanese haiku poet.
I write, erase, rewrite,
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
Zen monks traditionally write one last haiku before they die. Gozan wrote this in 1789 when he was 71.
The snow of yesterday
That fell like cherry blossoms
Is water once again.
“A World of Dew” by Kobayashi Issa
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
“Over the Wintry” by Natsume Sōseki
Over the wintry
Forest, winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.
Since I was challenged to write five this month, let’s practice with some of our own.
Long shoots of green
Sway under the violet sky
Mushroom clouds bloom.
Sprattle. Tonk. Bonk.
Foam gathers against metal.
Sweetened paper drinks.
Metal swooshes through
Sweet air and strong knotted wood
Burning off anger.
Wind gusts hard threats
Against warped plastic siding with
Gold foiling reflects
Calling for the scratching pen
On fresh white paper.
Are they great, like the notable ones? No, but that was fun.
Do you write haiku? Share some with me in the comments below!