From New World Encyclopedia

Haiku (俳句) is a mode of Japanese poetry initiated through a late ninteenth century revision by Masaoka Shiki of the older hokku (発句), which is the opening verse of a chain of linked verses known as haikai no renga. A traditional hokku comprises a three-part sequence of approximately five, seven, and five morae, phonetic units (which units correspond only partially to the syllables of languages such as English). The traditional hokku also contains a special season word (the kigo) descriptive of the season in which the renga is set. Hokku often combine two (or rarely, three) different elements into a unified sensory impression, with a kireji ("cutting word") between them, usually at the end of either the first five or second seven morae.

The Hokku of early Japanese poets like Matsuo Basho and Ueshima Onitsura speak to us clearly across the centuries, because their thoughts have been reduced to a few simple words that convey a powerful image. Through these poems we can identify with the feelings and attitudes of a much earlier time.

The elements of the older hokku are considered by many to be essential to haiku as well, although they are not always included by modern writers of Japanese "free-form haiku" and of non-Japanese haiku. Senryu is a similar poetry form that emphasizes humor and human foibles instead of seasons.

Haiku was introduced to the West after World War II and has become a popular form of self-expression among both amateurs and professionals in many languages. The appeal of haiku is that it communicates a personal insight in a few evocative words. The challenge is to identify a “haiku moment,” a situation or a thought that represents a deeper feeling, then find the phrase that expresses it best. This universal challenge can be understood and enjoyed by literary and artistic people in any culture. Contemporary haiku is often regarded as an "instant" form of brief verse that can be written by anyone from schoolchildren to professional poets.

Hokku or Haiku?

Hokku were one of the most popular forms of poetry in Japan during the sixteenth century. A hokku was always written as the opening verse for a longer haikai no renga, (a chain of linked verses), whether the hokku was actually printed together with the haikai no renga or individually. At the end of the nineteenth century, Shiki separated the opening verse from the linked form and applied the term "haiku" to it. Since the term “haiku” came into use only after Shiki made this separation, scholars agree that it is technically incorrect to label hokku by earlier writers "haiku," as was commonly done during the twentieth century. The persistent confusion on the topic is exemplified by David Barnhill's (2005) anthology Bashō's Haiku: in spite of the title, Barnhill admits that "the individual poems that Bashō created are, properly speaking, hokku,” and that he used the term haiku because it seemed more familiar.

In this article, since it is intended to be accurate and objective,

  • hokku is used for verses that are written, if only theoretically, as opening verses of haikai no renga;
  • haiku is used for verses by Shiki and later writers, written in the form of hokku but independent of haikai no renga.

Examples of Hokku

Japanese hokku and haiku are traditionally printed in one vertical line, though in handwritten form they may be in any reasonable number of lines.

  • An example of classic hokku by Bashō:
Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
an old pond—
the sound of a frog jumping
into water
  • Another Bashō classic:
Hatsu shigure saru mo komino wo hoshige nari
the first cold shower;
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw.

(At that time, Japanese rain-gear consisted of a large, round hat and a shaggy straw cloak.)

Origin and Evolution

From Renga to Haikai

The exact origin of hokku is still subject to debate, but it is generally agreed that it originated from the classical linked verse form called renga (連歌). There are two types of renga:

  • The short renga, tanrenga, has a 5-7-5 - 7-7 structure. The first 5-7-5 of a short renga is called chōku (the longer verse), to which answers the remaining 7-7, tanku (the shorter verse).
  • The long renga, chōrenga, consists of an alternating succession of chōku and tanku, 36 to 100 verses per volume. The first verse of a long renga is a chōku (5-7-5) called hokku (発句, "the opening verse"), the second is a tanku (7-7) called waki, and the last is a tanku called ageku.

During the 1400s, the rise of the middle class led to the development of a less courtly linked verse called playful linked verse (俳諧の連歌, haikai no renga). The term haikai no renga first appears in the renga collection Tsukubashu. Haiku came into being when the opening verse of haikai no renga was made an independent poem at the end of the nineteenth century.

The inventors of haikai no renga (abbr. haikai) are generally considered to be Yamazaki Sōkan (1465 - 1553) and Arakida Moritake (1473 - 1549). Later exponents of haikai were Matsunaga Teitoku (1571- 1653), the founder of the Teimon school, and Nishiyama Sōin (1605 - 1682), the founder of the Danrin school. The Teimon school's deliberate colloquialism made haikai popular, but also made it dependent on wordplay. To counter this dependence, the Danrin school explored people's daily life for other sources of playfulness, but often ended up with frivolity.

In the 1600s, two masters, Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694) and Ueshima Onitsura (1661 – 1738) elevated haikai and gave it a new popularity. Hokku was only the first verse of a haikai, but its position as the opening verse made it the most important, setting the tone for the whole composition. Even though hokku sometimes appeared individually, they were understood to always be in the context of a haikai, if only theoretically. Bashō and Onitsura were thus writers of haikai of which hokku was only a part, though the most important part.

The time of Bashō

Bashō's first known hokku was written when he was 18 (scholars doubt the authenticity of a supposed earlier hokku written in honor of the Year of the Bird), but it showed little promise, and much of his early verse is little more than the kind of wordplay popular at the time. The verse generally considered to mark his turning point and departure from the Danrin school came in 1680, when he wrote of a crow perched on a bare branch. Bashō, a founder of the Shōfu school, made his living as a teacher of haikai, and wrote a number of travel journals incorporating hokku. He was strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and is said to have regretted, near the end of his life, devoting more time to haikai than to Buddhist practice.

Onitsura would be far more famous today as a haiku writer contemporary with Bashō, if he, like Bashō, had gathered a group of disciples to carry on his teachings. Onitsura wrote hokku of high quality and emphasized truth and sincerity in writing. Shōfu, Bashō's school of haikai, was carried on by his disciples Kikaku, Ransetsu, Kyorai, Kyoroku, Shikō, Sampū, Etsujin, Yaha, Hokushi, Jōsō, and Bonchō. It became the haikai standard throughout Japan. Branches founded by his disciples Kikaku (1661-1707) and Ransetsu (1654-1707) still existed in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The time of Buson

Grave of Yosa Buson

The next famous style of haikai to arise was that of Yosa Buson (1716 - 1783) and others such as Gyōdai, Chora, Rankō, Ryōta, Shōha, Taigi, and Kitō, called the Tenmei style after the Tenmei Era (1781 - 1789) in which it was created. Buson was better known in his day as a painter than as a writer of haikai. His affection for painting can be seen in the painterly style of his hokku, and in his attempt to deliberately arrange scenes in words. Hokku was not so much a serious matter for Buson as it was for Bashō. The popularity and frequency of haikai gatherings in this period led to greater numbers of verses springing from imagination rather than from actual experience.

No new popular style followed Buson. A very individualistic approach to haikai appeared, however, with the writer Kobayashi Issa (1763 - 1827) whose miserable childhood, poverty, sad life, and devotion to the Pure Land sect of Buddhism are clearly present in his hokku.

Masaoka Shiki

After Issa, haikai entered a period of decline in which it reverted to frivolity and uninspired mediocrity. The writers of this period in the nineteenth century are known by the deprecatory term tsukinami, ("monthly"), after the monthly or twice-monthly haikai gatherings popular at the end of the eighteenth century. “Tsukinami” came to mean "trite" and "hackneyed."

The career of Masaoka Shiki (1867 - 1902), a reformer and revisionist, marked the end of hokku in its wider context. Shiki, a prolific writer even though chronically ill during a significant part of his life, not only disliked the tsukinami writers, but also criticized Bashō. Like the Japanese intellectual world at that time, Shiki was strongly impressed by Western culture. He favored the painterly style of Buson and particularly the European concept of plein-air painting, which he adapted to create a style of reformed hokku as a kind of nature sketch in words, an approach called shasei, literally "sketching from life." He popularized his views through essays and columns on verse in newspapers.

All hokku up to the time of Shiki had been written in the context of a longer haikai, but Shiki completely separated his new style of verse from larger contexts. An agnostic, he also separated it from the influence of Buddhism which had been an integral theme. Finally, he discarded the term "hokku" and called his revised verse form "haiku," becoming the first haiku poet. His revisions brought an end to haikai and hokku, as well as to surviving haikai schools.


Haiga, the combination of haiku and art, is nearly as old as haiku itself. Haiga began as haiku added to paintings, but included in Japan the calligraphic painting of haiku via brushstrokes, with the calligraphy adding to the power of the haiku. Earlier haiku poets added haiku to their paintings, but Basho is noted for creating haiga paintings as simple as the haiku itself. Yosa Buson, a master painter, brought a more artistic approach to haiga. Haiga poet-artists followed either of these approaches.

Today, artists have combined haiku with paintings, photographs and other art media.

Modern Haiku

Hekigotō and Kyoshi

Shiki's innovative approach to haiku was carried on in Japan by his most prominent students, Hekigotō and Kyoshi. Hekigotō was the more radical of the two, while Kyoshi (1874 - 1959) wrote more conservative verse, sometimes recalling the older hokku.

Haiku in the West

Although there were attempts outside Japan to imitate the old hokku in the early 1900s, there was little genuine understanding of its principles. Early Western scholars such as Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850 - 1935) and William George Aston were mostly dismissive of hokku's poetic value. The first advocate of English-language hokku was the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. In "A Proposal to American Poets," published in Reader magazine in February 1904, Noguchi gave a brief outline of the hokku and some of his own English efforts, ending with the exhortation: "Pray, you try Japanese Hokku, my American poets!" In France, hokku was introduced by Paul-Louis Couchoud around 1906. Hokku subsequently had a considerable influence on Imagists in the 1910s, but there was as yet little understanding of the form and its history.

Introduction to the Western World

After early Imagist interest in haiku, the genre drew less attention in English until after World War II, with the appearance of three influential volumes about Japanese haiku.

In 1949, with the publication in Japan of the first volume of Haiku, the four-volume work by Reginald Horace Blyth, haiku was introduced to the post-war world. Blyth was an Englishman who lived first in Japanese-annexed Korea, then in Japan. He produced a series of works on Zen, haiku, senryu, and on other forms of Japanese and Asian literature. His works Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (1942); the four-volume Haiku series (1949 - 1952) dealing mostly with pre-modern hokku, though including Shiki; and the two-volume History of Haiku (1964) made him a major interpreter of haiku to the West.

Many contemporary writers of haiku were introduced to the genre through his works. These include the San Francisco and Beat Generation writers, including Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, many of whom have written haiku in addition to their better-known works. Many members of the international "haiku community" also got their first views of haiku from Blyth's books, including James W. Hackett, William J. Higginson, Anita Virgil, and Lee Gurga. In the late twentieth century, however, members of that community with direct knowledge of modern Japanese haiku often noted Blyth's distaste for haiku on more modern themes, and his strong bias regarding a direct connection between haiku and Zen, a "connection" largely ignored by Japanese poets. Blyth also downplayed the substantial contributions of Japanese women to the genre, especially during the Bashô era and the twentieth century.

Haiku in English

Blyth did not foresee the appearance of original haiku in languages other than Japanese when he began writing on the topic, and he founded no school of verse. But his works stimulated the writing of haiku in English. At the end of the second volume of his History of Haiku (1964), he remarked that: "the latest development in the history of haiku is one which nobody foresaw, - the writing of haiku outside Japan, not in the Japanese language." He followed that comment with several original verses in English by the American James W. Hackett, with whom Blyth corresponded.

In 1957, the Charles E. Tuttle Co., with offices in both Japan and the U. S., published The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples written by the Japanese-American scholar and translator Kenneth Yasuda. The book consists mainly of materials from Yasuda's doctoral dissertation at Tokyo University (1955), and includes both translations from Japanese and original poems of his own in English which had previously appeared in his book A Pepper-Pod: Classic Japanese Poems together with Original Haiku (Alfred A. Knopf, 1947). In The Japanese Haiku, Yasuda presented some Japanese critical theory about haiku, especially featuring comments by early twentieth-century poets and critics. His translations conform to a 5-7-5 syllable count in English, with the first and third lines end-rhymed. Yasuda's theory includes the concept of a "haiku moment" which he said is based in personal experience and provides the motive for writing a haiku. While the rest of his theoretical writing on haiku is not widely discussed, his notion of the haiku moment has resonated with haiku writers in North America.

The impulse to write haiku in English in North America was probably given more of a push by two books that appeared in 1958 than by Blyth's books directly. His indirect influence was felt through the Beat writers; Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums appeared in 1958, with one of its main characters, Japhy Ryder (based on Gary Snyder), writing haiku. Also in 1958, An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashô to Shiki by Harold G. Henderson (Doubleday Anchor Books), was published. This was a careful revision of Henderson's earlier book The Bamboo Broom (Houghton Mifflin, 1934), which apparently drew little notice before World War II. (After the war, Henderson and Blyth worked for the American Occupation in Japan and for the Imperial Household, respectively, and their mutual appreciation of haiku helped form a bond between the two, as they collaborated on communications between their respective employers.)

Henderson translated every hokku and haiku into a rhymed tercet (a-b-a), whereas the Japanese originals never used rhyme. Unlike Yasuda, however, he recognized that 17 syllables in English are generally longer than the 17 morae (phonetic units) of a traditional Japanese haiku. Since the normal modes of English poetry depend on accentual meter rather than syllabics, Henderson chose to emphasize the order of events and images in the originals, rather than counting syllables.

Henderson also welcomed correspondence, and when North Americans began publishing magazines devoted to haiku in English, he encouraged them. Not as dogmatic as Blyth, Henderson insisted only that haiku must be poems, and that the development of haiku in English would be determined by the poets.

The Beginnings of American haiku

Individualistic "haiku-like" verses by the innovative Buddhist poet and artist Paul Reps (1895 - 1990) appeared in print as early as 1939 (More Power to You - Poems Everyone Can Make, Preview Publications, Montrose, CA.) Other Westerners, inspired by Blyth's translations, attempted original haiku in English, though again generally failing to understand the principles behind the verse form. (Blyth emphasized the more challenging hokku rather than the later and more free-form haiku.) The resulting verses, including those of the Beat period, were often little more than the brevity of the haiku form combined with current ideas of poetic content, or uninformed attempts at "Zen" poetry. Nevertheless, these experimental verses expanded the popularity of haiku in English. While never making a significant impact on the literary world, haiku in America has proven very popular as a system for introducing students to poetry in elementary schools and as a hobby for numerous amateur writers who continue the innovation and experimentation that is the legacy of Shiki's reforms.

The Haiku Society of America was founded in 1964 to promote haiku. Poets Gerald Vizenor, Gordon Henry, Jr., and Kimberley Blaeser, meanwhile, have connected the haiku form to the tradition of the Native American Anishinaabe tribe, stressing the essential interconnectedness of the human and natural "worlds."

Today haiku is written in many languages, but the largest numbers of writers are still concentrated in Japan and in English-speaking countries.

Contemporary English-language haiku

While traditional hokku focused on nature and the place of humans in nature, modern haiku poets often consider any subject matter suitable, whether related to nature, an urban setting, or even to technology. Whereas old hokku avoided topics such as romance, sex, and overt violence; contemporary haiku often deals specifically with such themes.

Writing traditional hokku required a long period of learning and maturing, but contemporary haiku is often regarded as an "instant" form of brief verse that can be written by anyone from schoolchildren to professionals. Though conservative writers of modern haiku stay faithful to the standards of old hokku, many present-day writers have dropped such standards, emphasizing personal freedom and pursuing ongoing exploration in both form and subject matter.

In addition to the spread of haiku, the late twentieth century also witnessed the surprising revival in English of the old hokku tradition, providing a continuation in spirit of pre-Shiki verse through adaptation to the English language and a wider geographic context.

Due to the various views and practices today, it is impossible to single out any current style or format or subject matter as definitive "haiku." Nonetheless, some of the more common practices in English are:

  • Use of three (or fewer) lines of no more than 17 syllables in total;
  • Use of metrical feet rather than syllables. A haiku then becomes three lines of 2, 3, and 2 metrical feet, with a pause after the second or fifth;
  • Use of a caesura (audible pause) to implicitly contrast and compare two events or situations.

At the start of the twenty-first century, there is a thriving community of haiku poets worldwide, mainly communicating through national societies and journals in English-speaking countries (Blithe Spirit, Presence, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Heron's Nest, Yellow Moon and many more), in Japan and in the Balkans (mainly Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Romania).

Modern Internet, television, movies and video games

The universal appeal of haiku is reflected in the ways in which it has been used in films and on the internet. Both haiku and hokku writers and verses, as well as a substantial volume of pseudo-haiku, can be found online, along with forums where both new and experienced poets learn, share, discuss, and freely criticize. There are online computerized systems for generating random haiku-like verse, as well as many clever variations on the brevity of the haiku form.

The 1999 film Fight Club included a haiku on the subject of dissatisfaction with one's job in the modern world:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

On the Macromedia Flash cartoon website, Homestar Runner, for Halloween 2004, the character of Strong Sad was featured at a booth reciting Halloween haiku. Witty haiku, often satirizing the form itself, have appeared in popular adult cartoons on television, such as Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park.

Haiku also makes an appearance in several video games and online games. In 1996, a group of Quake players started writing "Quaiku" poetry, often evoking various ideas from a Quake player's life. The character King Bowser in the game “Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars” had his own haiku. Satires of haiku also play a role in the online adventure game Kingdom of Loathing, where there is a Haiku Dungeon in which all adventures are written in haiku, and an in-game chat channel in which everyone must speak in haiku. The characters in one level of the Play Station game “Spyro: Year of the Dragon” speak exclusively in freestyle haiku.

Famous writers

Pre-Shiki period (hokku)

  • Matsuo Basho ( 1644 – 1694 )
  • Ueshima Onitsura ( 1661 – 1738 )
  • Yosa Buson ( 1716 – 1783 )
  • Kobayashi Issa ( 1763 – 1827 )

Shiki and later (haiku)

  • Masaoka Shiki ( 1867 – 1902 )
  • Kawahigashi Hekigotō ( 1873 – 1937 )
  • Takahama Kyoshi ( 1874 – 1959 )
  • Taneda Santoka ( 1882 – 1940 )
  • Iida Dakotsu ( 1885 – 1962 )
  • Nakamura Kusatao ( 1901 – 1983 )

Non-Japanese poets

Although all of the poets below have some haiku in print, only Hackett and Virgilio are known primarily for haiku. Richard Wright, known for his novel "Native Son," wrote some 4000 haiku in the last eighteen months of his life. Although few were published during his lifetime, in 1998 HAIKU: This Other World was published with 817 of his favorite haiku. Amiri Baraka recently authored a collection of what he calls "low coup," his own variant of the haiku form. Poet Sonia Sanchez is also known for her unconventional blending of haiku and the blues musical genre.

  • James W. Hackett
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Cid Corman
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Dag Hammarskjöld

  • Jack Kerouac
  • Octavio Paz
  • José Juan Tablada
  • Kenneth Rexroth
  • Edith Shiffert
  • Gary Snyder

  • Amiri Baraka
  • Richard Wright
  • Sonia Sanchez
  • Gerald Vizenor
  • Nick Virgilio

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku, Vol. 1, From the Beginnings up to Issa. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963. ISBN 0893460664
  • Bowers, Faubion (ed.) The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology, Dover Publications, 1996. ISBN 978-0486292748
  • Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet's Guide. Modern Haiku Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0974189406
  • Henderson, Harold Gould. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki. Anchor, 1958. ISBN 978-0385093767
  • Reichhold, Jane. Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands on Guide. Kodansha International, 2013. ISBN 978-1568365213

External links

All links retrieved June 22, 2024.



Haiku journals



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