What is a Haiku?

A haiku is a poetic form that finds its roots in Japan, in the 17th Century.

Matsuo Basho is one of the most well-known poets of that time period, and he is widely considered as the father of the haiku. A longer, collaborative poetic form known as a “renku” has a first verse which is called a “hokku.” Basho’s school of poetry frequently used the hokku as a standalone, and not within the context of a renku. This is what eventually gave rise to the haiku.

A haiku generally consists of three lines with a total of seventeen syllables. Each line in a haiku has five, seven, and five syllables respectively. Typically, a traditional Japanese haiku possesses “kiru” and “kigo.”

Kiru, or “cutting,” is usually represented by a “kireji” or a “cutting word,” which is placed between two ideas or pictures. The kireji indicates the separation between the two images, and marks the two elements’ relation. In classical western poetry, it is sometimes analogous to the caesura, or a full pause in a poetic or musical line. A kigo, on the other hand, is a seasonal reference; it is usually a metonymy drawn from nature. In a traditional Japanese haiku, the kigo is usually tied to a Japanese cultural reference, and is a requirement of the form. However, many non-Japanese poets and Japanese free-form haiku poets do not always employ kigo in their poems. The use of kigo in pre-industrial Japanese haikus has generally led to the incorrect assumption that the haiku is a nature poem.

The haiku was first brought to the western world by Hendrik Doeff, a Dutchman commissioned in trading post in Nagasaki during the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, haikus have been written in many different languages and by poets from all over the world, from American Jack Kerouac, to Mexican Octavio Paz. Today, a concentration of haiku poets can be found in English-speaking countries, Northern Europe, and the Balkans.

While traditional Japanese haikus generally follow the form’s strict 17 syllable count, modern Japanese haikus tend not to follow the 17 syllable requirement or the use of kigo. These modern Japanese haikus are generally known as “gendai,” and still employ the use of kiru, despite the abandonment of the more rigid requirements of traditional form. Some English language haikus appearing in journals in English only have around ten to fourteen syllables. Due to linguistic differences, translations of Japanese language haikus to English are generally only about 12 syllables long. That being said however, many poets and aspiring poets still strive to adhere to the five-seven-five syllable pattern of this poetic form.

The characteristic beauty of the haiku rests in the subtlety brought about by its very brevity, and the goal of a haiku is generally to create a multi-faceted image that is only partially revealed by the words of the poem. For all the changes that the haiku has undergone, this core characteristic of the form has remained. Basho’s statement, “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of,” remains as true for today’s haiku, as it had for those written in the 17th century.

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