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Poetry Guide: Haiku

Haiku is one of the most important modes of Japanese poetry, a late 19th century revision by Masaoka Shiki of the older hokku (発句), the opening verse of a linked verse form, haikai no renga . A traditional hokku consists of a pattern of approximately 5, 7, and 5 morae, phonetic units which only partially correspond to the syllables of languages such as English. It also contains a special season word (the kigo) descriptive of the season in which it is set. Hokku often combine two (or rarely, three) different elements into a unified sensory impression, with a major grammatical break (kire) at the end of either the first five or second seven morae. These rules are considered essential to haiku as well, though often broken by modern writers of "free-form haiku" and of non-Japanese haiku.

Hokku or haiku?

Hokku were always written in the wider context of haikai no renga, either actually or theoretically (even when printed individually). At the end of the 19th century, Shiki separated the opening verse from the linked form and applied the term haiku to it. Because it was only after this separation that the term became popular, scholars agree that it is technically incorrect to label hokku by pre-Shiki writers "haiku", a common practice in the 20th century. The persistent confusion on the topic is exemplified by David Barnhill's anthology Bashō's Haiku (2005): 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,

Two examples

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

Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
An old pond—
The sound of a frog jumping
into water
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:

In the 1400s a rising middle class led to the development of a less courtly linked verse called haikai no renga (俳諧の連歌, "playful linked verse"). Haiku came into being when the opening verse of haikai no renga was made an independent poem at the end of the 19th 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 depend 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 arose who elevated haikai and gave it a new popularity. They were Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) and Onitsura (1661–1738). Hokku was only the first verse of 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 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 eighteen (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 made his living as a teacher of haikai, as a founder of the Shōfu school, 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, were it not that he, unlike Bashō, had no group of disciples to carry on his teachings. He 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 19th century.

The time of Buson

Grave of Yosa 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 Temmei style after the Temmei Era (1781–1789) in which it was created. Buson was better known in his day as a painter than as a writer of haikai, but today that is reversed. 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, in 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.

The appearance of 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 19th century are known by the deprecatory term tsukinami, meaning "monthly," after the monthly or twice-monthly haikai gatherings of the end of the 18th century. But in regard to this period of haikai, it came to mean "trite" and "hackneyed".

This was the situation until the appearance of Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), a reformer and revisionist who marks the end of hokku in a 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 in general 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 by verse columns and essays in newspapers.

All hokku up to the time of Shiki were written in the context of haikai, but Shiki completely separated his new style of verse from wider contexts. Being agnostic, he also separated it from the influence of Buddhism with which hokku had very often been tinged. And finally, he discarded the term "hokku" and called his revised verse form "haiku". Shiki thus became the first haiku poet. His revisionism brought an end to haikai and hokku as well as to surviving haikai schools.

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 the 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.

Henderson and Blyth

The first English book devoted to haiku was The Bamboo Broom (1934), by Harold Gould Henderson (1889–1974), which later came as a revised volume, An Introduction to Haiku (1958). Despite its importance, his work did not make an impact approaching that of his contemporary and acquaintance Blyth, probably because Henderson translated every hokku and haiku into a rhymed stanza (like a ballad stanza without its first line), whereas the Japanese originals never used rhyme.

It was thus not until 1949, with the publication of the first volume of Haiku, the four-volume work by R. H. Blyth, that the verse form was quite properly introduced to the West. Reginald Horace Blyth (1898–1964) was an Englishman and teacher of English who took up residence first in Japanese-occupied Korea, then in Japan. He produced a series of works on Zen, on hokku and haiku, and on other forms of Japanese and Asian literature. Those most relevant here are his Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (Hokuseido, 1942); his four-volume Haiku series (Hokuseido, 1949–1952; deals mostly with hokku, though including Shiki); and his two-volume History of Haiku (Hokuseido, 1964). Today he is best known as the major interpreter of hokku and haiku to the West.

Present-day attitudes to Blyth's work vary. Writers of hokku and conservative haiku tend to respect him highly; writers of more experimental haiku often deprecate what they view as his conservatism and his strong emphasis on Zen and spirituality. Though Blyth did not foresee the appearance of original haiku in languages other than Japanese when he first began writing on the topic, and though he founded no school of verse, his works stimulated the writing of haiku in English. At the end of the second volume of his History of Haiku (1964), Blyth 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.

The budding of American haiku

Precisely who qualifies as the first American haiku poet depends on one's definition of 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, which in Blyth is predominantly 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. Nonetheless these experimental verses expanded the popularity of haiku in English, which while never making much of an impact on the literary world, has nonetheless proved very popular as a system of 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.

Today haiku is written in many languages, but the number of writers is still concentrated primarily in Japan and secondarily 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 a technological context. While old hokku avoided some topics such as romance, sex, and overt violence, contemporary haiku often deals specifically with such themes.

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 20th 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." The term has broadened greatly in modern usage to cover nearly any short verse. Nonetheless, some of the more common practices in English are:

Internet and television

Both haiku and hokku writers and verses are now found online. A search will lead to many forums where both new and experienced poets learn, share, discuss, and freely criticize.

In early 1998, Salon magazine published the results of a haiku contest on the topic of computer error messages. The winning verse (senryu to be precise), written by David Dixon, was:

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

There are online computerized systems for generating random haiku-like verse; there are "Spamku," (verses devoted to the processed, canned meat) as well as many other clever variations on the brevity of the haiku form. Witty haiku, often satirizing the form itself, have appeared in popular TV programs such as Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park.

In 1995, the scifaiku (science fiction haiku) form was invented by Tom Brinck.

Famous writers

Pre-Shiki period (hokku)

Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)
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)


Although none of the following poets except Hackett is known primarily for haiku, all have some haiku in print. 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 the 817 haiku that he preferred. Amiri Baraka recently authored a collection of what he calls "low coup," his own variant of the haiku form.

James W. Hackett
Jorge Luis Borges
Cid Corman
Allen Ginsberg
Dag Hammarskjöld
Jack Kerouac
Octavio Paz
José Juan Tablada
Kenneth Rexroth
Gary Snyder
Amiri Baraka
Richard Wright

See also:

External links



Haiku journals