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Have You Tried Writing Haiku?

Haiku, also known as hokku, is a form of poetry that originated in 17th-century Japan. It is a playful and enjoyable way to express oneself through words, inspired by nature. If you love poetry, why not give haiku a try?

According to poet R.H. Blyth, haiku captures a moment of enlightenment and highlights the beauty in everyday life (Blyth, Haiku, 1952). This non-rhyming poem consists of three lines and 17 syllables in total. The first line has five syllables, the second has seven, and the third has five.

Unlike other forms of poetry, haiku does not follow strict rules of grammar and punctuation, giving poets the freedom to use or omit punctuation and capitalization. They can also structure their sentences as they please. Often written in the present tense, haikus create a sense of immediacy. Due to their brevity, haiku poems typically do not have titles.

Originally, haiku was used to depict the seasons, with a special word, called a kigo, to indicate the season the poem was set in. For instance, cherry blossoms represent spring, wisteria for summer, the moon for autumn, and cold for winter.

A prominent haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) who developed and refined the hokku while living in Edo, modern-day Tokyo. An interesting fact about Basho is that his pen name, which he changed several times, means "banana tree." This name was given to him by his disciples who planted a banana tree outside his new house.

Blyth describes Basho as the epitome of haiku, and any interpretation of this form of poetry would be incomplete without starting with him (Blyth, Haiku, Hokuseido, 1951). Born into a samurai family in the Iga Province in 1633, Basho experienced the "sakoku" or "locked country" period (1633-1853) in Japan. During this time, Japan isolated itself from foreign influences, particularly from Portugal and Spain due to their religious and colonial influence.

After his father's passing, Basho worked as a page for a local lord's son and developed a passion for literature. His first known poem was published in 1662. He also participated in collaborative poetry known as haikai no renga or renku, where one poet writes the opening verse, and other poets add to it, creating a chain of verses.

Poets began using the hokku formula for standalone poems to describe the natural world. Basho moved to Kyoto in 1666 to study Chinese and Japanese poetry and Zen meditation. He taught in Edo for a few years under the name Tosei, meaning "green peach," and focused on writing poetry about nature, history, and literature.

In 1684, Basho started traveling across Japan, beginning his journey with Mount Fuji, Ueno, and Kyoto before returning to Edo in 1685. Despite his initial concerns about bandits, Basho was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality he received and grew more confident in his travels. Along the way, he continued to write haiku, finding profound truths in everyday things.

One of his most noteworthy haikus was written in 1686:

The year draws to its close:I am still wearingMy kasa and straw sandals. (Basho, 1686, tr. R.H. Blyth, 1952)

This haiku reflects Basho's realization of the passage of time and his decision to spend it on traveling instead of teaching. His travels continued until 1691 when he embarked on his longest journey with his disciple, Sora, to the northern part of Japan.

Finally, in 1686, Basho wrote another famous haiku:

The old pond -A frog jumps in,The sound of water. (Matsuo Basho, 'The Old Pond', 1686, tr. R.H. Blyth)

This haiku became an instant hit, and poets from all over Edo came to Basho's home to participate in a haikai no renga about frogs. Despite his fame, Basho never stopped teaching poetry and continued to inspire others with his writing until his passing in 1694.

Haiku: A Traditional Japanese Form of Poetry

Haiku, originating from Japan, is a traditional poetic form that is typically composed of three lines. However, in its original language, it is written as a single line.

Here is an example of Japanese haiku and its English translation:

静けさや/Iwa ni shimiiru/Semi no koeTranslation into English:In complete stillnessA lone cicada's voicePenetrates the rocks(Basho, 'Eternal Stillness', translated by Masako K. Hirago, 1987)^1

Study Tip: Analyzing Haiku

When reading haiku, one must pay attention to the details and multiple layers of meaning. For instance, what do you think the haiku above is about? Is it the cicada, the silence, or the rocky landscape? The open-endedness and ambiguity of haiku allow for various interpretations, making it a fascinating form of poetry to explore.

Haiku is a beautiful and meaningful way to capture fleeting moments and reflect on the beauty of nature and everyday life. Give it a try and see what poetic gems you can create with just a few simple words.

The Influential Poets of Haiku: Exploring the Legacy of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki

Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry, has a long and diverse history, shaped by the works of influential poets known for their unique perspectives and contributions to the art form. Let's take a closer look at these notable poets and their impact on haiku.

Chiyo Ni: Nature and Humanity in Perfect Harmony

Chiyo Ni, a renowned haiku poet and Buddhist nun, was born in Matto, Japan, and began writing haiku at a young age. She studied under two of Basho's disciples and developed her own style, aiming to unite nature and humanity. Her works gained popularity throughout Japan and continue to inspire haiku writers.

Haiku Example: Morning glory!/The well bucket entangled,/I ask for water.(Chiyo Ni, 'Morning Glory', translated by Donegan and Ishibashi, 1996)

Buson: A Masterful Poet and Painter

Yosa Buson, a poet and painter, continued the haiku tradition in the late eighteenth century. He traveled across Japan, following the same path described by Basho in his book, 'Narrow Road to the Interior'. Buson's notes from his journey were also published. He is known for his sensuous and painterly style, which is evident in his haiku.

Haiku Example: In nooks and corners,/Cold remains: Flowers of the plum.(Buson, translated by R.H. Blyth)

Issa: A Humorous and Intense Perspective

Kobayashi Nobuyuki, known as Issa, came from a farming family and struggled to regain his inheritance. He wrote over 20,000 haiku, often mixing humor and sorrow, and using intense language that set him apart from the Basho tradition. His works reflect his extensive travels and his personal struggles.

Haiku Example: On the road to Shinano,/The mountain is a burden I bear,/Oh, the heat, the heat!(Issa, translated by R.H. Blyth)

Shiki: Restoring and Establishing Haiku as a Literary Genre

Masaoka Shiki, a poet, author, and literary critic during the Meiji period, was born into a samurai family and developed a fascination with haiku during his studies in Tokyo. Despite its declining popularity, Shiki worked to restore and establish haiku as a literary genre. He is also credited with coining the term "haiku" and leaving a lasting impact on the form.

During his short life, Shiki wrote and published many haiku volumes and continued to work on serialized pieces, all while battling tuberculosis. He eventually succumbed to the disease in 1902.

Shiki's Haunting Haiku: A Window into Japanese Culture

While staying at a sixteenth-century mansion, Shiki composed a haunting haiku, inviting the spirits of two celebrated warriors to join him in the cool night air. This poem showcases Shiki's skill in capturing the essence of Japanese culture, where the spirit world is believed to be intertwined with the human world. It also highlights the origin of the term "haiku", coined by Shiki himself.

The Mysterious Meaning Behind Shiki's Name

A deeper meaning lies behind Shiki's chosen name, which translates to "cuckoo" in Japanese. In Japanese culture, it is believed that cuckoos cough up blood when they sing, adding a sense of fear and mystery to Shiki's persona and his haunting haiku.

The Evolution of Haiku in Western Literature

The traditional Japanese form of poetry, haiku, has gained international recognition thanks to the efforts of influential poets like Shiki. However, it wasn't until the aftermath of World War II that haiku truly started to make an impact in Western literature. The works of R.H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson were crucial in popularizing the form and setting a trend for future writers.

Breaking Boundaries: The Modern Haiku Movement

While traditional haiku poets, such as Shiki, strictly adhered to a classical structure and theme, modern writers have taken a more experimental approach. These poets have pushed the boundaries by exploring different structures and incorporating contemporary themes like urban landscapes, technology, and social media into their haikus.

The Influence of Nature on Haiku

John Wills, a prominent nature poet, has had a significant impact on American haiku. His unique approach to the form, which still pays homage to the traditional theme of nature, incorporates different structures. For example, Wills is known for his one-line haikus with 10 syllables, deviating from the traditional 17.

A Japanese Perspective: The Heart of Haiku

The president of the Haiku International Association, Sono Uchida, believes that haiku expresses a deep appreciation for nature and humanity. This reflects the traditional Japanese belief of living in harmony with nature, as opposed to the Western idea of dominion over the natural world.

Key Takeaways: Understanding Haiku

  • Haiku is a form of non-rhyming poetry originating from seventeenth-century Japan.
  • Originally known as "hokku", haikus were required to depict the season, time of day, and landscape.
  • The term "haiku" was coined by Shiki in the nineteenth century, combining "haikai" and "hokku".
  • A haiku consists of three lines with a total of 17 syllables.
  • The first line contains five syllables, the second line seven, and the third line five.
  • While traditionally written in the present tense, modern haikus may deviate from this rule.

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