(plural: haiku, from archaic Japanese): The term haiku
is a fairly late addition to Japanese poetry. The poet Shiki
coined the term in the nineteenth century from a longer, more
traditional phrase, haikai renga no hokku ("the
introductory lines of light linked verse"). To understand
the haiku's history as a genre,
peruse the vocabulary entries for its predecessors, the hokku
and the haikai renga or renku.
The haiku follows
traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines.
The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains
seven, and the last line five. In Japanese, the syllables
are further restricted in that each syllable must have three
sound units (sound-components formed of a consonant, a vowel,
and another consonant). The three unit-rule is usually ignored
in English haiku, since English syllables vary in size
much more than in Japanese. Furthermore, in English translation,
this 5/7/5 syllable count is occasionally modified to three
lines containing 6/7/6 syllables respectively, since English
is not as "compact" as Japanese.
The traditional subject-matter is a Zen description of a location,
natural phenomona, wildlife, or a common everyday occurrence.
Insects and seasonal activities are particularly popular topics.
If the subject-matter is something besides a scene from nature,
or if it employs puns, elaborate symbols, or other forms of
"cleverness," the poem is technically a senryu
rather than a haiku. The point was that the imagery
presents a "Zen snapshot" of the universe, setting
aside logic and thought for a flash of intuitive insight.
The haiku seeks to capture the qualities of experiencing
the natural world uncluttered by "ideas." Often
editors will talk about "the haiku moment"--that
split second when we first experience something but before
we begin to think about it. (In many ways, this idea might
be contrasted usefully with the lyric
moment in the English tradition of poetry; see
haiku is always set during a particular season or month
as indicated by a kigo,
or traditional season-word. This brief (and often subtle)
reference to a season or an object or activity associated
with that time of year establishes the predominant mood of
It is striking a feature of the haiku that direct discussion
of the poem's implications is forbidden, and symbolism
or wordplay discouraged in a manner alien to Western poetry.
The poet describes her subject in an unusual manner without
making explicit commentary or explicit moral judgment. To
convey such ideas, the genre often relies upon allusions
to earlier haiku or implies a comparison between the
natural setting and something else. Simplicity is more valued
than "cleverness." Again, if the poet is being clever,
using puns or symbols, the poem again is technically a senryu
rather than a haiku.
poet often presents the material under a nom
de plume rather than using her own name--especially
in older haiku.
the haiku traditionally employ "the technique
of cutting"--i.e., a division in thought between the
earlier and later portions of the poem. (It is comparable
to the volta
of a sonnet).
These two divisions must be able to stand independently from
the other section, but each one must also enrich the reader's
understanding of the other section. In English translation,
this division is often indicated through punctuation marks
such as a dash, colon, semicolon, or ellipsis.
Here is an example of
a haiku by a Western writer, James Kirkup:
the amber dusk
Each island dreams its own night--
The sea swarms with gold.
The following poem serves
as an example very loosely translated from Japanese:
Keshiki wa miezu
Semi no koe
[O cricket, from your cheery cry
No one could ever guess
How quickly you must die.]
This example illustrates the haiku's
lack of authorial commentary or explanation--the desire
merely to present the experience of nature:
The rains of May
The swift Mogami River.]
Many Japanese poets have
used the form, the two acknowledged masters being Bashó
de plume for Matsuo Munefusa, 1644-94); and
Kobayashi Issa (a nom
de plume for Kobayashi Nobuyuki). The Imagist
Movement in 20th century English literature has been
profoundly influenced by haiku. The list of poets who
attempted the haiku or admired the genre includes Ezra
Pound, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, and W. B. Yeats.
Contrast haiku with the
and the senryu.
See also hokku,
below, and haikai,
above. See also kigo
You can click here to download a PDF handout
summarizing this discussion of haiku, or you can
click here to download PDF samples
An example of classic hokku by Bashô:
an old pond—
the sound of a frog jumping
Another Bashô classic:
the first cold shower;
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw.