HAIKU (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 several conventions:
(1) The 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.
(2) 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 lyric).
(3) The 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 the poem.
(4) 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.
(5) The poet often presents the material under a nom de plume rather than using her own name--especially in older haiku.
(6) Additionally, 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:
In 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 (a nom 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 tanka and the senryu. See also hokku, below, and haikai, above. See also kigo and imagism. You can click here to download a PDF handout summarizing this discussion of haiku, or you can click here to download PDF samples of haiku.
Haiku is a type of poem that keeps its simplistic, image-filled form rooted deep in its original thirteenth-century Japanese roots. This pared down poem introduced the Japanese rega, a 100 stanza long oral poem. The Haiku is a breath long: it can be read in a breath, and it captures a single moment in time, filled with stark, vibrant imagery. The haiku is literal and can be an allusion, but it never uses figurative language such as the metaphor or simile.
Modern poets morph traditional haiku, changing the syllable count (originally 3 lines made of 17 syllables total with five syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third); the use of a kigo (a word directly associated with a season, such as leaves for fall, frogs for spring, or a sun for summer); the use of present tense; and the breath (there was a pause following the first and second line).