Brittanica.com defines a haiku as ‘unrhymed poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. The haiku first emerged in Japanese literature during the 17th century, as a terse reaction to elaborate poetic traditions, though it did not become known by the name haiku until the 19th century.’
If you’re just here for the poetry but not for its history, scroll down a bit to read some selected haikus.
In the same way that we know different types of sonnets, haikus we know today have seen changes through time as well. Originally, the 5-7-5 triplet we know today (then called hokku) was only the beginning to longer poems called renga. The triplet was followed by two lines of 7 syllables. What makes the renga special is that several of them were collaboratively linked together to create what is known as renku.
So, the haiku we know evolved from the hokku and was renamed when it became an individual type of poetry. Poetryfoundation.com explains that ‘a haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.’
One last detail which is important to be mentioned on the subject of haikus is how the Japanese language differs from English. Whereas a haiku in English is commonly constructed in the manner described above (5-7-5 syllables), Japanese counts sound units (mora), not syllables. Writing a 17-syllable poem is just the closest we can get to it in English.
In the article “Vorticism” (1914) poet Ezra Pound describes how haikus enabled him to capture a feeling he had experienced and put it into words. Where he had failed with a normal poem, the haiku form allowed him to express his thoughts and emotions in a brief moment.
‘THREE YEARS AGO in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion.’
Pound eventually managed to capture this moment with this ‘hokku-like sentence’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
Interestingly, one can argue that Pound misunderstood the essence of haikus as Richard Smith does. He suggests that inverting the order of the haiku changes its effect.
These petals on a wet, black bough:
Lovely faces in the crowd.
Smith refers to one of the first Japanese masters of haiku poetry, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) who helped one his students in a similar manner. The student came up with the haiku
„Red dragonflies! Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!“
and Basho suggested an inversion instead:
Red pepper pods! Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!
Smith’s suggested inversion in Pounds haiku follows the same structure. ‘The lesser (i.e., non-human) image of „petals, on a wet, black bough“ now seems to evoke the greater image of „the apparition of these faces in the crowd.’
Smith, Richard Eugene. „Ezra Pound and the Haiku.“ College English, vol. 26, no. 7, 1965, pp. 522-527. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/373518.
While a good haiku may appear simple and easy to create, it takes effort to make it seem effortless. You may also have noticed that the examples I just provided did not actually follow the 5-7-5 syllable structure. In the same way that deviating from an otherwise regular iambic pentameter pattern draws the reader’s or listener’s attention, haikus may stand out by not always following that strict pattern.
I chose to write about haikus because I love how something can seem easy at first glance but once you pay closer attention to it you realise its true beauty.
Below are a few haikus for you to read.
And feel free to give writing your own haiku a try!
by Matsuo Bashō
From time to time
The clouds give rest
To the moon-beholders.
by Kobayashi Issa
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
by Langston Hughes
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
In my medicine cabinet
by Jack Kerouac
In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age