A haiku is a three-line Japanese poem. The first and last lines of the poem have five syllables and the second, or middle, line has seven. More often than not when speaking about haikus the word “mora” is used rather than “syllable”. The two are similar, but there is a difference that is untranslatable. It has to do with the structure of Japanese and the ways it does not line up with English. Therefore we would say the first line of a haiku has five moras. There is no requirement in a haiku for the three lines to rhyme with one another.
Haikus are often about similar subject matter, such as nature, what can be found in it, and the changing of the seasons. There are usually two juxtaposed subjects in the host poem that are contrasted in some way. Often, in English, there are dashes or colons to symbolize this separation.
History of the Haiku
Haikus came into Japanese literature in the 17th century. At the time it was known by different names but was a reaction to longer more intricate forms of poetry. The word comes from the longer Japanese word “haikai” which is a humorous form of another poem called a renga. This linked-verse poem is made up of multiple elements the second of which is the hokku. It became known as the haiku in the late 19th century when it became popular on its own terms rather than the opening of a linked-verse sequence.
Traditionally, haikus were only written about nature and the seasons. This is known as a “kigo,” a reference to the seasons. They tapped, lightly, into emotions. The first writer to become well-known for his haikus was Bashō whose poems appealed to all of Japanese society.
Examples of Haikus
Example #1 Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac
Best known as the author of the seminal American classic, On the Road, Kerouac also dabbled in the art of haiku writing. This poem makes use of the traditional subject matter, nature, and of the two juxtaposed images. In this case, “snow in my shoe” and the sparrow’s nest. The second and third lines read:
Here, the reader can see that Kerouac uses enjambment to connect the second and third lines. While between the first and second he used a dash. He uses as few words as possible to try to paint a natural image that might remind a reader of something they experienced.
Example #2 To a Leg of Heron by Bashō
A bit longer than the previous example, in this traditional haiku, the master of the genre Bashō, creates a simple yet clear story.
Here is the poem:
A frog jumps
The sound of water
This poem contrasts two parts, the first: the frog jumping in the water, the second: the sound. With as few words as possible Bashō is able to create a memorable and evocative image of nature. These sounds are recognizable to a wide variety of readers, making it very clear why he became so popular with the Japanese public.
Example #3 A World of Dew by Kobayashi Issa
Another simple yet powerful poem, A World of Dew’ describes the nature of the world and the interconnectivity of all things. The poem reads:
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
In English, the syllable numbers are different than they are in Japanese, so it might not strike one as a traditional haiku although it is.
Example #4 A Poppy Blooms by Katsushika Hokusai
Hokusai learned a great deal from Bashō about haiku writing and his influence can often be felt on Hokusai’s works. In this simple poem, the poet uses the spring to describe his writing process.
I write, erase, rewrite
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
The mundanity of the first two lines is contrasted with the beauty of the third. It is about hard work, the need to continue writing and the results that eventually come to pass if one keeps working.