Haiku

A haiku is a three-line Japanese poem that follows a syllable pattern of 5-7-5.

They are incredibly popular, and it’s likely that most lovers of poetry have tried at one time or another to create one. They’re often used in schools and beginning poetry courses to help writers understand the importance of syllables.

Facts about Haikus

  • Haikus often deal with similar natural subjects, like the changing of seasons.
  • Two subjects are sometimes juxtaposed within a haiku.
  • In English,  there are dashes or colons to symbolize this separation.
  • Today, haikus are written around the world and touch on a wide variety of subjects.
  • The haiku is one of the most popular poetic forms in the world.


History of the Haiku

Haiku are first noted in Japanese literature in the 17th century. At the time, they were first written as a reaction to longer more intricate forms of poetry.

The word “haiku” comes from the longer Japanese word “haikai.” A haikai 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 after readers and writers became interested in the hokku on its own.

Traditionally, haiku were written about nature and the seasons. They only explored emotions on a surface level. The first writer to become well-known for his haiku was Bashō whose poems appealed to much of Japanese society.

Example #1 – To a Leg of Heron by Bashō

The first example comes from Bashō and deals with traditional natural images. The poem is provided in full below: (Note: these poems have been translated from the original Japanese and no longer maintain their syllabic arrangement.)

Old pond

A frog jumps

The sound of water

To a Leg of Heron by Bashō

This piece is a perfect example of how simple haiku can be. They paint a picture of a very specific scene. It shouldn’t take much effort on the part of the reader to envision it. But, it is worth exploring. By using so few words and such specific imagery, the poet elevates it, suggesting that it’s worth considering.

Example #2 – A Poppy Blooms by Katsushika Hokusai

Hokusai is one of the many writers inspired by the works of Bashō. His influence is clearly felt in much of Hokusai’s work. Here is the full text of ‘A Poppy Blooms’:

I write, erase, rewrite

Erase again, and then

A poppy blooms.

A Poppy Blooms by Katsushika Hokusai

Once again, we have a very simple poem. But, this time, the poet adds one layer of complexity. He uses nature, like the poppy, to speak about his writing process. The mundane first two lines are 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.

Example #3 – Lighting One Candle by Yosa Buson

Here is the text of one more haiku that uses a very interesting and evocative example of imagery:

The light of a candle

Is transferred to another candle—

Spring twilight

Lighting One Candle by Yosa Buson

Here, the repetition of the word “candle” and the movement of light are at the heart of the poem. Readers might find themselves thinking about the seasons changing and how one light/life becomes the next.

Other Haiku to Explore

  • Book of Haikus’ by Jack Kerouac
  • A World of Dew’ by Kobayashi Issa
  • Over the Wintry’ by Natsume Sōseki
  • Lines on a Skull’ by Ravi Shankar
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