History of Haiku

Photo Credit: Brett Christensen

Japanese Culture of Poetry

According to Literary Kicks, it was from the Heian period of Japanese culture (700–1100) that it became a social requirement to be able to recognize, recite and name Japanese and Chinese poetry.

It was during this time that short forms of poetry (tanka) became more popular than the long forms of poetry.

Lifestyles were followed according to rigid rules, and this was reflected in the poetry (5,7,5 triplet) followed by a couplet of 7 syllables. The 5,7,5 triplet was known as the hokku and was often the first verse in a linked form of verse known as renga.

Linked verse and chains of linked verse grew popular, especially as games for the rich.

In the mid-16th-century poetry by the peasants increased, and this led to more“lightness” in the poetry compared to the staidness of the past. This new form was called haikai and later renamed renku.

Haiku

The traditional form of Japanese haiku as we know it today was perfected in the late 17th century by the poet Basho. However, it was not called haiku until the 19th century.

Initially a samurai warrior he abandoned this calling and became a poet after his master’s death in 1666.

Moving to the city now known as Tokyo (then known as Edo) he became well known as a poet and then in 1679 wrote the first verse in this new style of poetry for which he became well known (haiku).

On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.

According to Britannica online:

“Following the Zen philosophy he studied, Bashō attempted to compress the meaning of the world into the simple pattern of his poetry, disclosing hidden hopes in small things and showing the interdependence of all objects”.

Basho traveled extensively and inspired by his travels wrote collections of beautiful prose as well as haiku.

He collaborated with other poets to produce a linked verse called renga. Some consider his renga to be amongst his most beautiful work.

He changed the way that the poetry was linked from what was previously the use of mere pun or play on words to what he described as “perfume, echo, and harmony” which were more delicate and subtle ways of linking verse.

He also loved evoking the old, faded and obscure in his poetry which was called in Japanese — Sabi as evidenced in his haiku:

Scent of chrysanthemums . . .
And in Nara
All the ancient Buddhas.

The sight of musty old statues in the town is compared with the musty smell of chrysanthemums.

Sabi also reflected the Buddhist notion of the transitory and evanescent nature of life.

He also taught spontaneous prose, which he believed should be thought up on the spot and traces the subject to its origin. This form of poetry is still prevalent in Japan and is called Tenro.

He lived a simple and austere life at times withdrawing from society altogether.

So what was haiku intended to do for the reader?

Haiku was written to include reader involvement. It demands participation in that it is meant to invoke in a sensitive reader a glimpse of an unknown part of the self.

It takes something well known and commonplace in nature and captures a brief moment in time.

Its sparseness is part of its beauty and appeal.

The haiku remained an art of expressing much and suggesting more in the fewest possible words.

At the start of the 21st century, it is believed that there were over a million Japanese composing haiku.

After WW2 there was an increase of haiku written in other languages.


We would love to publish your Haiku compositions to House of Haiku, especially in response to our weekly prompt.