In English language poetry the haiku is typically understood to be a short, three line poem comprised of a set number of syllables, and which usually deals with nature. This is a bare-bones description, and haiku can encompass a lot more, but it’s a starting point.
even the birds
and clouds look old
Bashō (trans Stryk)
The best haiku is astounding. It’s also, at times, astoundingly difficult to compose. Haiku are deceptively simple and wonderfully brief poems—something which contributes to their striking nature—but how much brevity is too much brevity? Do haiku essentially say nothing beautifully, or say beautiful things with just a few words?
Haiku is perhaps one of the most misunderstood poetry forms in English language writing, perhaps due to the difficulties adapting the literary form from one culture to another. But it’s hardly impossible! Haiku adapts to language after language, place after place. Understanding a few key concepts, along with having a firm grasp on a few compositional techniques, can make all the difference.
The Roots of Haiku
Haiku has undergone a long evolution since it was known as hokku, or the lead verse in a renga, a form of collaborative poetry. (In renga, participants take turns contributing verses to a linked poem. The first verse, or hokku, was seen as special and could ‘stand alone’ from the rest of the poem).
In the 19th century Masaoka Shiki built upon what master poet Bashō had done to separate this verse, renaming it the “haiku”. First brought to the attention of English speakers by the Imagists, haiku later gained wider exposure in the West after World War II through the work of scholar R.H. Blythe, where it then found favor with the Beats and other writers of the age.
It’s now practiced in dozens of countries and languages.
Next up – haiku form, where I’ll talk about syllables and other structural concerns.