What is a Haiku?

An examination of the history, form and use of the haiku; a style of poetry built upon brevity and serenity.

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A haiku is a popular Japanese poetic form, typically considered to be built on a 5,7,5 syllable structure, or 17 syllables in total. These sparse, delicate, often nature-themed poems are popular for their simplicity and aesthetic beauty.

History

The origin of haiku dates back to the Heian period of Japanese History (794–1185 AD), when an appreciation of poetry was a requirement amongst the societal elite. During this period, short forms of poetry grew in popularity over longer forms, often being used as parlour games. A mark of respect during these games was allowing an honoured guest to write the first verse (hokku) of a series of verses (renga). This hokku had two requirements: it had to have a seasonal word (kireji) and a cutting word or exclamation.

During the mid-sixteenth century, a rise in peasant poetry applied a lighter, more spare, and airy tone to these poems, as well as dissolving of the rigid forms and expectations associated with the more formal renga. From this new school of thought, the poet Basho—considered to be the foremost haiku poet—established the hokku as an independent form. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Masaoka Shiki, a journalist and writer, officially made haiku into a fully-fledged independent form; he brought the hokku into the modern era, christening them haiku.

Shiki felt that poetry was declining in Japan, due to the historical forms being incompatible with the modern era. His efforts were successful and the style would influence Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, though R. H. Blyth and his four-volume collection would prove to be the most notable entry into Western haiku.

In the mid to late 1940s, the form attracted interest from the Beats, particularly Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Snyder. Kerouac was particularly captivated, and offered these thoughts on Western haiku:

“A ‘Western Haiku’ need not concern itself with 17 syllables, since Western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language.”

Jack Kerouac

Form

Typically, Haiku is explained to be made of three lines of 5,7,5 syllables. Though this is an acceptable approach to Western haiku, this is by no means the totality of the form.

Purists will argue that a haiku should focus on nature and consist of two contrasting images. This is a holdover from its Japanese origins, although English lacks the kireji used as a verbal punctuation between the two. English also lacks saijiki—extensive but defined lists of seasonal words that Japanese haiku should draw from.

The usual formatting of haiku on three lines comes from a Western approximation of the three phrases that make up Japanese haiku, as Japanese haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line.

As much of what makes a haiku cannot be applied to English, it is considered that Western haiku follow similar—though looser—rules at the discretion of the writer.

Use

In 2016, I set out to write a haiku every day for 100 days as a way of exploring the form. Initially, I considered the small size to mean the form was disposable but as I became more familiar, I began to apply more work to the poems; as a result, the quality improved. It taught me a lot about brevity, which impacted my other work. Since then, I have focused on the quality of stillness as a metaphor for depression or a lack of warmth, a quality I could not accurately reflect had I not explored haiku.

As a writer of haiku, I believe it is more important to focus on the quality of the content rather than the form, though the rule of 5,7,5 can be considered sacrosanct. The constraint of syllables forces you to think of the words you use more precisely. It encourages clarity and a celebration of the minute.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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