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Haiku: The Poem of Brevity and Beauty


Haiku is a Japanese art form of poetry having a long and rich history of more than 400 years. Haiku is considered the shortest non-rhyming Japanese poetry form, written in three lines, in 5-7-5 format, with a total of 17 morae (sound units). In the Japanese language, the common poetic measurement is morae or sound units that are not equivalent to the syllable counts in the English language. Generally, the strict syllable style is not followed in English, and it is written in the form of short/long/short lines, all in lowercase. The art of haiku writing is a way of imaging nature (kocho-fuei) and exploring human feeling and awareness. It also enunciates a contemplation of spiritualism and the realization of self-being as a part of nature (zen-feeling or ethical goodness of Buddhist lineage). Haiku is an objective-based poem, composed in a brief and minimalistic way. 

Historical Perspective

Japanese literature is largely inspired by Chinese literature during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China. Waka or uta originated in the 7th century AD in Japan and was later known as tanka (five-line poem). The waka was written on seasonal subjects (kidai). The schemata or morae (sound units) patterns follow 5-7-5-7-7 (known as ‘sanjuichi’, the Japanese word for 31). Towards the end of the twelfth century, the 5-7-5-7-7 (waka) format had been slowly modified by dividing it into 5-7-5 and 7-7. By the fourteenth century, this took the shape of renga written in sequence by the participating poets writing 5-7-5 by one poet and 7-7 by the other poet. Renga (series or chains of poems) is the Japanese collaborative linked poem of classical nature and its later derivative, renku (haikai no renga, developed in the sixteenth century). Haikai, a type of renga poetry, consists of at least 100 verses with alternating stanzas, or ku, of 5-7-5 and 7-7 mora (sound unit) per line and are linked in succession by the poets practicing during the Edo period.  In the sixteenth century the opening stanza or the starting verse (5-7-5, go schichi go) of renga was named as ‘hokku’ and the last two-line (second verse) as ‘wakiku’. 

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was the pioneer of writing classical ‘hokku’ and he had rendered aesthetic values to the verse writing with the brilliant poetic spell. He pioneered master pieces of haikai including related genres and assimilated commonness and human aspects into the genres. Later Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) christened “hokku” to “haiku” (hai means amusement and ku means verse; ha-i-ku, 3-sound in Japanese) at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Hototogisu’ is considered the oldest and reputed journal founded by one of the disciples of Shiki in 1897.  

Japanese haiku comprises three sections namely kami go (the top five-section), naka shichi (the middle seven-section), and shimo go (the lower five-section). Haiku consists of 17 ‘on’ or ‘morae’ (sound units) written in Japanese in a vertical single line (top to bottom) with no spacing. There is no concept of syllables in the Japanese language. The 17 (5-7-5) sound-unit or phonetic-unit (on or more) is roughly equivalent to 12 (3-5-3) syllables in English. Hence it is not possible to translate Japanese haiku into English in the same format. For example, ‘akai’ in Japanese has three sounds (a/ka/i). The word ‘akai’ means red and it is one syllable in English. In the English language, the schema is widely practiced as short/long/short (s/l/s) form in haiku writing instead of strictly following the syllable count. In the Japanese language, unlike in English, due to the presence of grammatical particles (joshi) that are suffixed to nouns with syntactic relationships, the word units can be moved or shifted within a sentence without affecting its overall core meaning. The Japanese have no plural for their nouns. Hence, we speak of haiku and never haikus. 

Haiku of Japanese Masters

Matsua Basho (1644-1694),Yosa Busan (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and, Mosaoka Shiki (1867-1902) are the Masters of  Haiku literature,   including  Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), a great women haikuist. 

Some of the memorable haiku by the Masters, are exemplified below:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

-Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold) 

the sea darkens

a wild duck's call
faintly white

-Basho (Tr. Makoto Ueda)

Evening wind:
water laps
the heron's legs.
-Buson (Tr. Robert Hass)

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

-Issa (Tr. R H Blyth)

I'm trying to sleep!
Please swat the flies

-Shiki (Tr. Michael R. Burch)

green grass—

between, between the blades

the colour of the water

-Chiyo-ni (Tr. Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi)

Basic Elements and Characteristics of Haiku Writing

Haiku is considered the shortest non-rhyming Japanese poetry form. Haiku is unique in its form and simplistic expression with reference to season or nature. The basic elements (teikei) of haiku are the seasonal reference (kigo), the surrealistic silence in the form of pause (kireji), juxtaposition (renso), depth and mystery (yugen), contained space (ma), becomingness (kokora), lightness (karumi), creativeness (zoko), elegance (fuga) and simplicity (iki). It is the art of capturing the happening at the present moment and leaving the interpretation to the readers without telling it (show but do not tell) with brevity (less is more). Denis M. Garrison says, ‘It is a commonplace to say that the haiku reader “co-creates the haiku” by adding from his/her own experiential context to the haiku and, thereby, completing it.’ Unexpectedness (atarashimi) and drifting mood (nioi) in expression also render beauty to haiku.

The haiku contains two images, in the form of ‘fragment’ (Line 1) and ‘phrase’ (Lines 2 and 3), and they juxtapose each other either as association or contrast. The fragment could also be expressed in the third line. The art of juxtaposition (comparison, a contrast or an association, link and shift concept) between the images of fragment and phrase is an exploration of reasoning and poetical logic. 

Between fragment and phrase, there lies a surrealistic silence in the form of pause (kireji) or cutting word. In English, it is denoted by punctuation and one can put ‘dash’ or ‘dots’ (ellipsis) to separate the two distinct images and to provide structural support for haiku. It is a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause and gives emphasis to one part of the poem. It interestingly divides and unites the images at the same time. If the poet thinks that the expression is explicit for the reader to understand the images without difficulty, the natural pause itself takes care of the cutting word. The “Kireji” (ya, kana, keri, nari), in its sublime form, sparks the juxtaposition or disjunction of the two images facilitating a “leap”. At no point, haiku should be a sentence broken into three lines. The line ending (both fragment and phrase) should be a complete thought or expression. Haiku could be also a single image (ichibutsujitate).  

Haiku is written about the keen observation of happenings around nature in the present or human aspects related to nature based on the experience through five senses (sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell). Bashō, a haiku master, said that ‘haiku is what is happening in this place and in this time,’ Haiku techniques like the technique of comparison, contrast, association, sense-switching, narrowing the focus from zoom-out to zoom-in was practiced by haiku poet Buson. Another haiku pioneer, Shiki’s Shasei (sketch from life), creative use of yugen (depth, mystery), wabi (simplicity), sabi (solitude), artful exchange of verbs and nouns etc have been enumerated by Jane Reichhold in ‘Bare Bones: School of Haiku’. The truthfulness of the poet to explore nature with poetic elegance (miyabi) having human expressions (joy, emotion, humour, etc) is the cornerstone of the genre. 

Sometimes, as opined by Jane Reichhold, the middle line (pivot-line of a haiku) artfully reflects multiple interpretations by joining with Line 1 and also with Line 3. Here a pause after the Line 1 is not preferred. In the following haiku, line 2 can be associated with line 1, also with line 3.

Willow branches bend
with the river current
ducks drift backwards

-Martin Lucas

Haiku is not a sentence, hence there is no capital letter or full stop in haiku writing, and there is no title of the haiku. Haiku is written in lowercase. Additionally, the two images should not reflect the simple cause and effect. It is not to narrate the imagery or to tell everything, but to ‘show’, so that readers can unfold the multilayered interpretation embedded within the haiku. Use of clichés, simile, metaphor (with exception of implied poetic predicament and poetic allusions), adjectives, adverbs, and conditional clauses are not encouraged in writing haiku. Generally, in haiku personification or anthropomorphism is avoided. Haiku is to be written in brief with clarity, freshness and it is better to avoid unnecessary words, overlaps or repetition.

The poem reflects the present happening (hence preferred to be composed in present tense) with a seasonal reference. Mere reference of ‘summer season’ or ‘winter season’ does not complete the requirement. One can use reference of a particular tree, animal, bird, observation, astronomy, livelihood, cultural aspect, time and place, etc. to imply the seasonal words or kigo. For instance, cherry blossom for spring’, frog to denote spring, early plum for early winter; tea flower referring to early winter, red leaves representing late autumn, rice sparrow for implying autumn etc. Generally, reference of one kigo word is favored in haiku, though multi-kigos were also used. The art of haiku dwells in capturing the image in an aesthetic and simple way without any poetic ornamentation or moral, abstract, didactic or intellectual allusions. The art of haiku writing lies in the multiple meanings that it carries for the readers to think and interpret.

There are different linked forms or genres of haiku such as Monoku (one-line haiku), haibun (prose interspersed with haiku), haiga (drawing or photo with haiku). Senryu, written in haiku style, is more of witty, satire in tandem with human attributes and can be composed with non-seasonal (muki) reference. There is also contemporary experimental style like free verse haiku known as ‘gendai’ (gendai means ‘modern’, like ‘avant-garde’in English). Recently parallel haiku written by Johannes S. H. Bjerg, Hansha Teki and others have gained popularity. Experiments of writing concrete haiku (deeper meaning along with visual storyline), four-line haiku (haiqua) or Celtic haiku practiced by Toto, two-line haiku written by Vincent Tripti, David Reynold, Robert Boldman, and others, circular haiku (cirku) and one-word haiku or ‘tundra’ by Cor van den Heuvel, have enriched the scope of the genre.

Haiku Spirit 

Simple swinging of hands and twisting of fingers cannot create the experience of dance performance. There need to be graceful postures, a poignant space in between and selfless manifestation for the audience to share the divine nectar. Hence a mere wordplay won’t compose a poem. The manifestation of awareness, freshness, poetic truth, and honesty is the lighthouse of the haiku spirit.  W Hackett says, ‘Lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku’. Art of haiku writing is a way of imaging nature (kocho-fuei), human aspects, both living and non-living entities to explore the human feeling with poetic resonance. Haiku is unique in its form and simplistic expression with reference to season or nature as a whole. I feel it is the realization of this truth and zen-feeling (ethical goodness) that has given rise to the genesis of the haiku poem. It unveils the poetic wealth hidden in the ordinary. 

Ryokan (1758-1831), a Japanese Buddhist monk and a poet, wrote poems about nature rich with zen-feeling. While narrating how the thief broke into his hut and stole his things leaving a cushion, he tried to offer it to the robber and composed the iconic haiku:

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window.

(Tr. Stephen Mitchell)

Intuitive response, self-experience, poetic rhythm, occasionally with a sense humor, are some of the essential entities of good haiku. Haiku reflects simplicity and honesty in expression without any artifice, complexity, or pretention. It portrays a concrete image with clarity (horizontal axis) and at the same time transgresses into a different dimension of aesthetic interpretation (vertical axis).  


The spirit of haiku dwells in the aesthetic values of the tiniest things of this beautiful creation. Weaving the thread with zen-feeling, by assimilating the self-awareness with the ordinary, is the art of haiku in its minimalism. The poet needs to facilitate the reader to visualize the journey of growth of a beautiful tree out of the brevity of the seed of haiku. Let haiku create a sense of silence and substance in the reader’s mind. Let the reader explore the layered meanings culminating in an epiphany of the sublime experience. I wish to conclude with George Steiner’s line: ‘When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins’.

~Pravat Kumar Padhy

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