In late medieval Japan, a new form of poetry arose, where different artists would write and exchange short stanzas, linking them together to form a longer poem, but the most important stanza was the first one, called hokku, as it helped set the entire tone of the collaborative poem, and a poet’s skill was judged by his ability to craft a perfect hokku.
Soon, hokkus became appreciated as standalone poems, influenced perhaps by classical Chinese poetry which was concise, laden with natural imagery and embodying a Buddhist philosophy. But as in all other cultural imports, the Japanese added precision and structure to the core idea. By the modern era, the collaborative poems that gave rise to hokku have fallen out of fashion, but the hokku itself had survived, and became the celebrated haiku.
The haiku doesn’t look like anything western literary audiences would have recognized as poetry, as it consists of only three terse lines without any rhyme or repetition. And yet western poets, from Ezra Pound to beatnik Jack Kerouac fell in love with the haiku’s ability to capture the beauty of single moments in nature.
Here are some of the most beautiful and evocative Japanese haikus, followed by instructions on how to write your own haiku poems. So as not to hamper the meaning of the poems, some of the English translations do not strictly adhere to the syllabic rules of the haiku.
1. By Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)
2. By Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
3. By Matsuo Basho
4. By Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)
5. By Ryōkan Taigu (1758–1831)
6. By Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
7. By Matsuo Basho
8. By Matsuo Basho
9. By Matsuo Basho
10. By Yosa Buson (1716-1784)
So, how do you write your own haiku? Perhaps the most easily recognizable attribute is its structure. There are three lines to every poem, and all are relatively short. But it’s more precise than that. Each haiku consists of 17 on, a phonetic unit that has been translated as “syllable”, even though they are not quite the same thing. For convenience’s sake, most western poets count syllables. The first and last syllables are 5 syllables long, each, and the middle line is 7 syllables long.
But there is more to it that form. Each haiku must include a word that evokes a season. Those can be obvious, such as fallen leaves, snow, bloom or heat, or more roundabout, such as coat, hearth, a particular bird that comes at a certain season, or a dish that’s commonly eaten at that time of year.
The trickiest haiku trait to translate into English is the cutting word, which serves to either break the poem into two separate but related ideas or give a sense of ending to the haiku. The reason the cutting word is problematic to translate is because these are words that are unique to Japanese and serve as a form of punctuation (think of the Canadian “eh?”). In lieu of such words, you can instead use actual punctuation, as well as exclamations.
So what do you say, can you write your own haiku and maybe send it to a friend or a loved one?