The haiku is perhaps the most important literary genre that has become popular since the late nineteenth century not only in Asia but throughout the western world. In the process of globalizing the haiku form has jumped the linguistic barrier and is now being written in English, Spanish, French, Bengali and other languages as well. It, however, continues to conform to the images of the four seasons and the three-line structure of 5-7-5 syllables. In Japanese the haiku dexterously combines three distinct phrases and introduces a clear grammatical break called the kireji or cutting letters, either after the first five or twelve syllables. At times a haiku can also use kake kotoba or hanging words. A kake kotoba can also function as multiple puns. Writing in Japanese, Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) used standard kireji in the following haiku:
shizukani hane no
a feather shuttlecock
In English the kireji is often replaced by punctuation marks such as a comma, semi-colon or an ellipsis. Since a Japanese haiku has three clear phrases and a kireji it is written in a single line, while the English haiku is separated into three lines to mark the difference. Therefore many Japanese literary critics feel that forcing a fixed form of kireji and kigo on other languages makes little sense. Others are of the opinion that literary forms are forever crossing borders and getting transformed in the process, enriching both language and experience.
Every haiku must express a single emotion arising from observing common, day-to-day occurrences, but in a unique way. Most traditional haiku writers in Japan build their haiku vis-à-vis, the natural world and use images related to the four seasons or kigo. It is possible to find images of cherry blossoms, emerging crocus, flitting fireflies, leaves falling, frogs croaking, snow falling or moon rising in the works of many haiku masters. It is important to remember that in a successful haiku the image is not just a means to an end but the end itself; that is, the image is the poem.
A haiku falls under the category of a short poem, but it has a long history. In Japan short poems written by Shinto priests to mark a ceremony or a ritual can be found as early as 759 A.D. These poems were called Manyoshu or Collection of Myriad Leaves anthology and expressed a sense of inherent sadness in ordinary things of the world called mono no aware in Japanese. The poems in the Myriad Leaves anthology are in the form of prayers, songs or lyrics composed to appease gods, eulogize emperors, and represent agricultural rituals or marriage rites. In the beginning of the fifteenth century emerging middle class began to assert itself in Japanese society and threw sake-drinking parties where they made merry by composing erotic, slapstick verses called haikai no renge or comic linked verses. The four writers who are considered as the chief exponents of the haikai forms were Yamazaki Sokan (1465-1553), Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1635) and Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682). Of these four haikai writers Teitoku founded the Teimon School which emphasized colloquialism and word play, while Soin established the Danrin School which playfully wrote about day-to-day events and at times turned frivolous.
Teitoku had a deeper influence on the subsequent history and development of the haiku form. He cleaned the form of its vulgar elements and taught it to his student Matsuo Basho (1644-1649) whom we all know as the foremost haiku writer of Japan. Basho popularized the haiku form through his large acolyte following and travels throughout Japan. Remember that Basho made a living writing and teaching poetry. It is believed that when Basho died he had over two thousand students studying under him. Other haiku poets such as Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873-1937), Taneda Santoka (1882-1940) and Nakamura Kusatao (1901-1983) made it a truly popular genre.
The history of haiku poetry has always been dominated by male writers but there were many women writers as well who wrote excellent haiku such as Den Sutejo (1633-1698), Kawai Chigetsu (1634?–1718), Shiba Sonome (1664–1726), Chiyojo (1703–1775), Enomoto Seifu (1732–1815), Tagami Kikusha (1753–1826), Takeshita Shizunojo (1887–1951), Sugita Hisajo (1890–1946), Hashimoto Takako (1899–1963), Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899–1972), Ishibashi Hideno (1909–1947), Katsura Nobuko (b. 1914), Yoshino Yoshiko (b. 1915), Tsuda Kiyoko (b. 1920), Inahata Teiko (b. 1931), Uda Kiyoko (b. 1935), Kuroda Momoko (b. 1938), Tsuji Momoko (b. 1945), Katayama Yumiko (b. 1952), Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965). Their works were published in an anthology by Makoto Ueda called Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).They wrote some excellent haiku, not just “women haiku” and made significant contributions in the development of the haiky form. Take for example the following haiku by Enomoto Seifu:
like a fish
in the sea, this body of mine
cool in the moonlight
The haiku form became popular in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and South Asia in the twentieth century through the efforts of Japanese American, Afro-American, Jewish American, WASP and vernacular writers. In fact an entirely new haiku called the Jewish haiku developed which combined the Japanese literary tradition with Jewish humor. American writers also popularized the form in America providing a unique fusion of Japanese and American sensibilities and eastern and western aesthetics. They were able to retain the simplicity, seasonal relevance and surprise of Japanese haiku and combine it with typically American themes. Latin American and vernacular Indian writers introduced their own variation and flavor to a distinctly Japanese literary form. We can find writers such as W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to Amiri Baraka, Jorge Luis Borges Octavio O Paz writing excellent haiku. Here is a haiku by Jack Kerouac written in 1959:
Early morning yellow flowers,
the drunkards of Mexico.
The haiku has the season but the context is strikingly American.
The haiku form has also affected poets in the Indian vernaculars such as Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Urdu. In the 1950s Hindi poets like Srikant Varma, Sarveshwardayal Saxena, Ashok Vajpayee and others developed a minimalist style comparable to the haiku form. Shrikant Varma for example wrote the following verse in Hindi:
The first shower of rain
The sky has thrown
Its roots on earth.
All these writers understood the brevity and element of surprise hidden in the haiku form and harnessed it to their own literary ends.
The modern haiku in English has evolved in strange ways, some inspiring while others quite frustrating. The following haiku by Ezra Pound in Ts’ai Chi’h perhaps brings us close to the Japanese masters:
The petals fall in the fountain,
The orange-colored rose leaves,
Their ochre clings to the stone.
This brief explanation can help you not only to read other haiku, but also to compose your own in the near future.
Four Haiku by Mukesh Williams
The white summer rose
Tells you nothing of
Of the persimmon cannot
Become a fruit.
The summer moth
Merges with the brick wall:
A duck waddles
From one pond to another:
A soul in transit.