An Introduction to Haiku, the Japanese Form of Poetry
Haiku is a very famous and popular Japanese form of poetry that first emerged more than 400 years ago. Today, haiku is very popular worldwide, and translations of classic and modern Japanese haiku can be found in several languages. Also, many poets all around the world keep writing new haiku in different languages.
Since the introduction of haiku to the west in the early years of the 20th century, haiku has influenced the literature of many countries to a great extent. Examples of this in English literature are works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two famous American poets whose Imagism was influenced by this form of poetry.
People find haiku interesting for many reasons. One reason may be that this form of poetry is very brief, but very delicate and precise as well. In fact, haiku is the shortest form of poetry with a fixed pattern. An ordinary haiku is as short as 17 morae, split into three sections of 5, 7, and 5 morae. People like the way a haiku tells a story with an aha moment (the moment of sudden inspiration and realization) or creates an image within only 17 morae. A good haiku is the one that gives you the perception that the poet has in mind, or gives you an extract of a story with an inspiring moment of realization and leaves you to picture the details and draw the conclusion yourself.
Another reason for the popularity of haiku may be the simple rules of writing them. Unlike some other forms of poetry, rhythm in haiku is very monotonous, smooth and almost negligible. The words and phrases used do not necessarily have to rhyme. Because of the brevity of this poetic form, using complicated figures of speech is very uncommon. These factors make people fascinated in reading them and also trying their hands at writing one.
To learn about how and why haiku has become this popular, as well as the rules applied to it, and its transformation through time, we need to go back into the history of Japanese literature and culture.
History of Haiku
Since the 12th-century “renga” (literally meaning “linked songs/verses,” also “poem,” and “song” in the Japanese language) became a common form of poetry and also a literary pastime in Japan. Usually, people in groups took turns improvising stanzas to create a long poem made up of a chain of 17 morae (5 – 7 – 5) lines followed by another 14 morae (7 – 7) lines. They wrote renga and other traditional forms of poetry in 5 and 7 moraic phrases because they sounded the most pleasant and beautiful in the Japanese language. Each tercet and couplet made a poem in itself. The tercet contained a seasonal word called “kigo.” A seasonal word is a word that refers to one of the four seasons in a year; using one in renga was necessary. Here are examples of these words for spring: butterfly, cherry tree, caterpillar, honey bee; for summer: strawberry, firefly, peach; for autumn: the moon, reed, cricket, goose; and for winter: snow, dead grass, snow-covered mountains.
Due to the expansion of literacy during the 16th century, different forms of art gained popularity among the ordinary people. During this era, renga gave way to another form of poetry named haikai. The word haikai is made up of two words meaning “sportive” and “pleasantly.” Haikai was similar to renga in the number of lines and morae and having the seasonal word as a necessity. But it was different in being written by just one person and using an often funny language and close to the everyday speech of the ordinary people as a reaction to the elegant and formal language used in its contemporary genres of poetry.
In the second half of the 17th century, the complimented poet, Matsuo Basho and his followers augmented haikai to its highest by giving it sensitivity and dignity, despite the presence of the underlying humor. It was during this time that the opening 5 – 7 – 5 stanza of haikai, called Hokku, meaning “starting point,” became independent. Basho became one of the earliest masters of hokku and spent the last four years of his life traveling in Japan and writing a collection of hokku. But this style of poetry did not receive the name haiku until three centuries later. It was in the early 20th century that Masaoka Shiki, another master of haiku who is acknowledged for standardizing haiku, assigned this title instead of hokku. “Hai” in haiku means “unusual” and “ku” denotes strophe, lines, stanza or verse.
Regulations of Haiku
Shiki also gave haiku a standard definition. He defined haiku as a 17 moraic poem arranged in a sequence of 5 – 7 – 5 morae, containing a seasonal word. Other than the seasonal word and the 17-moraic limitation there is no other rule to writing haiku. The rhythm in haiku is very monotonous, smooth, and often negligible. Also, the lines do not have to rhyme with each other. Non-Japanese readers of this article may be surprised to see that we have used mora (plural morae) here, since they may have read elsewhere that haiku is a 17-syllabic poem. It is because Japanese is a mora-based language, and not syllable-based. Non-Japanese translators and researchers inaccurately described haiku as a 17 syllabic form of poetry. We claim this to be inaccurate because a 17 syllable line of poem usually has fewer morae. Mora (a Latin word meaning delay) is a phonetic system that determines the stress and timing of words in some languages, including Japanese. This phonetic system is too lengthy (and irrelevant) to be explained in detail in this article, therefore for more information refer to the sources provided at the end of this article.
In the 20th century, some new ideas regarding writing haiku appeared. For example, some poets challenged the traditional usage of kigo in their poems by putting forth the theory that “everything that exists on the earth is a seasonal word.” This attitude seems justifiable as the trend of urbanization and people leaving rural areas and the countryside made new challenges for the poets. Poets now witnessed all the calamities one may see in the cities: corrupted officials, unemployed workers, orphans wandering in the streets, women forced into prostitution, thousands and thousands of people slaughtered in wars, bureaucracy, and so much more adversity connected with urban life. They could not always find a kigo with all these disasters, so they had to adjust haiku to their lives.
Another change in modern haiku was ignoring the 17 moraic rule. Some poets wrote haiku as short as 11 or 12 morae, and some others used more than 17. Although using 1 or 2 morae more or less was not a very uncommon occurrence in the classical haiku, but as a result of internationalism and haiku being translated or written in languages other than Japanese, it was often difficult to save the 17-moraic frame of the original poems. Poets outside Japan had trouble applying the standard form of haiku to their languages.
Myths about Haiku
Despite the rules and regulations mentioned above, some people apply other rules to writing haiku or interpret the rules in a way that is far from the standard form of haiku. Misinterpretation is very widespread regarding the moraic regulations, where people usually have contradictory ideas. Some people write short poems in 3 (and sometimes more) short – long – short lines, without considering the number of morae they use, and insist that what they write are haiku. But precisely the same as any other classical form of poetry, haiku has a particular frame and boundary. Take another classical form of poetry such as quatrain as an example: One may write a quatrain without submitting to the traditional metric system or rhyming of a quatrain, but one may not write a poem in 5 or 6 lines and insist that he has written a quatrain. The same goes with haiku; haiku does not mean “a short poem” and not every short poem can be called a haiku. But on the other hand, many other people claim that writing haiku is more about appreciating its essence and its aha moment, thus the moraic system is but a triviality. This latter argument makes more sense to the writer of this article because counting the number of morae in a poem would not leave much space for the artistic inspiration, and may as well turn writing poem into solving a crossword puzzle! On top of this, many non-Japanese poets would like to write haiku in their languages (which do not use the moraic phonetic system) for whom applying the 17-moraic rule is close to impossible. Therefore, to keep the haiku writing culture going, it might be a better idea to take a blind eye on the moraic rule, provided that other particles of haiku are considered.
Although using a seasonal word may impose the notion of restriction of the subject in haiku to the natural environment, but in fact, there is no such limitation of content in haiku; people can write haiku about whatever issue they prefer, and these haiku may have serious or comical themes as well. Many poets have written haiku about social, political, theological and many other issues.
Haiku may be written in verse or prose, having or lacking rhythm and rhyme. Haiku can be written in a single line or be split into 3 (5 – 7 – 5) lines. Originally haiku were printed on woodblocks in one vertical column, but when they were handwritten on paper, they appeared in 3 columns. But there is no fundamental obligation about haiku to be written either in 3 separate lines or 1 single line.
People in Haiku
Among all the masters of haiku, the names of four people stand out. Every one of these four people developed and elaborated haiku in a manner. The first and perhaps the most influential one is Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694). He did not initiate haiku, but he developed it into a serious and well-known form of poetry. He trained many pupils that later became masters of haiku themselves.
Kareeda ni / karasu no tomari keri / aki no kure
On a withered bough
A crow alone is perching;
Autumn evening now.
(Translated by Kenneth Yasuda)
The haiku above was very influential in the English literature imagism. For example, it inspired Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro.”
Another one of the four great haiku poets is Yosa Buson (1716 – 1783). He was active in the “Back to Basho” movement that restored haiku’s integrity after a 50 year period of decline. He was also a great painter, and he used his talent to write haiku that gave the reader vivid pictures. This haiku below is one his most noted:
Harusame ya / monogatari yuku / mino to kasa
Springtime rain: together
intent upon their talking, go
straw-raincoat and umbrella
(Translated by Harold Gould Henderson)
The third of the four is Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827). He had a sad and unfortunate life losing his mother and grandmother at a young age and later his wife and 3 of his children. His tragic life made him empathize with the existence and the creatures. He used colloquial language and different dialects in his haiku. For his humanism and sharing feelings with others, he is called “the heart of haiku.”
Saotome ya / ko no naku hō e / uete yuku
See that peasant! She plants toward her crying child.
(Translated by Max Bickerton)
Many scholars consider the haiku above “the greatest poem in the Japanese language.” The mother, busy planting rice in a paddy field, is anxious and worried about her baby child crying, so, unconsciously, the rows she plants shift towards the baby that is laid on the ridge between paddies.
The father of the modern haiku and the last of the four most significant haiku poets is Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902). He is acknowledged for his realistic haiku and portraying actual size images in his works. He did an essential job of standardizing haiku and keeping it fresh and exuberant.
Harusame ya / kasa sashite miru / ezōshiya
browsing under my umbrella
at the picture-book store
(Translated by Janine Beichman)
Comparing the four haiku above, one can distinguish the difference in their styles. We are reading four poems from four different perspectives: mystic, artistic, humanistic, and realistic.
Here are some more haiku by different Japanese poets:
Tsuyu no yo wa / tsuyu no yo nagara / sari nagara
The world of dew
Is a world of dew, and yet
(Issa – Translated by Donald Keene)
Tsumu mo oshi / tsumanu mo oshiki / sumire kana
I regret picking
and not picking
(Anonymous writer – Translated by Faubion Bowers)
Waga oya no / shinuru toki ni mo / he o kokite
Even at the time
When my father lay dying
I still kept farting.
(Yamazaki Sokan – Translated by Donald Keene)
Yuku toshi ya / oya ni shiraga o / kakushi keri
The departing year
from my parents I have kept
my gray hair hidden.
(Ochi Etsujin – Translated by Bernard Lionel Einbond)
Urayamashi / utsukushū natte / chiri momiji
How I envy maple leafage
which turns beautiful and then falls!
(Kagami Shiko – Translated by Asataro Miyamori)
Gyōzui no / sutedokoro naki / mushi no koe
to throw out the bathwater –
sound of insects
(Uejima Onitsura – Translated by Cheryl A. Crowley)
Hito iyashiku / ran no atai o / ronji keri
Men are disgusting.
They argue over
The price of orchids.
(Shiki – Translated by Alex Kerr)
Haiku in English
The initial translations of Japanese haiku into English and other European languages were by European scholars who were invited to teach European languages in Japanese universities. Later Paul-Louis Couchoud, a Frenchman, wrote articles about haiku in France which were read by imagist theoreticians such as Ezra Pound, and hence it was introduced to the United States and other English speaking countries.
After the Second World War, Reginald Horace Blyth, an Englishman who lived in Japan, published six volumes of haiku translation. He had an enormous impact on interpreting haiku to the English speakers and stimulating the writing of haiku in English.
Kenneth Yasuda, a Japanese-American scholar, is another influential person in English haiku, who published his critical theory about haiku alongside with an anthology of translated Japanese haiku and original English haiku of his own in a volume titled “The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature and History” in 1957. His translations are remarkable because they all share a 5 – 7 – 5 syllabic pattern, and the first and the third lines rhyme.
Because of the difference between the Japanese and English phonetic structure, haiku written in English usually convey more information than the Japanese ones. That can be a reason for some English haiku poets to write haiku in less than 17 syllables in short – long – short pattern without following the original structure of haiku. Some people call these poems free-form haiku.
There are many more authors who have written surveys on English haiku, as well as many poets who are active in writing haiku in English, on top of many journals, literary societies allocated to publishing haiku in the United States and other English speaking countries.
Here are samples of English haiku by different poets:
The shadow of the trees
Almost reaches to my desk
With the summer breeze.
Here at parting now,
Let me speak by breaking
A lilac from the bough.
I am you loving
My own shadow watching
This noontime butterfly.
what old pond is he hoping
to find in the dusk?
(William J. Higginson)
Look at the white moon
The sphinx does not question more.
Turn away your eyes.
(Lewis Grandison Alexander)
An aging willow–
its image unsteady
in the flowing stream
Trees done pyjamas
Of ostentatious colour
Preparing to sleep.
(Michael J. Barney)
Haiku in Iran
Haiku was first introduced in Iran by Sohrab Sepehri. Later some other authors such as Ahmad Shamlou and A. Pashayi wrote or translated books about haiku in Persian. But unfortunately, most of these haiku collections are translated from languages other than Japanese. Obviously, it is challenging to convey all the intentions and meanings that a poet expresses through his mother tongue by translation to a different language, let alone translating those already translated poems to yet another language. But there are some books translated from Japanese to Persian; some good examples are “زنبور بر کف دست بودای خندان – گزینه ی هایکو های مدرن” by Ghodratollah Zakery, and “هایکو از آغاز تا امروز” by Ahmad Shamlou and A. Pashayi.
There are some weblogs, Internet forums, and printed collections of haiku in Persian by Iranian poets _although some of these poems may not technically be considered haiku. Mr. Sirous Nozary has published two research books with the titles “کوته سرایی” and “هایکو نویسی” regarding these Persian short poems and haiku.
Haiku, since its emergence in the 17th century, has played a significant and influential role in the literature and culture of Japan. Its beauty and flexibility to be written in different languages have made it an international trend. Currently, haiku has become a part of the literature of many languages including English.
Considering the new trends in technology and the fast pace of modern life, seemingly, people are tending to read less bulky texts _take SMS or online social networks such as Twitter as examples. In the contemporary time when people want to read or hear everything as quickly as possible, we believe short forms of poetry such as haiku have vast potential for expansion and becoming even more popular.
 [A bee on the palm of the laughing Buddha – An anthology of modern haiku (original title: zanbur bar kafe daste budaye khandan – gozineye hakuhaye modern) / Edited and translated by Ghodratollah Zakery / Morvarid Publications – 2007 / p. 11]
 [A bee on the palm of the laughing Buddha – An anthology of modern haiku (original title: zanbur bar kafe daste budaye khandan – gozineye hakuhaye modern) / Edited and translated by Ghodratollah Zakery / Morvarid Publications – 2007 / p.22]
 [The Classic Tradition of Haiku: an anthology / Edited by Faubion Bowers / Dover Publications – 1996 / p. 14]
 [The cherry blossoms – Haiku from Basho until today (original title: shokufehaye gilas – haiku az basho ta emruz) / Edited and translated by Ata Danayi / Seday-e Moaser Publications – 2011 / p.20]
 [The Classic Tradition of Haiku: an anthology / Edited by Faubion Bowers / Dover Publications – 1996 / p. 66]
 [Forms In English Haiku by Keiko Imaoka – From AHA Poetry Website http://www.ahapoetry.com/keirule.htm]
 [A bee on the palm of the laughing Buddha – An anthology of modern haiku (original title: zanbur bar kafe daste budaye khandan – gozineye hakuhaye modern) / Edited and translated by Ghodratollah Zakery / Morvarid Publications – 2007 / p.7]
- The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology / Edited by Faubion Bowers / Dover Publications – 1996
- A bee on the palm of the laughing Buddha – An anthology of modern haiku (original title: zanbur bar kafe daste budaye khandan – gozineye hakuhaye modern) / Edited and translated by Ghodratollah Zakery / Morvarid Publications – 2007
- The cherry blossoms – Haiku from Basho until today (original title: shokufehaye gilas – haiku az basho ta emruz) / Edited and translated by Ata Danayi / Seday-e Moaser Publications – 2011
- The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature and History by Kenneth Yasuda / Tuttle Publishing / 1957 – reprinted in 2001
- Wikipedia: http://fa.wikipedia.org/wiki/هایکو
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku_in_English
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Grandison_Alexander
- Academy Honar: http://www.academyhonar.com/1389-02-23-16-17-06/book/1722-haiko.html
- Forms In English Haiku by Keiko Imaoka – From AHA Poetry Website: http://www.ahapoetry.com/keirule.htm
- Terebess Asia Online (TAO): http://terebess.hu/english/haiku/sanchez.html
Regarding mora in linguistics, and precisely, in the Japanese language, refer to these two pages on Wikipedia:
This article was first published in the spring issue of Derafsh-e Mehr, a literary journal in English published at the University of Mazandaran. Back then, I had a somewhat different mindset about haiku; but now, as my mindset has changed, I have changed some parts of this article which I do not agree with anymore. I consider the current version a much better one. Share your comments if you think I am wrong about any of the issues explained.