Definition of Haiku
A haiku is a short poetic form from Japan characterized by juxtaposition, seasonal imagery, and number of on, which are similar to syllables. The form has been adopted into other languages with a focus on the number of syllables; in English, haiku is a three-line poem with phrases of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. However, in traditional Japanese haiku the most important element was the juxtaposition between different images with a transition via a “cutting word” (known as kireji in Japanese). This cutting word can change the stream of thought or provide a comparison between the different lines. It is similar to the concept of the volta in the sonnet form, or the audible pause in classical poetry known as the caesura.
The word haiku comes from hokku, which is the opening verse of an older and longer Japanese poetic form called the renga. Beginning in about the mid-seventeenth century, poets began to create hokku that were independent from longer poetic forms. To differentiate these poetic forms, the poet Masaoka Shiki renamed the standalone hokku a haiku. Thus, while the word comes from the late nineteenth century, the definition of haiku is a few hundred years older.
Common Examples of Haiku
While the haiku form is relatively strict and thus cannot be found in ordinary speech, it has been adopted into popular culture to some extent in many places outside of Japan. Haiku is often a popular form to teach to children because the rules are both strict and easily understandable, while giving good practice about the function of syllables. There are also plenty of haiku writing contests, one of which is an annual sponsored competition from the Haiku Society of America. One comical winning entry was the following:
I hate writing hai-
ku because you only get
Some advertisers have also adopted short haiku contests to encourage customer participation. This was the case of the American burrito fast-food company Chipotle. In 2015, they asked fans to compose haikus about burritos to win a dinner for two. Here are some of the entries:
- I used to date you
But now you just serve me food
One taco, no love.
- Electric salsa
Glides across beans, rice and meat
dancing palate joy.
- Foil wrapped burrito
Is it wrong to love you so?
I don’t need a man.
Significance of Haiku in Literature
Japanese poets have been creating examples of haiku poetry for hundreds of years. The haiku form got especially popular in the seventeenth century with the rise of the poet Matsuo Bashō, a man who elevated the haiku from a display of wit to a sublime observation on the natural world. He is important enough in Japanese culture to have been declared a saint both by the government and in the Shinto religion. There are several other famous haiku poets, such as Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa.
A Dutchman who lived in Japan in the early nineteenth century is the first known westerner to have tried his hand at writing haiku. In the early twentieth century some English speakers began to write haiku examples in English after reading translations of Japanese haiku into English. Many famous poets have written haikus, such as Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, and Ezra Pound. Not all haikus written in English have exactly seventeen syllables, however. English-language poets recognized that the number of syllables was not the most important nor defining aspect of haiku in Japan. Instead, they tried to approximate and employ other features, such as: a focus on imagery of nature, highlighting a brief moment in time, a sense of enlightenment and revelation, a lack of superfluous words, no rhyme scheme, a lack of simile and metaphor, a lack of much capitalization or punctuation, and a juxtaposition between two things. This juxtaposition could be between something large and something small, some organic and something manmade, etc. The juxtaposition can also be between two things that do not at first seem similar, but are shown to be more similar than expected by way of the haiku.
Examples of Haiku in Literature
An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.
(By Matsuo Bashō)
This is perhaps the best-known haiku example of all time. It is by the poet Matsuo Bashō, the most revered creator of haiku poetry. This poem excellently and succinctly includes all important elements of a haiku: natural imagery, a juxtaposition between stillness and movement, and the correct number of on. This English translation does not use seventeen syllables in order to parallel the more important aspect of brevity. The image of the frog is one of acknowledged ways of symbolizing spring.
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
(By Kobayashi Issa)
Kobayashi Issa was another famous haiku poet. This poem has been incorporated into modern culture in a few ways; J.D. Salinger quoted it in his novel Franny and Zoey, while also giving the title to a Russian novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsy (translated into English as Snail on the Slope). It is an effective poem by evoking natural imagery and juxtaposing the very small—a snail—with the enormously large—Mount Fuji.
lend me your arms,
fast as thunderbolts,
for a pillow on my journey.
(By Hendrik Doeff)
Hendrik Doeff lived in Nagasaki, Japan in the early nineteenth century and was intrigued by the haiku form. He wrote several haiku examples in Japanese, trying to adopt the same spirit and tone of the original Japanese poems, as well as stick to the number of on. The above is a translation into English of one of his poems. He creates a nice juxtaposition between the “fast as thunderbolt” arms and their ability to comfort and become a pillow.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(“In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound)
Ezra Pound wrote this haiku example, “In a Station of the Metro,” in 1913. Many consider it to be one of the first successful English-language haiku examples ever written. Pound had originally written this poem in thirty lines, but pared it down to the two lines above. Pound was an Imagist poet, and his economy of language and focus on these very distinct images make him a natural inheritor of the Japanese haiku tradition. He describes a brief moment on the Paris metro with the beautiful juxtaposition between faces on petals. The use of the image of petals and the wet, black bough connote spring in a delicate way.
Snow in my shoe
(By Jack Kerouac)
Like many other Beat poets, Jack Kerouac was impressed and inspired by R. H. Blyth’s English translations of Japanese haikus. He does an excellent job of providing evocative imagery that raises questions and forces the reader to work a bit harder to understand his meaning.
A stone at its core,
this snowball’s the porcelain
knob on winter’s door.
(By Paul Muldoon)
Contemporary Irish poet Paul Muldoon wrote many dozens of examples of haiku. He chose to stick to the strict 5-7-5 syllable count in English, and employed seasonal imagery. Muldoon also provides an interesting juxtaposition between the snowball and a doorknob.
Test Your Knowledge of Haiku
1. Which of the following statements is the best haiku definition?
A. A short poetic form originally from Japan that focuses on natural imagery and juxtaposition.
B. A long Japanese form that has lost all popularity and is now very obscure.
C. A poetic form that has been stolen and ruined by English speakers.
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2. Which of the following elements can usually be found in examples of haiku poetry?
A. Strict capitalization and punctuation.
B. Conjunctions and a tendency toward wordiness.
C. Juxtaposition and “cutting words.”
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3. Which of the following poems by Paul Muldoon qualifies as an example of haiku?
I gave you back my claim on the mining town
and the rich vein we once worked,
the tumble down
from a sluice box that irked
you so much, the narrow gauge
that opened up to one and all
when it ran out at the landing stage
beyond the falls.
The birch crooks her arm,
as if somewhat more inclined
to welcome the swarm.
Where every town was a tidy town
and every garden a hanging garden.
A half could be had for half a crown.
Every major artery would harden
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