Example poetry

The Making of Haiku: An Introduction to Japanese Poetry of Conciseness

Originally from Japan, haiku is loved around the world. This short form of poetry has its roots in earlier forms like waka and related verses, but has developed its own identity over centuries of composition by writers like Matsuo Bashō and Masaoka Shiki.


Furu like you / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

Old pond—
a frog jumps;
the sound of water

Japanese haikus have spread around the world, and poets are composing adaptations of the form in a multitude of languages. The poem of the Frog and the Pond is representative not only of the works of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) but also of the haikus themselves, and made Bashō internationally renowned. Even so, few people can define precisely what haiku is. In this article, I will examine the nature and history of form.

Individual point of view

Characterized by their brevity, haikus first developed in the Japanese language. In Japanese, they generally have to meet the following conditions.

  • A 5-7-5 form
  • Inclusion of a seasonal word (kigo)

The 5-7-5 form refers to the number of beats in each section. For example, Bashō’s famous haiku begins furu like you, which could be represented musically by five notes:. However, the haiku are not required to adhere rigidly to this model. Writers can choose to have extra time in a section, which is called jiamari. One less beat, also possible, is called jitarazu, although this tends to be more unusual.

In the world of haiku, there are words associated with specific seasons, called kigo. Poets often consult a saijiki dictionary, which collects and categorizes these seasonal words. For example, the “moon” (tsuki) is classified as an autumn word, while “flower” (hana), taken to refer to cherry blossoms, is classified as a word spring. In many cases, the kigo is found to be associated with a season due to a long-standing custom, and the saijiki serves as a guide to these conventions. Although it was considered acceptable to include multiple seasonal words in the same haiku during the Edo period (1603-1868), in modern times that has become considered unorthodox, and the norm is now to use only one kigo.

There are traditional haikus which meet the two conditions described, and other “avant-garde” which do not. The latter includes jiyūritsu (free counter) haiku who ignore form and muki haiku that do not include a season word. However, it is not enough to fulfill both conditions. For example, putting a season word in a road safety slogan does not make it a haiku. The expression of the feelings and the individual perspective of the writer is crucial.

Although this is not a requirement for being a haiku, the Kiré, or “break”, is another important element, separating the form into two parts. Often this rupture is signaled by the use of a kireji, or “cut word”. Typical examples are particles you, as in Bashō’s poem, and kana– which act like exclamations of emotion – or forms of auxiliary verbs like keri and ran. As a function of kireji is like a hotbed of emotion, although it may seem seemingly illogical, it can be placed at the end of the haiku. There are also haiku without Kiré at all.

Restriction escape

Before haiku, the main form of Japanese poetry since ancient times was waka in its short version of 5-7-5-7-7. If two authors collaborated, one writing section 5-7-5 and the other writing section 7-7, it was called renga (linked verse). From around the 11th century, renga developed in long sequences of multiple sections with 5-7-5 and 7-7 alternating.

In a hundred sections renga sequence, the first part 5-7-5 was called a hokku. It was composed by a guest during a gathering, comprising a topic corresponding to the season with an atmosphere of greeting from the other participants. The form and the word season in today’s haiku have been taken from hokku.

In medieval times, renga were generally seen as a form of waka, which meant they had to keep the same high vocabulary and tone. However, some poets found it too restrictive and began to organize their own gatherings encouraging the free use of puns and everyday vocabulary. Their creations became known as haikai no renga Where haikai in short, and ahead of the traditional renga in popularity during the Edo period. Among the most famous haikai the practitioners were Bashō, Yosa Buson (1716–83), and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827).

The poets first composed with the idea that they were creating part of a sequence, and the hokku was only seen as a starting point. Gradually, however, the 5-7-5 hokku began to be appreciated as an individual work in its own right. Incidentally, all of these poems were called hokku during the Edo period, although it became common to speak, for example, of Bashō’s haiku, although this term did not exist during his lifetime.

Shiki and the birth of haiku

The modern history of haiku begins at the end of the 19th century with Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). He denied the literary value of haikai no renga beyond the original hokku, considering poem 5-7-5 as complete in itself, and renaming it haiku. Contrasting with the group activity of the haikai, haiku was a creative individual enterprise. Shiki also advocated following the shasei (sketch from life) method of composition, influenced by Western art.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) was a literary successor to Shiki, maintaining the emphasis on form and seasonal words in traditional haiku, as well as objective sketches of life and natural beauty. A key phrase associated with it is kachō fūei, which means praise and poetic expression of natural phenomena, including people. In contrast, Kawahigashi Hekigotō (1873-1937) was a central figure in a more socially engaged new-style haiku movement, which could deviate from the standard form or omit seasonal words. These opposing approaches to haiku, traditional and avant-garde, have continued to this day.

Frogs and Lights

Bashō elevated the light literature of haikai into a highly symbolic form of poetry, and his works became the source of haiku. His poem “Frog” was originally a hokku followed by a section 7-7 composed by one of his disciples; the seasonal word “frog” is associated with spring. It simply describes an old pond and the sound of water of a frog jumping into it, but there are many interpretations of what Bashō was trying to express.

Some have suggested that its goal was to deliberately move away from the waka tradition of connecting frogs to their calls to create a new image of the creature leaping into the water. In the famous kana preface from the 10th century collection Kokin wakashū (Collection of ancient and modern times) mention is made of the calls of the frog, but replacing these with splashing water may have been the poet’s way of expressing the joy inherent in the arrival. of spring.

However, his disciple Kagami Shikō (1665-1731) wrote that Bashō was in the midst of meditation when the sound of the frog entering the pond led him to enlightenment, which inspired a variety of in-depth analyzes. Many commentators make a connection with Zen and other Buddhist teachings. The poem has established itself as a symbol of the haiku by its fame and its influence.


Keitô no / jūshi-go hon mo / arinu beshi

rooster ridges—
there must be
fourteen or fifteen

Shiki, the author of this poem, spent a lot of time bedridden with tuberculosis of the spine and died at the age of 34. Despite this, he succeeded in revolutionizing the form of haiku.

The word for the season here is the rooster crest, representing fall. The garden plant is known for its bright red stem and early fall flowers. The kireji is beshi. Shiki composed haiku at the age of 33, confined to his bed and looking at rooster ridges in the garden. Although there has been some debate on its literary merits, it certainly applies the shasei approach to the sketch of life, putting into words the lucid sensation of everything that touches the consciousness of Shiki to convey the deep emotion that comes from being alive.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 12, 2021. Banner photo: A frog prepares to jump into a pond. © Pixta.)

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