The haiku is one of the best-known poetic forms and certainly the most famous Eastern poetic form. Taught at a primary level in school, the conventions of its modern incarnation are known even to those who do not write or read much poetry. It is one of the forms Jersey City Writers will accept in the genre night competition.

Today, the haiku is a short form of syllabic verse in three lines (17 syllables divided into a familiar 5-7-5 pattern) and of no set rhyme scheme. Haiku often telescopes in on an image from nature. Its defining features are sparseness, intensity, and concision. A simple and accessible form to learn, it is a difficult one to master. This is equally applicable to reading: available to all, its most profound meanings are reserved for the careful, sensitive reader.

The haiku’s historical trajectory is a long one. Originally called hokku, its nascent origins are as the opening verse to a renga (later, renku or haikai), a collaborative oral poem sometimes many stanzas long. The haiku was and is still today incorporated into the haibun (a prose poem with an accompanying three-line haiku verse). In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), the great modernizer and haiku master, instituted haiku reforms. He renamed the hokku to haiku, and cleaved the haiku from collaborative verse like renga to create an independent poetic form. The term haiku is now “applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written.” Use of the term hokku is now limited to its original context, i.e., as the opening verse of a linked poem.

A note on syllabics: although modern haiku typically relies on syllable count, traditional Japanese haiku uses the “on” (or “onji”), a counting phonetic sound in Japanese prosody that is similar to but entirely distinct from a syllable. Although it is inexact to speak of syllables in Japanese poetry, often these two phonetic units are used interchangeably, and it is often the case that the on and syllable counts will be exactly the same. American writers have utilized both the Japanese on and syllabics.

The indisputable patron saint of hokku is Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), who is also credited with writing Japan’s most famous literary work, “The Narrow Road To The Interior.” After Bashō came Yosa Buson (1716–1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828; this writer’s personal favorite). Here is a sampling of Issa’s sorrowful, individualistic, and indelible haiku:

Even with insects—
some can sing,
some can’t.

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

Goes out,
comes back—
the love life of a cat.

Under the evening moon
the snail
is stripped to the waist.

Together, Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki are regarded as the great four haiku masters. Contemporary haiku is not to be diminished, either. Some modern poets working in this form are Robert Hass (who has translated Issa), Paul Muldoon, Anselm Hollo, and Frank Lima, who dedicated a delightful poem, a string of haiku, to Frank O’Hara.

The philosophy, intensity, and imagery of haiku also influenced Ezra Pound, poet and eccentric theorist behind early 20th century Imagist poetry. Pound’s rules for Imagism parallel haiku form—direct treatment of an image, concision, efficiency, and immediacy. Indeed, it was Pound who wrote, “The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.”

Pound was also a great translator of Chinese poetry (despite not knowing Chinese) and absorbed influence from both classical Chinese and Japanese verse models. His famous two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro,” is the distillation of a far longer poem. The haiku-reminiscent poem is the product of laborious composition and compression down to imagist intensity and fleeting impression in time. Ostensibly set in the modern Parisian underground, it calls to mind the best of classical haiku.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s determination to capture and enact a moment that filled him with great emotion in his urban landscape speaks to another defining feature of haiku that is evident in the masters, both classical and contemporary, which is that haiku transcends the strictures of a single poem. Haiku is not only a type of poetry; it is a practice. Like daily prayer or meditation, the haiku is the procedure by which the poet continually orients herself within a greater landscape.

Take, for instance, Richard Wright, the brilliant leftist American writer who became a dedicated, if not compulsive, practitioner of haiku late in life. For years, Wright’s writing had addressed the tragic plight and repression of African-Americans. He had concerned himself with violence, the brutality of politics and discrimination, the impact of law and state on the individual, the relations between individuals and institutions, and the relations between and among individuals. Arriving at haiku in his mature writing years, his concerns turned to a human’s relationship to nature and the natural world. In his lifetime, he composed over 4,000 haiku, the massive output of an obsessive writing practice (it is reported that he wrote everywhere he went). A posthumous collection of 817 of his personal favorites appeared in 1998. With their palpable beauty and melancholy insights and modulations, Wright’s haiku are like small sad moths clinging to light in the presence of loneliness, death, illness, and superior universal forces.

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

A balmy spring wind
Reminding me of something
I cannot recall.

Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

A wounded sparrow
Sinks in clear cold lake water,
Its eyes still open.

This is what the haiku, the smallest and simplest form, looks like in the hands of genius. The haiku may operate at the molecular, macro level, but the archive of haiku poetry, its vast and varied scope, its history, its infinite illuminations of the ephemera of nature and humanity, serve as testament to the haiku’s grand horizon for poets.


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