Happy International Haiku Day! No, this is not a lesser-known religious celebration you haven’t heard of before, but rather the celebration of the elegant and timeless literary art form; a short, unrhymed poem, an ancient form of Japanese poetry. Pronounced hahy-koo, it can come in various forms of short verses but the most common consists of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable structure, though this is contested for being a western way of teaching the haiku. Japanese haikus also count sounds, not just syllables.
Haiku is believed to have originated in thirteenth-century Japan and formed the opening part of a larger Japanese poem called Renga. Renga was an oral poem, generally a hundred stanzas long, and was also composed syllabically. These opening stanzas of Renga were known as the “hokku”, or “starting verse.” Over time they began to be written as stand-alone poems, however. They were given the current name haiku by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), at the end of the 19th century. Masaoka Shiki was influential in the development of a modern style of Japanese haiku and tanka, and wrote essays on the subject. You can view some of his poems here.
Historically, there were four master haiku poets from Japan, known as “the Great Four”; these were Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki, and Yosa Buson.
The typical haiku is quite diverse and can be a Zen description of particular locations, day-to-day occurrences, seasonal activities, natural phenomena, animals wildlife and more. It often features an image, or two images, to capture the essence of a specific moment in time.
These short poems are popular among poets for their challenge in painting a vivid picture in just a few words. They are a practice of real artistic and creative skill, in that their minimal nature requires poets to make every single word, or even syllable, count.
The Old Pond, created by one of the four great masters of Japanese haiku, Matsuo Bashō, is believed to be one of the most famous examples of the art. Matsuo Bashō is known for his simplistic yet thought-provoking haikus. This is arguably his most famous piece, and stays true to his style of capturing human nature within natural imagery, as the old pond seems to be symbolic of the subconscious mind. Other famous pieces include In the moonlight by Yosa Buson and After Killing a Spider by Masaoka Shiki.
If you have children and would like to try haiku, there are some helpful tips online. Or you can try making your own online with the poem generator. Alternatively, you can visit the Haiku Foundation’s website to find out more about International Haiku Poetry Day.