The Art of Haiku

From the introduction to The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters


This book will trace the history of Japanese haiku, including the poetic traditions from which it was born, primarily through the work of leading masters such as Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, along with a number of other fine poets. Although they are less well-known, haiku cal­ligraphy and haiku-paintings (haiga) of the masters will also be illustrated and discussed as vital elements in the art of haiku. Theory and criticism will be minimized in favor of presenting the works themselves, which were composed to create a spontaneous interconnection with their readers and viewers, who play a vital part in the expressive process.

What Are Haiku? Although today haiku may be the best-known form of poetry in the world, there is still confusion as to how to define them. Many people would de­scribe haiku as a three-line poem of 5–7–5 syllables, but this does not pen­etrate more than the surface of this remarkable form of poetry. Rather than tight definitions, it might be more useful to discuss the guidelines that most haiku follow. Haiku in Japan are generally written or printed in a single column. Nev­ertheless, until the twentieth century, most traditional Japanese examples fall into 5–7–5 syllable patterns, although this was stretched and even broken by some of the great masters when it suited their purpose.1 In the past one hun­dred years, Japanese haiku poets have been divided between those who basi­cally follow 5–7–5, and those who do not. Furthermore, haiku poets in otherlanguages often ignore this guideline. For example, the great majority of fine haiku in English have fewer than seventeen syllables because English is more compact than Japanese, and the same is true of haiku in other languages as well (see the appendix for more information on syllable counts in Japanese and English).

If haiku do not always depend upon a fixed syllable pattern, what are their most important characteristics? One is closeness to nature, which sup­plies most of the images that the poems rely upon to convey their mean­ings. This usually involves concrete observations expressed briefly and clearly through the use of everyday language and a syntax that is natural rather than “poetic.” Since in Japanese language the verb is usually at the end of the sentence, this sometimes involves the translator with changes in word order, but the guidelines remain the same. Here is a view of nature by Basho that finds the extraordinary in the ordinary:

fuyu niwa ya              garden in winter—
tsuki mo ito naru      the moon also becomes a thread
mushi no gin             in the insect’s song

The second characteristic of haiku are references to a particular season; these references are called kigo. In Japanese, the great majority of traditional haiku indicate spring, summer, autumn, or winter, either directly (as in the haiku above) or through images that suggest which season is being pre­sented. Some of these references may seem arbitrary, but they are firmly fixed into haiku history. To give just a few of many possible examples, frogs, swallows, warblers, the hazy moon, late frost, and plum- or cherry-blos­soms are all indicators of spring, while for summer there are short nights, herons, toads, lilies, duckweed, and hail. Fall includes the harvest moon, lightning, dew, deer, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and persimmons, while winter is indicated by snow, frost, ice, owls, ducks, fallen leaves, and bare trees.2 Therefore a Japanese haiku that mentions a frog is understood as a spring poem, while one including a heron is understood as taking place in summer. Since the season adds to the mood and meaning of the poem, these references are significant.

Third, and most important, haiku suggest rather than define their mean­ings, leaving much of the process up to the reader or listener. In effect, the audience joins the writer in completing the poem, and since most haiku have more than one possible meaning, they tend not to have “correct” or solitary interpretations. Here the brevity of the form is helpful; the fewer the words, the more potential for multiple implications. As we shall see, the ear­lier poetic form called tanka (five-line poems with 5–7–5–7–7 syllable count) tended to be more explicit, while haiku allow readers to become partners to the poet by personally responding to the images. Of course, all art is an expe­rience rather than an object—the poem, music, or painting is merely the in­stigator of that experience—but in haiku this interactive aspect is especially important. Too much information would be limiting; like the inside of a glass or cup, it is the empty space that is most valuable. In haiku these spaces can take the form of grammatical ellipses, so one may often find incomplete sentences, which allow meanings to emerge rather than being insisted upon.
For the same reason, most haiku are not directly subjective. Instead, an objective description of nature, often with a contrasting element, can allow readers more opportunities to engage with the poem, perhaps supplying their own subjective experiences. The description may contain an element of surprise, mystery, or humor, but it is usually based on fresh, specific im­agery with an intense focus. Yet a fine haiku is seldom purely objective, since it has to resonate with human experience. It may give the appear­ance of being spontaneous, and perhaps it was, but poets like Basho and Santoka also considered and sometimes altered their verses over a period of time. The purpose of haiku was to use the mundane while exceeding the mundane, to discover a moment of oneness in the diverse or to discern multiplicity in the singular. Haiku can find an inner truth from an outward phenomenon, and ultimately use words to go beyond words.