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Haiku (or hokku)

A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.

Not popularized in Western literature until the early 1900s, the form originates from the Japanese hokku, or the opening section of a longer renga sequence. In this context, the hokku served to begin a longer poem by establishing a season, often with a pair of seasonal images. Unlike the rest of the renga sequence, which was composed collaboratively, the hokku was often created by a single poet working alone, and was subsequently used as an exercise for students. Over time, the hokku began to be appreciated for its own worth and became distinct as a poetic form, formally mastered by poets such as Basho and Yosa Buson.

In 1905, Paul-Louis Couchoud became one of the first European translators of the form, converting many short Japanese verses into his native French. This began the popularization of haiku in Europe, where the form was translated by French and Spanish poets, such as José Juan Tablada. Throughout the two World Wars and the rise of Modernism, haikus were gradually adapted and celebrated by Imagist poets, such as Ezra Pound, H.D., and T.E. Hulme. In this context, the haiku was appreciated for its linguistic and sensory economy. Most notably Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” though not intended as a haiku, adapts the sparse, visual style of the Japanese form.

Despite its formal history, the haiku’s composition has expanded somewhat over time. This is due in part to the differences between the Japanese language and Western languages. In its original Japanese form, the haiku is often divided into 17 mora (a Japanese unit of syllable weight) and arranged in a single vertical line. However, in English there is no exact equivalent to the mora unit. As a result, in English and other languages, haikus are most frequently adapted into three lines of verse, usually unrhymed, composed of five, seven, and five syllables, adding up to seventeen syllables total. However, many American poets, such as Jack Kerouac, began to gradually depart from this traditional syllable and line count, in favor of depicting images as succinctly as possible.

Despite its many adaptions into multiple languages and styles, the haiku remains a powerful form due to its economic use of language to evoke a specific mood or instance. Most often occurring in the present tense, a haiku frequently depicts a moment by using pair of distinct images working in tandem, as in these lines by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Jane Hirshfield:

        On a branch
        floating downriver
        a cricket, singing.

(Notice how, in translating from Japanese to English, Hirshfield compresses the number of syllables.)

The haiku continues to be a popular form today, and its different qualities have been emphasized and expanded by a wide variety of writers. Poets such as Etheridge Knight emphasize the formal and sonic quality of the verse, as seen in his piece “Haiku,” whereas poets such as Scott Helmes have chosen to emphasize the haiku’s visual arrangement, as seen in his piece, “haiku #62.”

For further examples, see also “Three Haiku, Two Tanka” by Philip Appleman and Robert Hass’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa.” In addition, see the Imagist poets of the early 20th century, most notably Ezra Pound.

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