Haiku, or the art of the short poem, is a form of Japanese poetry that has been and continues to be a pivotal part of Japanese culture. Interestingly enough, the Haiku is considered to be the world’s shortest poem, containing only 17 syllables. Despite its brevity, the Haiku symbolises what it truly means to be Japanese. It captures the views of the Japanese people on topics such as aesthetics, perception of nature, philosophy, existential thought and emotions.
Origins of Haiku
The Haiku found its roots in Japanese culture in the late 15th Century. At first, this form of poetry was initially a small part of a much larger poem called ‘renga’. This form of poetry was written by two or more poets, and it linked multiple stanzas containing 5 or 7 syllables into one large poem. The Haiku, in essence, is the three introductory lines of the poem. These introductory lines were meant to set the scene and lay the foundation for the ensuing poetic verses that were to come. The Haiku eventually became the nuanced poetic style that is the “short poem” in the 17th Century by renowned poet Matsuo Basho and was renamed Haiku or “short poem” by Shiki Masaoka in the late 19th Century.
The Art of the ‘Short Poem’
In terms of literary conventions, as a rule of thumb, the Haiku has three lines containing 5,7 and then 5 syllables exactly in that order. Moreover, the work ideally should contain a ‘kigo’, which is a word or phrase that is meant to represent a particular season. This format of 5,7 and then 5 syllable lines provides a certain rhythmic element to the poem. This rigid, conventional structure is common practice in other aspects of Japanese culture, such as Noh theater, flower arrangements and tea ceremonies, for example. Even though many would argue that this rigid form of poetry is too constrictive and doesn’t allow the poet to fully explore the themes and ideas that they would want to explore. But avid practioners of Haiku would argue that this form of poetry allows the poet to say more with less, allowing the readers to form their own interpretations based on the themes and notions explored within the Haiku.
The “kigo” is an essential part of a haiku poem. In most cases, it is a word or phrase that is meant to denote a certain element of nature. As a rule or literary convention, writers of Haiku must include a kigo within their short poem, otherwise it is not considered a true Haiku. It is due to the Japanese people’s sensitivity to nature that the inclusion of kigo or seasonal elements became so essential to the art of writing a haiku or short poem.
For example, there are countless seasonal kigo to describe mountains. In Japanese culture, during springtime, the hills are said to be smiling. This is considered a direct reference to the vibrant and youthful elements of life such as flowers blossoming and birds chirping during springtime.
Even during times of national distress in the form of war or economic crisis, the seasons still continue to change. These seasonal changes also instill various emotions within the hearts of Japanese people, which change according to the season. For example, one would feel happy and joyous during springtime while watching the flowers bloom, whereas one would feel calm and at peace during Autumn while looking at the full moon while listening to the melodious sounds of singing crickets.
Haiku as a Greeting
Interestingly enough, a haiku can also be used as a form of greeting, i.e. it can be used to say “hello”, “goodbye” and even “thank you”. Other than the natural elements of the poem, the haiku is equally dedicated to the people of Japan. For example, a haiku about cherry blossoms can be perceived as a thank you letter of sorts, for enduring the cold and harsh winter prior to the onset of spring. As such, the haiku can be interpreted in more ways than one and is still quite dynamic as a form of literature despite its brief structure.
The Essence of the “Short Poem”
One of the main aims of writing a haiku or short poem is to give precedence to the spiritual elements of life. That which we do not see on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, one is able to harmonize with nature and attempt to understand the very source of life and ponder about how these natural wonders of the world came to be.
In addition, composing a haiku can be very useful as a process of self discovery and self realization. It allows people to look inward and truly come to terms with oneself. In Japanese culture, it’s said, while marvelling at the natural beauty around you, one’s able to look within and discover more about oneself.
The Masters of the Art of the Short Poem
Throughout the course of Japanese history, there were various haiku practioners who elevated the literary form and helped it gain the widespread recognition that it has today. This form of poetry gained recognition mainly in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867). During this time period, one of the masters of Haiku, master Basho, made the hokku, as it was called back then, into a sophisticated and polished form of poetry. In one of his first Haiku’s, Basho recounted his experiences as he travelled throughout Japan in the 1670’s.
After Basho’s stint with Haiku, this style of poetry began to evolve and touch upon subjects other than nature. But rather touching upon abstract concepts such as philosophy, the spiritual realm and self-discovery. Other than Basho, there were countless Haiku masters in the 18th and 19th Century who helped refine this art form even further. For example, there was Master Buson in the 18th Century, Master Issa in the late 18th and 19th Century, and Master Takahama Kiyoshi in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.
Relation between Form and Culture
The brief and succinct structure of Haiku can be considered as an accurate representation of Japanese culture and identity. In essence, even though some people perceive the Haiku to be vague because of its brief form, the verse still contains subtle messages and themes that become apparent to the reader if one attempts to read between the lines. It’s not that the poem is vague, it’s just simply able to say more with less.
As such, the simplistic nature of a Haiku poem is also representative of the simplistic nature of Japanese people. The Haiku’s short form leaves an ample amount of space for what’s unsaid. There’s a certain degree of elegance to this silence that arises after reading such a short poetic verse, and it is this very silence that is a focal element of various aspects of Japanese culture. This ability to say more with less and to read between the lines is an essential part of what it means to be Japanese.
Examples of Renowend Haikus or Short Poems
There are countless Haikus that have stood the test of time. To give you some examples, here are some of the most famous and well known Haikus in world history.
“The Old Pond” by Matsuo Basho
An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond-
Spash! Silence again.
“A World of Dew” by Kobayashi Issa
A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop
A world of struggle.
“Lighting One Candle” by Yosa Buson
The light of a candle
Is transferred to another candle-
The Haikus of the West
After Matsuo Basho’s and other masters’ revitalization of the art form, the Haiku expanded far beyond the framework of Japanese culture. So much so, that imagist poets in the 20th Century began composing haikus of their own. For example, Ezra Pound wrote “In a station of the Metro” aimed at describing the Paris underground metro system. This Haiku, in particular, is considered to be one of the first complete English Haikus to have ever been written outside of Japan.
Another example of a Western Haiku master is Jack Kerouac. He believed that, because the English language was so different from Japanese, one couldn’t be as brief and subtle while writing a Haiku in English. As such, he believed that the poet should say a lot in those three short lines. He also believed that the Haiku should be kept simple and graceful, and untainted by classical western traditions of rhyme and rhythm.
The Samurai and the Haiku
It is common knowledge that, throughout history, the Samurai were some of the most elite and distinguished warriors, not only in Japan, but in the entire world. However, what many people tend to forget is that these elite warriors were avid practioners of Haiku. Samurai wrote this form of poetry quite often. In most cases, it was considered a release from the highly stressful life of a Samurai leader. The duties of a Samurai were no laughing matter, they were directly responsible for the lives of their subordinates and had to maintain composure during the heat of battle. As a result, before an intense battle, many Samurai will indulge in writing a Haiku so that they may calm themselves before battle, so that they can lead and fight with a clear head.
What Makes Haiku Meditative or Zen
The reason why the Haiku is considered to be therapeutic and Zen is mainly because a Haiku is a depiction of the experience itself and not vague ideas and concepts pertaining to said experience. Ideally, the poet is meant to be one with the subject and focus solely on what he sees in front of him. Although the Haiku welcomed philosophical ideas and perceptions, in most cases it was better if the poet aimed to convey the experience in a simplistic manner. Allowing the readers to form their own ideas and perceptions.
Sometimes Western Haikus often focus too much on conveying various ideas and themes about the experience, rather than focusing on the experience itself. Here’s an example:
A rose represents
A mother’s kiss, a spring day
A lover’s longing.
Let us now compare this Haiku to one that focuses more on the experience:
Wilted rose bouquet
Left in new grass
By the gravestone.
This second haiku is an apt example of how a traditional haiku should be written. Its simplistic nature gives it that calming and meditative quality that makes this unique art form so Zen.
Anthropological Significance of Haiku
Based on the aforementioned information, I think it’s fair to say that the art of writing Haiku is an integral part of Japanese culture and is also an apt reflection of the mentality and disposition of the Japanese people. The simplistic and elegant character of Japanese people is effectively captured by this unique art form. It’s brief form facilitates the exploration of what is left unsaid and creates this silence which has a certain eloquence about it.
This simplicity in character is not only found in Haiku but in other Japanese art forms as well. In Noh Theatre, for example, directors aim at stripping away nonessential movements. This gives the performance a certain depth to the brief intervals between stage movements. The same can be said about Japanese cuisine. Japanese chefs more often than naught make the deliberate choice of not overcomplicating the dish by adding too many flavours.
Similarly, in the art of Japanese flower arrangement, oftentimes the flowers are not meant to fill up the entire space. With Japanese flower arrangement, there is careful attention paid to the angles within which the flowers are placed. As a result, there are various openings and spaces between flowers, which helps add a certain symmetry which adds to the overall aesthetic of the flower arrangement.
As such, simplicity is key in Japanese culture and the Haiku, along with other art forms, is an apt reflection of that. Japanese people conduct their lives in this same elegant and simplistic manner. With a deep appreciation of the natural beauty around them and a simplistic yet graceful outlook on life, it’s fair to say that the Japanese have the recipe for success when it comes to leading a blissful life.