No one knows when the first haiku appeared in Japan. The form emerged in feudal times as the first stanza of a longer renga, or linked verse. Early haiku tended to be witty in their approach to their subjects:

a cherry petal
flies back up to its branch—
oh, a butterfly!

Arakide Moritake (1473–1549)

It was not until the appeareance of its first great poet, Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), that the haiku was used to express serious themes. Basho moved the haiku beyond the simple word play or surprises of his predecessors. He could turn a visit to a famous battlefield into a reflection on human vanity:

summer grasses—
all that remains of
a warrior’s dreams

Or he could celebrate the joys of a simple life:

a man eats breakfast
with the morning glories—
that is what I am

Other haiku, several of which are reprinted on our Teaching Haiku page, give us glimpses into Basho’s reflections on religion, art, and history.

As the haiku developed over the centuries, poets expanded the form to express their own interests and obsessions. Yosa Buson (1716–1783), who was also a famous artist, brought a painter’s eye to his work:

stopping to rest
on the temple bell—
a butterfly

Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827) wrote haiku about his poverty and sympathy for the small and weak:

again and again
it opens its mouth—
the motherless bird

Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) coined the word “haiku” (previously this poetry was known as “hokku”) and modernised haiku by encouraging a greater variety of subjects.

summer river . . .
there’s a bridge, but the horse
goes through water

By the time it reached the 20th century, haiku were being composed on a wide variety of subjects and themes. Haiku can be used to capture sights of modern life:

summer grasses—
the wheels of a train
come to a stop

Yamaguchi Seishi (1901–1994)

It can also offer social commentary, as in this picture of Japan after World War II:

after eating whale meat
the orphans and monks
play baseball

Saito Sanki (1900–1962)

At this point of its history, the possibilities for the haiku seem endless.

Form and Technique

In Japan, haiku continue to be written with a strict 5-7-5 syllable count in spite of several notable attempts to loosen the form. Japanese haiku also contain a kigo, or word that sets the poem in a particular season, and a kireji, or word that cuts the haiku into two distinct parts.

In English, poets tend to write haiku in three short lines without a fixed syllable count, reasoning that seventeen Japanese syllables do not equate to seventeen English ones. The majority of English-language haiku contain a kigo and use punctuation or line breaks to cut their haiku in two.

Though the haiku has a simple form, it allows for a variety of approaches that enable its poets to create deep and satisfying poetry. Here are some popular techniques, with illustrations from our 2006, 2007, and 2008 Haiku Invitationals.

Implied Story

the long road
boughs of white blossoms
light the way

Helen Baker
North Vancouver, British Columbia

From these lines, the reader can imagine that the author has a long evening walk ahead of her, one which is made delightful by the chance to pause and admire the cherry blossoms.

Montage

In film, a montage refers to a sudden cut from one image to another to create tension or a sudden insight for the viewer.

a winter blizzard
I turn my calendar
to cherry blossoms

Marilyn Potter
Toronto, Ontario

In the preceding haiku, we “cut” from the blizzard outside to the poet’s action inside.

Symbolism

Occasionally, a haiku will use recognizable symbols to add to its meaning.

street hockey
young boys shoot cherry petals
into the net

Terry Ann Carter
Ottawa, Ontario

The mention of street hockey helps to establish the cherry blossoms as a Canadian, and not just Japanese, subject matter.

Making It New

One of poetry’s functions is to enable its readers to view the world with fresh eyes.

glistening on
the field’s dew
cherry blossom light

Candis Rooker
Vermilion, Ohio

By concentrating on the reflection of cherry blossoms in the dew, this haiku allows us to see both the field and cherry trees anew.

Way of Life

Through a careful selection of images, a haiku can recapture an important point of view or even an entire outlook on life.

cherry blossoms
I fold my résumé
into a crane

Barry Goodmann
Hackensack, New Jersey

 

Programs subject to change.