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What is Haiku?

Haiku is one of the most important form of traditional Japanese poetry. Haiku is, today, a 17-syllable verse form consisting of three metrical units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Since early days, there has been confusion between the three related terms Haiku, Hokku and Haikai. The term hokku literally means "starting verse", and was the first starting link of a much longer chain of verses known as haika. Because the hokku set the tone for the rest of the poetic chain, it enjoyed a privileged position in haikai poetry, and it was not uncommon for a poet to compose a hokku by itself without following up with the rest of the chain.

Largely through the efforts of Masaoka Shiki, this independence was formally established in the 1890s through the creation of the term haiku. This new form of poetry was to be written, read and understood as an independent poem, complete in itself, rather than part of a longer chain.

Strictly speaking, then, the history of haiku begins only in the last years of the 19th century. The famous verses of such Edo-period (1600-1868) masters as Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa are properly referred to as hokku and must be placed in the perspective of the history of haikai even though they are now generally read as independent haiku. In HAIKU for PEOPLE, both terms will be treated equally! The distinction between hokku and haiku can be handled by using the terms Classical Haiku and Modern Haiku.

Modern Haiku.

The history of the modern haiku dates from Masaoka Shiki's reform, begun in 1892, which established haiku as a new independent poetic form. Shiki's reform did not change two traditional elements of haiku: the division of 17 syllables into three groups of 5, 7, and 5 syllables and the inclusion of a seasonal theme.

Kawahigashi Hekigoto carried Shiki's reform further with two proposals:

  1. Haiku would be truer to reality if there were no center of interest in it.
  2. The importance of the poet's first impression, just as it was, of subjects taken from daily life, and of local colour to create freshness.

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How to write Haiku

In japanese, the rules for how to write Haiku are clear, and will not be discussed here. In foreign languages, there exist NO consensus in how to write Haiku-poems. Anyway, let's take a look at the basic knowledge:

What to write about?

Haiku-poems can describe almost anything, but you seldom find themes which are too complicated for normal PEOPLE's recognition and understanding. Some of the most thrilling Haiku-poems describe daily situations in a way that gives the reader a brand new experience of a well-known situation.

The metrical pattern of Haiku

Haiku-poems consist of respectively 5, 7 and 5 syllables in three units. In japanese, this convention is a must, but in english, which has variation in the length of syllables, this can sometimes be difficult.

The technique of cutting.

The cutting divides the Haiku into two parts, with a certain imaginative distance between the two sections, but the two sections must remain, to a degree, independent of each other. Both sections must enrich the understanding of the other.

To make this cutting in english, either the first or the second line ends normally with a colon, long dash or ellipsis.

The seasonal theme.

Each Haiku must contain a kigo, a season word, which indicate in which season the Haiku is set. For example, cherry blossoms indicate spring, snow indicate winter, and mosquitoes indicate summer, but the season word isn't always that obvious.

Please notice that Haiku-poems are written under different rules and in many languages. For translated Haiku-poems, the translator must decide whether he should obey the rules strictly, or if he should present the exact essence of the Haiku. For Haiku-poems originally written in english, the poet should be more careful. These are the difficulties, and the pleasure of Haiku.

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    Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. (1892-1927).

    Akutagawa wrote "Rashomon", "The Nose", "The Handkerchief", "Hell Screen ", "Flatcar" and "Kappa". He didn't start writing Haiku before 1919, under the pseudonym Gaki.
    Akutagawa biography
    Akutagawa books at amazon

  • Green frog,
    Is your body also
    freshly painted?

  • Sick and feverish
    Glimpse of cherry blossoms
    Still shivering.

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  • Without flowing wine
    How to enjoy lovely
    Cherry blossoms?

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    Basho, Matsuo. (1644-1694).

    The name Basho (banana tree) is a sobriquet he adopted around 1681 after moving into a hut with a banana tree alongside. He was called Kinsaku in childhood and Matsuo Munefusa in his later days.

    Basho's father was a low-ranking samurai from the Iga Province. To be a samurai, Basho serviced for the local lord Todo Yoshitada (Sengin). Since Yoshitada was fond of writing haikai, Basho began writing poetry under the name Sobo.

    During the years, Basho made many travels through Japan, and one of the most famous went to the north, where he wrote Oku No Hosomichi (1694). On his last trip, he died in Osaka, and his last haiku indicates that he was still thinking of traveling and writing poetry as he lay dying:

  • Fallen sick on a journey,
    In dreams I run wildly
    Over a withered moor.

    At the time of his death, Basho had more than 2000 students.

  • An old pond!
    A frog jumps in-
    The sound of water.

  • The first soft snow!
    Enough to bend the leaves
    Of the jonquil low.

  • In the cicada's cry
    No sign can foretell
    How soon it must die.

  • No one travels
    Along this way but I,
    This autumn evening.

  • In all the rains of May
    there is one thing not hidden -
    the bridge at Seta Bay.

  • The years first day
    thoughts and loneliness;
    the autumn dusk is here.

  • Clouds appear
    and bring to men a chance to rest
    from looking at the moon.

  • Harvest moon:
    around the pond I wander
    and the night is gone.

  • Poverty's child -
    he starts to grind the rice,
    and gazes at the moon.

  • No blossoms and no moon,
    and he is drinking sake
    all alone!

  • Won't you come and see
    loneliness? Just one leaf
    from the kiri tree.

  • Temple bells die out.
    The fragrant blossoms remain.
    A perfect evening!
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    Buson, Yosa. (1716-84).

  • At the over-matured sushi,
    The Master
    Is full of regret.

  • Pressing Sushi;
    After a while,
    A lonely feeling

  • A whale!
    Down it goes, and more and more
    up goes its tail!

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  • Covered with the flowers,
    Instantly I'd like to die
    In this dream of ours!

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  • No sky
    no earth - but still
    snowflakes fall

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    Issa. (1762-1826).
    Yoshi Mikami's Issa's Haiku Home Page
    Issa books at Amazon

  • In my old home
    which I forsook, the cherries
    are in bloom.

  • A giant firefly:
    that way, this way, that way, this -
    and it passes by.

  • Right at my feet -
    and when did you get here,

  • My grumbling wife -
    if only she were here!
    This moon tonight...

  • A lovely thing to see:
    through the paper window's hole,
    the Galaxy.

  • A man, just one -
    also a fly, just one -
    in the huge drawing room.

  • A sudden shower falls -
    and naked I am riding
    on a naked horse!

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    Kato, Shuson

  • I kill an ant
    and realize my three children
    have been watching.

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    Kawahigashi, Hekigodo. (1873-1937).

  • From a bathing tub
    I throw water into the lake -
    slight muddiness appears.

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  • Night, and the moon!
    My neighbor, playing on his flute -
    out of tune!

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    Murakami, Kijo. (1865-1938).

  • First autumn morning:
    the mirror I stare into
    shows my father's face.

  • The moment two bubbles
    are united, they both vanish.
    A lotus blooms.

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    Natsume, Soseki. (1867-1916)
    Soseki's debut came in 1905 with "I Am a Cat ". In 1907 he resigned his post at
    Tokyo University as Professor in English, to devote his entire time to the writing of
    novels. His writings include "The Three-Cornered World" (1906), "The Wayfarer" (1912-13)
    "Kokoro " (1914), and "The Grass on the Wayside" (1915).

  • On New Year's Day
    I long to meet my parents
    as they were before my birth.

  • The crow has flown away:
    swaying in the evening sun,
    a leafless tree.

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  • You rice-field maidens!
    The only things not muddy
    Are the songs you sing.

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    Ryusui. (1691-1758).

  • In all this cool
    is the moon also sleeping?
    There, in the pool?

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    Shiki, Masaoka. (1867-1902).

  • I want to sleep
    Swat the flies
    Softly, please.

  • After killing
    a spider, how lonely I feel
    in the cold of night!

  • For love and for hate
    I swat a fly and offer it
    to an ant.

  • A mountain village
    under the pilled-up snow
    the sound of water.

  • Night; and once again,
    the while I wait for you, cold wind
    turns into rain.

  • The summer river:
    although there is a bridge, my horse
    goes through the water.

  • A lightning flash:
    between the forest trees
    I have seen water.

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    Takahama, Kyoshi

  • A dead chrysanthemum
    and yet - isn't there still something
    remaining in it?

  • He says a word,
    and I say a word - autumn
    is deepening.

  • The winds that blows -
    ask them, which leaf on the tree
    will be next to go.

  • A gold bug -
    I hurl into the darkness
    and feel the depth of night.

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    Morten Paulsen

  • An island song
    Like a floating river
    Rain Rain Fall Fall

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    Ron Loeffler

  • Glass balls and glowing lights.
    Dead tree in living room.
    Killed to honor birth.

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    Andeyev, Alexey V.

  • Spring backup in CS lab:
    time to fall in love with
    certain humanware.

    Ed \"Darts Vapor\" Button

  • alone, on the web,
    drops of sensitivity
    embrace an eyelash

    Chris Spruck

  • Faceless, just numbered.
    Lone pixel in the bitmap-
    I, anonymous.

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    Dave McCroskey.

  • on the Chinese vase
    flowers retain brightness
    - - pouring out water.

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    Paulsen, Morten:

  • Sushi and Soya
    The Spring comes
    When the day is over

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    Thomas Grieg

  • Pond with ice

  • Looking at the clouds
    blue in the ice-wind
    space flows

  • Quiet around the point: ducks;
    up down birches


  • Darkended dreams
    become modern grapes of wrath
    reaping a bitter wine.

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    Dhugal Lindsay:

  • they've gone...
    where the beach umbrella was
    the sand not quite so hot

    Paul Mena:

  • through the fingerprints
    on my window-
    cloudless blue sky.


    Deserted steel-mill.
    Along the Ohio River,
    Chromatic butterfly.

    James Dolan

    Dallas summer song:
    cicadas whir, the
    sirens call

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    Phil Wahl

  • The flap of a bat,
    drip drip of monsoon waters.
    Ancient image stares.

    Noel Kaufmann

  • Behold the ego
    Set in glowing emptiness
    On the edge of time

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    Urban Haiku

    Michael R. Collings

  • Silence--a strangled
    Telephone has forgotten
    That it should ring

  • Freeway overpass--
    Blossoms in grafitti on
    fog-wrapped June mornings

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    Dave McCroskey

  • the morning paper
    harbinger of good and ill
    - - I step over it

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Links to other Haiku-pages:

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- Makoto Ueda ( Modern Japanese Haiku -An Anthology: 1976).
- Kodansha (Encyclopedia of Japan: 1983).
- Kenneth Yasuda (The JAPANESE HAIKU: 1957).
- Harold G. Henderson (An introduction to HAIKU: 1958).
- Daniel C. Buchanan (One hundred Famous HAIKU: 1973).
- Other haiku books

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Feel free to use anything from this page as long as you make references and links to HAIKU for PEOPLE. Last updated: Jan 10th. 2001. Edited by Kei Grieg Toyomasu, kei at toyomasu dot com

Rated by Schoolzone's panel of expert teachers WebEnglishTeacher A+ Resource Award