The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Haiku: A Japanese verse form consisting of three unrhymed lines that traditionally contain a total of seventeen syllables in a five-seven-five pattern. A haiku typically presents images of nature, using association and suggestion to appeal to emotion and generate a moment of spiritual awareness or discovery. The haiku, which initially developed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the opening section, or hokku, of the renga, a form of multi-authored, linked verse, subsequently evolved into a freestanding form, a development accelerated by the popularity of the haikai, a lighter type of renga that emerged in the sixteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki coined the term haiku to refer to the hokku as an independent poem, thereby distinguishing it from the hokku as the opening verse of the haikai or traditional renga. In contemporary English usage, however, haiku and hokku are often used synonymously.

As a self-contained poem, the haiku came to be printed in the nineteenth century in a single, vertical line, hence the common description of haiku as “one-line poems.” Some poets also experimented or even dispensed with the two main hokku conventions: the five-seven-five syllabic pattern and the kigo, traditionally a word or phrase that functions as a code signaling the season of composition. In Western poetry, where the three-line format has remained popular but the number of syllables is often reduced and the kigo omitted, the haiku debuted around 1900 and had particular influence on the development of Imagism.

Noted Japanese haiku poets aside from Shiki include seventeenth-century Edo-period poet Matsuo Bashō, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Konishi Raizan. Twentieth-century American poets who experimented with the form include Imagist poets Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams; Gary Snyder; and Richard Wright, who wrote thousands of haiku using the classic seventeen-syllable, five-seven-five pattern in the year and a half prior to his death in 1960.

EXAMPLES: The following classic hokku (1686) by Bashō, commonly considered the most famous of all haiku:

furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

As translated into English by Makoto Ueda in Bashō and His Interpreters (1991), Bashō’s hokku reads:

the old pond—

a frog jumps in,

water’s sound

Michael McClintock, by contrast, departs from the classic syllabic pattern in his work, such as the following haiku published in Tundra in 2001:

the candle

flares, darkening

the basilica