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The Haiku Poetic Form

The haiku has always been popular in Japan, the country of its origin. Its roots stretch back to the 800s A.D.

The basic unit of measurement in this form is the mora. A traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines of verse with a set pattern of morae equivalent to 5,7,5, however, in Japan, they are written as a single line. These morae have historically been considered synonymous with English syllables but this is not a perfect description.

The first poems of this form were called hokku. They probably derived from an earlier form known as renga but there is much debate as to the exact origins of the form.

The Japanese poetry form's first appearance occurred some time in the 1400s. It was likely invented by Yamazaki Sokan (1465-1553) and Arakida Mortake (1473-1549). But the form became really popular in the 1600s when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Onitsura (1661-1738) wrote prolifically. Today, Basho is considered one of the greatest Japanese poets ever.

Haiku writers started developing rules for the art form in the 15th century. By the 16th century, the form was characterized by its unique brand of humor and use of haigon, colloquiallisms borrowed from the Chinese. These poems came to be called haikai renga and one of their chief proponents was a poet by the name of Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653).

After Basho, a new popular writer emerged. Yosa Buron (1716-1783), primarily known as a painter during his lifetime, wrote during the Tenmei Era. But after Buson, the form began to take on an individualistic flavor with such writers as Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), who arose from poverty and an unhappy childhood to establish himself as a reverent Buddhist.

After Issa, the form entered a period of relative decline and mediocrity. Masaoka Shiki wrote in the latter part of the 19th century. He was critical of earlier writers, including Basho. But he was impressed with the Western world and Buson's painterly style of writing. He developed the nature sketch style of poetics, which became very popular due to his essays and newspaper columns.

Japanese Poetry Moves West

In 1904, Japanese poet Yone Noguchi began to introduce American readers and poets to the form in Reader magazine. In 1910, Western scholar B.H. Chamberlain discussed Japanese poetry in depth but was largely dismissive of its poetic value. Europeans and Americans referred to haiku as Japanese epigrams. Still, the poetic forms popularity increased and was widely published in the United States and Europe.

An Englishman by the name of R.H. Blyth introduced Japanese poetry forms to post-World War II Westerners in 1949. He produced a book series that explored the forms of haiku, zen, senryu, and other Asian literature. Beat writers such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg were influenced by Blyth and wrote in the form themselves. Other American poets followed the trend. The list of contemporary Western poets who have written haiku include Richard Wright, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Kenneth Rexroth, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez.

Traditional Japanese poetry focuses on nature and the place of humans in nature. Modern writers, however, consider any subject relevant for haiku. For more information on this form and its adherents, check out this Wikipedia listing.

If you want to delve deeper into the Japanese poetic forms, the following online journals devoted to them entirely are excellent resources:

Modern Haiku Magazine
Haiku Hut

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