The history of Japanese poetry is long and complex dating back hundreds of years and initially drawing from Chinese influences. The poetry itself evolved into several different forms that were quite constrained in their construction. After many years of isolation, Japanese poetry emerged a strong and influential voice in the literary world. Most popular and often imitated is the haiku verse form which consists of three lines, that do not rhyme, with five, seven then five syllables again respectively.

The Origins

Yosa Buson

The haiku is derived from the hokku which was a part of a longer poem which by tradition could be composed by several poets. The hokku was the opening part of this and would serve to set the scene and could thus be composed by a single poet, often a student seeking to hone his craft. With the passing of time this introductory section of the longer renga sequence was deemed worthy as a poetic form. The mastery of this deceptively simple format is perhaps best illustrated in the works of the notable poets Yosa Buson and Bashon.

Western Influence

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the translation of these Japanese verses began to appear in French, Spanish and English and thus the haiku emerged in Europe and steadily increased in popularity. With the development of more modern styles of poetry, particularly during and after the two World Wars, haikus were often adapted by such poets as Ezra Pound. In keeping with an overall departure from all things extravagant the modernist view of life was perfectly expressed and celebrated within the economical linguistic style of the haiku. Often such poets as Pound sought not to replicate the haiku but more to emulate its brevity and conciseness in a stylistic way. This might take the form of a similar approach to the familiar five, seven, five syllable arrangements or more loosely an interpretation based on the visual presentation of the three lines.

It is not possible to exactly replicate the composition of the haiku as the differences between the Japanese language and that of western cultures precludes this and thus the format we are most familiar with exists in a slightly corrupted form. Never the less it is beyond doubt that the haiku has become an important part of poetic history and the expansion and development of the format bears testimony to that fact. By encapsulating a moment in time, generally in the present tense, with two distinct images the poet seeks to typically capture our attention and briefly hold it there.

Interestingly the very nature of haiku is described as cutting which is seen represented by the contrasting ideas or images that are divided by the cutting word. This perfectly separates yet naturally unifies the opposing elements of the haiku and thus exists the restrained but perfectly balanced representation of idea and emotion. Although the haiku does not appear in its purist vertical format in western translations or renditions the contribution the haiku has made to modern poetry is highly valued and enjoyed by all who search it out!