Winter solitude—

in a world of one color

the sound of wind

–Matsuo Basho

In the latter part of the seventeenth-century, Japanese poet Basho first created the seventeen-syllable poem we now know as the “haiku,” the popular verse-form developed from the traditional ‘kokoro’ (a single word meaning heart, spirit, soul, and mind) verse. Haiku is one of the simplest and shortest poetic forms, yet is still an art capable of conjuring the deepest of emotions within a mere three lines.

Summer grasses–

all that remains

of warriors dreams

–Matsuo Basho

How is the tiny haiku so very intimate in the sentiments it evokes? Perhaps, in not saying all that can be said, haiku arouses underlying emotions that create an intimacy with the art-form. Through the sparsity of its word count, haiku invokes the reader to fill in the resulting space with their own images and emotions; a connotative process that invites a depth of personal creativity from the reader. 

The snow is melting

And the village is flooded

with children

–Issa

There was, also, a distinct difference between the poetry of the West and East during the seventeenth century–in Britain, the poem of choice was the sonnet, or “love-poem,” used to entertain, woo, and propose. In Japan, haiku was most prominently a form used to convey a profound appreciation for the natural world and our precious, momentary existence within it. By constraining the poem to a few syllables, haiku essentially forces the writer to focus more acutely on the emotion or image they are trying to convey. Haiku requires its creator to reject the impulse to use elaborate language to express themselves, and, in doing so, removes the ego of the writer. All the words they use must serve a concise purpose; the verbosity of the writer is irrelevant. 

in the emperor’s bed,

the smell of burnt mosquitoes,

and erotic whispers

–Kikaku

Creating a beautiful haiku is about having the humility to allow the poem to speak through images alone, without the aid of adjectives or adverbs. Haiku urges its writer to let go of themselves and allow their innermost emotions to take the place of complex language. This removal of hubris within an art form is what makes haiku so very different from its poetic counterparts.

Cutting in with the ax,

I was surprised at the scent. 

The winter trees.

–Yosa Buson

A further distinction in haiku poetry that places it apart from longer poem forms like the sonnet, is its rejection of the rhyme as integral to poetic expression. In Western civilization, we are so used to equating poetry with rhyme schemes, that haiku disconcerts us in its omission of either rhythm or rhyme. 

From an early age, we are bombarded with nursery rhymes and rhyming songs; in university, we memorize the regular rhyme schemes of the epic poets of antiquity. We are conditioned to appreciate poetry that has a finality, a conclusion, and a rhythm intertwined through its structure. Yet, the unfinished nature of haiku lends itself to longing, profundity, and ephemeral emotions–something near-unachievable by more elaborate poetic styles. 

The clarity of haiku

is defined by its economy of language

to delete, and delete, and delete

until only the essential is left

and thus is revealed the true emotion

and intention of the writer.

It comes as no surprise that haiku was a vital part of the written art of Japanese Zen Buddhist monks. The evocative power of Zen haiku in Buddhism was its seeming effortlessness, as is the case with all of the Zen art forms. In maintaining the rigid 5-7-5 form, Buddhists succeeded in creating poetry with a strict poetic composition, but also one that, paradoxically, relied on nonsense, often negating the rules of grammar and logic in favor of emotional expression. The haiku expunges external distractions and centers on the sensations of life itself. This haiku by Masoaka Shiki of the Edo period exemplifies the subtle profundity that is the beauty of haiku:

Come, investigate loneliness!

a solitary leaf

clings to the Kiri tree.

–Matsuo Basho

It’s odd how naïve and childlike a haiku often seems in its modest, frugal language. It feels as though a child could have written it, but I think this is its most vibrant strength—to depict innocence and joie-de-vivre in the process of omission, in the process of choosing what to say as opposed to saying everything. What remains in a haiku after all is taken away is the essence, a moment of human experience unburdened by ego and self-pity. What is left behind is a snippet of memory that is at once exquisitely concise and emotionally resonant. 

The temple bell stops.

But the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers

–Matsuo Basho

To close this article, here are a few contemporary haiku.

Harvest season,

drinking new sake with you;

warm friendship

             –Etsuko Yanagibori

cherry blossoms

a taste of the wine

on her lips

             –Collin Barber

if only the birds

could feed us pieces of sky

in return for bread.

             –Brian Vandervliet

i want one hard kiss

one barefoot dance in paris

when the lights go out

    –Laurie Macfayden

lifting my cup,

I asked the moon

to drink with me …

       –Li Po

Nightfall,

boy smashing dandelions

with a stick.

               –Jack Kerouac

A crimson dragonfly,

as it lights, sways together

with a leaf of rye.

                 –Kenneth Yasuda 

Take me down to Hai-

ku City where the grass is

green, and the dammit!

                 –Satoshi Nakamoto

Andō Hiroshige, “The Plum Garden in Kameido,” 1857, My Modern Met

“Summer storm

White paper on the desk

All flies away”

  • Masoaka Shiki

Ando Hiroshiga, “Kanbara,” ca. 1833-1834, My Modern Met

Sumidagawa Bairyu Shinsho, “Utagawa Kunisada,” 1847, V&A Museum

“On a withered branch

a crow has settled –

autumn nightfall”

  • Basho

Yoshida Hiroshi, “Eboshidake no asahi,” 1926, Museum of Fine Arts

“None is travelling

Here along this way but I,

This autumn evening.”

  • Basho

“The clouds come and go,

providing a rest for all

the moon viewers”

Matsuo Basho

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