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Haiku is a short, naturalistic form of Japanese poetry, which emphasises a sense of immediacy and connection with nature. It first began as a form of humorous light verse, known alternately as haikai or hokku. It was Basho (1644 - 1694), who combined the two names, naming the form 'haiku' and giving it the depth and intimacy the form shows today.

There are several elements to haiku: the syllabic content, the season word, the 'aha' moment, the sense of connectedness to nature, and the sense of sabi.

The one that all American schoolchildren are taught is the syllabic content, or 5-7-5 format. In Japanese, which is a syllabic language, this format is considered 'standard'. However, in English and in many other languages with a Romance or Germanic base, the 5-7-5 format is relaxed. This is considered acceptable because there is considerably more information, and often more sounds, packed into a single English syllable than there is in a Japanese syllable. A good rule of thumb for an English-language haiku is somewhere between 13 and 17 syllables.

The season word in haiku is rarely explained in schools outside of Japan, but is actually more intrinsic to the form than mere syllable counting. A season word is a word inextricably linked with a certain season, which serves to immediately give the reader a sense of time and place. While season words are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, they are not as common in Western culture. Some say that the depth and variety of sensations contained in a Japanese season word are not as comprehensible to the Western reader as they are to the Japanese reader, as the Westerner has not grown up in a culture with these complex associations. However, Western cultures have season words as well, imbued with the depth of Western society. Sample season words are:

  • March winds, for spring
  • Cricket, for summer
  • Harvests, for autumn
  • Icicle, for winter

There are collections of season words printed as books, as a reference for haijin1. These collections are called saijiki.

The 'aha' moment is generally considered to be one of the most defining parts of a haiku. A true haiku should evoke a sudden, sharp response of wonder and understanding from the reader. It is this 'aha' that links the author and the reader together, allowing the reader to sense the moment through the author's words.

The other essential, defining part of a haiku is its connectedness to nature. A true haiku paints a tiny, swift portrait that connects the author and the reader to a single moment of a deep experience of the natural world. A poem in the haiku form that does not refer to nature is called a senryu2.

Sabi is a sense of quietness, loneliness, or aloneness. It was Basho who first introduced sabi to haiku, and it has become one of the important parts of the form. While not essential to the form, it is one of the characteristics continually found in haiku. One of Basho's haiku which illustrates sabi is:

What fish feel,
Birds feel, I don't know -
The year ending.

While Basho is considered the 'founding father' of haiku, Buson and Issa are the other Japanese masters considered to be his equals in skill and depth. Buson is known for his artistic haiku, whereas Issa is known for his humour and gentility. A few sample haiku from Bash, Buson, and Issa follow.

Looking for a place to stay;
Hanging wisteria

- Basho
Awake at night -
The sound of the water jar
Cracking in the cold

- Basho
Lighting the lantern -
The yellow chrysanthemums
Lose their colour

- Buson
Coolness -
The sound of the bell
Leaving the bell

- Buson
I'm going to roll over,
So please move,

- Issa
They don't notice
The thief's gaze:
The melons cooling

- Issa

While the poetic form of haiku is 300 years old, this poetic style is still alive, well, flourishing, and evolving, having spread to cultures throughout the world. There are several dozen haiku journals in publication in the United States alone, as well as many haiku e-mail lists and haiku competitions held throughout the world.

1Haiku authors.2Senryu are often witty or sarcastic, and comment on humanity, politics, and a wide variety of other topics. They are the 'sister-form' of haiku - closely related, but not the same thing.

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