Hokku to Haiku: Poetic Evolution

Although the term ‘haiku’ was not coined until the 19th century, this ancient art form has long been recognised in Japanese literature and may be traced to the 12th century, while the use of five and seven syllable phrasing (the haiku’s most recognisable feature) stretches as far back as the 8th century. Haiku as it is known today is directly derived from hokku (i.e. the opening lines of renga). A genre of Japanese poetry, the renga was a linked poem written by a collaboration of poets. The first verse of the renga was considered special as not only did it establish the setting and tone of the poem, but it was written by only the most honoured of poets. The hokku poet was expected to produce an opening stanza of outstanding quality while adhering to the strict set of rules that governed renga. By the 17th century these opening lines were frequently separated from renga and put into anthologies as free-standing poems. This, in turn, led to hokku which were intentionally written as independent poems. A number of poets contributed to this evolution of hokku. Considered one of the greatest hokku and renga masters of his period, Matsuo Bashō imbued his poetry with virtues that continue to influence haiku poets—directness, truthfulness, and the ability to engage with nature and find spiritual moments in everyday life. Others, such as Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa (in the 18th century), made their reputations as hokku rather than renga masters. By the 19th century, the genre was thought to be in need of reform and Masaoka Shiki, a critic and poet, began to use the term ‘haiku’ to describe the independent hokku. Shiki also invented the term shasei (verbal sketching) and advocated that haiku should focus on daily life and events.  His work paved the way for further reforms.

Formal Japanese haiku focuses on the following features:

  • Brevity and density: haiku should be as succinct as possible with only essential words used to make a total of approximately seventeen syllables. It should be noted that the concept of a syllable differs between Japanese and European languages. For example, a long vowel or diphthong would count as two rather than one syllable and the letter ‘n’ at the end of a word would be counted as a separate syllable. Therefore the number of syllables can be more or less than seventeen depending on the poet’s needs.
  • Seasonal essence: haiku should carry the symbolism and emotion of a particular season, traditionally the one in which it was written. Kigo (season words) and kidai (season topics/activities) are used to denote the feeling and tone of the poem. Seasonal concepts, as well as plant and animal species associated with particular seasons, differ greatly according to poets’ localities. A saijiki is a useful reference that lists kigo, descriptions of kigo, and lists of related words. These are divided into the five seasons (including New Year as its own season).
  • Kireji (cutting word): should be used at the end of any of the three lines in a haiku. If used in either the first or second line, it cuts the poem into two unequal parts of twelve and five syllables. It can create a pause, mood or juxtaposition, and can indicate a need for reader reflection. However, there is no equivalent in English and punctuation, such as a dash or ellipsis, may be used instead.


Useful links and references for further reading

This is just a taste of some of the websites I’ve found particularly interesting and useful. There are a number of good resources on the topic of haiku. If there is one that you would like to share, please get in touch and I will happily add it to the list.


Call for haiku KIGO - ISSUE 2submissions

Submissions are now open for the second issue of a new online publication set to showcase the beauty of haiku. It is anticipated that there will be three issues per year. The first issue will focus on the late winter and spring seasons and will include New Year. The second issue will celebrate summer and the third, fall and winter. Each issue will be available for free on this website. It is anticipated that the three issues will be anthologised at the end of the year.

The focus of the second issue is ‘Summer’. Growth, ripening, maturity – moving from tender buds and gentle breezes of spring to the full heat of summer. Think verdant fields, lush gardens, vacations, chirping cicadas, balmy sunsets and dog days under a scorching sun. Submissions should reflect the nature of this season and make use of traditional kigo—seasonal words. For a selection of summer kigo to help get the juices flowing click this link. More words will be posted daily in April so please do check back.

Deadline: 13 June 2014

Submission Guidelines for haiku and tanka

Submission Guidelines for haiga

Please send submissions to haiku@chuffedbuffbooks.com


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