|The term haiku in Kanji|
Why haiku is different
An ongoing article by Alan Summers
Haiku (plural and singular spelling) began to be written in the 1890s onwards. It was?!
I often read that haiku is called ancient, but doesn’t that mean hundreds if not thousands of years old? That’s not really true, and anything modern or fairly modern has its roots back in ancient times, from coffee, macchinatios, pizza, bread, wine, beer, food and drink in general etc… We wouldn’t surely walk into a café and ask for an ancient cup of coffee, and ask for an ancient sandwich. We might risk our health by doing so!
So yes, haiku is not actually that old, but comes from another type of poetry that is older, and that older poetry comes from an even older poetry and so on and so on. It was the journalist Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規 1867 – 1902) who used a rarely known term called ‘haiku’ and made it into a specific (and new) role in poetry, thus creating a genre around that term, which continues to be popular today.
Shiki wasn’t a fan of the common and popular activity where poets gathered to produce a number of verses together, where the final poem was all their joint verses linking each other which was called a ‘renku’. The special verse that kickstarted a renku group poem was called a “hokku”.
“At first Shiki used both “hokku” and “haiku” but then started to use solely “haiku” to replace “hokku”, because “hokku” implied that other stanzas were to follow and became inappropriate.”
The Importance of a Sense of Humour in Haiku by Susumu Takiguchi
Throughout this article I will intersperse haiku, to hopefully show how different styles can make up the genre called “haiku”.
But first, I’ll pop in two hokku, but without the rest of the group poem.
|The term 'hokku' in Kanji|
[from Japanese, from hok beginning + ku hemistich]
斧入れて 香おどろくや 冬木立
hokku or haikai verse by Yosa Buson (1716-1784)
ono ire te ko odoroku ya fuyu kodachi
cutting with an ax
I am surprised by the scent
of winter trees
English “translation version” by Alan Summers
すず風や 力いっぱい きりぎりす
hokku or haikai verse by Kobayashi Issa(1763-1828)
suzukaze ya chikara ippai kirigirisu
a cool breeze
and with all its strength
Translation version in English by Alan Summers
むざんやな 甲の下の きりぎりす
hokku or “haikai verse” by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
muzan yana kabuto no shita no kirigirisu
is it sorry, I wonder,
hidden by the war helmet
is a cricket
“English re-interpretation” by Alan Summers
“Actually what we call haiku is a modern term.”
David Landis Barnhill, author of Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho (2004)
So there’s an earlier verse form called hokku:
The most famous hokku writer could be said to be Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) although there are those before and after him until the late 19th Century, that are still written. Hokku tend to be closer to being a ‘form’ fixed in various ways, including the famous idea of sound units groupings of five units, seven units, and five units, as well as strong links to the force of nature called zoka. Of course this is an over-simplification about hokku, but I felt I should put it out there.
Also I feel I should indicate that Basho; Issa; Chiyo-ni; and Buson never actually wrote hokku/haikai verses in English, it’s always down to the work of a translator from modern or contemporary times, and that they should be credited as well, as they’ve created a separate poem, as well as a translation.
A hokku or ‘haikai’ verse by Matsuo Bashō from his iconic book often known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689).
First of all in its one line Japanese original version:
Romanised Japanese (for Westerners etc…):
araumi ya Sado ni yokotau amanogawa
Now a word for word (in its original order) version put into English (with the exclamation mark deliberately spaced apart, as it represents a special punctuation word called “kireji”:
rough sea ! Sado over stretch-across heaven 's river
A three line translation by Alan Summers:
a rough sea…
Sado Island stretches
the River of Heaven
It’s difficult to emulate his sublime hokku writing, but it is good to attempt them from time to time:
all the leaves shining
Under the Basho online publication (‘hokku’ category, Autumn Issue 2013)
Back to haiku, which not so long ago celebrated one hundred years of being written in English, and which I can highly recommend the book where this haiku from myself appears:
down side streets -
gulls turning the sky
in and out
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton 2013)
ed. Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, Allan Burns
plus Introduction by Billy Collins
I recommend the above anthology of haiku for a number of reasons, one of which is that it shows how different haiku can be, compared to hokku and other pre-haiku verse.
|image and idea Paul Conneally 2011|
The jam was made & sold with the haiku labels for the Japan Earthquake Appeal in 2011
The main (earlier) reasons I suggest why haiku has become less and less like hokku – its brother/sister albeit fixed form – is because of the initial and rapid industrialisation of Japan (1868-1890), its creation of factories and cities linked by railways throughout the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th Century, and the later consequences of World War Two (1939-1945) which brought about the American military occupation of Japan (1945–1952).
Compare these two famous verses, first of all Basho’s famous summer grasses hokku, and then the haiku by Yamaguchi Seishi:
natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato
the remains of warriors
and their dreams
Haikai verse by Matsuo Basho
English version by Alan Summers
Basho’s haikai verse is from a climatic section in Basho’s travel journal (haibun), The Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi).
natsukusa ni kikansha no sharin kite tomaru
the wheels of a locomotive
are coming to a stop
haiku (Japanese) by YAMAGUCHI Seishi (1901 - 1994)
English translation version by Alan Summers
山口誓子, やまぐち せいし
Versions taken from
Europe meets Japan - Alan's Haiku Journey
on Japanese Television NHK World (September 2015)
“Contemporary Haiku where are we”
Lecture and Presentation by Alan Summers,
Bath Spa University, October 2015
Haiku continued to capture modernity, and difficult subjects:
Shinishi hone wa umi ni sutsubeshi takuan kamu
Kaneko Tohta 金子兜太 (1919 – 2018)
dead bones into the sea I chew pickled radish
English version by Alan Summers
“This haiku is about the horrific aftermath of WWII Japan suffering atomic attack radiation in some parts, and food shortages and extreme poverty across Japan. Pickled radish is very loud when chewed, like bones being crunched, and human bones were disposed of in the sea. Hunger, and no choice but to dispose of so many bodies, became an unforgiving duet of death and informed much of Kaneko’s post-war work.”
The G-force of Blue | Touching Base with Gendai haiku by Alan Summers
Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts Vol.1, No.1 February 2013
The article is in memory of Shimada Seihô (1882-1944) who died from torture by Japanese Secret Police due to his protests against his country entering WWII.
All these factors, from 1890s onwards, increased the swapping of ideas and ways to create art between Japan and the rest of the World, and further distancing haiku from its similarity to hokku verses, and in the process making haiku both a tough yet ephemeral genre, rather than a fixed form.
Here is one simple and easy haiku to break down as a reader, and then a more complex, possibly perplexing approach:
each window carries
its own little rain
Brass Bell: haiku journal (September 2017)
a window screams
out of an owl
Bones - journal for contemporary haiku no. 14 (November 2017)
The history of the tiny verse called haiku, and of course its earliest roots in Chinese and Japanese literature, is possibly longer and more complex than any of the larger poetry genres and forms elsewhere. Therefore I’ll touch briefly on the late 1940s onwards and race forward. This is because haiku constantly evolves, both in Japan and from outside Japan, and is more of a genre, than a (fixed) form: It’s as slippery as a snake, and regularly sheds its skin, making it equally fascinating, daunting, and often frustrating but also gloriously refreshing as we chase its tail. It’s also like an attempt to grasp smoke with our fingers; it just won’t play the game that we might prefer and gain control over it. It keeps us on our toes!
Hokku did evolve, and Basho was a pioneer of pushing it ever forward, and visiting enterprising haikai poetry groups, although the verse still tends to stay more as a ‘form’: For instance we are unlikely to see “one word hokku,” unlike the case for haiku, which have been penned regularly with one, two, or three words.
Here are two incredibly short Japanese haiku:
Hosai Ozaki (1885-1926)
Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure by Ban’ya Natsuishi, from Japanese Haiku 2001 (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo, Japan, 2000).
Here we have an even shorter haiku where quite possibly Japanese poet Ōhashi Raboku (1890-1933) holds the record for the world's shortest Japanese-language poem!
Just four Japanese letters, this haiku means "Sick with the sun"
(translation: Donald Keene).
haiku by Ōhashi Raboku at 4 Japanese characters.
hi e yamu
translation version by Alan Summers
One topical and “other-nature” example by myself:
the creases in a photo
run across a face
Honorable Mention, 2nd World Haiku Association Contest 2017
(Fujimi, Saitama, Japan)
消耗したプルトニウム 写真のしわ 顔を横切る
Japanese translation by Ban'ya Natsuishi
The above haiku could be considered ‘gendai’ which can either be a politically charged haiku, or one that absorbs and uses surrealism or magic realism etc…
A British author inspired, years later, the American beat poets, who in turn inspired North American and other people, whether poets or not, to write haiku.
R.H. Blyth, British author but Japanese resident before, during, and after World War Two, created four volumes simply called Haiku (first published in 1949) which later attract the attention of Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder; and Jack Kerouac who publishes The Dharma Bums (1958), and Trip Trap: Haiku along the Road from San Francisco to New York, with Albert Saijo and Lew Welch, on a car trip across the U.S. in 1959.
"A 'Western Haiku' need not concern itself with seventeen syllables since Western Languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the 'Western Haiku' simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western Language.”
”Explanatory Note" to "Some Western Haikus," Scattered Poems, City Lights Books, 1971.
From rock to rock
Up up just the flash
Of his boot bottoms
A hidden (embedded) haiku from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, 1922 –1969).
Although both hokku and haiku were/are traditionally written as one line in Japan, the rest of the world explored various unsuccessful variations, finally falling onto the three line (tercet) version that is prevalent today, although more and more one line haiku in English are penned.
Richard Wright, novelist and poet, one of the early forceful and eloquent spokesmen for African Americans lies sick and bedridden in Paris in 1959 as he reads Blyth's four-volume Haiku. The result is 4,000 haiku which he sifts down to 800 and calls This Other World. Richard Wright's daughter Julia says:
Haiku are "self-developed antidotes against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath” and that he continued "to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.”
Just enough of rain
To bring the smell of silk
Richard Wright, c. 1960
Richard Wright “Writing America at Home and from Abroad”
edited by Virginia Whatley Smith (2016)
By the end of the 1960s the interest in haiku can no longer be considered a fad. In 1985 William Higginson and Penny Harter bring out the highly influential The Haiku Handbook, published by Japan's Kodansha International. In 1989, Japan's Modern Haiku Association; the Association of Haiku Poets; and the Association of Japanese Classical Haiku form Haiku International Association to promote friendship and mutual understanding among poets, scholars and others who share a common interest in haiku, though they may live in very distant parts of the world.
river bank I fill out an unknown space
[one line haiku]
Malintha Perera, Sri Lanka
ISBN-10: 1329915410 ISBN-13: 978-1329915411
The Haiku Society of America is created in 1968, with a growing membership from all over the world, as is The British Haiku Society, founded in 1990, both holding close links with many contemporary Japanese haiku poets as well.
From 1998 to 2000, Alan Summers, as General Secretary of the British Haiku Society, witnesses an incredible increase in haiku activities and the 21st Century sees haiku as the most popular form of poetry around the world.
There are innumerable haiku organisations, groups or societies around the world, too many to mention, but in January 2017 Alan Summers became the current President of the United Haiku and Tanka Society where again seeing a global membership enfolding, where there are no borders and differences, as if we can see ourselves and our blue planet from the surface of the moon, or even further afield. Where does this all take us? An openness to everyone, regardless of culture, race, religion, genders, or politics, and for everyone to be equally embraced as individuals that share the love of reading and/or writing haiku.
"Today it may be possible to describe haiku but not to define it."
Hiroaki Sato: Author; Columnist; and Editor of "One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg”
Even in Japan there are no hard and fast rules and definitions about haiku, and that’s perhaps because enough poets keep it fresh and relevant, and only use aspects of the genre to increase the value of haiku poetry. Outside Japan, English-language haiku is often as short as six seconds to read, and they don't tell, but allow us to enter the poem, and in our own way. Despite perhaps falling into the category of “poetry,” haiku are equally at home as non-fiction observations, a kind of short-hand for remembering events or incidents: This can also mean they can be therapeutic, plus exercising both the right and the left side of our brain, which is highly beneficial in a time of growing concerns over dementia, and debilitating consequences of extreme loss of memory.
Originally haiku were rooted in natural history and the seasons, and could make us conspirators with wildlife, and this can still stand, where nature can half-write a haiku before we've even put pen to paper. What haiku have managed to do, to keep itself highly relevant, is that it is also large enough to include topical aspects and issues of society that are both ongoing, universal, or particular to our corner of the world, but can reach out to others.
starless liberian night...
the fireflies were bullets
[two line haiku]
ISBN-10: 1329915410 ISBN-13: 978-1329915411
From an article recently published by the Haiku Society of America:
Loading a Gun: Imagery in Haiku
pages 105 -108 Frogpond vol. 41:3 fall 2018
Machine gun: between his eyebrows a red flower blooms
haiku by Saito Sanki
Note: Saito Sanki, in Hiroaki Sato, “From the 2.26 Incident to the Atomic Bombs: Haiku During the Asia-Pacific War,” The Asia-Pacific Journal (Volume 14, Issue 21, No. 3 - Nov 2016).
Ezra Pound admonished poets to “use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.”
Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (March 1913).
Saito Sanki does not waste a single word in his haiku. In this English translation, each of the three units is essential. “Machine gun” and “between his eyebrows” represent the subject (indirectly) and direct object, respectively. The third element, “a red flower blooms,” is both literal and figurative. A blooming flower conveys the sudden onrush of red blood from the gunshot, forcefully describing the denouement. What some might consider to be an inherent handicap when compared to other forms of writing (less words) is an advantage for Sanki. Brevity compels the elimination of each extraneous word.
inside the apple core
a pocket full of sorry
kills the gun
hedgerow, a journal of small poems #111 ed. Caroline Skanne (2017)
Non literal work, from LANGUAGE poetry to some gendai haiku, forces the reader to see words afresh, outside of their normal sequence and context. In Alan Summers’ haiku, the phrase “apple core” conjures something essential and constitutive. The line “a pocket full of sorry” evokes considerable (“full”) pain and regret. “Gun” is the final word and it closes with a hard consonant. It seems that something vital has been extinguished. Three disparate images combine to convey a sentiment of pain and death. While semantically non-linear, it’s important to recognize that Summers’ words are sharp and concrete.
Loading a Gun: Imagery in Haiku by David Grayson
pages 105 -108 Frogpond vol. 41:3 fall 2018 (Haiku Society of America journal)
But not all haiku involve our baser instincts:
tidal beach –
I decide to inhale
Troutswirl: A Sense of Place: The Shore – smell ed. Kathy Munro (July 2018)
Perhaps this is a fusion of hokku/haikai verse and haiku?
I start to rain
and into falling leaves
Troutswirl - The Haiku Foundation - A Sense of Place: HIKING TRAIL – sight ed. Kathy Munro (October 2018)
I feel it is more helpful to know the difference between hokku/haikai verses and haiku, and we certainly have to much to learn from each approach to poetry.
So what is haiku and why is it different from the “haikai” poems of Bashō’s era? Thankfully there are incredible resources both online, and in print, where you can start to answer these questions if you are so inclined. Enjoy the many contradictions as haiku defies being pinned down, and please consider that as a refreshing phenomenon, and as an open invitation to add to the mix that abounds and bounces around the world via social media!
But remember, if it’s Basho, it’s hokku or a haikai verse, and he never wrote in English, so it’s in Japanese! Anything you see and read in English is a version by a translator, and that person should be named, and ideally the Japanese original should be included!
Enjoy hokku and the old haikai verses, and enjoy how haiku leapt into the new centuries via Basho and Shiki!
co-founder, Call of the Page
Previously published: The 13 Alphabet – MAGAZINE (August 2017)
You can find various articles and pieces about haiku at his Area 17 blog:
He is also President of the United Haiku and Tanka Society, and co-founder, and lead tutor, running online workshops in haiku, and related genres, for Call of the Page. Alan is also the author of the forthcoming Writing Poetry: the haiku way.
Twitter account: @CallOfThePage
Alan Summers, alongside Karen Hoy, regularly run online courses in haiku
, and related genres such as tanka
, haibun + tanka story
(photograph + haiku
), manuscript/collection feedback
Enquiries to Karen: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Special Payments for online email and/or Skype sessions: