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Haiku Poems: Tradition, History, and Famous Poets

History and Explanation of Haiku

Haiku is a major type of Japanese poetry. Haiku was previously called 'hokku', but given its current name by Masaoka Shiki at the end of the 19th century. The name was suggested as an abbreviation of the phrase "haikai no ku" meaning a verse of haikai.

Traditionally haikai is written as one line vertical line, although handwritten form may be in any number of lines. In English, haiku is generally written in three lines to equate to the three parts of a haiku in Japanese that consists of five, seven and then five on (the Japanese count sounds, not syllables). For example, the word 'haiku' contains three "onji" (ha-i-ku), but two syllables in English. So producing a poem with seventeen syllables in English is considerably longer than the traditional haiku. Thus, the closest equivalent to "onji" is the phonetic mora.

In Japanese haiku, a kireji (cutting word) is used at the end of one of the three lines. In Japanese there are actual kireji words which act as punctuation, e.g. 'ya' in Bashō's "furuike ya" poem. Since there is no English equivalent to the kireji, other forms of punctuation are used, e.g. comma, colon, ellipses, etc. These "punctuations" are generally used at the end of the first or second line and very rarely found in the middle of the second line. The purpose is to create a relationship between the two parts.

A traditional haiku contains a kigo (season word) that symbolises the season in which the poem is set.

Most Japanese haiku writers see kireji and kigo as non-negotiable requirements. Although many believe kigo are considered essential to traditional haiku, new forms are being implemented without their use. These are called "free-form" haiku.

A similar form of Japanese poetry is the Senryū. The poems contain three lines with 17 or fewer "onji" and tend to be about human foibles. They are often cynical or contain dark humor. Senryū do not need to include kigo, unlike most haiku.

Famous Haiku Poets

A haiku poet.

The haijins listed below are some of the greatest poets this art form has ever seen. I hope you enjoy their writings and their life stories.