The Literature of Haiku

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Before Basho

From early times there was a form of poetry called tanka or waka. It was composed of thirty-one syllables: 5-7-5-7-7. When more than one person contributed to the poem, such poetry was called renga or “linked verse.” These poems were chains; each link was to be poetically related to the preceding verse. There could be as many as a hundred links. At the imperial court there was the practice of giving the 5-7-5 part (hokku or “starting verse”) and then having a competition to see who could supply the best remaining two lines (7-7). This was sometimes called “verse capping”. It is still the custom for haiku writers to link verses, i.e., for several poets to supply alternate poems when they are writing together.

In the thirteenth century poets began to simply write a poem of 5-7-5 syllables. This was the beginning of haiku. The first haiku were called “sporting verse” or “haikkai renga.” These early poems were often crude and shallow. Others were genuinely humorous. The poets were attempting to outdo each other’s cleverness. The situation gradually improved until the stage was set in the seventeenth century for the entrance of Basho and the great masters who followed him. Now a spiritual significance was being sensed in the “one breath poems” focusing on a single moment in life.

Four Haiku Masters

What follows are a few poems and comments on four poets: Basho, Buson, Shiki and Issa. Yes, for me, especially Issa. The poems below are not really translations but quasi-literal renderings which let the reader get a brief whiff of the poet’s genius.

No attempt has been made to render these poems into 17 English syllables, though, of course, in Japanese they are 17 syllables. Click on the names to read more about the poets.

Matsuo Basho

Taniguchi Buson

Masaoka Shiki


Sister Marti

Books on Haiku