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The Haiku in Japanese and English

by Mukesh Williams Bookmark and Share

Since the late nineteenth century, the Japanese haiku has become quite popular not only in many Asian countries, but throughout the western world. In the process of globalizing, the haiku form has jumped the linguistic barrier and is now being written in English, Spanish, French, Bengali and other languages as well.

The haiku, however, continues to conform to the images of the four seasons or kigo and the three-line structure of 5-7-5 syllables. In Japanese, the haiku dexterously combines three distinct phrases and introduces a clear grammatical break called the kireji or cutting letters, either after the first five or after the first twelve syllables. At times, a haiku can also use kake kotoba or hanging words which can function as a pun surprising the reader into a new awareness.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), one of the masters of Japanese haiku, used standard kireji in the following haiku to convey the multi-layered meaning of ‘permanence-in-impermanence’ through the image of a shuttlecock falling forever off Higashi Mountain in Kyoto:

Higashiyama shizukani hane no mai ochi nu

From Higashi mountain
The quiet dance of the shuttlecock
Does not fall.

The dance of the shuttlecock symbolizes the ritual of the New Year and both the permanence and impermanence of the ritual. In English the kireji is often replaced by punctuation marks such as a comma, semi-colon or an ellipsis. Since a Japanese haiku has three clear phrases and a kireji, it is written in a single line, while the English haiku is separated into three lines to mark the difference. Many Japanese literary critics feel that forcing a fixed form, in which the haiku operates (such as the kireji and kigo), on other languages makes little sense. Others are of the opinion that literary forms are forever crossing borders and getting transformed in the process, enriching both language and experience.

Every haiku must express a single emotion arising from observing common, day-to-day occurrences, but it should do so in a unique way. Most traditional haiku writers in Japan built their haiku vis-à-vis, the natural world and used images related to the four seasons to express a typical Japanese sensibility. It is possible to find images of cherry blossoms, emerging crocuses, flitting fireflies, falling leaves, croaking frogs, falling snow, or rising moon in the works of many haiku masters. In a successful haiku the image is not just a means to an end but the end itself. In other words, in a haiku the image is the poem.

A Brief History of the Haiku

A haiku falls under the category of a short poem, but it has a long history. In Japan short poems were written by Shinto priests to mark a ceremony or a ritual as early as 759 A.D. These poems were called Manyoshu or Collection of Myriad Leaves anthology and expressed a sense of inherent sadness in ordinary things of the world called mono no aware in Japanese. The poems in the Myriad Leaves, compiled in an anthology, are in the form of prayers, songs or lyrics composed to appease gods, eulogize emperors, and represent agricultural rituals or marriage rites. In the beginning of the fifteenth century an emerging middle class began to assert itself in Japanese society by making a public demonstration of their increased wealth and leisure. They threw sake-drinking parties where they made merry by composing erotic, slapstick verses called haikai no renge or comic linked verses. The chief exponents of the haikai forms were Yamazaki Sokan (1465-1553), Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1635) and Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682). Of these, Teitoku founded the Teimon School which emphasized colloquialism and word play, while Soin established the Danrin School which stressed playfulness and frivolity.

Teitoku had a deeper influence than Soin on the subsequent history and development of the haiku form. He cleaned the form of its vulgar elements and taught it to his student Matsuo Basho (1644-1649) whom we all know as the foremost haiku writer of Japan. Basho popularized the haiku form through his large acolyte following and travels throughout Japan. Since Basho made a living writing and teaching poetry it was in his interest to increase his following. Basho raised the level of haiku to perfection and became a touchstone for subsequent writers. Take for example the following five haiku by Basho that highlight the themes mentioned above:

How very noble!
One who finds no satori
in the lightening-flash

Breakfast enjoyed
in the fine company of
morning glories

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

A solitary
crow on a bare branch—
autumn evening

Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
The moon her only companion1

Basho was able to capture diverse human feelings ranging from satori and nature to loneliness and old age. It is believed that when Basho died he had over two thousand students studying under him. Other haiku poets such as Yosa Buson (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873-1937), Taneda Santoka (1882-1940) and Nakamura Kusatao (1901-1983) made the haiku form a truly popular genre.

The history of haiku poetry has always been dominated by male writers but there were many women writers as well who wrote excellent haiku such as Den Sutejo (1633-1698), Kawai Chigetsu (1634?–1718), Shiba Sonome (1664–1726), Chiyojo (1703–1775), Enomoto Seifu (1732–1815), Tagami Kikusha (1753–1826), Takeshita Shizunojo (1887–1951), Sugita Hisajo (1890–1946), Hashimoto Takako (1899–1963), Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899–1972), Ishibashi Hideno (1909–1947), Katsura Nobuko (b. 1914), Yoshino Yoshiko (b. 1915), Tsuda Kiyoko (b. 1920), Inahata Teiko (b. 1931), Uda Kiyoko (b. 1935), Kuroda Momoko (b. 1938), Tsuji Momoko (b. 1945), Katayama Yumiko (b. 1952) and Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965). Makoto Ueda published their works in an anthology called Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women. 2

The haiku anthology by women reveals the fact that women haiku writers were able to write some excellent haiku and not just “women haiku” related to issues specifically concerning women. These women writers made significant contributions in the development of the haiku form by providing a female perspective to a predominantly male art form. Take for example the following haiku by Enomoto Seifu, a Hachioji-born nun:

like a fish
in the sea, this body of mine
cool in the moonlight

Instead of observing the natural phenomenon and drawing a conclusion from it, the haiku uses an image from the natural world and forces it inward; the body cooled by the moonlight is compared to the fish in the sea. Seifu provides a typically feminine insight into the human and non-human world.

The English Haiku

The haiku form became popular in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and South Asia in the twentieth century through the efforts of Japanese American, Afro-American, Jewish American, WASP and vernacular writers. In fact an entirely new haiku called the Jewish haiku developed which combined the Japanese literary tradition with Jewish humor.3  Many well-known poets and novelists such as W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac popularized the form in America providing a unique fusion of Japanese-American sensibility and eastern-western aesthetics. They were able to retain the simplicity, seasonal relevance and surprise of Japanese haiku and combine it with typically American themes. Latin American and vernacular Indian writers introduced their own variation and flavor to a distinctly Japanese literary form. We can find writers such as Amiri Baraka, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz writing excellent haiku giving them a new cultural twist. Here is a typical American haiku written by Jack Kerouac in 1959 which does not follow the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, but still retains the element of surprise, catching a typically American theme of alcoholism:

Early morning yellow flowers,
thinking about
the drunkards of Mexico.

Kerouac tries to convey the night revelry and carousing that the “early morning yellow flowers” become a witness to. In celebrating the ordinary things of life, Kerouac captures the spirit of Japanese haiku writers of the nineteenth century.

The Haiku in the Indian Vernaculars

The haiku form has also affected poets in the Indian vernaculars such as those writing in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Urdu. In the 1950s Hindi poets like Srikant Varma, Sarveshwardayal Saxena, Ashok Vajpayee and others developed a minimalist style comparable to the haiku form in Japan. Shrikant Varma for example wrote the following verse in Hindi:

The first shower of rain
The sky has thrown
Its roots on earth.

Though Varma's poem is closely related to the Japanese haiku it does not follow the 5-7-5 pattern. The poem, however, retains the seasonal reference and carries with it the element of surprise. All these writers, writing in the Indian vernaculars understood the elements of brevity and surprise latent in the haiku form and harnessed it to their own literary ends.

Haiku, Imagism and Ezra Pound

The modern haiku in English has evolved in strange ways, some inspiring while others quite frustrating. The poetic movement that set in towards the beginning of the twentieth century in London (around 1912) called Imagism was led by Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and campaigned for brevity, directness and music in poetry. Pound felt that an image should eschew allegory and even metaphor, and be constructed in such a manner so as to be grasped instantaneously. Since the haiku allowed for the juxtaposition of two disparate images, it was a form which was ideally suited for the goal and aspirations of the Imagist poets. In a short poem from “In a Station of the Metro” Pound admits that he wrote many poems to capture the poignancy and variety of metro commuters, but was dissatisfied with them all, until he wrote the following three lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This was Pound’s idea of capturing the complexity of thought and feeling immediately, without much ado. The poem strives to go beyond imagism by intensifying and chiseling the poetic expression. In doing so it enters the sphere of vorticism which Pound felt rectified some of the defects of imagism. The following haiku by Ezra Pound in Ts’ai Chi’h, perhaps, brings us close to the Japanese masters:

The petals fall in the fountain,
The orange-colored rose leaves,
Their ochre clings to the stone.

The minute observation of nature and the subtle play of color suit the temper and sensibility of haiku masters.

The haiku has been a versatile form in poetic composition right from the early nineteenth century in Japan and has become universal now. Today more and more English writers of the haiku use the 5-7-5 syllables and use the punctuation instead of the kireji or kigo. Many Japanese haiku writers still feel that the haiku form is only suited to the dialectics and semantics of the Japanese language and cannot be adapted into another language. In spite of these objections the haiku in non-Japanese languages, especially English not only survives but is doing quite well.  

1. Sam Hamil, trans., The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets, (Boston, Massachusetts Shambhala, 2006), pp. 3-6. Sam Hamil, trans., The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets, (Boston, Massachusetts Shambhala, 2006), pp. 3-6.
2. Makoto Ueda ed., Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
3. For a thorough examination of the subject see David M. Bader, Haikus for Jews: For You, a Little Wisdom, (Harmony, 1999).

More by : Mukesh Williams
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