HAIKU: THE ESSENCE OF LIFE IN SEVENTEEN SYLLABLES

     Beyond the spoken word, poetry is a transcendent and sublime mode of self expression. It comes in several forms one of which is the Haiku. The Haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. The term haiku is derived from the first element of the word haikai(a humorous form of renga, or linked verse poem) and the dominant features of the landscape, making it almost an independent poem. The hokku (often interchangeably called haika) became known as the haiku late in the 19th century, when it was entirely divested of its original function of opening a sequence of verse, today even the earlier hokku are usually called haiku.
     The form gained distinction in the 17th century, during the Tokugawa period, when the great master Basho elevated the hokku, as it was then known, to a highly refined and conscious art. Haiku has since remained the most popular form in Japanese poetry. Later its subject range was broadened but it remained an art of expressing much and suggesting more in the fewest possible words.      Other outstanding haiku masters were Buson in the 18th century, Issa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Masaoka Shiki in the later 19th century and Tahakama Kyoshi and Kawahigashi Hekigoto in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the turn of the 21st century there were said to be a million Japanese who composed haiku under the guidance of a teacher.
     A haiku consists of three lines, with the first and last line having 5 moras, and the middle line having seven. A mora is a sound unit, much like a syllable, but it is not identical to it. Basho, Issa, and Buson were poets who wandered the countryside, experiencing life and observing nature, and spent years perfecting their craft. A look at some of their haikus depicts the profoundness and depth of expression haikus exude.
BASHO MATSUO, a great poet of the 1600s wrote,

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
Splash! Silence again.

Autumn moonlight-
A worm digs silently
Into the chestnut

Lightning flash-
What I thought were faces
Are plumes of pampas grass

Here, Basho vividly describes a state of nature, the images easily appear in the mind’s eye…

YOSA BUSON, a poet from the late 1700s wrote

Over-ripe sushi,
The master
Is full of regret.

Light of the moon
Moves west, flowers’ shadows
Creep eastward.

In the moonlight,
The colour and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away.

KOBAYASAKI ISSA, a master poet from the late 1700s and early 1800s also wrote

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

The wren
Earns his living
Noiselessly.

Everything I touch
With tenderness, alas,
Pricks like a bramble.

Here is a contrast depicting hurt, betrayal, disappointment perhaps a heartbreak or treachery, good requited with evil… it stimulate the mind to the widest imaginations…

NATSUME SOSEKI who lived from 1867-1916 wrote,

Over the wintry
Forest, winds howl in rage
With no leaves to blow.

The crow has flown away:
Swaying in the evening sun,
A leafless tree.

In the twilight rain
These brilliant-hued hibiscus-
A lovely sunset

The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame

The replacement of manmade light with a celestial illumination, perhaps telling of the finiteness of man and the infiniteness of the universe, or perhaps that nature takes over where human effort ends…
The ‘haiku’ is a profound form of poetic expression. In Basho’s haikus for example, we see a thematic occupation about nature, humans seeking to know more about nature and how we as humans fit into the natural world.  Haikus are written in present tense, they often have a person in them, they often look at a specific moment or happening. They look at very ordinary things very closely, intensely. They’re often a contrast of images.  Haiku looks concretely at nature, they often help us understand the world in which we live, they make reference to a particular season. Sometimes the reference is subtle or even personal, or even conventional such as reference to Christmas would signal winter, a reference to stars, night time…
Haikus explore a specific moment. A moment of discovery- and reflects a heightened awareness of the world and the ways in which things are connected.  They describe the world with a vivid sensory detail that shows a moment rather than tells the moment’s significance to the reader. Here are my own self written haiku,

The bell tolls
The sun’s rays fall
On autumn’s leaves

As the sun rises
The baby cries; and dies
As the moon appears

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