Haiku

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Haiku [ ] is a Japanese poetic form consisting of three phrases, respectively, of five, seven, five units of sound.

The composition of haiku carries an enduring burden of formal requirements from the classical poetic tradition. These must be accounted for in both writing and understanding haiku. Japanese poems of whatever form or period are characteristically short and customarily written and printed in one vertical line that breaks into its constituent phrases according to emphatic particles or endings on verbs and adjectives. The classical waka [ ] "Japanese poem," out of which all other poetic forms have evolved, consists of five phrases. This phrasal pattern is defined by morae, rhythmic units of sound that designate duration in quantitative verse. The common ending ran, for example, in Japanese prosody counts as two morae, ra and the nasal n. Hokku, the opening verse in a poem sequence, is a word of three morae, since the first of a geminate consonant is a separate mora. Bashō, the name of the greatest haiku poet, contains three morae, since the long terminal vowel counts as two morae.

In addition to the prescribed number of morae breaking into phrases, a successful poem was restricted to poetic diction accepted by the poetic tradition and was expected to contain one or more poetic figures of speech. Utamakura [ ] "pillow poem" involve the poetic use of names of famous places. Kireji [ ] "cutting word" end, or "cut," a phrase and often divide a poem into two parts. Kakekotoba[ ]"pivot word"--almost always impossible of translation--carry a double meaning, one backward in the context of the beginning of the poem, the other forward toward its conclusiton, the pun acting to unify the whole. Kigo[ ]"season word," the most insisted upon such figure of speech in haiku, evoke a certain idea or sentiment appropriate to the season and bring the natural world into the lyrical world of the poem.

Consider this haiku by Bashō:
     Kisagata ya      Kisagata--
     ame ni Seishi ga      In the rain Seishi sleeps
     nebu no hana      Flowers of the silk tree


The first phrase is "cut" by emphatic ya, a kireji. The poem adheres to the five-seven-five morae, three-phrase pattern since the proper name Seishi consists of three morae. Nebu is a kakekotoba, in association with Seishi meaning to sleep, at the same time associating with hana "flower" to mean silk tree. Kisagata is a famous place with poetic associations; thus, is an utamakura. Nebu no hana is a seasonal image; thus, is the kigo. Throughout the stages in the development of haiku as a distinct verse form, poems can be found in which the prescribed morae count has been ignored and such figures of speech have not been used. Demonstrating mastery of the old rules was, nevertheless, always an essential concern of the poet.

The emergence of haiku as a self-contained entity cannot be understood without reference to renga [ ] "linked poetry," a genre with origins in the twelfth century that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries became the representative poetic form, one that is still practiced today. Renga was a collaborative venture, usually undertaken by a team of three or more poets, was composed under elaborate etiquette and governed by complicated rules of composition. The guest of honor would normally be asked to recite the hokku' [ ]" opening verse" consisting of three phrases in the five-seven-five morae pattern of waka. Next, the host would add a seven-seven morae couplet which would both complete a waka and extend or modify the meaning of the hokku. A third poet would follow with another three-phrase, seventeen-morae verse which with the preceding couplet made an entirely new five-phrase poem. A fourth poet in his turn would develop the content of the preceding three phrases with a concluding couplet, and so on, the two five-seven-five morae and seven-seven morae verses (the two parts of a waka) alternating, each complementing the previous until, as was most commonly the case, the linked sequences reached the one hundredth verse.

Throughout much of Japanese literary history the dictates of classical form have existed in tension with a natural tendency toward innovation. Both renga and haiku were attempts to allow poetic composition with greater freedom from traditional restraints. In the sixteenth century as literacy spread, as more and different types of people began to compose poetry, a non-standard variety of renga called haikai no renga [ ]"playful, humorous style renga" came into vogue. Haikai theory encouraged even greater disregard of the formal rules of waka and insisted on a realistic, everyday--as opposed to idealized, aristocratic--attitude toward life. Haikaipoets aimed to elicit laughter through the use of puns, parody, even vulgar subject matter. Along with this challenge to the approved content of a poem, there was a parallel tendency for the hokku, the opening verse of a renga sequence, to stand alone as a seventeen-morae lyric, independent of the usual completing couplet. Already as early as the fourteenth century, collections of renga had included special sections for hokku; indeed, anthologies were compiled consisting solely of hokku.

These two tendencies of the age--freedom from the dictates of classical prosody and emergence of the self-contained hokku--came together in the poetic career of Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) whose verse and innovative combinations of poetry and pose still reveal, as no other poet does, the possibilities of the seventeen-morae form.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the two leading poets of the Bashō Revival, Yosa Buson (1718-83) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), epitomized in their poetic practice the poularity of writing independent hokku over haikai no renga.

At the end of the nineteenth century Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the poet primarily responsible for the modern revival of haiku, argued forcefully for making a distinction between hokku as an opening verse, which was completed and developed in a sequence of poems, and hokku as an independent lyric. Shiki suggested the term haiku (not in wide use before his time) for the independent poem. As a result, it has become the practice to designate as hokku those seventeen-morae verses written before the beginning of the modern era in 1868 and to designate as haiku seventeen-morae verses written thereafter. Thus, the three-phrase, seventeen-morae poems of Bashō, Yosa, Issa and their followers are referred to as hokku while those of Shiki and modern poets are called haiku.