The Haiku Poem
The haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of three verses that follow a 5-7-5 on pattern. An “on” is a phonetic unit similar to a syllable, and a haiku typically consists of a total of 17 on. A haiku traditionally includes a kigo (“seasonal reference”), and many haiku will also have a kireji (a “cutting word” that serves to create a syntactical break) at the end or in the middle of the poem.
From the days of the Heian Era, in addition to the classical kanshi (Chinese poetry) enjoyed by Japanese noblemen, the Japanese tanka (also called waka) poem became the most favored form of Japanese poetry. The 5-7-5-7-7 syllable waka poem was composed by aristocratic men and women alike, and renga (“collaborative poetry”), in which two or more participants composed 5-7-5 and 7-7 stanzas in turn, developed from the waka tradition.
Renga poetry became more common and accessible to ordinary citizens in the form of haikai no renga (“comical linked verse”), and beginning in the 16th century, haikai no renga composition became a form of entertainment widely enjoyed by the warrior and merchant classes.
The first 17-syllable (5-7-5) verse of a haikai no renga poem is called the hokku, and the hokku increasingly began to be enjoyed as an independent poem that came to be called the haiku during the Meiji era.
Although there are very few poets who now compose haikai no renga poems, haiku poem composition continues to be enjoyed by millions of Japanese people today. Masaoka Shiki, a poet and author of the late 19th century, is credited with pioneering the development of the modern haiku poem with the shasei (“sketch from life”) concept he advocated. In Japan, students practice haiku poem composition from an elementary school age, and high school students who excel in haiku composition compete in a national haiku competition held in Masaoka Shiki’s hometown of Matsuyama city, Ehime prefecture each year.
The popularity of the haiku has transcended Japan’s borders, and enthusiasts in regions across the globe now enjoy composing haiku in their native languages, making the haiku a form of poetry that is beloved throughout the world.