Friday, August 24, 2012

The Art of Haiku

Its History through Poems and

Paintings by Japanese Masters  - Stephen Addiss.

"Banana tree and gate to the banana tree hut," Matsuo Basho (1644-94)

To most people haiku is a three line poem, following a 5-7-5 syllable formula,  but Stephen Addiss argues that this does no more than prick the surface of this fascinating poetic form. He goes on to state that, rather than constrain with rigid definitions, it may be more useful to discuss guidelines that the majority of haiku follow. Haiku in Japan are generally written or printed in a single column. Nevertheless, until the twentieth century, most traditional Japanese haiku fell into the 5-7-5 formula, although this wasn’t always adhered to by some of the great masters, when it suited their  purpose to ignore it. Another  reason that this syllable count often got ignored, was when haiku transcended the Japanese language, for example haiku written in English often have fewer than seventeen syllables because English is a more compact language than Japanese, this often is the case of haiku in other Languages.

So if we take away the constraints of the 5-7-5 syllable count, what are the characteristics that we can use to define haiku? The obvious one is a closeness to the natural world, from which the poet tends to draw the majority of the images that the poem relies on to convey it’s meaning. This usually involves concrete observations, expressed briefly through the use of everyday language and syntax that is natural rather than poetic .

garden in winter -

the moon also becomes a thread

in the insect’s song

(Matsuo Basho 1644-94)

Traditional haiku often include pause marks called kireji (cutting words), that serve to mark rhythmic divisions, as a kind of verbal punctuation mark, for example at the end of the first or second segment there may be an extra syllable such as ya, indicating a pause or signalling a moment of separation (change of theme or meaning). In fact you could state that kireji serve primarily as sonic punctuation or as intensifiers of mood and meaning and as they have, or seldom have, meaning are there purely to contribute rhythm and sounds. Many Japanese haiku can have fewer than seventeen (active) syllables.


kanashisa ya tsuri no ito fuku                                                                                                             

aki no kaze

sadness -

a fishing line blown

in the autumn wind

Yosa Buson (1716–1783)


The third major characteristic of haiku are the seasonal references, the Kigo, the great majority  of traditional haiku indicate a particular season, sometimes directly (as in the Basho poem above) or through a specific image that has come to signify a season for example:

Spring (haru) Early spring: 4 February–5 March, Mid-spring: 6 March–4 April, Late spring: 5 April–5 May.

Ume blossoms, Japanese bush warbler, Cherry blossoms, Frogs, Skylarks.

Summer (natsu) Early summer: 6 May–5 June, Mid-summer: 6 June–6 July, Late summer: 7 July–7 August.

Wisteria, Wild Orange blossoms, Iris, Lotus, Cicada, Little Cuckoo.

Autumn (aki) Early autumn: 8 August–7 September, Mid-autumn: 8 September–7 October, Late autumn: 8 October–6 November

Typhoon, Thunder, Milky Way, Moon, Insects, Crickets, Nashi pear, peach, Coloured leaves, Scarecrow.

Winter (fuyu) Early winter: 7 November–6 December, Mid-winter: 7 December–4 January, Late winter: 5 January–3 February.

Cold, Fallen leaves, Snow-viewing (first snow), Ice, Owls, Ducks, bare trees.


ume blossom- Spring

By the use of one of these specific images the poet suggests to the reader which season the poem is  referring to, and as this adds to the mood and meaning of the haiku, these references are significant. This leads me perfectly on to the fourth and possibly most important element of haiku, a haiku suggests rather than defines its meaning, leaving the reader or listener to complete much of the process, to join the writer in the completion of the haiku, and as a haiku can have multiple meaning, this allows for individual interpretation as opposed to one concrete view.

This is also helped by the brevity of the form, the fewer the words the more potential for multiple implications.

This piece is merely a brief overview of the form that is haiku, which has become a worldwide phenomenon and yet is only one half of the story, haiga, the other half is almost unknown and yet as an art form was practised by all the great masters, Yosa Buson (1716–1783) was a talented painter, but even those with more modest skills such as Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827) created haiga esteemed by those that viewed them. In fact having too much technique can be seen as much a liability as having too little, since sincerity and suggestion matter more than obvious mastery and specificity. This aesthetic haiga shares with haiku, along with brevity, naturalness, and the idea of suggestion to create a bond with the viewer as they participate in thBasho by Kinkoku (1820)e haiku/haiga creation.


Japanese haiga, the word-image relationship developed into three main patterns/ forms.

  1. An informal portrait of poet with one of their haiku

  2. Interaction (most common)

  3. Text-image relationship.


The first is the most simple and is normally just an informal picture of the poet with one of their haiku. This follows on from an earlier Japanese tradition of portraits of aristocratic tanka masters, although the brushwork in haiga portraits appear less sharp and precise and can seem close to caricature. The second haiga form, Interaction, supports the haiku and by this I mean that an image is represented in both words and painting, for example if the haiku mentions Ume blossoms an image of said blossoms will be in the picture, however in good haiga, the one is not there merely to represent the other, but to add to the overall effect, working in a kind of symbiosis, reinforcing and contributing to a multi-layered view of the work. The third form, the text-image relationship is the most intriguing of the three, in this the painted images and the words do not appear to have a direct relationship with the idea of adding  further meanings to the poem and image creating a resonance that expands the overall expression.


In The Art of Haiku, Stephen Addiss, one of the foremost experts on this art form traces the history of Japanese haiku, starting with the earlier poetic traditions from which it was born through to the twentieth century and its position as possibly one of the best known poetic forms in the world. His approach to this subject is to highlight the work of the leading masters such as Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki,  and by focussing on “the Great Four” he uses these as points in history allowing him to highlight other fine but lesser known poets. In the process tracing the evolution of haiku from its roots in Tanka (Waka) from the earliest anthology, Man'yōshū  (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, compiled 686 - 784) through to the modern era covering all the major names from  both haiku and haiga, with the aim of demonstrating the relationship between the forms which were composed to “create a spontaneous interconnection with the readers who play a vital part in the expressive process.”  and their development  into the poetic form loved andKobayashi_Issa-Portrait admired the whole world over, with haiku societies in most nations on this planet.


Stephen Addiss has created a wonderful and fascinating  book that is part history, part poetry anthology, and part art book, presenting a cornucopia of examples in both poetry (original & translations) and painting. It was a pleasure reading this book, which although a thorough in-depth study of its subject matter, managed to be informative, instructive & educational without being dry and dull. If you have an interest in haiku, haiga, in Japanese history and culture, even if your interest is in the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi sabi, this book has something to offer and delight you


I would like to add a proviso, I got this book through Netgalley, in an E-book format and although reading it was fine I didn’t feel it showed the art work to their best, so I would suggest that if you were to purchase this choose a physical copy and be in the admirable position of being able to read the haiku whilst viewing the haiga in all its glory, that is my only reservation as this is a book that I will be revisiting with pleasure and with the knowledge that I will learn more about what is a fascinating subject with each new visit.


Some facts about haiku, I probably should have mentioned

Haiku was originally called hokku, haiku was given its current name by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)).

Hokku was the opening stanza of an orthodox collaborative linked poem, or renga, and of its later derivative, renku (or haikai no renga).

By the time of Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), the hokku had begun to appear as an independent poem, and was also incorporated in haibun

Haibun is a combination of prose and haiku, often autobiographical or written in the form of a travel journal.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line whilst in English it normally appears in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku.

The Great Four are Matsuo Basho 1644-94, Yosa Buson (1716–1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827), and Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)).

For More Info’


ike_taiga-orchidsMajor Nature images by Season (PDF)

Haiku Poems and Poetry

haiku (Basho)

haiku (Yosa Buson)

haiku ( Issa)

haiku (Masaoka Shiki)

The Importance of Haiku

Haiku Society

Japanese Arts (Painting)

Haiga online

Haiku, Haibun, Haiga

Daily Haiga

A Brief History of Haiga by Stephen Addiss




me. said...

Thanks for this, looks like an interesting and informative read, think I need to read some poetry in the near future.

Bellezza said...

I like how haiku focus on nature, on the everyday, on something which to me, seems concrete. I also like the brevity. It's always interested me how the 5-7-5 rule doesn't apply exactly; when I read the newly published (here I mean within the decade) book of Basho's poems they weren't according to that pattern at all! And, when I've read some analysis of his "three lines" there could be enough information to write a whole thesis. Still, I enjoy taking them for what they're worth even if it's on a superficial level to the true poet.

Unknown said...

Ah, Haiku... poetry in a form short enough for me to read in its entirety ;)

Mel u said...

Thanks so much for this very educational and beautifully written post.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Me, It's always a good time for some more poetry, thanks for your comment.

Ciao Bellezza, I think with most artistic constraints, they're there as a guide & the greater a writer the less they feel bound & the likes of Basho were more likely to follow their own route, than a lesser writer who found safety within such boundaries. The proviso being those writers who set their own constraints as an idea to explore.

hi Tony, I may have another such collection to tempt you with soon, this time from a from a Romanian writer.

Hi Mel, thanks for your appreciation, although to be fair i had a lot of help from the information within this book.

Rise said...

lantern weaves letters
on gold leaf veins, autumn-burnt;
quick, silver traces.

- rise

DMS said...

What an informative post! I love nature and poetry, so this post was perfect for me. I liked finding out that masters did not always follow the formula we learned in school. The poems are so powerful and I especially like the pauses. Great to read so many wonderful poems. :)

Nancy said...

Insightful post! Thank you! You see, I grew up thinking that haiku still strictly follows the 5-7-5 formula. Then I would come across haikus, and I would read them with my fingers counting. Now, I will be able to appreciate haikus as they are in their entirety.

@parridhlantern said...


woven letters shone/
by moons lit path, shining thru/
friends gold dipped brush.

Hi Jessica, thanks for your comment & glad you liked.

Hi Nancy, it is quite surprising how these guides become set in stone & what was originally just a basic idea becomes a law, although regularly broken by those whose ideal went beyond what was solidified.

stujallen said...

I d love to hakiu but this art is beyond me ,sounds like a great book ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Stu, I think beyond the mere syllabic count, very few master the art of haiku & even those designated as masters, still struggle to meet all its ideals always.

claire said...

I am in love with haiku, but admit to having read little of the "greats." I really should seek out more of their work, the only book I used to have (and I don't have it any longer, due to other-side-of-the-world move) was a collection and I miss it. Thanks for all the links you provided.

Serena said...

I love this and would love to add this to the Haiku Friday posts. I'll link to this in those posts. Gorgeously written.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Serena, thanks the book is a worthy addition to any library.