By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A haiku is the most famous of all Japanese verse forms. In English versions, a haiku tends to consist of three unrhymed lines of (respectively) five, seven, and five syllables, adding up to a total of just seventeen syllables. However, you’ll notice that many of the best and most emblematic examples of Japanese haiku which we’ve gathered together below don’t fit this number of syllables precisely.
A haiku often features a single image which represents the essence of a brief, fleeting moment in time. Sometimes there will be two images, but even here, the power of the haiku is derived from the ‘spark’ generated by the two things being brought together within the same poem. In many cases, there will be something timeless and vast (a mountain, the moon, the sky) juxtaposed with something fleeting and brief (a dog barking; a leaf falling).
But there’s more to it than this. For strictly speaking, a haiku should take nature as its subject: if a short poem does not feature nature in some way, it is more accurately labelled an example of Senryu, a related form also comprising seventeen ‘syllables’ but not featuring nature or the seasons. Hokku or haiku were traditionally a brief preface to a longer poem, known as a renga, and the purpose of the haiku was to introduce the seasons.
Although the haiku as a verse form is centuries old, the word ‘haiku’ isn’t. Indeed, it was only surprisingly recently – as recently as the end of the nineteenth century, in fact – that people started referring to these miniature Japanese poems as haiku, when Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) began referring to them as haiku as opposed to the older term hokku.
But what are the best examples of haiku poems, in Japanese, English, and American literature? Below, we select a few of the finest and best-known haiku.
1. Matsuo Bashō, ‘A Caterpillar’.
this deep in fall –
still not a butterfly.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) is the Shakespeare of the haiku form. In this haiku, we find the seasons (‘fall’ alludes to the autumnal months), and the natural world; although here the poem seems to refer beyond the world of nature, to human potential too. How many people mature without really achieving what they are capable of?
2. Yosa Buson, ‘Even More So’.
Even more so
because of being alone
the moon is a friend.
This is a translation of one of the many haiku written by Yosa Buson (1716-84), an eighteenth-century master of the form who was also noted for his painting and his prose compositions.
As you’ll see, the translation doesn’t exactly fit the ‘syllable’ requirement for the haiku in English; but that’s because Buson’s original Japanese haiku didn’t strictly fit the ‘rules’ for the form either. He believed that poems should be more organic and natural than this, but the poem reproduced above summons the haiku and has a natural image (the moon) at its centre.
3. Kobayashi Issa, ‘Mosquito’.
From deep inside
the pretty flower –
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) was a Japanese poet and a lay Buddhist priest of the Jōdo Shinshū. He penned hundreds of haiku, and this one is just an example of his style, which often turns on an element of surprise (such as finding the mosquito, a potential carrier of an ugly disease, within the pretty flower).
4. R. M. Hansard, ‘The West Wind’.
The west wind whispered,
And touched the eyelids of spring:
Her eyes, Primroses.
It was towards the end of the nineteenth century that the haiku began to become popular among English-speaking poets. In Britain in 1899, The Academy announced a haikai contest, and the prize was awarded to R. M. Hansard for this poem.
5. Bertram Dobell, ‘You Laughed While I Wept’.
You laughed while I wept,
Yet my tears and your laughter
Had only one source.
Bertram Dobell (1842-1914) was an English poet, publisher, bookseller, and editor, who published Rosemary and Pansies in 1901. In that volume, he included a few of his own ‘haikai’. At the time, the form was sufficiently unfamiliar to his English readers for Dobell to consider it necessary to include a footnote explaining what a haiku was.
Dobell’s, then, is another very early example of a haiku written in English. Although strictly speaking it might be considered an example of Senryu instead of haiku (because its focus is solely human, rather than nature), it’s a notable development in the western adoption of the Japanese form.
6. Masaoka Shiki, ‘Winter’.
The desolation of winter;
passing through a small hamlet,
a dog barks.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was a reformer of the haiku: he felt that, at the end of the nineteenth century, the form had become stale and full of platitudes. It is very easy to write an indifferent haiku, and very difficult to write one which can say something significant within its three brief lines.
In this haiku, we can see how Shiki approached the haiku unsentimentally, bringing in the simple image of the dog barking to summon the desolation and quiet that hangs over a small village during wintertime.
7. Amy Lowell, from ‘Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme’.
Sweet smell of wet flowers
Over an evening garden.
Your portrait, perhaps?
Lowell (1874-1925) became the leader of the imagists after Ezra Pound, the founder of the movement, grew bored and went off to found Vorticism. And the imagists were much in love with the haiku. Indeed, one of Pound’s most famous poems, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, suggests the brevity and language of the haiku without strictly being an example of one.
Lowell, too, was drawn to Japanese forms, and ‘Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme’ appeared first in Poetry magazine in June 1921. This is one of those twenty-four, with the suddenness of the final line – which transforms the poem from a lyric about nature into a love poem – showing the potential of the haiku for arresting our attention and showing us something in a new light.
8. Yone Noguchi, ‘Hokku’.
But the march to life –
Break song to sing the new song!
Clouds leap, flowers bloom.
Yonejirō Noguchi (1875-1947) was an influential Japanese poet who composed a number of hokku or haiku. He moved from Japan to the US when he was a teenager, settling in San Francisco, although he later returned to Japan. He would later travel to England to lecture on Japanese poetry. But his greatest claim to fame is that he was the first Japanese-born poet to publish poetry in English.
His work has been aligned with modernism, and certainly Ezra Pound, the founder of imagism, considered his poetry to be ‘beautiful’. The haiku quoted above demonstrates why; but there is also something ineffable, even ambiguous about his haiku, which explains the comparisons to modernism.
9. Jack Kerouac, from ‘American Haiku’.
in the birdbath
The Beat Generation novelist and poet Jack Kerouac, who is best-known for On the Road, was also attracted to the possibilities of the haiku form. He penned a sequence of ‘American Haiku’, one brief quotation from which we reproduce above. You can read a greater selection here.
10. Jennifer Wong, ‘Koi’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best examples of the haiku with an example from a contemporary poet. Jennifer Wong is a writer and poet from Hong Kong who studied at Oxford and the University of East Anglia (where she gained an MA in Creative Writing).
In this brief poem, about koi carp, we get a beautiful interplay of movement and stillness, colours red and white, and the associations between animal (the fish itself) and flower (the lotuses; but also see those ‘heart-shaped leaves’). You can read this poem here.