The Fascinating History Behind the Famous Haiku Poem

Have you ever wanted to know more about haiku and its origins? Well, if you read on, you can learn more!

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A page of Japanese haiku.

Haiku is a Japanese-style poem that has only three lines. The first and last lines have five syllables and the second one has seven syllables. It’s one of the most popular forms of poetry in the world, but how did it come to be? In this article, we will be looking at the fascinating history of Haikus and how they have made their life-changing reputation in the world of poetry. From the very beginning to the twenty-first century, Let’s find out how the haiku has made its impact!

Beginning

The short story is that the haiku came from the hokku, which is the first three lines of a renga sequence. But that’s a bit confusing. So, a renga poem is written by several authors, and it translates to “linked poem.” The hokku — meaning “starting verse” — would open a renga sequence by giving seasonal images to set the tone. Eventually, the hokku became its own poem, which became the haiku.

'A History of Haiku (Volume One): From the Beginnings up to Issa' by R. H. Blyth showing a person sitting in a hunt with trees nearby.
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Haiku is the shortened version of the phrase “haikai no ku,” which means “light verse.” Supposedly, 19th-century writer Masaoka Shiki was the one who renamed the haiku, though that information couldn’t be completely verified. However, the person who made the modern haiku a respectable form of poetry was Matsuo Bashō. He kept the same syllable count and form, yet his poems were simple but full of deep meaning, which hadn’t been done before. He was largely influential in Japanese writing and poetry, and his poems, specifically haiku, are widely revered and read today.

To learn more about the history of haiku, from major themes, evolution, and an introduction to the greatest haiku masters, read A History of Haiku (Volume One): From the Beginnings up to Issa.

Popularity in Japan

Haiku went through a lot of evolution during Japan’s Edo Period (1603–1868). This is also the time it became popular and has a rich history in Japanese culture. It was used for poetry contests to informal social gatherings. Part of the reason haiku was so popular is because of its simplicity, which ties in with ancient Japanese culture.

'Basho: The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho (World Literature in Translation)' by Andrew Fitzsimons with Bashō's name written in kanji.
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Japanese Zen Buddhism, Japanese cuisine, tea ceremonies, art, and more all draw on simplicity. Simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean plain, but rather not extravagant and ornate. Haiku, with a limited syllable count — or mora in Japanese — relies on poets to say what they want in as few words as possible. This also leaves haiku open to interpretation.

For a book that has English translations of Basho’s 980 poems, read Basho: The Complete Haiku of Matsuo Basho.

Overseas

Haiku was fairly well-known around the world by the 20th century. Writers such as Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore also wrote and published haiku in their languages, and this helped spread it around the world. For example, it arrived in China in 1920 and inspired Chinese short poetry. However, it still took a while for haiku to catch on in the West.

'Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku' by Bruce Ross showing a plain begie cover with what looks like a frog at the top.
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In the U.S., haiku didn’t catch on until the 1950s. After reading anthologies about haiku, American poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder grabbed onto haiku and started writing their own. The haiku’s popularity exploded, and everyone wanted to read and write it.

For some haiku from North American poets, from Charles Dickens to Miriam Sagan, read Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku.

Today

Haiku became popular after World War II, and that popularity has increased over time. It’s now one of the most popular forms of poetry, along with sonnets, free verse, etc. Anyone can write a haiku in any language. Some non-Japanese haiku poets include American poet Amy Lowell, French poet Georges Friedenkraft, and Armenian poet Garin Angoghinian.

'The Best Haiku 2023 International Anthology: The Annual Search by HaikuCrush.com' by Stephen Fitzgerald showing a pink flower on the side of the cover.
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Haiku continues to evolve even now. For example, haiku was originally intended to be about nature, but that “rule” has relaxed, and a haiku can be about whatever the writer wants. This makes the haiku more attractive to other writers. There are poetry books with only haiku such as The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa by Lewis MacKenzie, as well as poetry magazines that only publish haiku such as Acorn.

For some of the best haiku of 2023, read The Best Haiku 2023 International Anthology.

It’s incredible how a three-line, 17-syllable poem has such a long and rich history. Haikus may sound simple enough, but their impact and deepened meanings can be a challenge for one to capture. If you are hoping to indulge in the world of poetry, try writing a Haiku yourself!


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