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What is Haiku?

By S. Scolari
Updated May 23, 2024
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The haiku is a very important form of traditional Japanese poetry. It is based on a Zen Buddhist philosophy of brevity and simplicity and is believed to have originated in the 17th century. These poems are designed to convey the essence of an experience in a short format. Traditional ones frequently mention natural themes or images and are often yearning or wistful in tone.

The name haiku arose in response to confusion surrounding related Japanese poetry terms. Hokku, meaning "starting verse," was usually the basis of a longer string of verses, called haika. Because it was considered a privileged art form, poets would often compose a hokku and stop there. The term "haiku" was coined in the 1890s to denote this new and self-contained type of poetry.

In Japanese, these poems follow strict rules. Those written in other languages have more flexibility but all follow a similar pattern.

Construction: The format consists of three sentences, each containing five, seven, and five syllables.

Cutting: This is an important part of the technique and means the division of the poem into two parts. Each part, while somewhat independent, is designed to enhance the other. When the cutting is done in English, it is accomplished by having the first or second line end with an ellipsis, long dash, or colon.

Seasonal theme: Each haiku must contain a seasonal word, called a kigo. A kigo tells the reader what season the poem is set in. Cherry blossoms commonly denote spring, mosquitoes are used for summer, and snow means winter.

Subject: These poems are usually not complicated. They often describe everyday themes and usually attempt to give people a new view of common situations.

The art form remains very popular today. For example, in Japan, traditional Microsoft error messages have been replaced with haikus:

Windows XP crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

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Discussion Comments
By anon261046 — On Apr 13, 2012

Who made haiku?

By Windchime — On May 29, 2011

@OceanSwimmer - Kobayashi Issa is my favorite wroter of Japanese poetry. It's said that he wrote over 20,000 hailkus in his lifetime, which is pretty mind blowing.

I analyzed an Issa haiku for a project at college and won a great prize for being the most inventive!

By Potterspop — On May 27, 2011

I loved English classes at school, especially the times we got to do something nore creative than study vocabulary and grammar.

It took me a while to wrap my head around poetry of any kind though, much to the dismay of Miss Martin who took it upon herself to teach haiku to us one summer camp.

In the end it took us weeks to produce something that had the required format for haiku, syllables, kigo and a simple theme.

By Shammy Way — On Jan 24, 2011

in your example, blue screen is the kigo? what season does it denote, then?

By anon140206 — On Jan 06, 2011

This really helped me when I was doing my paper and I decided to look up the importance of colons and semi colons.

By OceanSwimmer — On Aug 02, 2010

@medicchristy: Probably one of the most beloved poets of haiku was Kobayashi Issa, known as just Issa. He was born on June 15, 1763 and died January 5, 1828. The name “Issa” means “cup-of-tea”.

Issa has been regarded as one of the four haiku masters in Japan, the others being Basho, Buson, and Shiki.

By medicchristy — On Aug 02, 2010

Who are some famous Haiku poets?

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