Japanese Haiku History
A work of art in 17 syllables, haiku is a suprisingly 'complete' form of poetry. Whether in Japanese or English or another language, the impact of three short lines is unmistakeable.
Haiku is the most popular form of poetry in Japan. Is that because it only has three lines? Probably not, because composing a really good haiku poem is not just a case of getting the number of syllables correct.
Haiku poetry has 5 syllables in the first and third lines and 7 in the second. Traditionally, the topic reflects a person's feelings about a season or about some aspect of nature although the actual words themselves should be devoid of opinion and rather just reflect the way things are. While beautiful haiku are written both in modern Japan and in history, translating them often causes the rhythm to be lost.
The best haiku are considered to be that which not only give a strong image but also provide a twist at the end. One of the most famous haiku is the following by Matsuo Basho (original written in Japanese):
a frog leaps in
the sound of water
The poetic form that we know today as haiku is actually quite a modern development of the 1890s. In fact, the poet who is considered the master of haiku, Matsuo Basho (see above), lived in the mid to late 1600s and actually wrote a form of poetry called 'hokku'. Hokku was the first section of a longer poem called 'renga' which were used during the 9th to 12th centuries as a game or contest. Someone would begin with a hokku (the 5, 7, 5 section), and another person would add 2 lines of 7 syllables, someone else would add 5, 7, 5 and then another, 7, 7. These renga could be as long or as short as you wanted and some had thousands of links!
Eventually, the 5, 7, 5 hokku became considered a stand-alone poem and were finally renamed 'haiku' to differentiate those that did stand alone to those that were part of a longer form.
Haiku is now also written in many other languages although, because of different syllable lengths, this haiku does often stray from the 5, 7, 5 rule.