The Origins of Haiku Poetry

The Origins of Haiku Poetry

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  1. The Origins of Haiku Poetry

    I have seen many variations of the modern Haiku, most of which do not follow the traditional scheme of three unrhymed lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5 for each line. So to better understand this poetic form and the changes it has undergone, visiting its origins is imperative.

    Haiku Beginnings

    The Haiku, a Japanese poetic form some 600 or 700 years old is according to George Swede, author of “A History of the English Haiku,” one of the oldest living forms of poetry. As is custom in Japan, the poem follows the 5-7-5 syllable pattern known as “onji,” a sound symbol, and it should be spoken in one breath, Elizabeth Nichols, a Professor Emeritus from Ball State University instructs. Unlike English poetry that usually contains symbolism or metaphors and other comparative literary devices, the haiku should represent nothing else but itself, as its purpose is to evoke something natural through imagery and objectivity, spontaneity even. Here is an example from Japanese master Matsuo Basho, who lived during the 17th century:

    Old dark sleepy pool
    A quick unexpected frog
    goes plop! Water- splash!

    Bringing the Haiku to the Western World

    The western world remained ignorant about the haiku until Imagist poets such as Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams began incorporating the haiku and variations of its original form in their work in the early 20th century, but according to Nichols, two writers, Henderson and Blyth, are primarily responsible for bringing the haiku to America and Britain. Harold Henderson, who was a participant of an American Army occupation unit, lived in Japan after World War II, and R.H. Blyth, who tutored a prince of the Imperial family, also taught at Peers School in Tokyo around the same time. Both published books about the haiku, Blythe in 1949 and Henderson in 1958. Their volumes were a great influence and were possibly the first to discuss the haiku in English. But the Imagists really took a keen interest in the haiku form because images were the focal points of the poems– great catalysts for their work. However, Swede claims that no Imagist ever created a genuine haiku, though they made several attempts. One of the most famous Imagist poems that people deem a haiku, but narrowly misses the mark is Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro,” published in 1913:

    The apparition of these faces in the
    Petals, on a wet black bough.

    Swede argues that only the first line is written in haiku form as it is spontaneous in its immediacy with the faces he sees, but all experiences in the haiku must occur simultaneously. Pound does not see the faces and the petals at the same time; thus, the poem fails to be a haiku.

    Another example is William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” published in 1923. Despite its failure to be a true haiku because it has 16 syllables instead of 17, Williams does portray a natural image objectively. It is also one of my favorite poems for this very reason:

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

    The Haiku Today

    The haiku has managed to span across various cultures and is available in almost every language with multiple purposes other than art. Because of its inherent objectivity, people can record their daily outings or occurrences without dramatics or flowery language. The important matter is what happens in the moment. And although the haiku has been transformed from its original form over the years, the focus on the image remains constant.

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