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What Is Traditional Haiku?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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A traditional haiku is a type of Japanese poem that consists of 17 syllables broken into three lines. The first line holds five syllables, the second line seven, and the third line ends with five syllables. Often the third line offers a twist or surprise, countering the first two lines. Simple and compact, the traditional haiku is a form of poetry that delights readers around the globe.

Haiku poetry derived from tanka poetry, a form popular in Japanese courts between the 9th and 12th centuries. Tanka poems are longer than haiku, but they are also divided into lines of five and seven syllables. Court poets would work together to build renga, long chains of tanka poems focusing on a common theme. The first poem of the renga was called the hokku.

The hokku was a crucial piece of the renga because it established the setting for the following poems. Usually the hokku described activities or used words that evoked a specific season. It wasn’t until the 19th century that poets began to write the hokku separately as a piece that could stand on its own. At this point, the hokku evolved into the traditional haiku.

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The most famous of the Japanese haiku poets include Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Koboyashi Issa. Basho was writing during the 1600s, well before the haiku became a designated art form. As a servant for Todo Yoshitada, he began writing renga with his master. When Yoshitada died, Basho struck out on his own and made his living teaching and publishing poetry. Although much of his life remains a mystery, his poetry provides some insight into his thoughts and experiences.

Writing in the 1700s, Yosa Buson was known for his painting as well as his poetry. Following in Basho’s footsteps, he advocated a simple, earnest approach to writing hokku. Issa, whose life overlapped with Buson’s, had many difficulties in his life, but his poetry tends to describe the simple pleasures and spiritual events that make life rewarding.

Traditional haiku did not become popular in the United States until the middle of the 20th century when the poems were translated and promoted through the hard work of Harold G. Henderson and R.H. Blythe. Though they viewed the form and function of haiku poetry somewhat differently, their discussions of the poetry opened up the art form to an American audience. Also popularizing traditional haiku were beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder.

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