From Hokku to Haiku
The small three-line poems known as haiku were originally known as hokku and were part of longer poems. Looking back several hundred years, you'll find that the Japanese enjoyed a poetic form called the renga. This was a communal form of creating and reciting poetry. Different poets would contribute stanzas, called tankas, to the longer renga. The honor of starting the renga would go to the most honored poet, and the first stanza, which established what the rest of the poem would be about, was called the hokku.
Because of the prominence of the hokku's place in the longer verse, and the honor given those adept at writing them, over time it became natural to praise those small stanzas. The most respected hokku writer of his age, and perhaps any other, was the 17th century poet Matsuo Basho. He would sometimes separate his hokku from its renga context and utilize it in other forms of writing, such as prose pieces about his travels.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that Masaoka Shiki, another respected hokku writer, suggested the formal break of hokku from its longer context. He gave the name "haiku" to this new-old literary form.
Four Great Japanese Poets
Within Japan, there have been many respected haiku writers. Perhaps the four greatest are:
• Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
• Yosa Buson (1716-1783)
• Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)
• Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Basho is considered the greatest haiku writer of all time. Buson was known for excellence in visual art as well as poetry, and created haiga, which combined the beautiful calligraphic writing of haiku with painting. He sparked a renaissance of the haiku form. Issa, a Buddhist priest, was highly prolific. Then Shiki was responsible for helping haiku find its own place as a literary form.
The beauty and importance of haiku can still be seen in Japan today through kuhi, stone monuments carved with famous haiku poems.
Influence in the West
Haiku has found a receptive audience in the West, where the form has been translated and adapted. Writers in English have especially welcomed it, though the best approximation of English syllables, based on Japanese meter, is still debated. Some hold to a 5-7-5 syllable pattern while others use 3-5-3 or other patterns.
English speaking poets also must approximate Japanese syllables basically untranslatable except as punctuation. The themes of haiku, often season or nature related, must also be adapted to specific cultural regions. Despite or perhaps because of these challenges, many English speakers have embraced this art form which seeks to capture the power of one experienced moment, much like a snapshot captures a visual moment.
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