I. What is a Haiku?
A haiku is a specific type of Japanese poem which has 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haikus or haiku are typically written on the subject of nature. The word haiku (pronounced hahy-koo) is derived from the Japanese word hokku (発句) meaning “starting verse.”
II. Examples of Haikus
For examples of haiku, consider these classic poems written by Japanese poets:
From time to time
The clouds give rest
To the moon-beholders.
— Matsuo Bashō
out of the way, out of the way!
the stallion’s coming through
— Kobayashi Issa
Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.
— Natsume Soseki
As is clear from these examples, most haikus examine natural themes, such as weather, animals and plants, and changing seasons. Haikus can be serious and meditative, free of mood, or playful and fun.
III. The Importance of Using Haikus
Haikus are important in that they are a highly traditional form of Japanese poetry which has been in existence as early as the 1600s. Haikus later spread to the west in the 1800s. Haiku shows that in as few as three lines and seventeen syllables, interesting observations about nature and life can be made. They show that poetry does not have to be about lofty subjects but can make an animal as small as the grasshopper or a subject as simple as the wind interesting, important, and mentionable.
IV. Examples of Haikus in Literature
Haikus are a popular form in poetry, as anyone can attempt to put together a brief poem of three lines and seventeen syllables. Here are a few examples of haiku in literature:
Mosquito at my ear—
does he think
This haiku was written by the famous Japanese poet Issa.
A frog leaps in
This is considered the most famous Japanese haiku, written by Bashō.
Down it goes, and more and more
up goes its tail!
A playful poem of movement, this haiku was written by Yosa Buson, another famous Japanese poet.
V. Examples of Haikus in Pop Culture
A search on Youtube reveals that haikus have affected pop culture in more ways than one. The short form of haiku can be found in “Youtube Haikus,” or particularly short and typically funny Youtube videos. A similar pop cultural phenomenon has been Vines, or short videos of only six and a half seconds or less! Just as haiku takes advantage of brevity, saying and showing a lot with very little, pop culture prizes brevity in forms of video, Twitter tweets of 140 characters, and memes.
This Youtube Haiku features a strange tongue-flicking goat in a video that lasts only ten seconds.
This is an example of a Vine, lasting only five seconds.
VI. Related Terms: Haikus vs. Similar Poetic Forms
Haiku are not the only form of poetry which utilizes brevity, syllable count, and the subject of nature. Here are a few poetic forms similar to haiku:
A tanka is a thirty-one syllable poem with five lines divided into five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. Looking at form, tankas are very similar to haikus, with the first three lines in the same form and two added lines of seven syllables each. Tankas were written as early as the year 600 and were primarily written as songlike letters written to lovers as a gift. Here is an example of a tanka versus a haiku written by the poet Philip Appleman:
In the spring of joy,
when even the mud chuckles,
my soul runs rabid,
snaps at its own bleeding heels,
and barks: “What is happiness?”
Clouds murmur darkly,
it is a blinding habit—
gazing at the moon.
As can be seen from these examples, tankas and haikus are both Japanese forms which pay close attention to syllable count and lineation. Tankas are simply the longer form.
Interestingly, the lune was a poetic form inspired by the haiku and is called by some the American Haiku. A literature professor named Robert Kelly invented the form, which is a shortened version of the haiku with three lines of five, three, and five syllables. Here is an example of a lune versus a haiku:
If not for the birds
I’d not know
That I cannot fly.
— Lester Smith
Toward those short trees
We saw a hawk descending
On a day in spring.
Although haikus, tankas, and lunes look very similar, the difference lies in form: tankas are longer and lunes are shorter.
VII. In Closing
Haiku is a classic Japanese form of poetry which celebrates nature and little moments in life in a brief three-line seventeen-syllable form. Haikus range from serious reflections and images to lighthearted and uplifting instances.