Monday, March 03, 2014

The History of Haiku

Japanese watercolor

wake up! wake up!
let’s be friends,
sleeping butterfly
- Matsuo Bashō

Corresponding with the Sakura Cherry Blossom Festival to be held at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the Birmingham Public Library is celebrating the haiku with several events: the Haiku contest, Bards, Brews, and Haikus, and a Haiku workshop.

The history of the modern haiku dates back to the thirteenth century when poets would write rengas or “linked verse” together. “It became the fashion, after some hours of deep poetic concentration on their individual works, to relax by writing a humorous renga together,” notes William Higginson in The Haiku Handbook. The haiku eventually evolved into a being independent from these collaborations and stood alone with rules and structure that are still in debate today, but generally recognized, the criteria are as follows:

  • A kigo, or season reference is used. This word or phrase helps the reader identify the feeling associated with the season. There are a list of words haiku poets sometimes use called a saijiki.
  • A cutting word (kiru) is used to punctuate by making a pause between two juxtaposed images within the poem. 
  • Three unrhymed lines of seventeen syllables usually arranged five, seven, five. This is actively debated today due to the sounds available to the Japanese and English languages and how different in speed the syllables can be. 

Many modern haiku poets refuse to follow tradition and break all manner of rules - leaving out the nature reference and forgoing the seventeen sounds as above referenced.

The rhyme usually never matters in a haiku due to its ascetic nature. These small nuggets of verse are meant to be read and absorbed, mulled over, and not necessarily read aloud. Haikus are often seen as elemental poems, especially by Matsuo Bashō’s day when the rules had evolved to include the hushed dignity that we generally see during his generation’s verse. A revelation within the seventeen sounds occurs, a brief flash into the poet’s psyche about the world around them.

The haiku celebrates the animism of the world, and makes no move to use metaphor or the like, but transcribe the moment when the poet was inspired and what ephemeral voice spoke to him. In Haiku in English, Billy Collins describes it as follows: “A cherry tree in blossom and a dog barking in the distance may not seem to add up to much, but what such a haiku declares is that someone was present - actually there, living and breathing - at that particular intersection of sight and sound. In that sense, haiku not only convey the beauty of individually experienced moments, they are also powerful little assertions of the poet’s very existence.”

Late August -
I bring him the garden
in my skirt.
- Alexis Rotella

To learn more about this beautiful and timeless poetical form, please join in on all our events in regard to the haiku and check out these books from the Birmingham Public Library:

Rachel Joiner
Arts, Literature, Sports
Central Library

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