Crash Course: Haiku

Moonless night a powerful wind embraces the ancient cedars — Matsuo Basho

So wrote one of the most famous poets in all of Japanese history, Matsuo Basho. Basho was known for his extensive travels throughout Japan and the manner in which he chronicled them – mostly in haiku form.

What’s a haiku? Don’t confuse it with a limerick (and yes, I can see your mind wandering to a man from Nantucket … or is that just me?) though I clearly remember studying them together in the 4th grade. Haiku are poems that contain three lines with  set pattern of syllables – 5 in the first line, 7 in the second line, and 5 in the last fine. Sure, go ahead and tell me that the poem above doesn’t follow that pattern. I know, but the original in Japanese did.

An illoustration of Bash
An illoustration of Bash


Hard to believe, but poetry used to be the thing all the “cool kids” did. During the Heian Period, the upper classes would gather for poetry parties and samurai weren’t considered cultured unless they could recite but famous and original poems. Haiku actually descend from hokku, the beginning and most important part of a haikai, or “peasant poetry”, the successor to all those courtly verses. Hokku usually had a reference to nature and some sort of exclamation (“Hark! Lo!”) Basho really revolutionized haiku in the 17th century by allowing the first three lines to stand as a separate poem. And thus the haiku was officially born.

I wrote my own haiku a few years back for an article I did on cherry blossom season. It certainly doesn’t have the same inspiring quality as Basho’s, but I still find it quite apt as a description of sakura season:

Blossom mania Cameras flash, no room to move Peace? Zen? Unlikely.

Alright, your turn! Let’s hear your best haiku in the comments. I’d love to see what you all can do with just 17 syllables!

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