Haiku: Poetry in three lines

Haiku, like all good verse, is a way of seeing. What marks the form is its sheer economy – you express your thoughts in just three lines, packed into a 5-7-5 syllable structure if you are a traditionalist. Basho (1644-1694) was the founder of haiku. He transformed haiku into the spare yet forceful lyric we recognize today during the last decade of his life while traveling through Japan.

The spare form of haiku may be difficult to conceptualize in our modern complex world, but this is also the reason for its charm. Another thing about haiku is its love of nature. The seasons, the landscape and living things in it ground a haiku in time and place. Focusing on nature also allows the poet to convey the experience of being at one with earth’s seasonal cycles. In Zen Buddhism, the term for this experience is ‘spontaneity’. A good haiku evokes images of nature that are fresh and clear. By doing so, as Buson (1716 – 1783) noted, haiku uses “the commonplace to escape the commonplace.”

Here’s a selection of haiku from the masters of the form. Contemplate and enjoy them!

Look! A frog jumping
Into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!

– Basho

It comes on my shoulder
longing for human company:
a red dragonfly.

– Natsumi Soeki

The morning breeze
Seen blowing
The caterpillar’s hair.

– Buson

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.

– Basho

Young leaves sprout,
Water is white,
Barley yellowing.

– Buson

A pheasant cries,
As if it had noticed
A mountain.

– Issa

In a hut in spring,
There is nothing.
There is everything.

– Sodo

Spring rain:
Everything just grows
More beautiful.

– Chiyo-Ni

To pluck it is a pity,
To leave it is a pity,
Ah, this violet.

– Naojo

Buying sashes in their room,
Plum-blossoms blooming.

– Buson

The legs of the crane
Have become short
In the summer rains.

– Basho

The quietness:
A chestnut leaf
Sinks through the clear wate

– Shohaku

The first snow –
The leaves of the daffodils
Are just bending.

– Basho

One fell,
Two fell,

– Shiki

Even among insects of this world,
Some are good in singing,
Some bad.

– Issa

All day long
Singing, singing, and yet not enough:
a skylark.


Mochizuki Gyokuzen IV (1814-1913), Skylark Rising from Barley, hanging scroll, ink, colors and gold on silk.

Biographical Highlights

Matsuo Basho (1644-94) was born in Ueno, in Igar province, the son of a low-ranked samurai. As a young man, he participated in renga gatherings with his lord’s son (renga is a form of Japanese-linked verse). He decided to become a master poet and moved to Kyoto and later to Edo (Tokyo) where he attracted a following of devoted students. Basho led an austere life, and from the early 1680s, made several journeys on foot, writing prose, poetry and diaries along the way, the most famous of which is The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho is regarded as the most accomplished haiku poet of the Edo period in Japan (1603 – 1868).

Some years after Basho’s death, there was a haiku revival led by Yosa Buson (1716-83), especially after he settled in Kyoto in 1751. He was born near Osaka, the son of a farmer. A fine painter with an eye for color and drama, for much of his life, he made his living from the brush. He also travelled widely and was much influenced by the poetry of Basho as well as Chinese poetry.

A prolific poet, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is a much-loved poet who wrote hundreds of haikus, many of them classics. He is better known simply as Issa, which means “a cup of tea”. His poems teem with references to nature, even to the smallest of creatures such as flies, crickets, fleas, bedbugs, lice and butterflies. In his love and astute observations of nature, Issa’s haiku have been described as Whitman in miniature. His poems are often filled with humour and pathos, the willingness to be silly and downright funny. Not all his poems are great, but his best ones are unsurpassed in beauty and pure delight.

In his short life beset by illness, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) nevertheless succeeded in rescuing haiku from the degradation it had suffered since the death of Buson. He was one of the earlier exponents of the modern version of haiku poetry and is considered, by some students of the art, to be one of the four great haiku masters. He also specialised in the short-form version of the genre which is known as tanka poetry.

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