History of Haiku

The term 'haiku' has been around only since the very end of the 19th century. It was only established with the revolutionary reform of Masaoka Shiki, whose work helped break off the hokku part of the traditional Japanese poetry form of tanka and institute it as an individualized poetic form.

Japanese poetry during the 9th through 12th centuries consisted of the tanka form, which involved a five line structure with 5-7-5-7-7 morae, or syllables. These tanka touched on religious or courtly themes and were often grouped together in large chains called renga. It was popular at the time for different authors to contribute tankas that composed the renga. The hokku, or beginning passage of the renga, was extremely important and the contributing hokku poet was respected and admired by his peers. The hoku gained increasing popularity during the 17th century thanks largely to Matsuo Basho, considered the first great haiku poet. The importance of the hokku lay in its function of establishing the setting for the rest of the passages. The hokku accomplished this by using Kigo, or Kidai, words and activities that stood as specific seasonal markers. Towards the 19th century, the work of Masaoka Shiki officially separated the hokku from the tanka and gave birth to the independent poetic form of haiku. Aside from Basho, the two remaining poets considered the great historic masters are Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa.

Haiku was introduced to the Western world largely by the translation efforts of Harold G. Henderson and R.H. Blyth in the 1950's. Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder were also strongly attracted to and influenced by the Zen Buddhism elements in haiku. Today, haiku has grown into a phenomenon that inspires haiku societies and works from every part of the globe.