The ancient Japanese Haiku is the most minimalist form of poetry that I know of. My appreciation of the style is limited, so I want to learn more about Haiku in hopes of understanding what many consider a humble and minimalist art form.
History of the Haiku
“A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a hand becoming, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature… It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night, become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language.“
The Haiku has its roots in the Japanese short form of poetry, tanka. During the Heian period (700-1100) the Samurai and military class in general rose to power. One of the social expectations was to understand and appreciate writing and the arts, including the art of poetry; by this time the art of Renga had evolved from the short and long forms (Tanka and Choka), which was essentially a Haiku with an additional couplet of 7 syllables at the end. This was one of the preferred forms of poetry of the aristocratic elite class.
The Haiku was the result of the peasant form of poetry that consisted of a simpler (minimalist) rendition of the Renga style. This was heavily influenced by the philosophical influence of Taoism and Buddhism, which had grown to prominence during this period. This new form of poetry was based around the concept of karumi, that is, “the feeling of lightness”.
The Father of Haiku
Matsuo Basho is considered the father of Haiku. Here’s a brief overview from Chris Drake’s “Basho’s “Cricket Sequence” in the Journal of Renga & Renku:
Matsuo Basho was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Basho was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (at the time called hokku). His poetry is internationally renowned, and in Japan many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites. Although Basho is justifiably famous in the west for his hokku, he himself believed his best work lay in leading and participating in renku. He is quoted as saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses.”
Lucien Stryk, author of On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho, wrote:
Basho’s mature haiku style, Shofu, is known not only for karumi, but also for two other Zen-inspired aesthetic ideals: sabi and wabi. Sabi implies contented solitariness, and in Zen is associated with early monastic experience, when a high degree of detachment is cultivated. Wabi can be described as the spirit of poverty, an appreciation of the commonpla
ce, and is perhaps most fully achieved in the tea ceremony, which, from the simple utensils used in the preparation of the tea to the very structure of the tea hut, honours the humble.
So now that we now a little bit about the OG of the Haiku world, what about the how? How do I write a Haiku poem, and what should a Haiku accomplish?
On Writing Haiku
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
-Matsuo Basho (Frog Haiku)
A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps. (Translated by Curtis Hidden Page)
The Haiku is unique from many forms of poetry in it’s specific purposes:
1. Sparse, light, and minimalist: The Haiku is birthed from the concept of karumi, “the feeling of lightness”. This is why the verse structure is cut to the bare minimum. The early Haiku poets wrote in a verse structure that consisted of the fewest words and syllables possible, while retaining the meaning and purpose of the poem. The traditional form is 3 lines: 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line , and 5 syllables in the third. This structure is demonstrated above by Basho’s Frog Haiku.
2. Focus on nature: While modern Haiku’s address a variety of topics, the traditional form typically focused on nature. The poet often plants a word in the first line to indicate the season (green, snow, blistering, etc.) In this case, the season is indicated by the frog jumping into the pond – this could not happen in winter, nor early spring or late fall. Therefore the season is either late spring or summer.
3. Juxtaposition: This is the injection of contrasting elements. The purpose is to produce an effect of surprise or irony in some cases. In our example Basho describes the peace and stillness of the pond, then creating the juxtapose with the action of the frog leaping into the pond, shattering the silence and serenity with a splash.
4. Descriptions that evoke emotion: The emotion itself is not described, but the event that causes the emotion is described with the hopes of the reader feeling the same emotion when the Haiku is read. In Frog Haiku, the emotions felt are debatable, but peace and serenity is certainly felt in the focus on the pond, then surprise, perhaps even joy and exhilaration when the frog leaps into the pond.
That is my brief overview of the most minimalist form of writing I know; the Haiku.