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In a land of people who love miniatures, efficiency and a clean, simple aesthetic, the haiku may be the ultimate Japanese literary form.

Familiar all over the world, these almost impossibly brief, elegant glimpses of life and spirit have grown in popularity in many languages. As in Japan itself, the form has changed from the strict structure of the past, but all retain the simplicity and clarity of the original. The most famous haiku written in Japanese was from the national saint of Japanese poetry, Matsuo Basho:

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

Basho, who lived from 1644-1694, wrote his poems long before what we now call haiku existed as a form. What we know as the haiku’s structure evolved from an earlier form, the hokku, which was a short opening stanza to a longer poem called a haikai or renku. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that the poet Masaoka Shiki, who lived from 1867-1902, would cut the haikai’s opening lines free, thus bringing the haiku itself into being.

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Since then, the haiku has changed its form over the centuries, and grown in popularity with the talents of Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. In Japanese, the haiku has traditionally consisted of one long vertical line down the page, just as all Japanese is written, its rhythm implicit in the sounds and sense of the words used.

Haiku first entered English via Japanese poets, who tried their hand at creating original hokku in English at the beginning of the 20th century. Yone Noguchi even wrote “A Proposal to American Poets,” suggesting that they try their hand at this economical form. Haiku itself was introduced into French in 1906 by the poet Paul-Louis Couchoud, and in Spanish not long thereafter, and the style, if not the name, was adopted by the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound in 1913, with his “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s poem was considered to be an Imagist work, a modernist form of the time, but the influence of haiku was clear to many. Still, full recognition in the West of the Japanese form would be some time in coming, when Reginald Horace Blyth, an Englishman living in Japan, produced a four-volume collection of Japanese haiku in 1949, followed by Japanese-American translator Kenneth Yasuda’s 1957 collection and interpretation of haiku in both Japanese and English.

In English, we think of haiku as consisting of 17 syllables, arranged in three horizontal lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. That tradition has changed in the 100 years since Pound introduced an approximation of that form to English literature, but most writers of haiku still don’t stray far from this limitation, which imposes a discipline and structure on what could otherwise be a very insubstantial form.

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In Japanese, the structure is quite different. The mora is a unit of sound roughly similar to a syllable, thus the Western style of the 17-syllable haiku. But haiku structure isn’t just a matter of counting syllables, or morae; it is about how elements that might not otherwise fit together are juxtaposed to create an effect akin to a kind of revelation. Haiku allows the reader or listener to make an imaginative leap simply by hearing two phrases or images bump up against each other in a compelling, insight-inducing way.

the first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face

(Shiki Masaoka)

Besides the number of syllables, or morae, the essential element in most haiku is something less precise but equally important: the kireji, or “cutting” word, which comes at the end of one of the three lines, and separates the two thoughts in a way that unifies them, or ends a haiku in a way that signifies closure or emphasizes an emotion. English doesn’t have an equivalent, save perhaps in classical poetry’s caesura; instead, Western poets use punctuation to pause the flow, change the poem’s direction or end it all together.

Another element of haiku that has remained relatively consistent is the kigo, or seasonal reference, which places the poem in the proper seasonal context. It does that through the use of specific words that have long been understood by the Japanese to signal specific seasons. This is an important aspect of much Japanese art in general, which has long been connected to the changing of the four seasons the Japanese celebrate. Haiku written in other languages, by poets of other cultures, often lack this seasonal element, but it is still considered essential by most Japanese lovers of the form.

Japanese haiku may strike some Westerners as insubstantial, or overly simple, and the limits of translation work against a full understanding of the form outside of its native language. Still, some time spent reading haiku, even in translation, can draw even the less-poetically inclined into its spell, making haiku yet another way in which Japanese art can illuminate the mind and soul of the Japanese people.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON