Haiku: A Quick History

Haiku & Senryu History

from comments by Alan Summers,
compiled by Christine Goodnough

Most people who know about haiku think of masters like Basho and his famous poem about the frog jumping into the pond. Or the tender-hearted, melancholic Issa who knew so much sorrow in his life. Haiku master Alan Summers, who has spent decades studying this form of poetry, offers the following background for this style of poetry.

Are haiku verses all about nature?

Pre-haiku, as written by Basho et al, were seasonal poems, more than being nature poems. They might be about a human society celebration, the coming of age of boys, children, or Matsuri, which are holidays, religious days or farming events.

When haiku came about, in the 1890s, it was caught in the old medieval mindset, but on the edge of the 20th century, when trains and factories were starting to be built. So I think of haiku, which really came into its own just before WWII and post-WWII, reflecting the industrial revolution and huge changes in human society.

The intimate relationship with the seasons, coming from the pre-Industrial Revolution era when people were super-aware of the slightest shift into the next part of a season, meant that folks would write little postcards with a seasonal reference. Sometimes this was just a note or a hello, and not always poetry. But when haikai poetry came about, the common and popular and normal practice of mentioning the change in a season in conversation, gossip, or greeting cards, also became part of the tiny haikai poems.

In the shift toward haiku, just before the 20th century, writers often used the seasonal ‘mention’ although post-WWII when the industrial revolution morphed into the various technological leaps in warfare and general manufacture, different topics would be added. Of course, as they moved into computer technology and robotics, these would be naturally added.

So nature, or natural history, is often part of a haikai verse in some aspect, but this is only part of the body of haikai poetry.

When Shiki did his reformation of haiku and tanka, little changed for a decade or two, then those society-changing world wars we seem to love for some reason, shifted haiku into its own genre, away from the chains of the medieval hokku and earlier haikai verses penned by Basho et al.

Haiku has been known in the West almost as long as in Japan, interestingly enough. The French were the very earliest to pen haiku very early on in the 20th Century.

See: Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (W. W. Norton 2013)
ed. Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, Allan Burns; plus Introduction by Billy Collins
Click here for link.

What is senryu?

This was another verse from the big group poem collaboration called Renga, which spawned both hokku (similar to haiku) and the verse named after its most successful propagator.

Senryu was the nickname or pen-name of a poet who was famous for this particular style of verse in the group poetry writing activity called renga, and later, under Basho, the increasingly popular renku. Both renga and renku are the most complicated and intricate poems in the world, with more rules than you could shake a stick at!

Senryu verses were sometimes written to mock the growing haiku writers and, before haiku came about, the various haikai verse writers who wrote hokku.

A good test of what makes the verse a senryu: CLICK HERE.

For more reading, check out these articles & free books:

To learn more about the various forms of Japanese poetry, check out Call of the Page

Why haiku is different and Basho never wrote them in English: Click Here

More than one fold in the paper: Kire, kigo, and the vertical axis of meaning in haiku: Click Here

Free eBook:
Senryū: An Application to be a) human
by Alan Summers

Free eBook:
Kaneko Tohta:Selected Haiku With Notes and Commentary – Part 2 – 1961–2012

There are also a number of online haiku journals where you can find great examples of Japanese poetry:
Troutswirl, cattails, The Heron’s Nest, Wales Haiku Journal, etc.

15 thoughts on “Haiku: A Quick History

    1. Thanks for your comment. It does take some study to get a handle on the poetry of haiku.

      Also, one seasoned haiku poet told me “The third sentence is not meant to sum up the first two.”
      This is not a true haiku:
      every morning
      peanut butter on my toast.
      I like peanut butter.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You may be inspired someday. 🙂 At first, overlook all the technicalities and just write for the challenge.
        I started writing haiku because it was a challenge, and have come to enjoy it. Like every other kind of writing, it’s a matter of try and learn, practice makes perfect. And like all poetry, even if a person never produces profound verses, it’s still a fun way of expressing oneself.
        For me there’s a side benefit: when I can’t fall asleep I often read haiku because the intense focus of each verse relaxes me.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hi crispina kemp,

        You said:
        “I have to say, I’m not inspired to try haiku.”

        I hope one day! There are so many approaches to haiku, as there are to senryu.

        Terri French is a great exponent of haiku; senryu; and haibun! 🙂

        Yoga Ku – a little book of haiku inspired by the yoga practice:

        Click to access 57b2a81894571ed11994935a89362705.pdf

        Terri’s book has haiku with humour, and at times become very close to senryu, so you get the best of both worlds!

        Also if you want something of a serious matter by a wonderful woman I was lucky enough to call a friend:

        White Heron: The Authorised Biography of Australia’s Pioneering Haiku Writer Janice M Bostok
        http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/16

        warm regards,
        Alan Summers
        Call of the Page

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! Your idea of posting your readers’ haiku is a good one, and thanks for printing my bit of info there, too. By practise and by reading other experienced writers, we perfect our skills, no matter what genre.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. After 26 years of intense study, and writing haiku, I am still excited that I continue to learn. Especially as haiku is still a relatively new genre, in its own right, and isn’t really bound by the rules that non-Japanese people try to insist are there. I think most Japanese-language haiku would “fail” by Western rules of this Japanese genre.

      Let’s understand and enjoy the ‘guidelines’ of haiku both in Japan and in the West, and elsewhere, and plow our field with them, with our own twist. 🙂

      house clearance
      room by room by room
      my mother disappears
      .
      Alan Summers
      Winner, Touchstone Award 2016 (The Haiku Foundation)
      .
      “When I read haiku, I’m looking for an unexpected view on the well-known. I’m curious to learn about an open secret (after Robert Spiess). I’m looking for a simple (but not banal) and lucid language that expresses something extraordinary within the ordinary, something which I never read before in that way as well as something that is of beauty beyond time. ‘house clearance’ represents the pure power of haiku. Layers of meaning ascending from deeper layers of the mind (‘room by room by room’) in relation to existential truth (‘my mother disappears’). Perhaps one finds a human contradiction: memories can only get preserved vividly after “clearance.”
      .
      “An emotional and vivid image that brings sadness at first reading while effectively pointing out that taking away the physical doesn’t remove the memory.”

      Judges:
      Diane Wakoski
      Renée Owen
      Michele Root-Bernstein
      Gary Hotham
      Ron C. Moss
      Dietmar Tauchner

      The haiku may or may not have ‘broken’ the rules set by Western readers/poets, but interestingly enough, a lot of people hold this as a mantra regarding grief.

      Haiku are amazingly versatile regarding the mood or companionship we seek.

      warm regards,

      Alan

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I checked one of your reader’s blogs, and thought these examples by you really caught ‘haikuness’ in one of its many guises:

      Three of Christine’s Haiku

      beach party over
      empty bottles settle
      into the sand

      beer cans
      in the cave signs of
      intelligent life

      wild prairie crocus
      deep in its furry coat
      a sunbeam

      The first one has an immediate context showing us the place, or the ‘venue’. The next two lines incorporate both humor and poignancy (we might personally be too old for a day and night long partying session). And the passing of time so quickly represented by old types of egg timers using sand.

      And very importantly, despite the incredible shortness of a haiku poem, they can often suggest a long piece of writing, be it a novel, a film, or a poem.

      So alongside all of that we can remember the quote from a poem “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”:
      https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence

      ***

      The second haiku contains a different sense of humor, but using the striking method of comparing one thing against another, intelligence and a “lapse” of intelligence. And of course there is another literary allusion, and this time it’s about Plato! Not everyone need spot the reference to enjoy the haiku though!!! 🙂

      WIKIPEDIA:
      The allegory of the cave, or Plato’s Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare “the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature”

      ***

      The third haiku is a blend of natural history and nature. The opening line gives us the common natural history of a particular type of crocus, followed by zooming into the flower and how it is actually ‘furry’ and has a furry coat just like some animals, including us, even if we are not unduly hairy. 🙂

      The last line lets us see one aspect of life within the flower, and a vital one to it, and to almost all of life, that of sunlight, poetically rendered as “a sunbeam”! Also some of us will recall a very famous upbeat song about a sunbeam. Haiku have layers just like this flower, and the more you read a poem, the more that can be uncovered, and marvelled at, as how can such an amazingly tiny verse actually contain so much!

      Thanks Christine!

      warm regards,

      Alan Summers
      co-founder/tutor, Call of the Page

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for that in-depth analysis of my verses!
        A lot of my verses come from grasping–or grappling with–a situation rather than thinking out a construction, but I guess this is true of most poetry. My verse about “A Horse Without A Harness” is the same, coming from my pondering on the results of an undisciplined life.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Christine,

    Oh, on our courses, I go into even more depth! 🙂 But I wanted to show your readers the strength of haiku, and fine examples by you.

    Christine said:
    “A lot of my verses come from grasping–or grappling with–a situation rather than thinking out a construction, but I guess this is true of most poetry.”

    I like how you say ‘situation’ which feels more grounded than the often quoted ‘aha! moment’ which sometimes invites forced or manipulated verse, rather than pulling out the intensity, and sometimes hidden intensity, of an amazing situation. Life is packed with tension, which doesn’t mean it’s unsettling, but rather held together by physics, and events etc… Just look up the tension of water, and its surface tension.

    For instance, see this post as part of what can be a physical tension in nature:
    See: Meniscus (liquid) – Wikipedia

    So the situation comes first, and then how we interact, and then the mental and physical action of getting something down on paper, and there’s plenty of both good, bad, and natural tension right there! 🙂

    Christine said:
    “My verse about “A Horse Without A Harness” is the same, coming from my pondering on the results of an undisciplined life.”

    Great title! I’m just halfway through giving six hours of feedback on haibun (combined prose and haiku) in our new haibun course, and I’ve been talking about titles. I love that title, it says so much, both literally about a horse, and using the title as a metaphor.

    warm regards,

    Alan Summers
    Call of the Page

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Choosing and constructng a title can be a challenge — almost a haiku in itself. 🙂
    For my poem, “Another Writing on Breast Cancer” I deliberately made it sound “ho-hum”, like a very ordinary piece, though the poem is actually quite poignant and won honorable mention in a Christian poets’ contest.

    For anyone who wants to read it, here’s the link, but it is a bit grim.

    Liked by 1 person

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