What is a haiku?
Since many ages past there have been poetic sentences composed in Japan consisting of five- and seven-syllable lines placed together as a means of communication. It is from this that tanka, renga and haiku were born.
By the middle ages, haikai no renga were the rage, whereby a number of people would in turn add an upper or lower tanka line to someone else’s in an amusing way. The opening line was named, quite literally, the ‘hokku’, and contained some seasonal words as a greeting to those assembled. It was from this inclusion of seasonality that the haiku made its debut.
By the time of the Edo period (1603-1867), thanks to the poet Matsuo Basho, the haiku had risen to become an artful pastime and found wide general popularity. By the time of the succeeding Meiji era (i.e. in the late nineteenth century) Masaoka Shiki took the haiku to new levels and established it as a literary art form, further adding to its popularity.
Haiku was introduced to the rest of the world by foreigners who came to Japan and has today become global.
Haiku and the seasons
The haiku is the world’s shortest poetic form. In principle it requires a season-word and adheres to a set formula. The haiku in Japanese consists of three lines of five, seven and five syllables each – a total of seventeen. (Some do, however, dispense with a season-word and stray from 5-7-5.) Even in English and other languages of the world, the haiku is defined as a poem written in three short, simple lines.
The season-word, or kigo, is a word in the haiku that evokes the feel of a certain season. It is a basic and important element in the composition of a haiku. The kigo should work on the reader's imagination, making up for the limited expression possible in the haiku form, and help towards establishing a common understanding between writer and reader.
Rules about the kigo
It is a fundamental rule that each haiku must contain a kigo. There are all sorts of things a kigo can be, whether it refers to the calendar, the weather, an aspect of people’s lives, regular events, ceremonies, plants, animals, or anything else.
With Japan having four very distinct seasons, kigo are arranged into groups not only in reference to spring, summer, fall and winter, but with a fifth category for the new year period as well. As a whole they form what is known as the saijiki, or almanac of seasonal words.
Because of this, such situations arise as with the word ‘frog’ which, although the frog is also a summer and autumn phenomenon, is defined as a springtime kigo. A frog in summer must therefore be referred to as a ‘summer frog’. In a haiku which uses more than one of such kigo, the kigo more intimately related to a particular season becomes its main one.
Haiku have become popular even in those countries that lack four distinct seasons. As kigo differ according to country, they have diverged and multiplied along with the various environments and natural settings the haiku now finds itself in.