Haiku began in thirteenth-century Japan as the opening phrase of a renga, a form of spoken poem, generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from renga in the sixteenth-century, and was mastered a century later by the poet Matsuo Basho, who wrote this classic example:
An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.
As the form has evolved, many of its regular traits—including its famous syllabic pattern—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment.
This philosophy influenced the American poet Ezra Pound, who noted the power of haiku's brevity and juxtaposed images. He wrote, "The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language." The influence of haiku on Pound is most evident in his poem "In a Station of the Metro," which began as a thirty-line poem, but was eventually pared down to two:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Other examples of haiku include "The light of a candle" by Yosa Buson; "Haiku Ambulance" by Richard Brautigan; and "5 & 7 & 5" by Anselm Hollo. Also read the essay "The Haiga: Haiku, Calligraphy, and Painting" to learn more about the history of haiku and how it has impacted visual art.
Choose a moment in daily life through which you recently interacted with nature in a surprising way, either literally, or through the imagination—as is the case in Pound's poem "In a Station of the Metro." Write a haiku that conveys the moment through images, striving to be true to the traditional rules of the form, especially the compressed, three-line structure. Select your images carefully, paying close attention to what is offered through the proximity of the images, rather than only through the images themselves.
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Matsuo Basho, Ezra Pound, Yosa Buson, Anselm Hollo, Richard Brautigan, Haiku, Renga