Basho and the Art of Haiku

Haiku, with its gentle guidelines and rules, is much more than counting syllables! Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694), the father of traditional haiku and one of the most revered poets in Japan, is credited for refining the haiku from a stylized form of 17 syllables to a poetic framework of simplicity and depth of meaning.

Haiku Guidelines:

  • Traditional: Three lines with syllable counts of 5-7-5
  • Free-form: Three lines, often with a short-long-short format, but no strict syllable count
  • Punctuation and capitalization are up to the poet
  • Lines usually do not rhyme
  • Often contains a seasonal reference
  • Juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, separated by an emotional “gap”
  • Focus on a brief moment in time
  • Present tense
  • Colorful imagery
  • Sense of sudden leap, or illumination

“Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one–when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”
― Bashō

Basho's most famous haiku: "Furuike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no oto." Both the painting and the poem are in Basho's own hand.

There have been many translations of “Old Pond”. Notice that the number of syllables in English may not agree with the count in the original Japanese. Enjoy these various translations!

An old silent pond,
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Into the ancient pond
A frog jumps
Water’s sound!

Pond, there, still and old!
A frog has jumped from the shore.
The splash can be heard.

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Frogs in a Pond by Seitei. Basho says: Old pond,/ A frog jumps in:/ Water's sound

Modern poets often refer to Basho. In this tongue-in-cheek haiku, contemporary poet Juma uses ideas from Basho to ask her own question.

Michael Dylan Welch, Adjunct Poetry Professor for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts [states] “Most Western literary haiku poets have rejected the 5-7-5- syllable pattern. …The poem gains its energy by the intuitive or emotional leap that occurs in the space between the poem’s two parts, in the gap of what’s deliberately left out. …The art of haiku lies in creating exactly that gap, in leaving something out, and in dwelling in the cut that divides the haiku into its two energizing parts.”

“When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”
Bashō

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