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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The History of Haiku

June 21, 2011|Josh RothmanGlobe Staff
Japanese haiku is a a rare thing in the world of poetry: a world-famous, universally beloved verse form, practiced both by serious poets and schoolkids. Its present-day popularity is especially incredible given its ancient history. In Haiku Before Haiku Steven Carter, a professor of Japanese literature at Stanford, charts the emergence of haiku as an art-form, and offers new translations of 320 poems from the period in which haiku was developing out of an earlier form called hokku.


Matsuo Basho's "Frog Haiku," one of the earlier haiku poems, composed in 1686.

Haiku, for all its simplicity, grew out of a complex tradition of Japanese collaborative poetry called renga. In renga, Carter explains, a group of poets -- sometimes more than a dozen -- gather under the supervision of a renga master, or sōshō. Each poet contributes a stanza in turn, with the sōshō guiding composition by mandating the use of particular words or the exploration of certain topics. In one renga session, the poets might produce as many as 100 linked stanzas, which mutate over time to take the renga through different movements. The first verse of the renga, called a hokku, is identical to a modern haiku.
Renga, Carter explains, was wildly popular as early as the twelfth century: "Records tell us that each spring, at temples such as Bishamondo and Joshoji and in the Washio area of the Eastern Hills of Kyoto, large numbers of renga enthusiasts of all social classes would gather for marathon linking sessions" supervised by " hana no moto rengashi, or Masters of RengaBeneath the Blossoms." It wasn't until Basho, in the late 17th century, that hokku came into its own as a verse form.
Hokku are a little harder to understand than haiku, because they were written in a collaborative environment. Many of them are supposed to commemorate the specific rengagathering at which they were written, and so make reference to particular people and situations. In Haiku Before Haiku, this makes for fascinating reading. Some hokku are energizing, like Asayama Bonto's poem from the turn of the 15th century: "I gaze at the moon -- / And every night is the night / I had waited for." Presumably this was composed while the assembled renga poets looked at the moon. Others focus the mind on the small instants that are still the hallmark of modern haiku, like this poem by the thirteenth-century renga master Junkaku: "Beneath a tree / autumn wind shows itself / In a single leaf."
Renga poetry faded in popularity during the Meiji period in Japan, in part because the idea of collaborative poetry gave way to a more Western conception of how poetry ought to be composed. In the popularity of haiku, though, something of that collaborative spirit remains.

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