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Examples of Haiku Poems

The origins of haiku can be traced back as far as the 9th century. Haiku is more than a type of poem; it is a way of looking at the physical world and seeing something deeper, like the very nature of existence.

History and Structure of Haiku Poems

A haiku poem consists of three lines, with the first and last lines having 5 moras, and the middle line having 7. A mora is a sound unit, much like a syllable, but is not identical to it. Since the moras do not translate well into English, it has been adapted to where syllables are used as moras.
Haiku started out as a popular activity during the 9th to 12th centuries in Japan called “tanka.” It was a progressive poem, where one person would write the first three lines with a 5-7-5 structure, and the next person would add to it a section with a 7-7 structure. The chain would continue in this fashion. So, if you wanted some old examples of haiku poems, you could read the first verse of a “tanka” from the 9th century.
The first verse was called a “hokku” and set the mood for the rest of the verses. Sometimes there were hundreds of verses and authors of the “hokku” were often admired for their skill. In the 19th century, the “hokku” took on a life of its own and began to be written and read as an individual poem. The word “haiku” is derived from “hokku.”
There were four master haiku poets from Japan, known as “the Great Four.” They are: Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki, and Yosa Buson. Their work is still the model for traditional haiku writing today. They were poets who wandered the countryside, experiencing life and observing nature, and spent years perfecting their craft.

Haiku Poems from the Master Traditional Poets

A review of haiku poems is an excellent way to become familiar with this form of poetry and the sensory language it uses, and gain some inspiration.
(Note: In translation, the moras won’t be the same as syllables. In Japanese, there are 5 moras in the first and third line, and 7 in the second, following the 5-7-5 structure of haiku. The rhythm has been lost in translation, as not every Japanese word has the same number of syllables, or sounds, as its English version. For example, haiku has two syllables in English. In Japanese, the translated word has three sounds.)

Matsuo Basho

Here are three examples of haiku from Basho Matsuo (1644-1694), considered the greatest haiku poet:
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Autumn moonlight—
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus –
A lovely sunset.

Yosa Buson

Here are three examples of haiku from Yosa Buson (1716-1784), a haiku master poet and painter:
A summer river being crossed
how pleasing
with sandals in my hands!
Light of the moon
Moves west, flowers’ shadows
Creep eastward.
In the moonlight,
The color and scent of the wisteria
Seems far away.

Kobayashi Issa

Here are three examples of haiku from Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), a renowned haiku poet:
O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
Trusting the Buddha, good and bad,
I bid farewell
To the departing year.
Everything I touch
with tenderness, alas,
pricks like a bramble.

Masaoka Shiki

Here are seven examples of haiku from Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), credited with reviving the haiku and developing its modern format:
I want to sleep
Swat the flies
Softly, please.
After killing
a spider, how lonely I feel
in the cold of night!
For love and for hate
I swat a fly and offer it
to an ant.
A mountain village
under the piled-up snow
the sound of water.
Night; and once again,
the while I wait for you, cold wind
turns into rain.
The summer river:
although there is a bridge, my horse
goes through the water.
A lightning flash:
between the forest trees
I have seen water.

Natsume Soseki

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) was a widely respected novelist who also had many fairy tales and haiku published. Here are three of examples of his haiku:
The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.
Plum flower temple:
Voices rise
From the foothills
The crow has flown away:
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

Modern Haiku

Many modern western poets do not subscribe to the 5-7-5 pattern any longer. The Academy of American Poets recognizes this evolution, but maintains that several core principles remain woven into the tapestry of modern haiku. That is, a haiku still focuses on one brief moment in time, employs provocative, colorful imagery, and provides a sudden moment of illumination.
Here are seven examples of 20th century haiku poems:
From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
Faint sounds of a flute.
– Richard Wright
out of the water
out of itself
– Nick Virgilio
ground squirrel
balancing its tomato
on the garden fence
– Don Eulert
Too dark to read the page
Too cold.
– Jack Kerouac
Just friends:
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.
– Alexis Rotella
A little boy sings
on a terrace, eyes aglow.
Ridge spills upward.
– Robert Yehling
meteor shower
a gentle wave
wets our sandals
– Michael Dylan Welch

The Evolution of Haiku

Isn’t it wonderful to know that such a rich tradition has lasted nearly eleven centuries? The evolution of haiku might be perceived as a natural process, like anything else in life, but a dedication to its authenticity has preserved its core principles. While master poets in the 1800s, such as Issa, probably wrote their haiku in a 5-7-5 pattern – if read in Japanese – the premise was still the same. These master poets contemplated small snippets of time, used imagery in their language, and sought out a sense of enlightenment in their prose.
More recently, poets like Jack Kerouac have paved the way for a freer rhythm in haiku. However, the same tiny moments in time are still captured in a very colorful and enlightened manner. A haiku remains reserved for those special moments in life when you want to examine the very nature of existence, from a church bell ringing in the night to the staggering moment you realize he loves you.

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