A. The Origin of Haiku
Haiku is one of the most important forms of traditional Japanese poetry. Haiku is originally the Japanese pronunciation of the two Chinese characters “俳句”.“俳” (pronounced “hai” in Japanese) was a kind of Chinese performing art popular during the Six Dynasties Period (c.e. 220-581). It was performed by the “俳優” (pronounced “haiyo” in Japanese). 優 means an actor, who dances and chants a chain of longer verses called “俳歌” (pronounced “haika” in Japanese). This kind of performing art and verses later combined with the “絕句” (句 means “short verses” and is pronounced “ku” in Japanese), a type of four-line poem with either five or seven characters (also five or seven syllables, because a Chinese character is one syllable per character) per line. These forms were brought to Japan by returning Japanese students who had visited and studied in China during the beginning period of the Tang Dynasty (around c.e. 600-750) and were transformed into Japanese style, haika. Later, after many poets’ efforts, haika was literalized and became one of the poetry styles known as haikai.
For many years in Japan, there has been confusion between the three related terms haiku, hokku and haikai. The term hokku (the Japanese way to pronounce 發句) literally means “starting verse”, and it was the first starting link of a much longer chain of verses known as haika. Because the hokku set the tone for the rest of the poetic chain, it enjoyed a privileged position in haikai poetry, and it was not uncommon for a poet to compose a hokku by itself without following up with the rest of the chain. This independence was formally established in the 1890s through the creation of the term haiku. This new form of poetry was to be written, read, and understood as an independent poem, complete in itself, rather than part of a longer chain. Briefly, the distinction between hokku and haiku can be made by using the terms “classical haiku” and “modern haiku”.
B. How to Write Haiku
Haiku today is a seventeen-syllable verse form consisting of three metrical units of five, seven, and five syllables. There are three important points in creating a haiku.
(1) Ordinary content. Haiku poems can describe almost anything, but you seldom find themes which are too complicated for the average person’s recognition and understanding. Some of the most thrilling haiku poems describe daily situations in a way that gives the reader a brand new experience of a well-known situation.
(2) Seasonal theme. Each haiku must contain a kigo (the Japanese way to pronounce季候), a word related to one of the four seasons which indicates in which season the haiku is set. For example, Sakura indicates spring, snow indicates winter, and fog indicates summer, but the season word isn’t always obvious.
(3) The technique of cutting. Cutting is a unique technique for creating a poem. Cutting divides the haiku into two parts, creating a certain imaginative distance between the two sections, but the two sections must remain, to a degree, independent of each other. Both sections must enrich the understanding of the other. To make this cutting in English, either the first or the second line usually ends with a colon, long dash, or ellipsis.
C. Translations & English-written Haiku
Haiku today are written under different rules and in many languages. For translated Japanese haiku poems, the translator must decide whether he should obey the rules strictly, or present the exact essence of the haiku. For haiku poems originally written in English, the poet should be more careful. There are the difficulties of handling words, as well as the pleasure of haiku. When translating the English-written haiku into Chinese poem style, I, who have been writing Chinese classic poems for many years, treat it like a mixed-blood grandchild and give it a Chinese flavor.