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World’s Shortest Form of Poetry

Part 1

1.	With a notebook in hand, a boy writes haiku on a ginko, or a haiku walk, at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

With a notebook in hand, a boy writes haiku on a ginko, or a haiku walk, at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

 Do you know what the world’s shortest form of poetry is? It is haiku, which was born in Japan. Haiku is a short poem, consisting of just three lines, but it can capture natural scenery or scenes from daily life and even tell a story. It is popular around the world as a style of literature in which anyone, both adults and children, can freely express themselves and enjoy creating a poem.

Expressed in 5-7-5 Syllables

 The Japanese haiku is written in 17 syllables, broken down into 5-, 7- and 5-syllable portions. In Japan, there was a traditional form of collaborative poetry in which one person writes a 17-syllable (5-7-5) opening poem, to which another person adds a 14-syllable poem consisting of two 7-syllable portions. Then another 17-syllable poem is added, and so forth. Haiku was born when the first 5-7-5 syllable portion was separated and became independent. The famed haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) refined this 5-7-5 poem style and elevated haiku to an art form.

  Furuike ya          The ancient pond —
  Kawazu tobikomu      A frog jumps in,
  Mizu no oto          The sound of the water.

(English translation by Donald Keene)

A portrait of famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho.

A portrait of famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho. © The Basho Museum, Koto ward, Tokyo

 This is a famous haiku piece written by Basho. It is about a scene in which “a frog jumps into an ancient pond, making a sound.” Basho wrote a haiku about a scene which had nothing special about it. However, as a leading work by Basho, it has been translated and published in many languages around the world.

 Japan has four distinct seasons, and its climate changes dramatically from season to season. Haiku, having been born in Japan, has a rule that a haiku must have a kigo, or a season word, so that readers can tell which season it is talking about. Kigo can be the names of insects or animals which symbolize the season, or natural phenomena, festivals or other seasonal events. The frog in the poem above by Basho spends the winter underground and comes out in spring. Therefore, it is a spring kigo.

 The ya in “Furuike ya” is called kireji, or a cutting word. Kireji stops the flow of a verse for a moment, creating a deliberate pause between verses. It is an important technique to give the reader time to imagine not only the picture of an ancient pond but also the silence surrounding it. In English haiku, kireji is sometimes expressed by a dash (—) or three dots (…).