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What Is Haiku Poetry? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Haiku Defined
  • 1:10 Traditional Examples
  • 2:55 Untraditional Examples
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Vineski
In this lesson, you'll learn what haiku poetry is, take a look at some examples, and see how the traditional Japanese form has influenced its evolution in the English-speaking world.

Haiku Defined

We all have special moments in our lives. Perhaps it was the moment our child took his or her first steps, or said his or her first word. Perhaps it was the moment we were kissed for the first time, or the moment we took that high school diploma or college degree in our hands. Whatever those moments were, we captured them, in a photograph, a video, or simply with a poignant memory, so that we could recapture, and often share, the joy, the pride, the excitement; the emotional experience that made that moment special. Just as we capture a special moment in our lives, haiku poetry captures a moment in time, creating and sharing the joy, the wonder, and the perhaps profound emotional experience that exists within that moment.

Haiku is a form of poetry that focuses on a brief moment in time, and a sense of sudden illumination or enlightenment. A haiku is usually composed of seventeen syllables in three short lines. The first line often contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables. A haiku is usually written in present tense, with a pause at the end of the first or second line, and it normally doesn't rhyme.

Traditional Examples

The description I just gave for haiku poetry is the same for traditional Japanese haiku: that is, a 3-line poem with 17 syllables, with a 5-7-5 syllable count, often written in the present tense and focused on the associations between mental images, especially those related to or from nature. There is also a pause at the end of the first or second line. In Japanese, the pause is shown with a kireji word, or a type of Japanese word traditionally used in poetry to signify a pause for the sake of a formal or refined ending or a separation of semi-independent thoughts.

In English, the pause may be shown with a dash or an ellipsis, since there are no English translations for kireji words. Because of the fundamental differences between the character-based Japanese and the letter-based English languages, the syllable count rarely survives the translation, as can be seen in Matsuo Basho's classic haiku:

'An old pond!

A frog jumps in--(kireji word)

the sound of water.'

We also see this in Kobayashi Issa's classic haiku:

'Even with insects--(kireji word)

some can sing,

some can't.'

These haiku, while not maintaining the traditional 17 syllables with its 5-7-5 syllable count, do follow the traditional pattern of using the present tense and focusing on the associations between the images, often images from nature. There is also the traditional pause at the end of the first line, as in Issa's haiku, or the second line as in Basho's, which is indicated by the dash in English, and by the kireji in Japanese.

Untraditional Examples

As the haiku form met the English-speaking world, it began to change, and many of the traditional rules were routinely broken. But, the focus on a brief moment in time; the use of clear, precise images and the sense of sudden illumination that marked the classic haiku remained, as can be seen in Ezra Pound's 'In a Station at the Metro:'

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