Japanese literature: haiku
Haiku, which evolved out of earlier forms of poetry during the seventeenth century, is one of the best known of Japan's literary traditions in the West. The short poems aim to freeze a fleeting moment, as in a snapshot, and to evoke an emotional response in the reader. The poet tries to create a feeling of immediacy, a moment of awareness of something happening, describing events that can be as simple as sunlight falling on a flower or a stone falling into a pond.
Some of the best haiku by the great Japanese masters are those that enable us to see in the way a child does, looking at something for the first time. Haiku use everyday language and often deal with common events and familiar situations. They are written in the present tense so events seem to be taking place as you read; concrete nouns are favoured and metaphors or similes are rarely used; haiku are descriptive and direct, not symbolic.
Various devices help to set the scene and mood of the poem quickly. Traditional Japanese haiku use over 6,000 'season words' to indicate when the action is taking place. For example, the cry of a frog is more noticeable in spring in Japan, so the word 'frog' is shorthand for 'spring'. In English haiku, words such as 'blossom' and 'snowflake'. or those associated with different times of the day ('noon, 'twilight'), suggest mood. Traditional Japanese haiku often refer to trees and fields, as an outdoor setting was linked to an appreciation of nature. Modern haiku can just as easily describe the urban life experienced by millions.
Spring rain -
a crystal stream
Matsuo Basho (1644-94)
Haiku consist of just three lines, of which the middle line is longer than the first and third lines. The most rigid form of haiku consists of 17 syllables, divided into three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. In Japanese, all sounds are about the same length so this traditional structure works well. In English more flexibility is needed, so it is not necessary to stick to the 5-7-5 structure. There are no firm rules regarding capitalization and punctuation in English haiku, and they do not even have to be complete sentences. Some haiku use a comma or dash to break the flow, usually at the end of the first or second line. Haiku do not have titles.