Haiku describes the seventeen syllable Japanese poetic tradition, with words arranged over three lines using a five-seven-five syllable structure.
There are similarities between Haiku and Imagist poetry, with Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) expressing an admiration of the Japanese form.
Many of the writers described below wrote originally in Japanese, so you may wish to experiment with reading multiple different translations of their work, as the act of translation can greatly affect the sentiment one takes away from a haiku, and the sense a reader develops of an author’s style.
The best haiku writers are Matsuo Bashō, Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Masaoka Shiki, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Edith Shiffert and Ezra Pound. Though haikus traditionally reference the seasons, over time writers have experimented more and more with the parameters of the form.
Revered for his haiku ability during his lifetime and since hailed as the master of the form, Bashō himself claimed his haiku were of a similar quality to those written by his followers.
His real ability, he stated, lay in writing renku: linked verses, alternating between haiku-like stanzas and shorter fourteen syllable stanzas.
Bashō has been described as the creator of haiku by some, though this remains unverified.
He lived an increasingly ascetic life, seeking peace of mind, and often went on extremely long wanderings around Japan.
Almost as popular and highly regarded as Bashō, Issa had an extremely difficult life and used haiku on occasion to express his fraught relationship to loss.
Issa also wrote a number of comic haiku verses, which are a delight to read.
Compared to Bashō, who wrote about 2,000 haiku, Issa wrote around 20,000, but struggled to make ends meet financially during his lifetime.
Buson, also an artist, was deeply influenced by Bashō, following and writing his own account of walking the same path Bashō took and narrated in his famous work Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).
Buson earned a living through painting and could be freer with his poetry, writing haiku which many during his lifetime felt were outdated.
Buson was also famously not a strict adherent to the rules of haiku, preferring a less prescriptive approach to the form.
Though Shiki wrote across many forms of poetry, and also wrote in prose, he became best known for his haiku during a period when haiku was seen to be on the way out because there were no well-known practitioners active. Shiki had a short and difficult life, suffering from tuberculosis for many years, before passing away at the age of thirty-four. Amazingly, Shiki wrote 20,000 haiku during his lifetime. Despite this, he loved playing baseball and also worked for a period as a haiku editor. Importantly, Shiki stressed the literary merit of haiku and pressed for the form to be considered alongside other forms of literature during the modern Meiji period.
Elizabeth Searle Lamb
Widely regarded as one of the first American practitioners of haiku, Searle Lamb edited Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, for many years.
A musician, she was the first graduate from the University of Kansas to be awarded a degree in harp, an instrument she played from a young age and through high school.
She and her husband, Bruce Lamb, lived abroad, traveling for many years, which encouraged Searle Lamb to begin writing as she couldn’t easily pursue a musical career where they were based.
Later, they moved to New York, where Searle Lamb discovered haiku and began practicing the form.
Born in Canada before moving to, and around the United States, Shiffert began writing poetry as a teenager.
She moved to Japan at around the age of forty, teaching there and translating volumes of Japanese poetry, as well as the first study of the work of Buson to be published in English.
Her work often referenced nature, and she remained in Japan for the rest of her life, living in Kyoto.
Considered one of the leading contributors to the development of Imagism, a school of poetry favoring a concise, precise use of language similar to that stipulated in haiku, Pound spent a long time working on extremely economical, distilled poems of his own.
Though his poetry remains accomplished and he was also responsible for the publication of some of the greatest Modernist works of poetry, like T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Pound collaborated with Axis powers during World War II and made discriminatory statements while alive, these overshadowing his work and necessarily troubling his legacy.
Matsuo Bashō, Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Masaoka Shiki, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Edith Shiffert and Ezra Pound are considered the best haiku writers, though there are many others out there to read. If you enjoy haiku, you may also enjoy exploring other forms of Japanese poetry, like haibun: a combination of prose and haiku, and katauta: a three line poem which poses a question and forms one half of an exchange.