Haiku & Haiga

A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focus on images from nature to emphasizes simplicity, intensity, directness of expression, and commentray about life and the world. Haiga is a style of painting that incorporates the elements of haiku. 

Lesson Objectives:

  • define and describe haiku and haiga
  • analyze a haiku using elements of poetry
  • produce a haiku and haiga

Yet many poets break the rules!

Haiku began in thirteenth-century Japan as the opening phrase of renga, an oral poem, generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from renga in the sixteenth-century, and was mastered a century later by Matsuo Basho, who wrote this classic haiku:   

An old pond! A frog jumps in— the sound of water.
Among the greatest traditional haiku poets are Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki. Modern poets interested in the form include Robert HassPaul Muldoon, and Anselm Hollo, whose poem “5 & 7 & 5” includes the following stanza:     
round lumps of cells grow up to love porridge later become The Supremes


Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a “season word,” or kigo, specified the time of year. As the form has evolved, many of these rules—including the 5/7/5 practice—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved:

  1. kigo, seasonal reference. on, phonetic unit. An old pond— A frog leaps in, The sound of water Bashō. Haiku is distinguished by three qualities: it consists of seventeen on and contains a kiru (cutting) and kigo (seasonal reference). An on is a Japanese phonetic unit that is often mistaken for a syllable in English. While an on in haiku poetry often equals one English syllable, they are not necessarily the same. A haiku consists of seventeen on, 5-7-5, divided into three lines. Kiru is usually represented as the juxtaposition of two ideas or images, with a kireji (cutting word) between them. The kireji can appear at the end of any of three lines and is drawn from a prescribed list of words. It serves to divide the poem into two parts. The kigo is a word or phrase associated with a particular season and is a remnant of haiku’s place in renga poems, as the opening triplet would always contain a seasonal reference. The majority of kigo, but not all, are drawn from nature. The image is a haiga of Basho’s haiku on frogs (ca. 1820), translated on the left panel by Yokoi Kinkoku. The caption states that this is a portrait of Basho with his most famous poem, from a collection of portraits of Basho and his disciples along with their respective haiku poems.the focus on a brief moment in time;
  2. a use of provocative, colorful images;
  3. an ability to be read in one breath; and
  4. a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.

This philosophy influenced poet Ezra Pound, who noted the power of haiku’s brevity and juxtaposed images. He wrote, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” The influence of haiku on Pound is most evident in his poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which began as a thirty-line poem, but was eventually pared down to two:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
Haiga (俳画, haikai drawing) is a style of Japanese painting that incorporates the aesthetics of haikaiHaiga are typically painted by haiku poets (haijin), and often accompanied by a haiku poem. Like the poetic form it accompanied, haiga was based on simple, yet often profound, observations of the everyday world. Stephen Addiss points out that “since they are both created with the same brush and ink, adding an image to a haiku poem was … a natural activity.”
Stylistically, haiga vary widely based on the preferences and training of the individual painter, but generally show influences of formal Kanō school painting, minimalist Zen painting, and Ōtsu-e, while sharing much of the aesthetic attitudes of the nanga tradition. Some were reproduced as woodblock prints. The subjects painted likewise vary widely, but are generally elements mentioned in the calligraphy, or poetic images which add meaning or depth to that expressed by the poem. The moon is a common subject in these poems and paintings, sometimes represented by the Zen circle ensō, which evokes a number of other meanings, including that of the void. Other subjects, ranging from Mount Fuji to rooftops, are frequently represented with a minimum of brushstrokes, thus evoking elegance and beauty in simplicity.
Examples of Haiga with Haiku 
For Discussion: Select a haiku (either traditional 5-7-5 or one that breaks the rules) and produce a minimum one-page (500 word) analysis. Use the elements of haiku analysis introduced in the lesson to break apart and pull the haiku back together with your conclusion. Be sure to research the poet and include details about their life to help establish context. Copy the haiku into the body of your discussion (it does not count toward the one-page analysis). Be sure to read and respond to the haikus and analysis contributed by your classmates.
Expression: Write a haiku  – use symbolism, metaphor and or other elements introduced in this class so far. Draw or paint a haiga to accompany your haiku.