Haikai is a shortened form of the expression haikai no renga, or "playful linked verse." This poetic form, which emerged as a distinct genre near the end of the Muromachi period (1333-1573), was a popular outgrowth of the more aristocratic (and hence more dignified) practice of composing linked sequences of waka poetry. Unhampered by the requirement to be decorous, haikai was characterized by greater spontaneity than traditional renga, by greater freedom in the choice of subject matter and, initially at least, by a strong emphasis on humor and verbal wit.
The earliest practitioners of haikai included Yamazaki Sōkan (? - ca. 1540) and Arikida Moritake (1473-1549), but the poet credited for putting the genre on a firm literary basis is Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653). The school of poets who eventually gathered around him (collectively known as the Teitoku School, or Teimon) determined the direction taken by the genre in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, the school’s acceptance of haikai’s status as an essentially inferior form of renga resulted in an attitude toward composition that is perhaps best characterized as tepidly conservative: codification of rules and centralization of authority were achieved at the cost of a certain artistic integrity.
Beginning in about 1673, a new school of haikai gathered influence under the leadership of Nishiyama Sōin (1605-1682). This became known as the Danrin School (Danrin-ha), the style of which was characterized by a light, witty expansiveness that helped free haikai from the rather staid conventions of the Teitoku School. This new sense of artistic independence made itself felt in the broader choice of subjects considered suitable for treatment, in the everyday diction that was employed in composition, and in the deliberately unconventional linking techniques that poets adopted. One of the school’s more notable figures was Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), now remembered chiefly for his fiction, who excelled in contests to see which poet could produce the largest number of verses within a limited period of time (yakazu haikai). Saikaku’s record was 23,500 verses, which he composed in 1684 in the course of a single afternoon and night at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka. A number of the school’s adherents themselves tired of what often seemed to be the excessive emphasis on playfulness, and this minority attempted to compose haikai of greater artistic merit than those produced by the vast majority of their peers.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was born in the town of Ueno in Iga Province (in what is now western Mie Prefecture). As a youth he entered the service of a family related to the province's feudal leader, and both he and his young master studied haikai under one of Teitoku’s disciples. After his master died an untimely death, Bashō moved to Edo, where he came under the influence of the Danrin School and eventually established himself as a haikai master in his own right. Late in 1680, Bashō moved away from the bustle of Edo to a solitary hut located in the rural district of Fukagawa. In spring of the following year, a disciple planted a bashō, or banana plant, next to the hut, giving it the name by which it was subsequently known—the Bashō Hut—and providing its master with the nickname he used for the rest of his life.
Bashō’s style as a poet underwent a number of significant changes during his career. Starting off in Edo as a poet in the witty but shallow Danrin style, he experimented with other traditional styles that allowed him to absorb influence from classical Chinese poetry and incorporate fresh techniques of juxtaposition in his verses. Both of these aspects can be found in the haikai collection Minashiguri (Shriveled Chestnuts, 1683). Bashō continued his efforts to establish an original poetic voice, showing the first signs of maturity in the travel diary Nozarashi kikō (The Records of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, based on a journey to western Japan taken in 1684-85) and the haikai collection Fuyu no hi (The Winter Sun, 1684).
After 1684 Bashō became an inveterate traveler, each of his lengthy journeys ultimately resulting in a travel diary that typically interspersed hokku (a single, self-contained verse in 5-7-5 syllabic form, nominally intended to be the first verse in a haikai sequence) among passages of concise yet evocative prose (in other contexts, this type of writing is called haibun, or "haikai prose"). A total of five travel diaries were written, of which Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)—based on a journey to northern Japan Bashō took in 1689 with his friend and disciple Kawai Sora)—stands out as a major work of premodern Japanese literature, and rare is the Japanese student unable to quote the first few lines. The epitome of the mature "Bashō Style" (Shōfū) of haikai poetry is usually considered to be the linked-verse collection Sarumino (The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, 1691). This collection is where Bashō, having spent years spent developing an original style based on his own experience as a poet, gives fully realized expression to many of those qualities now considered his chief poetic legacy—above all the sublime quality of sabi, which depicts, or more accurately suggests, the solitary condition of a human being in relation to nature and the universe.
Yet sabi was not the final stopping place in Bashō’s development as a poet. In 1693 Bashō closed the gate of his hut for a month, refusing to welcome visitors. It would appear that he was attempting to work out an inner conflict between loneliness and despair on the one hand and a resigned acceptance of things as they are on the other. It was this latter attitude that led him to the ideal of karumi ("lightness") said to characterize many of Bashō’s later verses, including those contained in the 1694 collection Sumidawara (A Sack of Charcoal). Here Bashō often seems to be making the attempt to return from the solitude of nature to the everyday world of ordinary human affairs.
Bashō was a perennial wanderer who identified strongly with such earlier poets of travel as Saigyō (1118-1190) and Sōgi (1421-1502). It therefore seems somehow inevitable that he should have died in 1694 while undertaking yet another arduous journey by foot. Although at the end he seems to have had doubts about the ultimate value of poetry, there is no question that the world would be a far less meaningful place without his. The poetic principles of the Bashō School (Shōmon) were carried on by disciples who, in addition to composing verses in their own right, compiled editions of Bashō’s poetry and produced important critical commentaries on haikai. Chief among the latter are Sanzōshi (Three Booklets, 1702), by Hattori Dohō, and Kyoraishō (Conversations with Kyorai, 1704), by Mukai Kyorai. Needless to say, however, their master remained one of a kind.
After Bashō’s death, haikai grew increasingly popular among the population at large, but at the same time it also became vulgarized and trite. Its decline was briefly arrested in the Tenmei era (1781-89), when the activities of a number of poets in Edo, Kyoto, Owari, and Ise sparked a revival of sorts. The poet now best remembered from this period is Yosa Buson (1716-1783), who won fame as both a poet and a painter. Buson’s style is characterized by an outer pictorialism overlaying a romantically colored classicism. Nevertheless, the downward slide in the fortunes of haikai resumed toward the end of the eighteenth century, leading to a situation so grim that the Meiji poet Masaoka Shiki (who popularized the modern term haiku) remarked that most of the haikai composed after 1830 did not even bear looking at. The one point of light illuminating the general darkness of the time was Kobayashi Issa (1763- 1827), one of Japan’s best-loved poets, whose highly individualistic style is characterized by a passionate defense of the weak and helpless. Issa's haibun journal Ora ga haru (The Spring of My Life, published in 1852) is a poignant record of the events in his life in 1819, the year in which his oldest daughter died from smallpox.
Translations (emphasis on premodern poets; for the sake of neatness, all translations are listed according to the name of the translator or editor; the distinction between translations and studies is not always an easy one to make, so be sure to check the "Studies" section too).
Studies (these center mainly on the premodern period rather than on haiku generally, for which the bibliography would now be quite long; again, it should be kept in mind that studies and translations are not always easily distinguished from each other.) I have published a paper titled The Beat of Different Drummers: English Translations of Hokku from Matsuo Bashō's Oku no hosomichi that may be viewed here as a (rather large) HTML document (formatting problems prohibit making a conveniently small PDF file), or, alternatively, in the pages of the July 2002 edition of the online World Haiku Review. I have also translated Kuwabara Takeo's controversial "Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art" for the online journal Simply Haiku (4:1, Spring 2006).
Although an Internet search now yields about 300,000 references in English to Bashō, few sites contain biographical or bibliographical information that cannot be found in one of the major online encyclopedias. It takes a rather large store of patience to wade through hundreds of sites simply for the pleasure of reading perhaps a half dozen translations on any one page. Information about Buson and Issa is, of course, much harder to come by, and even when available it is not normally very detailed (two or three notable exceptions appear below). Some of Buson’s paintings can be viewed at online museum sites, although again a great deal of clicking usually provides only a meager reward.
There are quite a few haiku-related sites online that offer original or translated poems; only those offering articles and/or other scholarly information are listed below. For a convenient list of online haiku sites, see the Raysweb website.
Although devoted primarily to publishing English-language haibun, this quarterly journal does have a number of essays and interviews that are listed on this page.
An online seasonal almanac categorizing many of the "season words" (kigo) used in haiku poetry. The page was edited by William J. Higginson and forms a part of the larger Renku Home site. The selection of seasonal words was made by Kenkichi Yamamoto and translated by Kris Young Kondo and William J. Higginson. Part of the Renku Home site, which also contains other material written primarily by Higginson, although the page has not been updated recently.
An online haiku journal in blog style with an emphasis on humor, offering translations, articles, reviews, and other features. The latest edition is from 2011, and a list of links to previous articles is provided about a screen-and-a-half down from the top of the home page. The most recent site update (as of April 2013) was in April 2012.
A site (relocated from its original location in cyberspace because of Hurricane Katrina) managed by David G. Lanoue, professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans. The site offers a searchable archive of 7,700 of Issa's haiku, each dated and accompanied by romanized versions of the Japanese. An "advanced search" function also provides access to an archive of comments on the haiku. A section called "About Issa" contains relatively detailed biographical information; there is also a short introduction to haiku generally and a students' section meant to acquaint learners with basic principles and practices.
Very short introductions to ten famous haiku poets written by haiku poet Yotsuya Ryū. Bashō and Buson are the only premodern poets to receive pages of their own.
This site, developed by English educator and poet George Marsh, describes itself as offering "teachers and students an introduction to writing haiku poems, a chance to study the history and nature of haiku poetry and an introduction to the fundamental principles of creative writing." Although the site is primarily pedagogical in nature and has become rather dated, the "Reference Section" contains useful discussions of haiku form, Zen, and haiku in English, among other subjects.
An online quarterly published between 2003 and 2009 that dealt with tanka, renku, senryu, haibun, and haiga as well as haiku. In addition to original compositions in English, the site also carried essays, interviews, and book reviews, all of which are still accessible through the site's archives. I published a translation here of Kuwabara Takeo's "Modern Haiku: A Second-Class Art" (vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 2006).
A fairly active online magazine published by the World Haiku Club, with articles on and original work in the genres of senryū and renku as well as haiku and haibun. The magazine underwent a facelift in 2008, and the archives for the period 2001-2007 are offered on a separate blog-like site.
The days and months are the wayfarers of eternity, as are the constantly passing years. Both those who spend their lives plying the waves in boats and those who grow old holding tight to the lead ropes of packhorses make of each day a journey, and of their journey a home. Many of the ancient poets, too, met their end on a journey. From a certain age my own thoughts turned ceaselessly to travel and, like a wisp of cloud carried upon the wind, I wandered the coasts and bays, returning last autumn to my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida, where I cleared away the cobwebs and saw the old year out. But with the mists of spring rising into the sky, my senses once more fell thrall to temptation, and I was filled with a longing to cross the barrier at Shirakawa. The gods of the roadside beckoned to me in such a way that I lost interest in everything else. I patched the holes in my leggings, attached a new cord to my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa, a vision of the moon at Matsushima taking form in my mind's eye. I sold my hut and composed the following just before moving to a cottage owned by Sanpū:
surely this grass hut
will for the next owner be
a festive house of dolls!
I used this as the first of a page of eight verses, which I left hanging on a post inside the hut.