History of Haiku & Basho: Haruo Shirane at Coldfront

View this little overview of some of the elements and history of haiku and Basho from this 2012 post at Coldfront about a Poets House lecture given by Haruo Shirane, the Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at Columbia University.



While Western audiences tend to think of haiku as a “special genre” that is practiced by trained experts, Shirane argued that haiku was never an exclusive aesthetic form but has always functioned as an important means of social interaction in Japan. These poetic exchanges took place both between individuals and in groups. Haiku in fact became a popular art form precisely because of its accessibility.

Shirane took the audience through a number of poems, introducing a list of key Japanese terms such as hokku (opening verse), kigo(seasonal word), and kireji (cutting word). He lingered at length on the key notion of ga-zoku which connotes the mixture of the elegant and the vulgar, or the classical and the popular. While classical Japanese poetry deals primarily with elegant topics, the emergence of the urban commoner class in the 17th century led to the mixing of the vulgar and the classical that made up the heart of haiku poetry. Here is an example from a well-known poem by Basho:

An old pond—
A frog leaps in,
The sound of water

While a frog is often associated with singing and music in the classical tradition, this poem illustrates the sound of the frog as it leaps into the water, suggesting the arrival of spring after a long winter (“old pond”).

Read the rest of the post here