What Are the Characteristics of a Haiku?

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A haiku is an unrhymed poem of three lines and 17 syllables, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. A haiku emphasizes imagery, usually of landscapes, seasons and the time of day.

In original Japanese poetry, a haiku juxtaposed two images with the intention of harmonizing them. Kireji, or “cutting words,” linked the disparate images. The first great haiku master was Basho. During the Tokugawa period in the 17th century, he elevated the haiku to a level of high art. Other haiku masters included Buson in the 18th century and Masaoka Shiki in the 19th century. Over the centuries, haiku became the dominant form of Japanese poetry. By the end of the 20th century, over a million Japanese studied haiku under teachers.

Since the early part of the 19th century, some European poets have tried to imitate the haiku. The Indian Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote haiku in Bengali and also translated some from the original Japanese. The haiku form became popular in the United States through beat-era writers such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. In modern times, it is practiced by poets worldwide in Japan, many European countries, India, Russia and the United States.