The history of haiku is as much a history of the Japanese cultural atmosphere as it is a genre of poetry. Haiku was not always haiku. It evolved from a poetry game called renga practiced by the doomed nobles of ancient Japan’s Heian court. Much of Japan’s greatest art and poetry sprang from the Heian period, the high point of Japan’s aristocracy. Renga though, while having produced some of Japan’s greatest poetical accomplishments, was governed by a strict set of rules that many felt stifled free expression. Renga survived only until the Edo period, when free-thinking poets transformed it from classic sentimentality to a raunchy game of wits.
Renga’s new, popular incarnation was called haikai (vulgar) no renga. Most of renga’s rules were ignored as it morphed from high-brow elegance to low-brow humor. Opponents took turns writing sets of verse with the goal of seeing who could create the most shock value. One famous example of haikai no renga went thus:
The robe of haze is wet at its hem
Princess Sao of spring pissed as she started.
Princess Sao being the goddess of spring, the outright blasphemous parody of the once serious renga poetry showed how huge a paradigm shift the genre underwent. Haikai no renga (or simply, haikai) did retain the overall structure of renga though, including the opening verse called hokku that set the collaborative poem’s theme. Hokku was what we would recognize as haiku today. Though it remained a part of haikai, hokku gradually assumed its own importance in the Japanese poetry hierarchy and became a separate genre. The famed poet Matsuo Bashou further elevated hokku into what came to be known as haiku by infusing it with what is now the basis of Japanese art–the concept of wabi sabi.
Wabi sabi evolved from Zen Buddhism, which rebelled against the decadence of the Heian court by championing simple, natural art. Zen monasteries were sparse affairs to the uninitiated, but to the monks they were filled with profound expressions of wabi sabi. The concept of wabi sabi is difficult to define, but it might be understood as a melancholic–yet profound–sensation that identifies with the impermanence of life so important to Zen. Wabi sabi was expressed in humble pieces of artwork like earthen pottery or paintings with large amounts of blank space typical in traditional Japanese art.
Basho himself spent some of his time in a Buddhist monastery, where he grew to further appreciate the aesthetics of the Zen monks. Bashou eventually left the monastery, but not before it left a strong impact on his work, which was later renamed haiku by scholars.
Bashou aimed to capture a fleeting moment of existence within as few words as possible–though it might better be explained as “as few words as necessary.” Bashou aimed to cut down his haiku to just an impression transmitted his readers. Though again, transmit is rather deceptive. Haiku never aimed to feed readers its poet’s thoughts, but create a synergy where the reader sculpts their own impression with the clay given them by the poet.
Haiku’s briefness reflects both this and the Japanese distrust of words to convey feelings. Japanese Buddhism believed that true spiritual knowledge could not be taught, but only transmitted directly from teacher to student. Paramount is the “flower sermon,” when the Buddha gave his sermon by simply holding up a flower in silence. While the crowd looked on confused, one among them–Buddha’s first disciple–simply smiled in understanding, indicating that the Buddha had imparted his knowledge to him directly.
True to this ideology, haiku does not attempt to convey an idea through descriptive elaboration, but impart an impression through a matrix of words. The reader then uses it to form their own image of the poet’s experience. In that respect, haiku and its history is a reflection of Zen–instilling a moment of fleeting impermanence that leads to a deeper understanding of the world.