Friday, April 18, 2014

The Fresh Jar of Haiku: Haiku Poet Stephen Koritta and the History of Haiku

Christal Cooper  1,183 Words


“I can't imagine how many hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches I assembled and ate spiritlessly until the day I noticed an euphoric scent floating up to me from the fresh new jar. Haiku is a record of just that sort of awareness.”
Stephen Koritta

Book has blown open. . .
Again, the wind picks up
Where it left off.
From the “Talksho” by Stephen Koritta

       Published haiku poet and musician Stephen Joseph Koritta, 39, fell in love with poetry, particularly the haiku form, when he was a freshman in high school. 

     “Haiku, as part of the creative writing curriculum, tends to be less about historical context, the subtle economy of phrase or careful use of imagery, than it is about fostering of adherence to a form that at times makes it seem more like a frustrating word game than a vital literature.

     I recall such instruction going by in a flash, intermingled with half-hearted forays into sonnets and quatrains.

     I came away a much better counter of syllables but not much further along in my understanding of just how haiku functions and what it requires. 

     That segment of my haiku education has been independent and ongoing (since) I had its genesis in my late teens.”

Koritta considers haiku to be comfort food and therapeutic.  He studied the great Haiku masters Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, Beat-poet Jack Kerouac and haiku translators Kenneth Rexroth and R.H. Blyth. 

He also studied art history, studio drawing, and graphic design at Southwestern Illinois College, and managed to record his jazz-inspired CD Origami

While doing concerts for Origami, he met poets who encouraged him to not only write haiku but to publish.    

“Donna Biffar and Wayne Lanter, who were circulating a poetry supplement called River King, hosted campus literary functions.

It was at a function of theirs that I met poet, P.F. Allen, and where “Talksho” began to germinate.”

Publisher and poet P.F Allen publishes first works of Midwestern poets through her magazine The Moon Reader and through her publication company Snark Publishing. 

Allen published Koritta’s first haiku, pertaining to 9/11, in The Moon Reader.  Allen sought Koritta out to see if he would be interested in writing a chapbook on haiku.  The end result was the chapbook “Talksho.”

     “With that, I was motivated to tame my tangle of phrases into chapters and forage through my student portfolio for suitable illustrations.  “Talksho,” as a project, was an accumulation of verses and artwork spanning the better of three years. I had a hazy sort of notion of gathering them in print but pursued the matter leisurely.”

       The title “Talksho,” with a macron over the o, is more than just the title of Koritta’s chapbook but also a dedication or homage to his favorite poet, Matsuo Basho.

“What he said to his students, "Learn about the pine from the pine" goes a long way to highlighting the backseat one's ego must take to render a verse that is both heavy with meaning while at the same time lighter than air.

Haiku isn't trying to be some poet’s description of the sunset but the sunset itself. It draws comparisons without resorting to simile.”


1. In the Western World, Haiku is three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.  However, most Haiku American writers find the 17-syllable count too many and narrow the form to three lines consisting of 12 to 13 syllables.

An example is the 13 syllable haiku by Jack Kerouac :   
              “One flower (3)
                on the cliffside (4)
                nodding at the canyon (6).”  

2. In the traditional Eastern World, Haiku is one line consisting of 17 syllables.

An example is Matsuo Basho’s “old pond”: 
fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu no o-to (5)

3. Haiku is simply the Opening Verse of a Linked Verse Poem form called Renga.
The most famous Renga poet is Sukioka Yoshitoshi.

4. Haiku contains a special season word, the Kigo, which is representative of the season or the natural world in which the Renga is set.

5. Usually the three different lines have a distinct grammatical break called the Kireji.  The Kireji is usually placed at the end of either the first five or the second five syllables.  In Japanese there are actual Kireji words.  In English, the Kireji is often replaced with commas, hyphens, ellipses, or implied breaks in the haiku.


The Japanese short-form poem, hokku, originated from the classical linked form called renga.  There are two types of renga, the short renga (tanrenga) and the long renga (chorenga).
Basho composed the following in hokku in 1689:
fūryū no hajime ya oku no taueuta
beginnings of poetry—
the rice planting songs
of the Interior
(trans. Haruo Shirane)

The tanrenga has a 5-7-5-5-5 structure. The first 5-7-5 of tanrenga is called choku (the longer verse) to which answers the remaining 7-7 tanku (the shorter verse).
The earliest surviving  renga is in the Man'yōshū, where Ōtomo no Yakamochi and a Buddhist nun ( ama?) made and exchanged poems with sound unit counts ("on") of 5-7-5 and 7-7.[2] This two-verse style is called tan-renga (短連歌?, "short renga").

The chorenga consists of an alternating succession of choku and tanku.  The first verse of a chorenga is choku (5-7-5) that is also called hokku, the opening verse.  The second is a tanku (7-7).

Yamazaki Sokan (1465 – 1553) and Arakida Moritake (1473-1549) developed the haikai no renga, which is a playful linked verse.

Late 1500s To Early 1600s

Haikai poet Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653) founded the Teimon School.  The Teimon School focused on deliberate conversation that made haikai both popular and dependent on wordplay.

Nishiyama Soin (1605 – 1682) founded the Danrin School, which explored people’s daily life for other sources of playfulness.

Late 1600s To Early 1700s

Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694) and Ueshima Onitsura (1661-1738) made haikai more popular and widely known.

The next famous style of haikai to arise was that of Yosa Buson (1716-1783).

1781 – 1789
The Tenmei style of haikai is developed and the Tenmei Era takes place.

Late 1700s To Early 1800s

Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827) takes an individualistic approach to haikai, which includes revealing his sad childhood and his devotion to Buddhism. 

Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902) revised the hokku poetry form into haiku by making the opening verse of haikai no renga into an independent poem.  Shiki was the one who discarded the term hokku and called his revised verse haiku.  As a result, Shiki became the first haiku poet.

Paul-Louis Couchoud introduced hokku to France.  Early Imagist theoretician F.S. Flint read Couchoud’s writings and shared those writings with poet Ezra Pound.

Pound, influenced by Couchoud’s writings wrote “In A Station of the Metro”.
The apparition of these faces in the

Petals on a wet, black bough.

1949 – 1952
Englishman R.H. Blyth publishes his own four-volume work of haiku, which introduced haiku to the post-war world.

Haiku was first translated into a western language, Spanish, by Mexican Poet and Nobel Prize Winner Octavia Pas in the book, Sendas du Oku.”

Charles E Tuttle Company publish Japanese-American scholar and translator Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku:  Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities.” Kenneth Yasuda’s translations conform to a 5-7-5 syllable count in English with the first and third lined end-rhymed.  

“An Introduction to Haiku:  An Anthology of Poems from Poets from Basho to Shiki” by Harold G. Henderson is published.  Henderson translated every hokku and haiku into a rhymed tercet (a-b-a) where as the Japanese originals never used rhyme.  Henderson recognized that the seventeen syllables in English are longer than the seventeen syllables of a traditional Japanese haiku.  Henderson chose to emphasize the order of events and images in the originals, rather than counting syllables, which explains how English haikus have fewer syllables than the traditional Japanese of 17.

Photograph Description and Copyright Info

Photos 1, 3, 4, 16, 17, 19, 22,
Stephen Koritta
Copyright granted by Stephen Koritta

Photos 2, 18,
Jacket cover of “Talksho”

Photo 5
The best known Japanese haiku is Basho’s “old pond” transliterated into 17 hiragana.
Public Domain

Photo 6
fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu-to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu nu o-to (5)
Public Domain

Photo 7
Translated into English haiku.
Public Domain

Photos 8, 20, 21, 24, 28, 32
Matsuo Basho
Public Domain

Photo 9
Yosa Buson
Public Domain

Photo 10
Kobayashi Issa
Public Domain

Photos 11, 23,
Jack Kerouac
Photograph attributed to Tom Palumbo
Photograph taken in 1956
CCASA 2.0 Generic License

Photo 12
Kenneth Rexroth
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photos 13 and 41
R.H. Blyth
Public Domian

Photo 14
Wayne Lanter in Greece
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter.

Photo 15
Donna Biffar
Copyright granted by Donna Biffar

Photo 25.
Sukioka Yoshitoshi, Sogi, October 1892. From the Thirty-six Ghosts series. 9.25" x 14.25". The print depicts Sogi, priest and poet, writing a couplet for a ghost.

Photo 26
Image of the moon.
The moon is associated with the Autumn season in Japanese poetry.
This is an example of a “kigo” word in the “renga” is set.
Attributed to NASA
Public Domain

Photo 27
Image of the seven most common Kigos.
Public Domain

Photo 29a
Otomo no “Chunagon” Yakamochi and nun wrote the tanrenga, which usually requires two people:  one writes the “tanku” and the other responds with the “chocku”
Portrait attributed to Kano Tan’yu
Public Domain.

Photo 29b
Yamazaki Sokan
Public Domain

Photo 29c
Arakida Moritake
Public Domain

Photo 30
Matsunaga Teitoku
Public Domain

Photo 31
Nishiyama Soin
17th Century
Public Domain

Photo 32
Matsuo Basho
Public Domain

Photo 33
Ueshima Onitsura
Public Domain

Photo 34
Gravesite of Yosa Buson
Photo taken on July 11, 2014
Public Domain

Photo 35
Kobayashi Issa
Public Domain

Photo 36
Masaoka Shiki
Public Domain

Photo 37
Paul-Louis Couchoud
Public Domain

Photo 38
F.S. Flint
Public Domain

Photo 39
Ezra Pound in London on October 22, 1913.
Photograph attributed to Alvin Langdon Coburn
Public Domain

Photo 40
Ezra Pound in June of 1918
Photograph attributed to E.O. Hoppe
Public Domain

Photo 42
Octavio Paz
Public Domain

Photo 43
Jacket cover of “Sendas du oku.”

Photo 44
Jacket cover of “The Japanese Haiku:  Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities.”

Photo 45
Jacket cover of “An Introduction to Haiku:  An Anthology of Poems from Poets from Basho to Shiki”


  1. Thanks so much for such a thorough examination of what Hiaku is and it's history. I found this very educational.

  2. Dear clarbojahn,
    Thank you for reading. Your and your comment made my day. Do you write haiku?
    Take Care