Steven Carter portrait

Stanford Professor of Japanese literature Steven Carter has published a new book on the early history of haiku. (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

Today's 'haikumania' – and the Stanford scholar who traces haiku's origins

From advertising to TV shows, haiku is everywhere. A Stanford author discusses its collaborative beginnings – half a millennium before New Age haiku icon Bashō was born.

Haikumania is everywhere. Steven Carter, a professor of Japanese literature at Stanford, suggests that haiku has become the most popular poetry form in the world.

It has spread even to advertising, in ways that would make the aesthetes grind their teeth. As an example, Carter throws Target's recent coupon booklet on his desk. It features "haiku-pons." Here's the first:

Fresh breath on a brush
Mint polish for your clippers
Make your momma proud

Haiku contests and haiku conventions are proliferating internationally. In Japan, a nationally broadcast haiku contest every week draws hundreds of thousands of viewers and thousands of amateur poets.

"You have to go to the Internet to make sense of it," said Carter, the author of a newly published book on the early history of haiku, Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō.

A Google search of the word "haiku" generates more than 37 million results. A quick tour of the Internet shows the effect of haikumania: you can find haiku for sociologists, gay haiku, pregnancy haiku, redneck haiku, baseball haiku and haiku for Jews. Not to mention rhythm-deaf examples like the advertising "haiku-pon."

The results are frustrating and cheering at once. Carter, a specialist in medieval and early modern Japan, pulls a stack of books from his shelves to demonstrate the volcanic eruption of haiku books, some of them from top-drawer publishers, some of them self-published.

Poets Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright and Billy Collins tried their hands at haiku – but then, so have second-grade schoolchildren. One Google software engineer even publishes a haiku a day on the website Haiku Diem, to a wider readership than most mainstream poets will ever see.

Has any form been so used, misused, even abused – and not only in the United States, but internationally?

"It's terribly liberating for people. It's perceived as being available in a way other genres are not," said Carter of the poetic form that follows a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

'Accessibility is its strength'

"If it gets elevated into something erudite, it won't be accessible. Its accessibility is its strength, but that also makes it easy to trivialize."

It was not always so. As Carter explains in Haiku Before Haiku, the form began in the 12th century as "hokku," literally the "initiating verse" for a long sequence of verse called "renga." Poetry was a group enterprise.

The master usually began the sequence and ensured that other participants followed the elaborate rules of the form. Love, seasons, transience are common topics. Friendship and death are not. Perhaps given the collaborative nature of the project, you won't find autobiography or confession included; "My dad died today" won't be the first line of any hokku.

Hokku always included a seasonal word. Cherry blossoms signified spring; the moon signified autumn. But seasonal giveaways such as springtime mud were considered coarse, Carter said, until the 17th-century master poet Matsuo Bashō "elevated comic verse into something serious."

In renga, the first participant would lead with a 5-7-5 syllable hokku, a verse that makes a complete, independent statement. The second capped the hokku on the spot with a 7-7 stanza. The third, fourth, fifth and later participants had unique rules to obey in creating the interlocking patterns of a group art.

A team of 20 people typically produced a hundred-verse sequence in a sitting. In the late 1600s, one poet writing in a marathon sequence by himself (such sessions had become fashionable, following all the same rules of group sessions) produced 23,500 verses.

The renga was insistently anti-narrative, shifting verse by verse within the vocabulary of a poetic tradition.

"It was a completely different attitude toward writing," said Carter. In some ways it was more like chess than sitting alone in a room, hunkered over a computer screen.

A symbol of education

An educated Japanese person was trained to compose extemporaneously within the strict tradition, since the presiding master and scribe "don't give you 20 minutes to go look up things in books," said Carter. In the same way a 19th century lady would be expected to sing or perform on the piano, the educated person was expected to produce at least a competent verse tout de suite.

Competent – but the best went way beyond that. Take this famous 1688 poem by Bashō, on his visit to his hometown (Carter doesn't always stick to the 5-7-5 when translating into English, which can result in "padding"):

Ah, the things
they call to mind!
Cherry blossoms.

Although it stands alone as a general statement, the hokku also alludes to an important death in the renowned poet's life. Bashō had been in service as a young samurai to Tōdō Sengin, who died in 1666. With that death, Bashō the samurai disappears from the historical record.

"He became a monk in a loose, superficial sense," said Carter. More importantly, he reemerges as a professional poet, eventually a renowned one, in a world where the linked verse was considered more a social party game than a profession.

All the poems in Carter's new book are the hokku from renga of either 100 or 36 verses – the first verse assigned to a poet of skill and experience.

Bashō is such a ubiquitous figure today – a 21st century version of what Rumi and Hafiz were a decade or so ago – that it's hard to separate the man from the barnacles of myth. The mythical Bashō is a solitary old hermit with a walking stick, wandering the natural world.

Far from being a recluse, however, a hokku master like Bashō was often a skilled negotiator and cultural diplomat. The poet's patrons might be in the renga circle. Powerful political figures, sometimes ferocious and vengeful ones, might want to play without the risk of correction.

Clearly, images of Bashō have been infected with the West's romantic tradition of individuality and art. Carter pulls another book off his shelf. It shows a manga-inspired portrayal of Bashō walking alone in the wilderness. In the next frame, a close-up of his forehead: inspiration strikes. "It's a power that comes over him, like electricity," Carter joked.

It's a kissing cousin of Joseph Severn's portrait of Keats on Hampstead Heath in moonlight, pen in hand, obeying the musical call of the nightingale – but far from the real world of the urbane and cosmopolitan hokku poet, working collaboratively on linked-verse renga within an elite Japanese literary circle.

The transfer of haiku to the West began when Commodore Perry sailed into the Japanese harbor in the 1850s, initiating a cultural explosion that rocked both shores. The West discovered Japanese woodblock prints, which in some shopping districts the Japanese had been using for wrapping paper. Japan was exposed to Wordsworth and the Western romantic tradition and "developed an inferiority complex, which hit haiku hard," said Carter.

By the early 20th century, the Japanese considered hokku a second-rate art.

The West, however, fell in love with what it called haiku, keeping only the first three lines of the long, complicated, collaborative form. (It wasn't entirely a Western idea: hokku had sometimes been published separate from the other verses since the 14th century.)

"Bashō was introduced to the West primarily after World War II, the age of the Beats," said Carter. The Beats were searching for what they saw as free-wheeling alternatives to Western culture. They threw Bashō into the same stew that Zen Buddhism and haiku were boiling in – but none of the three were particularly free-wheeling, nor did Zen play a strong role in the development of haiku or Bashō's poems.

"Zen has suffered the same fate as Bashō," said Carter. "It's very hard to break it free."

Or even control the contagion. Haikumania, like a cultural pandemic, may even be jumping species: Koko the Gorilla announced and judged a Twitter-based haiku contest to celebrate the primate's 40th birthday on the Fourth of July.

"You would never do that with a sonnet," said Carter.

Steven D. Carter, East Asian Languages and Cultures: (650) 725-8228, (650) 888-0393,

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,