// Haiku: From Poetry to Literary Movement to Conceptual Art // Tammie Domingo

If one were to compose a haiku about the common conception of a Haiku, it would probably be fashioned in this manner:


three lines

five. seven. five.


Such a distinctively Japanese form of literature that evolved from the traditional to the contemporary  is only familiar to many by way of surface knowledge. To alter this typical notion, let us trace back and peruse over its history.

Come seventeenth century (17th c.) Tokugawa period, the status of the haiku was elevated thanks to the efforts of Matsuo Basho. Rooted in a Zen Buddhist philosophy, Basho’s poetry captured the meditative and contemplative life. His observations of the world, of everyday life, were taken into account vis-a-vis the traditional tinge of the pastoral and suburban; infused with Japanese cultural idiosyncrasies.

What we’ve thought as the essence of the haiku— that of which satisfies a 5-7-5 syllabic form — has since been debunked by Basho. Pertinence on content rather than form is actually  advocated where content is composed of the here and now, the transient and passing slices of life expressed through vivid and authentic descriptions. This characteristic is what makes it especially haiku.

To explore the traditional renderings of the haiku, provided below are some of Basho’s works:

Now the Swinging Bridge

Now the swinging bridge

is quieted with creepers

like our tendrilled life

On Buddha’s Death Day

On Buddha’s deathday, 

wrinkled tough old hands pray                   

the prayer beads’ sound   

On the Cow Shed

A hard winter rain;

Cock crowing.

On the cow shed

From hereon, Basho’s paradigm for the haiku has been adapted and further developed by his successors, metamorphosing into the coming eras. Contemporary adaptations revolutionized  the haiku, where for instance, The Beat Generation of the 1950s, an American literary movement, pioneered by Jack Kerouac and Yoko Ono’s long published yet recently recognized conceptual art are to take credit.

The Beatniks’ rebellion was creatively expressed through literature and music, thus, producing the Beat Generation. Their passive-aggressive reaction towards the prevailing mainstream culture of materialism, consumerism, and capitalism post World War II is reflective of a bold and straightforward Bohemian counterculture that recognized the forgotten human spirit and represented the “beaten down” cluster of society. Catalyzed by Jack Kerouac, author of the notable On the Road, their works are derivative of the haiku, as well as, romantic, surrealist, modernist, and Kierkegaard’s existentialist influences.   

Another is Yoko Ono’s instructional conceptual art with activist leanings. Ono is known for her peace campaigns (i.e. Bed In Peace) alongside her husband John Lennon, a former member of the Beatles.  Her works were officially acknowledge by MOMA only of last year and received praise for its “aphoristic style”.  Given Yoko’s Japanese origins, inspiration from the haiku and other cultural references are identifiable in her work. 

The stretch of influence of the haiku even to foreign writers and artists is quite remarkable. For it to be manifested in history as an era and art form shows a prevalent embodiment of the Asian soul.  What makes this Asian literature is its quality of truthfulness towards experience and life—untainted, raw, and real.


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