It doesn’t seem quite fair to only recognize four individuals in the entire history of Haiku, but these four men have earned their spots in the pantheon of Haikuism (In the case of Bashō, he actually was deified). Before we begin, however, I would like to introduce and define a new term: Haikai no renga (“comic linked verse”, as it was a game of humor and wit). It was also known as Renku (“linked verses”) and Renga (“collaborative poetry”).
Haikai (for short, which actually meant “sportive/playful”) was a popular genre of Japanese linked verse, which developed in the sixteenth century out of the earlier aristocratic renga (long 100, 1,000, or 10,000-verse collaborative poetry games). It often derived its effect from satire and puns, though under the influence of Matsuo Bashō, the tone of haikai no renga (which had adopted a 36-verse format called a kasen) became more serious. At Renku gatherings participating poets take turns providing alternating verses of 17 and 14 on/morae (plural of Mora; phonetic unit measuring syllable weight. For example, in the two-syllable word mōra, the ō is a long vowel and counts as two morae). The first verse of a Renku/Renga was called the Hokku (later, Haiku). In English, the standard Haiku syllable count is 17 (5-7-5). To branch into Renku/Renga, someone starts with a Hokku and another builds upon it by linking to it two lines of 7 syllables each, for a total of 14 (7-7). From that 7-7, another repeats those 2 lines and adds another three (5-7-5). So, 5-7-5 + 7-7, 7-7 + 5-7-5, 5-7-5 +7-7, etc. Other rules include that the seasons change with every new verse, the subject changes, it cannot tell a story, the autumn moon must be referenced twice, the spring rains 3 times, etc. Also, just for reference, a stand-alone poem of 5-7-5-7-7 is called a Tanka (waka).
A sample starter Hokku for Renku/Renga might be:
“Breathe in the cool air
for the night is so gorgeous.
the bright Autumn moon.”
The next participant would repeat those 3 lines and add 2 more lines of 7 syllables each, following the rules:
“Her hair flowing in the wind
a fox scurries through the brush.”
The next participant would repeat those 2 lines and add another 3 lines of 5-7-5. The chain would repeat, subjects & seasons would continually change.
Now, onto the Great Four…
#1: Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
Born Matsuo Kinsaku, Bashō (banana tree) was the most famous poet during the Edo period in Japan, as well as a lay Zen monk. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites. Although Bashō is justifiably famous in the West for his hokku, he himself believed his best work lay in leading and participating in renku/renga (he was a famous Haikai master). He is quoted as saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses.”
Hokku (as Haiku was known in Bashō’s time) is the first verse of the collaborative haikai or renku, but its position as the opening verse made it the most important, setting the tone for the whole composition. Even though hokku had sometimes appeared individually, they were always understood in the context of renku. Bashō’s school promoted standalone hokku by including many in their anthologies, thus giving birth to what is now called “haiku” (a term promoted much later by 19th century poet Masaoka Shiki). Bashō also used his hokku as torque points within his short prose sketches and longer travel diaries. This sub-genre of haikai is known as haibun (a combination of prose and haiku). His best-known work, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Roads to the Interior, is counted as one of the classics of Japanese literature and has been translated into English extensively.
Bashō was deified by both the imperial government and Shinto religious headquarters one hundred years after his death because he raised the haikai genre from a playful game of wit to sublime poetry. He continues to be revered as a saint of poetry in Japan, and is the one name from classical Japanese literature that is familiar throughout the world.
#2: Yosa Buson (1716-1783)
Yosa Buson, born Yosa Taniguchi, was a Japanese poet and painter of the Edo period, and a lay Buddhist monk. Along with Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, Buson is considered among the greatest poets of the Edo Period. Around the age of 20, Buson moved to Edo (now Tokyo) and learned poetry under the tutelage of the haikai master Hayano Hajin. After Hajin died, Buson moved to Shimōsa Province (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture). Following in the footsteps of his idol, Matsuo Bashō, Buson traveled through the wilds of northern Honshū that had been the inspiration for Bashō’s famous travel diary, Oku no Hosamichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior). He published his notes from the trip in 1744, marking the first time he published under the name Buson.
After traveling through various parts of Japan, Buson settled down in the city of Kyoto at the age of 42. It is around this time that he began to write under the name of Yosa, which he took from his mother’s birthplace. Buson married at the age of 45 and had one daughter, Kuno. From this point on, he remained in Kyoto, writing and teaching poetry at the Sumiya. In 1770, he assumed the haigō (haiku pen name) of Yahantei (Midnight Studio), which had been the pen name of his teacher Hajin. He found his distinct voice partly from association with two dissimilar poets, Tan Taigi and Kuroyanagi Shoha, both of whom helped him develop his personal style.
#3: Kobayashi Issa (1773-1828)
Kobayashi Issa was a Japanese poet and lay Pure-Land Buddhist monk known for his haiku poems and journals. He is better known as simply Issa, a pen name meaning Cup-of-tea (lit. “one [cup of] tea”). He is regarded as one of “the great four” haiku masters in Japan, along with Bashō, Buson and Shiki.
Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great monetary instability. Despite a multitude of personal trials, his poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases, and ‘including many verses on plants and the lower creatures. Issa wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about one thousand verses on such creatures’. By contrast, Bashō’s verses are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all.
Reflecting the popularity and interest in Issa as man and poet, Japanese books on Issa outnumber those on Buson, and almost equal in number those on Bashō.
#4: Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Masaoka Shiki, pen-name of Masaoka Noboru, was a Japanese poet, author, and literary critic in Meiji period Japan. Shiki is regarded as a major figure in the development of modern haiku poetry. Indeed, he was the man responsible for renaming Hokku. He also wrote on reform of tanka (short poem of 5-7-5-7-7) poetry.
Contemporary to Shiki was the idea that traditional Japanese poetic short forms, such as the haiku and tanka, were waning due to their incongruity in the modern Meiji period. Shiki himself, at times, expressed similar sentiments. There were no great living practitioners, although these forms of poetry retained some popularity.
Despite an atmosphere of decline, only a year or so after his 1883 arrival in Tokyo, Shiki began writing haiku. In 1892, the same year he dropped out of university, Shiki published a serialized work advocating haiku reform, Dassai Shooku Haiwa or “Talks on Haiku from the Otter’s Den”. A month after completion of this work, in November 1892, he was offered a position as haiku editor in the paper that had published it, “Nippon”, and maintained a close relationship with this journal throughout his life. In 1895 another serial was published in the same paper, “A Text on Haikai for Beginners”, Haikai Taiyō. These were followed by other serials: Meiji Nijūkunen no Haikukai or “The Haiku World of 1896” where he praised works by disciples Takahama Kyoshi and Kawahigashi Hekigotō, Haijin Buson or “The Haiku Poet Buson” (1896-1897) expressing Shiki’s idea of this 18th-century poet whom he identifies with his school of haiku, and Utayomi ni Atauru Sho or “Letters to a Tanka Poet” (1898) where he urged reform of the tanka poetry form.
Sample work of Bashō:
“Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end –
Sample work of Buson:
“In pale moonlight
the wisteria’s scent
comes from far away”
Sample work of Issa:
“In spring rain
A pretty girl
Sample work of Shiki:
“The tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window”
*Note: If you’re wondering why these Haiku don’t follow the 5-7-5 rule, remember that these are not only translations of the original Japanese (which uses a different grammar system completely) but in Japanese, Haiku are written in a single vertical line of 17 on.