Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part IV PDF Print E-mail

Is Haiku Dying?

by Robert D. Wilson


A stray cat
shits in my
winter garden

Masaoka Shiki
Transl. by Hirosaki Sato and Burton Watson
The Country of Eight Islands

Almost everyone’s familiar with the children’s tale Alice in Wonderland. A young girl named Alice isn’t satisfied with her life and often imagines living a better life.

One lazy afternoon, Alice lapsed into a daydream while sitting on the manicured lawn behind her parents’ huge country estate under an elm tree. A hare (jackrabbit) speeds past her in a hurry. Hares have longer ears than rabbits and are well-known for their speed, abetted with long hind legs. If you or I saw a hare speeding past us, we’d think nothing of it. Human’s aren’t their favorite critters for obvious reasons. Equally, hares aren’t a human’s favorite critter. Rabbits are better tasting than hares.

One moment Alice is under the shade tree thinking, and in the next, she hears the hare talking about being late, running like a human. Acting like this was a normal occurrence. Alice follows the hare to its warren, which, in the human world, is impossible to do due to the hare’s speed, and suddenly she is free falling down what seems like an endless black hole, her dress acting as a parachute.

No thud, horrific splat, a peep. The room she landed in was filled with light without a source. A strange new world without Aldous Huxley, in a continuum of time, where nothing was permanent, blue was green, and walls spoke in tongues. Alice grew, shrunk, and walked around as if she knew the place, and didn't think it odd that giant cats talked, caterpillars smoked, and oversized playing cards waited upon the Red Queen without a heart, who had a thing for chopping off heads. Did the Mad Hatter slip a tab of LSD in Alice's tea?

Daydreams aren’t always like the dreams one has at night. One enters a world that is not always what it seems to be . . . a dream within a dream, half awake, half asleep? A slow motion dream deeper than a regular dream? An ether world transference, a psychedelic journey into illusion she thought was reality. Hours in dreams are mere seconds. In time, Alice tired of the dreams she'd painted, an attack on the subconscious mind, where everything is and isn’t, where you can remain forever or leave the moment you find the roadmap and know what the hell to do with it.

Alice had no control over what she saw and experienced. Her conscious and unconscious minds were in a tug-o-war, so real, she didn’t know that whatever she wanted to think or see she could think or see. It was her movie to write, direct, and star in, in HD cinematic-color. Her unconscious mind was winning the tug-o-war so far, and she wanted to leave the warren, but like most dreams dreamt awake, Alice had to find the way out alone. What to do? Nothing was as it should be and there was no one around to help her.

Alice opened her eyes, and found herself under the huge tree behind her parents’ house, as if nothing has occurred, which we as readers know did occur, or are we the dreamers, and Alice, the canvas we make with subjective illusions, thinking we know the answers, which cannot be because no two people think the same, whatever reality is or isn’t? Plato wasn't Lao Tzu’s classmate in grade school, nor was the Buddha, Jesus' classmate.

Once upon a time, whatever the hell time means, the average Anglo-Westerner thought and perceived words differently than most Asians. Then again, no one on the planet thought or thinks the same. Not everyone with almond shaped eyes think alike. Not every Native American Indian shouted, “Wooooo, Woooooo,” and lived in a tepee. The Chinese and Japanese think differently. Croatians and Serbians, though neighbors, think differently. It applies to then and now, which just became then. Everything’s in a state of constant change, nothing is something; impermanence, a reality.

Anglo-Western science and philosophy cannot deny; is and isn’t, not a telegram to Alice from Wonderland wired by Al Hooka the smoking Caterpillar . . . just because you can’t see something, or understand it, doesn’t mean squat. Today, humankind has traveled through space; yesterday they thought the world was flat. A century from now, quantum physics will make what we know now, fossilized dung.

The more I study haiku, the more I find the Anglo-Western conceptualization of haiku to be a blender full of pride, laziness, misinformation, inbred racial prejudice (part of America's cultural memory is related to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the genocidal response by the U.S. Military via the dropping of two atomic bombs on two major Japanese urban centers, Hiroshima and Nagasaki); a watercolor of the subconscious mind playing hopscotch with a lack of discipline, and a big dollop of Japanese haiku theory influenced by the German-based university system's definitions of what is and isn't, thus the similarity today between Japanese and Anglo-Western haiku.

This is an area that demands study. There is a catalyst and an aftermath that has created a domino affect, with no end in sight. Haiku is quickly changing into something it isn't, with many claiming it to be an indefinable genre. Perhaps some haven’t found the way to escape Wonderland.

Different traditions, East and West, have come up with different ways to treat the subject or nature of aesthetics, from the bare perceptual data to illusions created by mirrors; from Plato, Socrates, and Nietzsche, to Confucius, Gotama Buddha and  Fujiwara noTeika; a lot of neurochemistry, some damaged chemistry, and a restless brush. Maybe teachers and students, via a course of events in Japan, have lost track of haiku's essence, regardless of the language they used to express themselves poetically. Think about this as we examine haiku; and do it with an open mind.

Many poets in Japan are jettisoning mimesis, are too proud to say their styles of haiku emanate from Western-influenced Shiki onward poetics; and see the type of poetry Basho composed as the way to become a mush melon. They forget that Matsuo Basho went against the rank and file of his day, inserting common language and new kigo into his hokku. His concept of change was not with the form, or in the dismissal of kigo; or changing its look. He was an intellectual, not a thinker. He had better insight into kigo than anyone of his day, and saw its becomingness as haiku’s activity-biased heart. Had Matsuo Basho not rebelled against the popular tide of the era and turned the haikai that was hokku into a separate genre made available to commoners, via the usage of common language and re-infusing zoka as the heart of hokku, none of us would be writing haiku today, in Japan or in the Anglo-West.

Wrote Yone Noguichi in his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry:

“It is my own opinion that the appearance of Basho, our beloved Hokku master, was the greatest happening of our Japanese annals; the Japanese poetry, which had been degenerating for centuries, received a sudden salvation through his own pain and imagination. His greatest hope, to become a poet without words, was finally realised; he was, as I once wrote on the Buddha priest in meditation:

‘He feels a touch beyond word,
He reads the silence's sigh,
And prays before his own soul and destiny:
He is a pseudonym of the universal Consciousness,
A person lonesome from concentration.’”

He sought change by instructing his followers not to imitate his poetic voice, but to find a fresh voice of their own. This is the duty of every good teacher: to teach the basics and teach them to be creative. Voice and structure are separate terms. How much more creative can one be if he or she is taught to follow the creative energy of the universe?  Matsuo Basho’s greatest change to haikai was turning it into a serious genre that took life and nature seriously, called hokku. He was one of a kind. Basho made poetry available to those living outside of the Imperial Court, thus letting the masses know that they too could compose haiku.

No haiku poet can be what Matsuo Basho called “a mush melon,” if we are true to the haiku spirit and follow the zoka as our guide. Basho said we’d be copycats (mush melons) if we copied his style. He urged haiku poets instead to learn from zoka, which is unpredictable and impossible to completely ascertain. The man or woman who can understand zoka just as well ordain him or herself as God. As individuals, what we think are ours alone, illusions patterned after culture memory, experience, reactions to events, parental upbringing, education, geographical biospheres, etc. Basho, Shiki, Shinkei, Shotetsu, Buson, and other greats poets from the annuls of Japanese poets taught us to study past masters, even those we didn’t agree with. Basho never suggested that people reinvent a genre to suit personal conceptualizations to the point where the genre was no longer identifiable as haiku.

Japanese, Anglo-Oceanic, and Anglo-Western poets need to read and reread the words penned by Kenneth K. Inada, excerpted from his book A Theory of Oriental Aesthetics, Vol. 47, 1997. Inada’s words are not an easy read and require contemplation and study; but by reading them in full, you’ll gain a better understanding of this paper’s importance.

Up until now, most Anglo-Westerners and many Japanese see and conceptualize haiku through the same academic mirror, though many are quick to say the opposite. Anglo-Westerners and the Japanese are proud people who think they are culturally superior. No living thing is superior in the Universe, including you and I.

Writes Inaga:

“Sophisticated logical forms, from the emotional to the psychological, the visceral to the non-visceral, from the intuitive to the obvious, from the imitative to unguided cerebral exploration, permanence to impermanence, from pure science to theory, a being that’s an object to a being that’s in a constant state of metamorphosis, even after it’s no longer; but who’s to decide an eternity we have no conception of past the realm of theory?”

Many nations, influenced by the German-based university system, are in a state of confusion, caught between a restructured Japanese language that interprets many words and terms via the Anglo-Western mindset that the Japanese have bought into.

Continues Inada:

“All of the theories have presented us with some sense of what aesthetics is all about, but at the same time none has captured that sense with absolute certainty and universality. At this moment, to be sure, we are unable seriously to engage aesthetic elements that are absolutely certain or universal in either the East or the West.”

Unlike Blyth, Yasuda and other scholars not versed in hermeneutics, aesthetics, anthro-linguistics, and pre-modern Japanese language, who saw haiku as a Buddhist genre, which no one thoroughly trained in the above would buy into today. Inada goes on to say:                        

“The Tao is then the criterion for true natural existence, though invisible for the most part, and comparable to the Buddhist Dharma, the true norm of existence. Both systems are in essence philosophies of process or becoming. In the West, especially from the early Greek period, the process thought of such thinkers as Heraclites, for example, was overshadowed in time by the brilliance and dominance of Plato, who argued cogently for being over becoming, permanence over impermanence, in laying the foundation of epistemology. Henceforth, we have been heirs to this Platonic legacy for over two millennia. The introduction of Christianity undoubtedly had a great role in perpetuating this legacy, for example, in sustaining the spirit over the flesh.”

---  And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and all over the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the seaand over the fowl in the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth ---

Genesis 1: 26-28
King James Bible

This view differs from the Japanese beliefs in Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and shamanic animism: God the Creator versus Nature, a non-divine force that is always changing and is never static.

Writes Toneko Tohta in his new book Poetic Conception on Living Things, translated from the Japanese by the Kon Nichi Translation Group of which Professor Richard Gilbert is a co-translator:

“Human beings are living things, flowers and birds are living things, cockroaches are living things, tigers are living things --- equally all living things  --- there is no need for one to obey the other. Human beings have parity with; that is, we are equal and equivalent as ikimono (living things, living beings).”

Tohta tells us this is the best concept to follow if we, as international haiku poets, want to build a beacon light of reason that will illuminate a new future for haiku poetry that will include acceptance by the Anglo-Western literary and Japanese literary mainstreams. 

This is how the Japanese were originally taught to believe from the beginning, before the Chinese colonized their island archipelago. As for those from the Anglo-West who believe in one of the many conservative Christian-Judeo belief systems that take the Bible literally, these people must understand that what God created, according to the Hebrew Old Testament and Torah, was an ideal world to be inhabited and ruled over by sinless people. When Adam and Eve were booted out of Eden for disobeying God, they became sinners, people who insisted on doing things their own way, but blaming every mishap on God. Without God to guide them, they procreated a physical world they’ve been destroying at a momentum that is speeding up, and have caused the extinction and near extinction of thousands of living things, including the genocide of human beings via an atomic power barely understood (March 11, 2011, Japan), global warming, warfare, pollution, tribal politics, greedy corporations, racial and ethnic hatred, and a quest for power. No creature is to rule over any other or over anything.

Maybe for now, unless humanity can get their act together one way or another, those in the Anglo-West, regardless of their belief systems, isms, or the lack of either, should heed Tohta’s words; words that are followed by many of the world’s indigenous tribes prior to and after the invent of civilization. Most tribal people learned to co-exist with nature. I call this paradise; a place where every kind of flora and fauna (including human beings) co-exist; instead of controlling and defining nature, we accept and learn from nature, taking nothing for granted. Currently in the world haiku community, zoka is primarily ignored as a teacher, with poets preferring instead, like Adam and Eve, to write whatever the hell they want to and still call it haiku.

In his book A Philosopher’s Poetry and Poetics Kuki Shuzo makes an important statement regarding contingency that applies to the juncture of Japanese and Anglo-English-language haiku. A herpetologist encounters a two-headed snake that emerged from a snake’s egg. The herpetologist, being a learned man regarding reptiles, doesn’t find the phenomena surprising, whereas an unlearned person most likely will be surprised. Things in nature are unpredictable (zoka) and cannot be explained. There could be several reasons why a snake is born with two heads. Two different orders of cause and effect have met by chance.

“This is the world as totality that forces us to be surprised. We cannot ban the emotion of surprise toward the actual world. The actual world as a whole is a contingent being in which things that are things that are not have the possibility of becoming, and in which things can come into being with a different form. That is why we feel surprise for contingency, and here a big, deep problem is cast in a form that has no solution.”

Like Tohta, Inada believes living beings are biological creatures, no more and no less, sculpting out their individual roles where they live, work, study and play, in wakefulness and in sleep. This creative endeavor is an experiential process in a continuum without end; a process involving non-perfect human beings, however, can be problematic, and slow down the perceptual process, when “the empirical and rational faculties take brief (at times, extended) missteps by attaching to the data themselves [what they observe on the surface].”  This distracts one from his or her becomingness, an alternate mental pattern where one’s senses and the mind hold sway over and direct the nature of an aware person’s ensuing becomingness. This becomes a problem in that none of us are perfect, none of us are haiku masters, and none of us have arrived. Buddha’s we are not!

Attachment and non-attachment, becomingness and non-being; permanence and impermanence; the said and the unsaid, activity-biased versus object-biased, koto versus mono, and other terms, weren’t always understood the same way in Japan and as they were in the Anglo-West. This is still true in many ways today. To communicate on common terms, the Anglo-Western dominant German-based university system (that I continue to mention because its role in the alteration of world haiku must be realized) chose the English language as its medium of instruction, which placed Anglo-Western thought as its springboard, making it hard for the Japanese people to express their cultural memory, which included defining words that didn’t exist before this union was formed, or changing the meanings of words that existed in pre-modern Japanese.

Posits Inada:

“This is a natural occurrence not necessitating being or non-being to dominate the other. The things we understand and fathom the moment they happen are much deeper than what appears on the surface. To ascertain truth, one needs to grasp the symmetrical and the asymmetrical to see something clearly.

This dynamic perception is similar to the surging surf at a beach, where its active foamy appearance belies the constant support and content it is receiving from the unseen, intangible forces. With some imagination, I delineate the surging and rolling nature of perceptual phenomena thus:

If the symmetric nature depicts the so-called forward thrust in ordinary perception, the asymmetric nature, contrariwise, depicts a backward thrust, but here the nature of the thrust is significantly different in that it is without an act of dichotomy and consequent attachment. In this sense, the asymmetric represents the ‘pure’ content as contrasted with the ‘impure’ content of the symmetric... In its non-attached nature, the asymmetric is not only pure but also open. And so in its backward thrust, it absorbs and accommodates everything including the content of the past as it gives way to the forward thrust of the symmetric. But prior to giving way to the symmetric, the open and pure asymmetric thrust has already been incorporated via fresh new grounds, which will be taken over by the symmetric forward thrust. The asymmetric serves then as the pure potential of the momentary, i.e., the moment in its full realization, steps back, so to speak, before stepping forward. In this way, the symmetric-asymmetric relationship is a continuum of cyclic phenomena, a unique pulsation of interlocked momentary. Oriental dynamics, then, is always full or holistic, with the ‘presence’ of the unseen non-being or asymmetric component at play in the process.”

When composing haiku, we must see beyond the surface, entering into the being-ness of nature as orchestrated creatively by zoka. Being-ness is a verb, not a noun. When everything we see, experience, smell, touch, and hear is in continual movement, it only makes sense to embody the object and enter into its becoming-ness, versus entering into an object with preformed subjectivity, seeing, in essence, only the surface of the incoming wave. Such a belief doesn’t run counter to Anglo-Western theological and philosophical beliefs. Think of the new C-scans that take multi-dimensional pictures of a person’s brain. The time will come, via quantum physics, that doctors will be able to get an entire movie of every part of the way, inside and outside, nothing excluded, that will enable them to operate on patients using such a device (instead of multi-dimensional they will be all-dimensional). Who would have thought at the beginning of the 20th century that one day people would be able to watch talking movies, let alone ascertain the concept of television and personal computers?

“To ignore this component,”Writes Inada, “is to remain with a truncated vision and understanding [“the symmetric-asymmetric relationship is a continuum of cyclic phenomena, a unique pulsation of interlocked momentary. Oriental dynamics, then, is always full or holistic, with the ‘presence’ of the unseen non-being or asymmetric component at play in the process.”]. But its ‘presence’ means the opening up of a whole new realm and vision of things that are in store for us. In this dynamic, the initial point of contact between being and non-being or symmetric and asymmetric is most significant and crucial. It is precisely here that I wish to make bold to assert that Oriental aesthetics begins at the very contact point of being and nonbeing (symmetric and asymmetric), a point where there is a ‘balance,’ though short-lived and momentary, within the becomingness of things. Yet it ‘exists’ in becomingness by virtue of its ‘presence’ as sensed in subsequent becomingness.”

How one captures the existence and presence of something is not an impossible question to ascertain and answer. The answer is easy to bypass because some see it as a puzzle to figure out, like a Zen koan. The answer is: Become the becomingness. Don’t become the wave as you see and conceptualize it from the surface. Each of us are in a continual state of becoming, therefore, we are becomingness. We all know there’s more to us than our outer-selves. Who is the we inside of each of us? Are we in a state of becomingness, or are we actualized and no longer in need of growth? And when we die? Our thoughts continue, our heritage continues; my first wife’s ashes were scattered in a year round stream; my parents’ ashes were lowered with their fishing hats using a weight at the exact same sight in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Palos Verdes, California. Where the ashes go or how they are used or settled below the water isn’t known. Whether or not there is an afterlife is for you to answer.

According to an old Chinese story, Ch'an Master Ma-tsu made fun of a monk for telling him that all of the wild geese had flown from the area. "You say the geese have left,” said Master Ma-tsu, “but they have been here from forever.”  Master Ma-tsu was teaching the monk that becoming is without direction nor objects to cling to; the truth lies in the now of becomingness instead of following what’s presented by the senses (that can be bio-chemically damaged).

In a Daoist tale from theZhuangzi, Chuang Tzu referred to goblet words (chih-yen) as representative of the nature of becomingness; in which a conversation using these words could transpire without a word being spoken that could be carried on all day long. Could Chuang Tzu find someone to talk to in goblet words? A goblet is a bowl-shaped cup made from glass or metal that can be filled with water or wine, and empties itself only to be refilled. The process is unable to be limited, but the job is done with ease. So should it be with all dialogues.

To compose haiku, every word counts. One’s goblet needs to be filled. One has to say something deep in 17 syllables or less. The only way this can be accomplished is via the utilization of Japanese and other aesthetic tools, used not as a mimesis but as styles that bring to surface the unsaid. Personally, I prefer Japanese aesthetics (styles) as they’ve been used for centuries to give a voice to the unsaid. It’s when the unsaid and said conjugate via ma (the dreaming space just before the juxtaposition of two opposites), and the length of the ma that makes a haiku resonate like a monk’s chant. Think of an orator building up to a climax, his voice rising, slowly at first, them building momentum . . . the audience in a state of anticipation, then suddenly, a semi-long pause, followed by a whisper, the speech’s climax. This is ma; not a stop, but a state of becomingness; the audience thinking, dreaming, anticipating, becoming: an activity-biased space which appears on the surface to be a stop, but beneath the surface, there’s a creative, intuitive movement the audience can’t see, but feels. We must also be cognizant of the fact that anything can be poured into a goblet of words. It’s the mixture, the ingredient, and the words that are formed that make or breaka good haiku.

An example of a pouring mixed goblet of words:

Short one-lined poems that lack depth are easy to compose, and it doesn’t take much thought or effort. Most modern England-language one-liners are incomplete sentences, possess no meter, and often tell all.

When I was studying for my teaching credential, I remember a professor friend of mine (we were the same age) who assigned a topic for his students, including me, to write an essay on. Several of the younger students came up to him after class and asked him, “What do you want us to say? How Can we get a good grade?” He looked at me astonishingly, then looked into his students eyes and said. “I want you to think. That’s why you are in this university. I won’t give you an answer. Each of you knows how to think and have your own opinions. Express them well.”

“But, but . . .”they started to say. He ignored them, turned around, and asked me if I wanted some coffee. “You know what?” - he asked me on the way to the university cafe.  “Students today want everything easy. They want their grades handed to them on a platter. No one wants to think. All they care about are grades.”

The same goes with haiku composition. There’s no formula to follow, though many use formulas: line one is reserved for a nature word which illustrates and sets the scene for the juxtaposition with lines two and three, which are usually object- (mono, subjective) biased, having to do with nature.

An example:

cinnamon breeze
his fingers as he dips
the churro

Deborah P. Kolodji
Wild Violets
Yuki Teikei Haiku Society
Member’s Anthology 2011

This is a well-done Imagist short poem, and as such, it’s a joy to read. In a paper she penned included in the anthology Urban Ginko Kolodji talks about taking walks in urban areas, in which she takes nothing for granted, and writes down on a list, what she terms “haiku fragments”:

“. . .  I often write lists of haiku fragments instead of taking the time to try to compose a finished poem. I jot down everything I notice [which is a good idea].”  Later, she’ll “start to juxtapose the fragments I’ve written against each other.” She is careful to separate seasonal observations from non-seasonal observations [another fine idea]:

Seasonal: “ . . . plastic poinsettias, winter solitude, winter streets, migrating birds, gray morning.”

Non-seasonal [a partial listing]:  “ . . . musical ranchera, the smell of leather, toddler blows a toy flute, her nose ring, the bare skin of Aztec dancers . . .

Writes Kolodji:

“Writing haiku fragments is freeing, allowing me to focus on what I am experiencing in the moment, without the pressure of trying to make a poem work.”

cinnamon breeze
his fingers as he dips
the churro

Deborah P. Kolodji

This poem isn’t an activity-biased haiku. It is, however, a well-written object- (subjective, mono) biased haiku-like poem. There are those who’ll disagree, of course, but said disagreements, more often than not, lack a well-researched academic basis with scant historical backing. It becomes a matter of friends backing up friends.

As an artist, I like Kolodji’s short Imagistic poem. Its description, the “cinnamon breeze,” illustrates the last two lines well, painting a subjective painting that tells all. As defined in The Dictionary App. included with the Safari OS: “Juxtaposition is the placement of two things (usually abstract concepts, though it can refer to physical objects) near each other.” There is also the term, “Random juxtaposition: two random objects moving in parallel, a technique intended to stimulate creativity.”

Kolodji’s poem uses “cinnamon breeze” (which has no tie-in with zoka, the creative, unpredictable force of the universe), as a compound descriptive adjective. What’s left for a reader to interpret? What gives the unsaid a voice? For a haiku to be a haiku, it has to follow specific guidelines. If one argues, as some do, that English- and Japanese-language haiku are two separate genres, then why are they called by the same name? Poetic genres are distinct poetic forms.

Kolodji uses a formula taught by many modern Japanese and modern Anglo-Western haiku-like poets. It looks like haiku, but technically, it isn’t.  

Since humans are a part of nature, and if zoka is vital to the composition of haiku, as Basho taught his disciples, having learned this philosophy via the Daoist Zhuangzi and Buddhist teachings (in Chinese zoka is called zaohua), haiku poets should follow the examples of those who were successful before them; whose poetry is still remembered; those who believed in the becomingness of everything in nature, of which we are a part; orchestrated by zoka, the unbridled, unpredictable creative spirit of nature . . .: haiku masters like Buson, Basho, Issa, Chiyo-ni, and Hayano Soa (Buson, incidentally, who was held in high esteem by Shiki, worked for Soa as a domestic helper and scribe, having little financial resources other than the small amount he earned from selling some of his paintings. Soa admired Buson and took it on himself to be Buson’s haiku teacher).

Wrote Makoto Ueda in his book The Path of Flowering Thorns: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson:

“Buson’s master Soa, known as haijin in his earlier years, had studied haikai in Edo under Takari Kikaku (1661-1707) and Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), two early disciples of Basho.”

Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffert in their book Haiku Master Buson translated a segment from the Preface to The Collected Haiku of Shundei [Shoha] penned by his son, Shundei Kushu jo in 1771.

In the preface, Shoha's son cites a conversation between his father and Yosa Buson:

“There are no gateways to haiku. There is only the haiku gateway itself. Here, I will only quote a theory of fine art. Great artists do not set up a gateway [school]. A gateway exists naturally. Take all the streams into your water bag and keep them and choose for your naturally. It is the same with haikai too. Take all the streams into your water bag and keep them and choose for yourself what is good and use it for your purposes. Think for yourself about what you have inside yourself. There is no other way. But, still, if you don’t choose appropriate friends to communicate with, it is difficult to reach that world.”

“Shoa [Shundei] asked, ‘Who are the friends?’

“I answered, ‘Call on Kikaku, visit Ransetsu, recite with Sodo. Accompany Onitsura [Basho’s associates, all dead at this time]. Day after day you should meet these four old poets and get away from the distracting atmosphere of the cities. Wander around the forests and drink and talk in the mountains. It is the best way if you acquire haikai naturally. Thus should you spend every day and some day you will meet the four poets again. Your appreciation of nature will be unchanged. Then you will close your eyes and seek for words. When you get haiku, you will open your eyes. Suddenly the four poets will have disappeared. No way of knowing where they became supernatural. You stand there alone in ecstasy. At that time, flower fragrances come with the wind and moon-light hovers on the water. This is the world of haikai.”

A swallow has erased a rainbow above the face of the sea

Trans. Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson
The Country of Eight Islands


Under flying sweetfish clouds flow in a stream

Uejima Onitsura
Trans. Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson
The Country of Eight Islands


Harvest moon,
And mist creeping
Over the water.

Hattori Ransetsu
Translated by Robert Hass

Writes Jane Baker in her paper Soft upon My Shutters, published in Yellow Moon:

“Ransetsu was concerned with time passing, with the transience of beauty, with capturing the unity of man and the natural order in the experience of natural phenomena and universal processes.

A hallmark of Ransetsu's work is his compassion for all living things and their condition.”

Taking me along
my shadow comes home
from moon-viewing

Trans. by Fumiko Y.Yamamoto and Akira Y.Yamamoto
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems

Buson, in essence, was influenced by Basho via a student of his disciples. When studying the lives of Buson and Basho, one observes that the two were not equal halves of a mush melon. They did, however, have in common the belief in zoka. When we can go to and return to the zoka, and see nature as an equal, instead of an underling, we can transform our haiku into a form of becomingness: activity- (koto, process) biased poetry. So did most of those they influenced. Buson had more in common with Basho than Shiki had with Buson.

The opposite happens when a poet focuses his poem on an object. A photograph is taken, a painting painted. Nothing’s forever except the universe; a continuum of time that builds, destroys, rebuilds, alters, with the metaphysical in its wake; a path built in the past that always was, never ended, and never ends. We are impermanent building blocks (our thoughts, our aura; our illusions and ashes) that continue what is and isn’t. The becomingness of one who has become a partner with zoka.

Writes Professor Peipei Qui in her book Basho and the Dao:

“In his famous haibun, Oi no Kobimi (essays in my pannier [part of a skirt looped up around the hips], 1687), Basho declares that zoka is the single most important principle that runs through all arts.”

Zoka is a Chinese principle that originated in the Daoist tome, the Zhuangzi, and was adopted by Chinese sages, philosophers, writers, artists, and poets.

States Qui:

“ . . . zoka implies the workings of the Dao in natural creation and transformation of all things and beings. Applied to artistic creation, it refers primarily to naturalness and spontaneity.”

To understand zoka and the real meaning of kigo from a pre-Shiki Japanese standpoint, one must enter into the Japanese mimetic Daoist mindset (their conceptualization of Chinese Daoist principles as applied to their culture). Prior to Basho, haikai was a comic verse not taken seriously (much like the quips and laugh-lines used by comedians and many poets who think they are composing senryu). Matsuo Basho and others wanted haikai to mature.

An example of a haikai composed by Zokan:

The Sao Goddess
at the arrival of spring
stands when pissing

Saohime no / haru tachinagara  / shito o shite

Teimon haikai Shu, vol. 1, in KHT, ed. Nakamura Shunjo and Morikawa Akira, chapt, 1:44

Compare the haikai above to the following senryu, written by David Giacalone, in Simply Senryu, 2010:

Palm Sunday -
the boys giggle
when the priest says "ass"

David Giacalone

and to this haiku listed under the header:

Editor’s Choices, in Heron’s Nest, Volume XIII,
Number 3: September, 2011:

nuclear disaster—
the heads of state
share a cucumber

Robert Witmer

Writes Qui:

“Through the dynamic process of reading and reinterpretation of the Zhuangzi, the haikai poets borrowed the foreign and the old to reinvent the indigenous and the new, transforming haikai from an entertaining past-time to a poetic form that was at once uniquely Japanese and universal.”

The Japanese created the haiku genre. It is impossible to view haiku any other way without either bastardizing haiku or turning it into an altogether different poetic genre, with a non-mimetic name. To call two different genres with two separate outlooks the same name is absurd. Americans didn’t invent haiku before the Japanese or haiku of any form.

The American love affair with haiku came about a decade after the United States Armed Forces annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and took temporary possession of the country, which included forcing the Japanese Emperor to humiliatingly declare that he was not a God, and would never again lead his country politically. The American Government helped Japan form a democratic government with the contingency that they never use atomic energy in any way (March 11, 2011).

People at the time, in the United States, including children (I was one of them), were also indoctrinated by racist cartoons (remember Black Sambo, and the corny characterizations of Japan’s emperor in Saturday afternoon movie matinees in the 1950’s and early 1960’s made by Looney Toons); the satirical comedians, and biased newsreels. Racial segregation was still practiced in many Southern U.S. states. Many people belonging to the Haiku Society of America lived in the 1940’s and 1950’s. 

A thought, not a dictum: Is it possible that many Americans still do, like those living today in the Philippines, harbor a deeply embedded resentment and anger towards the Japanese, especially those reared in families that lost relatives in the war, or whose relatives were forced to walk in the infamous “death march” of Bataan? Could this, in any way, influence the desire of some Anglo-Westerns to turn haiku into an American genre free of what many label Japanization”?

Only a blind person would deny the hatred many Americans have for Muslims after 911, and the prejudice of Whites towards Blacks, and Blacks towards Whites since the formation of the United States, a land stolen from indigenous tribal peoples.

Not everyone composing haiku in America today are liberal, compassionate, forgiving Buddha’s. Prejudice often occurs when a person or race think they are better than others.

During World War II and after the war, many in America and its then territory, the Philippines, where babies were bayoneted and women forced into prostitution, were biased against the Japanese just as many Vietnam Veterans today are biased against Vietnamese people in the U.S. or in Vietnam. The running joke by many comedians after World War II was if something was cheap and poorly made, it was made in Japan.  Prejudice is often culturally ingrained by major adult role models like one’s parents.

I'm not fond of Japs
But at least they're not Negroes
And Haiku is fun

Mark Rivers


Leaving the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

For literally eons, Buddhism and Daoism have served as guides for individual integration and emulation in Japan. Albeit, steady balance is a goal that’s attainable by serious and dedicated training to fend off any movement toward the realm of being.

This is not to say that we must become Confucians, Buddhists, Daoists, Shintoists, and shamanic animists to compose haiku. It does mean, however, that we need to better understand the thinking behind those who gave the world haiku and to see Japanese aesthetics as a series of poetic styles (not belief systems) that unearth the unsaid, and make the best use of a minimalist poem consisting of 17 syllables or less. It is through study, daily in-depth practice, emulation, more practice, more composition, and the willingness to empty ourselves as beings that are or are becoming that we can better learn to compose haiku. A non-Japanese poet doesn’t have to drink tea, sit on a bamboo mat, and write about cherry blossoms and silk sleeves to produce quality haiku. We must be ourselves, but also disciplined in how to write haiku. Non-adherents of Japanese faiths do not need to give up their belief systems to compose unforgettable haiku as Svetlana Marisova successfully pointed out via haiku expressing her belief in Catholicism:

deep within
I dissolve; I dissolve
into God

pouring blood
over the altar . . .
winter lamb


this stillness
in the still turning world . . .
my thunder

Svetlana Marisova

I wrote this for Svetlana a few days before she passed on:

in the palms
of God’s hands, a light
with wings

robert d. wilson

Another example of a well-written haiku composed outside of a Japanese ethos:

under a wild sea
the earth’s heart breaks open
into birth

Margaret D. McGee
Haiku the Sacred Art 


Posits Onada:

“It should be noted that the well-trained expert in any field, such as the martial arts, has by and large mastered this balance in perception and is thus able to function creatively. The expert is also at home with whatever techniques are required, but these are, in the final analysis, secondary and ancillary to the basic retention of balance in being-in-nonbeing. In the creative realm, the aesthetic quality exhibits itself in terms of the sustenance of the balance in becomingness. That is to say, rather than a once-displayed phenomenon of balance, the expert is able to preserve it in such a way that his work will issue forth something novel and unique. The aesthetic quality arises in virtue of capturing the balanced dynamic becoming or the fluid complimentary of sustained being-in-nonbeing. It should be noted that any polarization in the realm of being and attendant attachment to its elements will prevent the rise of any aesthetic quality since becomingness will now be dominated by a mechanical nature procedure wherein elements are repeated in a strained sense. We could refer to this mechanical and repetitive nature as a form of ontological lag because such a nature deviates from and blocks the harmonious function of becomingness. The lag specifically refers to the attachment to the diversionary elements and slows down, so to speak, the natural flow of things.”


nothing but ink to nail

Becomingness is a key concept in the composition of haiku. Haiku is not object- (subjective, mono, or static) biased poetry. To exclude the essence of nature, using it instead as icing on a cake or as a comparative illustration to something said or seen, destroys the premise of the haiku Matsuo Basho realized, and the waka poets before Basho realized. The same goes for all poets after Basho’s death, who remained true to the foundation hokku was based upon: zoka, impermanence, and becomingness.

The word “kigo” is defined as a season word or indicator by most Japanese and English- language haiku journals, on-line and off-line. Nothing else is usually said regarding the definition of kigo. Kigo, however, is so much more. Because of the modern world’s ignorance of the term, via indoctrination by the German-based university system, and the laziness of pseudo scholars, kigo is often thought unnecessary in Japan and in the Anglo-West. This is perhaps why some say a haiku like Claire Everett’s below is not a haiku (it has no kigo in the Japanese saijiki), and why some poets are switching to key words not found in saijikis:

vagabond sun . . .
nothing but ink to nail
my shadow


vagabond sun...               Vagabond nor sun is a universal key word      

                                         and we are not bound by Japanese      

                                         saijikis. Here in the Philippines, for

                                         example, the sun is almost always present.

my shadow                       Shadows occur all year long. To call one

                                         a seasonal indicator would be ludicrous.

The use of “vagabond sun” indicates an act of nature guided by zoka that cannot stay still, and is a continuum of becomingness.

A “shadow” is an act of nature caused by an interaction of darkness and light, without set design, also in a state of becomingness. Everett’s poem, of course, is an activity- (process/koto) biased haiku not centered around an object described subjectively. It is the state of becomingness (the process) that makes her haiku stand out, and memorable.  Because the sun is in a continual state of motion, it continually travels over high trees, behind mountains and clouds; her shadow, lightly visible, allegorically can only be still in the thick of darkness (“ink”) enhanced by the word “nail.”

Claire Everett
Simply Haiku, upcoming Autumn/Winter issue

Wrote Shinkei in Sasamegoto (13:139) and translated by Professor Esperanza Rameriz-Christensen in her book Emptiness and Temporality:

“A man who is ignorant of the Way is blind to the shifting of the four seasons, unaware of the deeply fascinating Principle [en fukaki kotowari] coursing through the forms and colors of the ten thousand realms. He spends his whole life before a blank wall with a jar pulled over his head.”

Kigo is a zoka indicator. Zoka is the creative power of nature that sculpts the universe, creates the seasons, empowers the seasons, shifts the seasons, even when tampered with by humankind. No season is the same every year, nor is the weather. There are droughts, places in the Congo under an umbrella of dense growth that have never experienced sunlight, places that never experience rain; Arctic and Antarctic regions that experience sunlight for half a year, and nighttime for another half. Unfortunately, Japanese poets, by tradition, used kigo (nature) words from saijikis that originated from Japanese Emperors and their Courts. They were limiting (because a poet could only use the words in said saijikis to describe the season the saijiki said it designated, even if the word they wanted to use could be used to describe what was occurring in another season [a plasticity in a poem that was supposed to be based on truth]). As evidenced during the Meiji Reformation period, the Imperial Court ordered saijikis to be rewritten, and even distorted historical facts, to reflect and maintain the Confucian reign of the Emperor, who feared that Anglo-Western influence would topple the government and introduce them to concepts that strayed from group think.

Writes Professor David Landis Barnes:

“Life is animated by a divine breath, which unifies all things in a single cosmic vitality, yet makes all things distinct. Nature is ever shifting, and these transformations --- of each moment and through the four seasons --- are the flourishing of life. They give rise to deep feelings and to outstanding art. The artist and every cultured person should return to this cosmic creativity, recognizing its beauty, and follow its movements.”

Wrote  Kobayashi Issa: 

“Single mindedly we should devote ourselves to befriending the four seasons, following the way of nature, and revealing the truth that lies in our hearts, instead of concerning ourselves with verbal elegance.”

Transl. by Makoto Ueda
Dew on the Grass

You don’t need a saijiki if you are alive and have been outdoors, or can see through a window, as Shiki did, when he was bedridden. Nature is everything natural that exists in a universe that has no beginning or end. Zoka is the creative force (not a deity) that shapes and reshapes the totality of nature, of which the earth and humankind play a small part.

Is there a vast difference between the Japanese terms “becomingness” and “non-being,” and the following Christians terms:

“Be ye perfect,” spoken by Jesus in Matthew 5:48 (NT) in his Sermon on the Mount (in the Greek language this term was penned in), is translated: ‘Be ye continually growing’ [becoming], and what Jesus said in Luke 9:23: “For he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.”

Compare these definitions with this excerpt from the Daoist book Dao De Jing:

“A journey of 3,000 miles begins with one step. If one tries to improve a thing, he mars it; if he seizes it, he loses it. The wise man, therefore, not attempting to form things, does not mar them, and not grasping after things, he does not lose them . . . One must be careful to the end as at the beginning if he is to succeed.”

Dao De Jing
Chapter 64

Laozi’s telling his readers not to interfere with the process of becoming. Becomingness is continual. Even when we die, the cycle of becomingness prevails. Some believe we enter a spiritual realm, some believe our memories continue to grow, sometimes as a reinvention. Nothing is static.

Whether there are vast differences between the two schools of thought presented above, given their opposite philosophical birthing grounds, is unimportant to a person writing haiku. One can even be an atheist.

Aesthetics, when balanced and used correctly via suggestion instead of “telling all,” are valuable tools. The purpose of a haiku is not to convert one to another’s religion or culture. The purpose of a haiku is to stimulate your mind and get you to step into an event- (process, koto) biased activity with a mind emptied of preconceptions and thoughts based upon the experiential; to interpret a haiku via pure observation and a concatenation with the unpredictable, non-static, creative power of nature; the birthplace of cognitive insight: zoka (something humankind has yet to control).

Problems arise when humans see into a haiku something they are looking to reinforce in their own lives. They want it to be a mirror instead of the Dao (translated: path). 

For example:

Matsuo Basho composed a hokku for his students that was and still is grossly misunderstood by many Anglo-Western poets and the Japanese poets they colonized via getting Japan to adopt the German-based university system and its views of philosophy, aesthetics, the arts, poetry, prose, even science, though semi-mitated, as the Japanese did with the Chinese language; this and the continued watering down of their language (modern Japanese) to accommodate this new thinking.

Do not resemble me—
Never be like a mush melon
Cut in two identical halves

Matsuo Basho
Transl. by Makoto Ueda
Interview with Makoto Ueda,
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
by Robert D. Wilson
Simply Haiku/Autumn/2005

Said Professor Ueda in my interview with him for Simply Haiku in 2005:

“When a mush melon is cut in half, each piece looks the same. Thus, in the Japanese language, halves of a melon were often used as a simile to describe two identical things. Probably melon slices were served when Basho wrote the haiku in question. He compared himself to one half of a melon and told his friend not to be the other half that looked exactly the same. His friend was a merchant, so Basho had all the more reason to want him not to be like an artist. The haiku, when it is seen by itself, has more general implications: the teacher wants each of his students to develop his own talent and explore his own area.”

Wrote John Brandi in The India Journals (Rio Arriba, N.M.: [s.n.], 2007):

“I toss in my tattered copy of Basho's poems, smudged and dog-eared, well broken-in with travel. I stop for a moment and randomly flip it open:

Do not resemble me,
never be like a mush melon
cut in two identical halves.

Basho advised students to cut their own trails, to not follow in his footsteps. Over the centuries that's exactly what's happened. Basho's influence, his dictums, his examples of poetry emerging, not from school rooms, but from a life fully lived, remain. But haiku has been transformed as it has traveled continents, cultures, and languages. Basho became his own frog, and disappeared into the water. He left only a sound, a splash, a lasting ripple spreading to the edges of the pond. Nakumara Kusatao, leader of Japan's Humanist Poets in the 40s, called Basho ‘Japan's first modern poet’ and said that his poetry represented ‘art for life's sake.’ Basho, on his many walkabouts, was always the ‘absent traveler,’ erasing the ego, looking beyond the self, yet seeking what was meaningful within. Something to be considered deeply in this everybody-for-themselves era.”

Wrote veteran American haiku poet, Anita Virgil, in her article Interim in the Summer 2005 issue of Simply Haiku:

“As this admonishing poem (given to a student shortly before Basho’s death) implies, to emulate continually is not to permit one's own talents to grow:

Do not resemble me—
Never be like a mush melon
Cut in two identical halves

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Makoto Ueda”

What Basho was telling his student via this hokku, who, of course, shared this with fellow students, and the admonishment contained therein is that haiku poets must have a fresh voice and be original in style, subject matter, and voice. Clones are boring and their work is plastic. There can be only one Basho and there can only be one you. If future haiku poets mimicked Matsuo Basho, there never would have been a Buson, Issa, Shiki, an Anita Virgil, Claire Everett, or a Svetlana Marisova.

To the detriment of modern English-language haiku, Basho’s haiku quoted above has been interpreted by many as a license to break every rule, to transform haiku into a short poem that can’t be defined.

Is this undefined transformation by many a zappai or haiku?

Are many naively writing haiku-like zappai instead of haiku?

Kato Ikuya, according to Professor Gilbert in his book Poems of Consciousness, stated:

“. . . defines zappai as ‘haiku schools’ processing ‘a wide variety of uncategorized styles. Taking this definition in its broad sense, we might say that 5/7/5 poetry, which exhibits uncategorized ‘haikai taste’, defines zappai.”

An example from Gilbert’s book:

at the red light
crossing all-together ---

aka shingo minna de watarreba kowaku-nai

Kitano “Beat” Takeshi

Current examples from The Haiku Foundation Haiku Now archives:

The morning is here—
Orange Juice in a Flintstones glass.
What should I do next? 

     —Cory Ryant

Haikunow!! 2010: A winner in the traditional haiku category





                                       through                                           school     vo


                                    —              the                               sic                     cal


                            ning                         win                   mu                                 warm-


                    mor                                        dow     the                                                 up


        spring                                                       of 


Rafal Zabratynski  (Poland)
Haikunow! 2011: A winner in the
innovative haiku category


no leaves
at all
behind you

Scott Metz
Modern Haiku


Professor Richard Gilbert is, in my opinion, the world’s leading expert on zappai poetry.

See pages 238-239 in his paper The Distinctive Brilliance of Zappai: Misrepresentations of Zappai in the New HSA Definitions, Simply Haiku, 3:1.

Gilbert’s paper was written as a rebuttal to the current Haiku Society of America’s definition of zappai:

The Haiku Society of Americarefers to zappai as "miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse.”

NOTE:This controversial rebuttal enraged William Higginson, a columnist for Simply Haiku, that consummated with his leaving Simply Haiku. In a farewell e-mail, addressed to me, he told me that printing Gilbert’s critique of the HSA definition of zappai was a big mistake that will bring down Simply Haiku.

It didn’t.

In the United States, a group of American poets guided by only a few available English- language books on the haiku genre, especially those penned by R.H. Blyth and Kenneth Yasuda, composed haiku in the 1950’s, influenced by the faulty scholarship in these books. A few, like my father at that time, wrote haiku independent of Blythian dogma, but were still limited by translations that weren’t cognizant of the differences between the old Japanese language, and the watered down modern Japanese language influenced by the Anglo-Western German-based university system, we’ll study in depth later in this paper.

How do we in the Anglo-Western sphere of thought avoid becoming mush melons and wax creative within a genre with specific rules dependent upon the use of styles ---defined today by the Anglo-Western dominated mindset? Is the answer a free for all, anything goes philosophy denying anything to do with pre-Shiki Japanese thought? Is it a denial of our own sub-cultural memories including prejudices that cause many not to adopt and utilize styles that are responsible for producing haiku with depth and memorability like those penned by Basho and other pre-Shiki pioneers?

Wrote Yoni Noguchi in his book The Spirit of Japanese Poetry:

“Basho always spoke from the same reason that there was no other poetry except the poetry of the heart; he never thought literature or so-called literature to be connected with his own poetry, because it was a single noted adoration or exclamation off-hand at the almost dangerous moment when his love of Nature suddenly turned to hatred from the too great excess of his love. It is the word of exclamation; its brevity is strength of his love. 

Hokku means literally a single utterance or the utterance of a single verse; that utterance should be like a "moth light playing on reality's dusk," or “an art hung, as a web, in the air of perfume . . .”


Time to purify:
midwinter water dragons
writhe across men’s backs

Kobayashi Issa
Trans. by Sam Hill
The Spring of My Life


plum flower scent ---
where has the snow woman’s
ghost blown to?

Woman Haiku Master
Transl. by Patricia Donegan & Yoshie Ishibashi


Mountains have darkened
and the field, in a twilight
with pampas grass.

Yosa Buson
Transl. by Yuki Sawa & Edith Shiffert
Haiku Master Buson


How tranquil it is!
Penetrating into the rocks
the sound of cicadas.

Matsuo Basho
Transl. by Piepei Qui
Reinventing the Landscape
Matsuo Basho’s Poetic Spaces


Is Simply Haiku barking up the wrong tree with its insistence that haiku is haiku regardless of geological and ethnic origin, and that it’s important to understand, study, and follow the traditional haiku form; that creativity comes with the expression of a fluid something versus non-structured subjectivity that leaves little room for the unsaid? Are we wrong to assume that Basho’s teaching regarding mush melons was not about what is said, but about breaking rules and restructuring haiku into something Basho today would not recognize?

Recently, in a public statement made to readers of the Haiku Society of America webpage, veteran American haiku and senryu poet, Al Pizzarelli, admonished readers:

“What I see today with this "anything goes" mentality, is the beginning of the deterioration of haiku in the West. Heed my words O haiku aficionados! Today, the word "haiku" has become a mere adjective for anything that is “short” or “small” in size. I guess one would say that our Mini Cooper is a "haiku car". Seriously, one only needs to study the deterioration of haiku throughout the history of Japan, following the deaths of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, to understand the comparison here. The fact is, the finest haiku ever written, almost always conform to the essential poetic principles of the genre. The proof is always in the pudding. Haiku is much more than mere brevity, my HSA friends. So, sharpen your perception, write of moments of SIGNIFICANCE and CRAFT your poems. The difference will truly resonate as only true haiku poetry can do.”

Pizzarelli is telling American haiku poets to study their craft, to take the haiku genre more seriously; that until they do so, the haiku composed and published in on- and off-line publications and in self-published books and chapbooks will not be representative of good haiku poetry, and could hinder American haiku from being recognized by the mainstream poetic world as a legitimate poetic form.

Wrote Nishi Amane in his The Theory of Aesthetics, translated by Michael F. Marra, in Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

“ . . . if one composes poems and songs without following rules at all, merely expressing whatever comes to mind, surely what results is not a form of poetry. If a road is very dangerous, winding to the right, turning to the left, climbing a precipice, then it must not be called a road. This shows the necessity of sameness in difference; proportion and balance cannot be lacking.”

All moments are individual moments that cannot be repeated, as life embodied in the reality of nature’s creative force (zoka), is always changing, never static: the impermeability of reality. There is no duplicity in a continuum of time. None of us own the words we utter. It’s the context of what we utter, to whom we utter, and the circumstances around said utterances that are unique.

As haiku poets, we have to write. It is a part of those of us who take this unique literary genre seriously. It’s a path, a mirror, a way of seeing and expressing things in an individual manner that utilizes metaphysical styles to bring the unsaid to the surface, and help ourselves and our readers to see nature as a teacher, a friend, and a mentor. BUT, and I emphasize the “but”, if we lack an understanding of the genre and the know-how to use the tools needed to create true, memorable haiku, our efforts are futile, the results, unworthy of notice.

There is great disagreement as to the definition of English-language haiku. The same is seen in other Western languages, and in Japan as well. No one seems to agree as to what is or isn’t a haiku.

The most recent definition of haiku published by the Haiku Society of America:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.(A definitive definition? No wonder Anita Virgil declined to become a member of the HSA definitions committee, after serving on the first committee)

Fortunately, there’s an accompanying note below the definition:

“Most haiku in English consist of three unrhymed lines of seventeen or fewer syllables, with the middle line longest, though today's poets use a variety of line lengths and arrangements. In Japanese a typical haiku has seventeen ‘sounds’ (on) arranged five, seven, and five. (Some translators of Japanese poetry have noted that about twelve syllables in English approximates the duration of seventeen Japanese on.) [there is no clear definition of the Japanese term, on, nor how the use of on, instead of verbs, in a Japanese haiku makes a difference]. Traditional Japanese haiku include a ‘season word’ (kigo), a word or phrase that helps identify the season of the experience recorded in the poem, and a ‘cutting word’ (kireji), a sort of spoken punctuation that marks a pause or gives emphasis to one part of the poem. In English, season words are sometimes omitted, but the original focus on experience captured in clear images continues. The most common technique is juxtaposing two images or ideas (Japanese rensô). Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word. Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. (Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called ‘deep metaphor’ or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition. Various kinds of ‘pseudo haiku’ have also arisen in recent years.”

The word “MAY” is used a lot and only serves to confuse readers. It describes English- language haiku as different from Japanese haiku without any clear justification. It says kigo words in English are “sometimes omitted,” again without an explanation. The use of the term “sometimes omitted” gives Anglo-Western poets a clear license to not use kigo if one chooses to do so. The omission of  kigo in Anglo-Western haiku is now commonplace; and in most haiku journals haiku and senryu are listed under one category without further delineation, leaving it up to their readers to decide what’s a haiku and what’s a senryu.

Regarding the use of cutting words, the term MAY is once again used: “Punctuation, space, a line-break, or a grammatical break may substitute for a cutting word.”  Reading these notes reminds me of the game I played as a child: Mother May I.  Who decided on the“MAY” used in the note below the definition; and by whose authority, academically, is it predicated upon? The use of MAY gives MAY NOT equal authority. One final note regarding the ambiguity of the HSA’s definition of Anglo-English language haiku: who came up with “metaphors and similes are commonly avoided”?

Knowing that Basho frequently used metaphors as did many of his predecessors, this statement gives one the impression that Anglo-English-language haiku and Japanese haiku are not the same. Since this concept was first brought up by Blyth, perhaps he should be called the father of Modern Anglo-English haiku; even though later scholars shot and are still shooting holes in many of his theories.

Al Pizzarelli said on the HSA webpage recently:

“Poetic devices, such as personification, simile & metaphor have no place in haiku poetry, because they do not allow the reader to stand in the poet's shoes. That's the power of haiku & what makes it a unique poetic form. The haiku related genre of Senryu, whose emphasis is on human nature, more freely allows for such poetic devices and rightfully so. As R. H. Blyth once wisely pointed out: ‘When haiku and senryu come together, it is to the loss of both.’”

This is not an original thought, however, as it simply echoes the same admonition written by R.H. Blyth. It has no basis in Japanese haiku and tanka, nor bythe world’s leading academic scholars. Where people come up with such rules countering the Japanese conceptualization of haiku as developed by Matsuo Basho and other Japanese pioneers, puzzles me; and why does Al Pizzarelli admonish poets to following this line of thinking?

Writes Professor Haruo Shirane:

I think this rule prevents many good poets from becoming great poets. Without the use of metaphor, allegory and symbolism, haiku will have a hard time achieving the complexity and depth necessary to become the object of serious study and commentary. The fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent. The metaphor in good haiku is often buried deep within the poem. For example, the seasonal word in Japanese haiku tends often to be inherently metaphorical, since it bears very specific literary and cultural associations, but the first and foremost function of the seasonal word is descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied.

Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths, in Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000), Haruo Shirane, Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature, Columbia University.

There cannot be two haiku genres. Nor is there a need for such, as evidenced by haiku penned by Svetlana Marisova in the English language:

closed daisies ...
the chain a child
makes of stars

across the swamp ...
a pukeko's cry
stretching out


And these haiku penned by Ted van Zutphen:

waves speaking
in ancient tongues . . .
spring morning

shrouded mountains ...
your presence pierces
the distance

Has the study and misinterpretation of haiku in the Anglo-West and Japan created the sense of haiku being indefinable?

The Japanese created hokku (later renamed haiku by Shiki) that's unlike any other genre of poetry. It looks deceptively easy to compose, but the opposite is true. The genre comes with a distinct set of rules (dependent on the skilled use of styles, currently referred to as aesthetics). These rules weren't developed over night. Much of the hokku written prior to Issa’s death (with the exception of a period of about 35 years after Basho’s death when competing schools made a god out of Basho and lost track of Basho’s focus) was the art of hokku at its height. They are remembered today, and not because, as one person recently posted on an on-line haiku workshop, “only the haiku of the dead are remembered.” They are remembered because they are good haiku.

After Kobayashi Issa’s death, haiku poetry began a steady descent into mediocrity.

Wrote Professor Donald Keenein his book Dawn to the West regarding the quality of haiku during the Meiji Restoration:

“Not a single poet of distinction was writing; indeed, it had been almost one hundred years since anyone had composed haiku of unmistakable literary worth.” 

I will shut my ears
And, thinking only of blossoms,
Enjoy my nap.

Torigoe Tosai (1803-1890)
Transl. by Donald Keene

States Keene:

“The haiku poets of the day, occupied with petty matters, were not aware that their art had become stagnant and even meaningless . . . their good opinion of themselves was confirmed in 1873 when the Minister of Religious Instruction appointed four haiku masters [?] as special instructors, charged with identifying haiku poetry with the policies of the Meiji government.”

These were leaders of competing haiku societies each claiming a direct lineage to Basho’s school of hokku. They were anything but masters, and each of the four became poetic puppets for the Meiji government, something a true poet like Basho would never succumb to. In 1887, to further the Meiji government’s scheme to keep haiku from becoming Anglo-Westernized and to keep its citizenry in its Imperial neo-Confucian reign, and continued to deify Matsuo Basho as a Shinto God. The Imperial Court continued publishe Commentaries about Basho and his haiku, proclaiming that Basho preached Confucian virtues in his poetry.

Writes Keene, “The government obviously wished to assert traditional Japanese values at a time when a flood of Western ideas had swept over the country, threatening the old morality. Haiku poets were especially urged to embody in their works ‘respect for the gods and love of country.’”

In other words, they were to follow the Emperor’s will and his court. Japanese emperors were considered gods in the Shinto religion. The four so-called haiku masters and the haiku schools they influenced bought into the State spin jockey’s belief that Basho displayed complete, unwavering devotion in his haiku to the gods, the Emperor, and Japan, unmatched by any other poet.


Japan became a land of mush melons

Writes Professor Haruo Shirane:

“ . . . the haikai that preceded Basho was almost entirely imaginary or fictionally haikai. Much of it was so imaginary that it was absurd, and as a result it was criticized by some as ‘nonsense’ haikai. A typical example is the following hokku found in Indoshu (Teaching collection, 1684), a Danrin school haikai handbook: mine no hana no nami ni ashika kujira o oyogase.

making sea lions and whales

swim in the cherry blossom waves

at the hill top

The hokku links cherry blossoms, which were closely associated with waves and hill tops in classical Japanese poetry, to sea lions and whales, two non-classical, vernacular words, thereby comically deconstructing the poetic cliché of "waves of cherry blossoms". Basho was one of the critics of this kind of "nonsense" haikai. He believed that haikai should describe the world "as it is".

Beyond the Haiku Moment:
Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths
Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000)


Superficial wit was the hallmark of men like Hozumi Eiko (1823-1904) who admired such verses as:

The nightingales ---
When I was young it was love
That kept me awake.

Hozumi Eiki
Transl. by Donald Keene

There are many examples like the above hokku penned by Eiki in many of today’s on-line workshops, and in anthologies and self-published books that say little and follow this formula: The 1st line uses a kigo (called seasonal indicator). Line two and three include a juxtaposition having nothing to do with the seasons and zoka. The end result is a cute poem that leaves no mystery and the season it occurs in can be any season.

Indian summer
mother dyes her graying hair
the color of straw

Tom Painting
A winner of the 2011 HaikuNow! contest
sponsored by The Haiku Foundation


The point of Eiki’s haiku, iterates Keene, “is precisely the opposite of what a modern reader might suppose: the poet is congratulating himself on his present refined tastes that induce him to stay up late at night to hear the nightingales, contrasting this happy state with the folly of his youth, when love kept him from sleeping. Little emotion can be detected behind this or other poems by Eiki and his school. The cleverness of the conception intrigued rich gentlemen looking for some pastime to fill their idle hours, and the patronage of such men were earnestly sought by haiku masters, whose main source of income was the fees obtained for correcting haiku composed by their pupils. Soon after the Restoration, while conditions were still unsettled and unfavorable to leisurely pursuit, one haiku master hit on the idea of installing a large box outside his house into which busy pupils could deposit haiku along with a flat correction fee of eight mon each.”

Japanese poetry for a long time via kigo as defined by saijikis was codified by rival poetic schools, thus limiting what could and could not be called a kigo (season reference), having strayed far from what a kigo represents and embodies. The relationship between nature and poetry began to blur, and was slowly replaced with an over-emphasis on seasons controlled by saijikis and codification, taking the heart out of haiku. In essence, saijikis became political tools of the Emperor and his Court.

Writes Professor Peter Flueckiger in his newly published text (2011) Imaging Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism:

Toda Mosui (1629-1726)and Keichu (1640–1701), began to question the validity of secret transmissions [by rival poetic houses including the Reizei, Karasumaru, and Asukai], arguing that knowledge of poetry could be pursued by anyone who applied the proper techniques of philological analysis, and that there was no need to receive the esoteric teachings of any secretive poetic cult. At the same time there was a growth of interest in the eight-century Man’yoshu, which fell outside the purview of the court poets’ secret teachings.”

The introduction of printing in the early 1700s created “a new reading public that was free to make their own claims to interpretive authority.”

Codification by secret societies meant nothing to many of them then just as they mean nothing to the average Japanese poet today. Such codifications, however, after Issa’s death, began to intensify, aiding in the dilution of credible haiku poetry.

Counters former Haiku Society of America’s president, Michael Dylan Welch, on the Haiku Society of America’s public webpage:

"A kigo, in the Japanese tradition, is a codified season word assigned to a particular season (or part of a season, such as early, middle, or late) by a master or through tradition. Kigo, in this fashion, are often tied to a particular location, and also often related to a particular master's perception (different haiku groups in Japan sometimes have their own saijiki, or season word almanac). In English-language haiku, we are only beginning to develop formalized or codified season-word lists."

Why? The climates in North America are varied to the point that if a North American Saijiki were to be published, it would have to contain chapter long sub-sections for each state, including chapters for regions within states. Arizona’s and Alaska’s climates and seasons are as different as Ogden Nash is to Matsuo Basho. Florida’s and California’s climates and seasons are as different as e.e. cummings is to Hans Christian Anderson. Guam and Puerto Rico are American soil. So is Hawaii, where one part is tropical, yet in the same state there’s a snow capped mountain.

With a true understanding of kigo, regardless of geographical location, saijikis are not necessary. If they were, most Anglo-Westerners would not follow them anyway, insisting instead on utilizing styles that conform to their own ego-concentric conceptualizations that have no basis in serious poetic academic scholarship. We, as haiku poets, need a revival to return haiku to its former level of credibility. However, the opposite is occurring like a fast acting virus without a cure, brought about via the efforts of Masaoka Shiki and others with similar ideas; a revival ironically influenced by the Anglo-West, that would in time pull Japan farther away from its roots that mimesis can’t alter.

In the early 1950’s, many Americans were introduced to haiku via the writings of Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Harold Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda, and R.H. Blyth, none of which were academically qualified to interpret pre-modern Japanese poetry nor understand their usage hermeneutically. Kerouac was a transient drunk with no knowledge of the Japanese language, and based his understanding on what he quickly read through during a short stay at Gary Snyder’ home in Berkeley, California, via teachings by Snyder and reading Snyder’s collection of books written by Blyth, Yasuda, and Henderson. Snyder, though influenced by drugs, was a serious university student of Japanese culture and Buddhism, and was soon to embark on a journey to Japan where he would eventually be ordained as a Buddhist Priest. 

As his knowledge in modern Japanese grew, he never studied pre-modern Japanese, the pure Yamato language, or the mimesis of Chinese writing and language (the Japanization of the Chinese language). Later on, even Snyder’s interest in haiku waned, preferring to write the marketable free verse poetry that made him famous. Blyth knew little about the history of haiku or the religious influences that impacted the genre, insisting that animism was superstitious (Anglo-Western bias) and proclaiming haiku was a Zen Buddhist genre. He was not qualified academically to interpret pre-modern Japanese, the pure Yamato language, or the mimesis of Chinese writing and language (the Japanization of  the Chinese language); neither was Kenneth Yasuda, who translated Japanese haiku using rhyme, and introduced the West to the misinformed concept of the “aha” moment. He also believed in using the 5/7/5, 17 syllable metric schemata in English haiku and put on top of each page of his books: 5/7/5/5/7/5/5/7/5/7/5. Most of us know today the tonal difference between what Anglo-Westerners call Japanese syllable and the English syllable. Anglo-Western syllables have a longer sound, making haiku that utilize a strict adherence to the 5/7/5 metric schemata sound awkward. This, of course, is why most Anglo-English language haiku poets adhere to a simple short/long/short metric formula. Unfortunately, in most American schools, the 5/7/5 metric formula is still taught.

Thus said, what the Japanese were infusing into haiku during its revival via Shiki and lesser known reformers was similar in some ways to what those newly introduced to haiku in Anglo-North America were taught regarding haiku: an Anglo-Westernization mindset unequipped to fully interpret pre-modern Japanese, the pure Yamato language, or the mimesis of Chinese writing and language. The dominance of Anglo-Western thought, which often viewslife, philosophy, religion, and art based upon the heritage and teachings of the German-based university system adopted by Japan and almost all Anglo-West and Anglo-Oceanic regions, brought about a commonality from its poetic roots and conceptualization of nature’s zoka.

Anglo-Westerners today read books on haiku and translated haiku wanting to become good haiku poets, yet the haiku and scholarly papers many have written today in the American school system and by poets under the umbrella of the Haiku Society of America are a far cry from the haiku written centuries ago in Japan when haiku was a metaphysical path instead of a journey into the Gobi desert without a compass or map.

Today in North America, there are primarily three groups of haiku poets, each with a different understanding or misunderstanding of haiku.

Form can be expressed in any way one wants (see Francine Barnworth’s haiku-like poem below). Kigo is for many in the Haiku Society of America, and in Modernist and Gendai groups in Japan, passé, preferring in turn, hollow seasonal words with little to no connection to zoka and “key” words without universally agreeable definitions.

Without universal rules, a working understanding of aesthetics (styles/tools), and a lack of scholarly direction, the end result is a mulligan stew.

Here are some haiku I picked out randomly from English-language journals and on-line publications that illustrate my point that much of the haiku written today in Japan and in the Anglo-West has sunken to the level of post-Issa and pre-Shiki haiku:

tweedle–dee, tweedle-dee ---
next to the robin, feeling
like tweedle dum

Jack Griesel
Virtue Haiku
May 13, 2010


forgiving her
between mouthfuls
of warm beer

John McManus – UK
Notes From the Gean


Cherry blossoms are falling ---
you also must become
a hippopotamus

Toshinori Tsubouchi

winter –
night –
faking –

Francine Banwarth, Iowa


god of the toilet
with a round face
autumn persimmon

Shizuo Miyasaka
Japanese Modern Haiku
with respect for nature
by Keiko Higuchi


cold day a bicycle leans against the pet shop

Marlene Mountain

we turn turn our clocks ahead

Christopher Patchel
Named the best haiku for 2011
by The Haiku Foundation


While flying
the Pope reads aloud
haiku without season words

Ban’ya Natsuishi
The Flying Pope
English translation by Jim Kacian

Dean Summers presented in August 12, 2010 to the Haiku Society of America Northwest Chapter in Seattle, Washington, and published the same year by Holly House Publications the following paper, Haiku Phrasing: Sound Bites from Basho, Buson & Issa that makes an interesting point:

“In print, a Japanese haiku is ordinarily written in a single line. But when it is read aloud, it is heard in three metrical lines: a line of five beats, a line of seven beats, and a line of five beats. When Japanese haiku are translated into English, there is no way to preserve the Japanese meter.”

English-language haiku poets (there are innate exceptions) are kidding themselves in thinking they can compose a one-line Anglo-English-language haiku that possess meter, allows for ma (dreaming room), and can be legibly read as three sections, let alone utilize other Japanese styles (now called aesthetic tools).

Writes Allan Burns in the May 31, 2009 issue of The Haiku Foundation’s Montage:

“English-language haiku tend to be written in three lines, corresponding to the metrical division of Japanese haiku, but Japanese haiku are actually usually printed in a single vertical column. By way of analogy with this form, poets such as Matsuo Allard and Marlene Mountain began writing English haiku in a single horizontal line—and thanks to their efforts that form has become established in English as the major alternative to the typical three-liner.”

This alternative is not academically supported via hermeneutics and a sound understanding of Japanese haiku poetics. The Japanese write one-line haiku, but in each of them are cutting words which let their readers know when to pause. Meter is an important part of haiku. Without meter, a poem isn’t a poem. It becomes, instead, a prose piece: either as an incomplete sentence or as a sentence. Most one-line haiku in English have no cutting words to give them meter, provide ma, or make use of the unsaid.

old pond a frog rises belly up

Marlene Mountain
The Haiku Anthology, 3rd edition,
ed. Cor van den Heuvel
(W.W. Norton & Company).

This is an object- (mono, subjective) biased haiku-like poem lacking mystery that rhythmically reads like a two lined poem:   

old pond

a frog rises belly up

If this haiku-like poem were divided up into two lines, what would it be saying? A frog died from living in a stagnant, polluted pond? A haiku is not a matter of positioning. There’s much more. There needs to be a metrical schemata, the unsaid, a tie-in with zoka, and enough suggestion to allow for the reader to add his or her own interpretation.

This critique alludes to other forms masquerading as haiku borrowed from modern free verse poets.

Continues Allan Burns in the May 31, 2009 issue of The Haiku Foundation’s Montage:

thrown on

John Martone
john martone poetry projects

In this poem, there is no sense of metrical rhythm visually. It sounds robotic. If one reads each line and includes a rest as Michael McClure does in his free verse poetry, the tonal quality would be different.

From Michael McClure’s poem Maybe Mama Lion from his book Rebel Lions:






the leaves.








What makes McClure’s poem work and possess meter is what comes after the lines and before the lines. His poetry is not entirely a list of words. The words written with capital letters are to be read loudly and with emphasis. Each line, using one word or more, is to be read with a short rest at the end before proceeding to the next sentence. A play-write, poet, and song writer, McClure is conscious of the importance of meter in poetry.

Letters alone mean little unless they form a word. Words are like musical notes. Unless they are assembled into a well-composed song, they are just notes placed side by side without context. Songs, incidentally, are poems accompanied by music.

What is the purpose of writing horizontal haiku? Again, without rests or pauses as indicated by punctuation, or the use of  “. . .” or  “---“ , there is no place where one can know where ma exists; and no place to interpret the poet’s poem before the poet reads his or her next horizontal poem.

under-shirt thrown on a sunflower some scarecrow

thrown on a scarecrow
some scare crow

This poem too is an object- (mono, subjective) biased poem. There is no allusion to zoka, it reads like a senryu, has no depth or mystery (yugen) and leaves little room for a reader to interpret. It is subjective by its use of:

some             (used sarcastically, thus subjective.)


Fortunately, Martone’s poem has three nature sounding breaks, which few Anglo-English haiku poems have.

Before experimentation with haiku form, it’s imperative to study and analyze it as a poetic genre. What is haiku? How is it different? What rules or styles are indigenous to the genre? Haiku is a complicated verse form with a well-established tradition. Trying to change haiku before mastering the genre is jumping the gun and premature. Perhaps this is why there is no American haiku master: a lack of rules, form, depth, and academic study.

When it comes to studying Japanese haiku from the past, effective translations from one language to another are always accomplished by translating idea for idea, or image for image, never word for word. For those reasons, when translating Japanese haiku into English, translators do not always bother to accurately represent the phrasing of the originals. Not a problem for a casual reader interested mainly in a taste of Japanese haiku, but for English-language poets on the haiku path, the available English translations of Japanese haiku can be seriously misleading.

Writes Allan Burns in the May 31, 2009 issue of The Haiku Foundation’s Montage:

“The available translations can suggest phrasing options that don’t really belong to the haiku spirit, and they can obscure phrasing options that do belong. The solution is seek out English translations that accurately reflect the phrasing of the Japanese originals.”

One well-know haiku poet who wrote what has been heralded as a complete translation of Basho’s haiku confessed to me via an e-mail that she didn’t know how to read, write, or speak in the Japanese language. She assured, however, that she’d worn out the pages to her Japanese/English-language dictionary. How can this book of translations of Basho’s haiku be accurate, since it was not penned in modern Japanese or studied hermeneutically?

There is the availability of scholarly books and translations that, if read and studied, could correct past mistakes, misconceptions, chastise laziness, and hopefully return haiku and related genres to the greatness and respectability they enjoyed before Issa passed on: texts by Steven D. Carter, Donald Keene, David Barnes, Peipei Qui, Michael F. Marra, Haruo Shirane, Makoto Ueda, and other academic experts in the fields of Japanese Aesthetics, Linguistics, History, Religion, Cultural Anthropology, and Hermeneutics; authors who know what they are talking about.

Unfortunately, the texts written by these academics are hard to read, most often used as university textbooks for those working on post-graduate degrees, and are costly to purchase (some books priced from $75 to $100 or more. The postage and handling to send these books to English-speaking poets overseas is astronomical and, for many, unaffordable).

As such, most Anglo-Western poets are limited to the more affordable books, which include used books, self-published paperbacks, and those offered on-line for free by Denis Garrison, myself and a few others. Most of my collection of Blyth was purchased “used”on-line. If one wants to study texts written by the leading experts in the field, I suggest ordering used copies. In addition, Simply Haiku offers articles and interviews penned by the world’s leading academics and extensive reviews on their texts. I also recommend purchasing a copy of Professor Richard Gilbert’s text Poems of Consciousness. He too is a serious student of Japanese poetry and up-to-date on gendai and other forms of modern Japanese haiku. Modern Haiku has several excellent articles and interviews in their publication as well.

What Basho, Chiyo-ni, Buson, Issa, and other dedicated pre-Shiki poets composed was Japanese haiku pollinated with time-tested styles and techniques that unearthed the unsaid, and were in tune with a conceptualization of nature unfathomed by most Anglo-Western scholars, and university-educated Japanese.

As mentioned previously, during the time colony hungry America’s forced opening of Japan’s borders, many of its intellectuals, merchants, and students were hungry for more than tradition, controlled thought, neo-Confucian morality, the restrictions placed on them by religions imported from China, and other Chinese imports and Japanese mitates of said imports. They wanted to grow intellectually and break away from the feudal rule of a subtle and complex reorganization of local epistemological systems. At the same time, Japanese intellectuals were challenged with the creation of a technical vocabulary that was sensitive to the newly imported ideas. Co-alien concepts, such as the Western distinction between mechanical and liberal arts, had to be assimilated during what Yamamoto Masao has called “the enlightenment period” of Japanese aesthetics.

Other terms that were nonexistent altogether in Japan's kotodama, however, exert a great influence in the field of poetry, which, before this accessibility to Anglo-Western thought and writings, had been used and infused with secret transmissions passed down from master to disciple, by schools, and study.

  1. Students taught by the American public and private school system textbooks adopted by school districts.
  2. The Haiku Society of America and their allies.
  3. Independent haiku poets belonging to no haiku school or haiku association.

When Japan adopted the German-based university system used by the Anglo-West, many Japanese words and terms had no equals, definition-wise, comprehensible to the Anglo-Western mindset, and vise versa. This included the word aesthetics, subjectivity, objectivity, sensitivity, and imagination. According to Anita Virgil, there wasn’t a definition for the term hokku.

Writes Marra in his book Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

“The importation of aesthetics required Japanese scholars to explain and justify the new ‘science’ in the light of Western epistemology. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Japan was faced with the introduction, study, and digestion --- or indigestion --- of more than 2,000 years of Western thoughts.”

Adds Marra:

 “This interest in haiku has been driven by the English haiku movement, and as a consequence much of the material, both translations and scholarship, has been published by non-specialists, English haiku poets, whose work is not always very reliable. Nevertheless, it remains a lively area of interest, with direct links to the English-language world. Robert Hass, for example, who was the Poet Laureate of the U.S., wrote and edited a book on Basho, Buson, and Issa for public consumption though he was not a specialist.”

Much of what is currently called haiku in the English language and in Japan is at the level hokku sunk to after Issa’s death? Why is this?

Some deny the importance of a substitute for cutting words, others, like Marlene Mountain, support the Japanese one-line style of composing haiku, without a substitute for cutting words (punctuation or spaces) that gives haiku its meter and a  place for ma, what Denis Garrison calls“dreaming room.”

As the field of aesthetics was unknown in pre-modern Japanese society, there were no words to describe aesthetics, which to the Japanese was a set of styles, acquired intuitively, deeply inset into their cultural memory. The introduction to the field of aesthetics, considered vital for the interpretation and discussion of the arts, philosophy, religion, and poetics in the 1870’s, between the Anglo-West and Japan, was not easy. To converse with the Anglo-West was considered vital by Japan’s intellectuals, merchants interested in expanding commerce internationally, and by students in the social sciences, creative writing, theologians tired of the dictates emanating from Chinese-imported religions, and all fields of the arts of which science was considered a part.

In the 1870’s, Japanese society was ripe for change, and sought alternatives to tradition and conservative uniformity-biased rules by the Emperor and past Emperors and their Courts that poisoned individuality, supported racism, discrimination against women, endorsed censorship, and even sunk to the level of hiring so-called “haiku masters” to rewrite saijikis, and deceive the Japanese into thinking that Matsuo Basho was committed to the dictates and isms of the Confucian belief system.

Before Admiral Perry’s opening up Japan to Anglo-Western influence, the only foreigners allowed in Japan were the Chinese, Koreans, and a small post of Dutch traders.  Others, who stepped on Japanese shores, including Americans, were executed. A strict separation from Western influence was enforced. The Emperor and his Court wanted to maintain their Confucian rule, which had been thought of by the intelligencia, but not questioned, for risk of death, imprisonment, and public ostracism, which to those who questioned the Emperor (a Shinto God) meant poverty, unemployment, and worse.

When the United States Navy forced the Emperor (a Japanese Shinto God) to lose face,  by opening up its shores to a non-deified Anglo-Western influence, it unleashed a floodgate that has yet to recede. The Japanese people were free to study, think, speak, read Anglo-Western thought, and to attend schools in the U.S. and Europe. Tradition and culture rapidly became colonized overtly and the Japanese were forced to make drastic changes in their language to accommodate the study and assimilation of Anglo-Western aesthetics. Historically, Americans held little respect at this time for people who were not white-skinned and arrogantly thought their way of thought was superior to those of color and/or ethnic difference. This was true of the Emperor and his Court as well. 

Enter Masaoka Shiki, the father of Modern Japanese poetry who renamed hokku, haiku; and later also waka, tanka. Shiki was disgusted with the low level of haiku written during his day and was unafraid to say so publicly. He was a university drop-out, influenced by European painting and thought, and fatally ill with tuberculosis. He was also an agnostic, moody, temperamental, outspoken, and highly intelligent.

Shiki was a brilliant strategist and writer who knew, if armed with the right tools (alternatives), how to gain the ears of Japan's poets and those who viewed poetry as a spiritual practice. Attacking Matsuo Basho's poetry (Basho was a Shinto deity) was an extremely risky but brilliant move. If poorly executed, Shiki could have been imprisoned, exiled, and/or looked upon as a madman, especially after he was bedridden and taking several doses of opium (a mind-altering sedative, the plant that heroin is made from) on a daily basis to curve the hideous pain he felt due to acute tuberculosis. Shiki secretly admired Basho and believed his “frog jumping into the sound of water” haiku was possibly the greatest haiku ever written. Basho was not a God, and like all poets, masters or not, he penned his share of less than great haiku. By bringing to light Basho's lesser haiku, Shiki was mocking and unsettling what was weakening Japanese poetry. Such a controversy was guaranteed to draw an audience.

Observes Carmen Sterba:

Author Janine Beichman, in her book Masaoka Shiki, writes: ‘While it is true that Shiki deserves credit for the rediscovery of Buson's greatness as a haiku poet, a careful reading of his works shows that it is not true that he dismissed Basho's poetry. . . Shiki valued Basho because he believed that Basho had been the first realistic poet in haiku and second, because many of his poems had possessed 'sublimity and grandeur.' The crux of the reason why Shiki was critical towards the idealism towards Basho was simply because after his death, master Basho had been literally worshiped by his fans for two hundred years, whereas other masters like Buson, in particular, had been ignored. By the end of the Tokugawa Era, haiku had become more of an amusement instead of a serious genre, so Shiki wanted to elevate haiku.”

Masaoka Shiki: the Misunderstood Reformer, Critic and Poet | Suite101.com

Shiki then elevated and praised Buson's poetry, a revered, though non-deified poet/painter, which leant credence to Shiki as someone studied in the art and history of Japanese poetry. The finale to his call for reformation necessitated a viable, sound alternative.

Side Note:

Buson was a great admirer of Basho and insisted upon being buried at what was called The Temple of Basho’s Hut.

Shiki’s alternative was shasei, modeled ironically after the European Pleine-Air painting style he mitated into his style of painting and, later, into the reformation of hokku; a style that emphasized a realistic, plain, concise, objective sketch of life that traveled back and forth through Anglo-Western and Japanese mindsets.

Shiki defined shasei as the "depiction of objects as they are" or "the faithful representation of an actual scene" as opposed to ideals or imaginings. He saw haiku as a poetry of a single object.

Writes Koji Kawamoto in his book The Poetics of Japanese Verse, translated by Professor Makoto Ueda:

“. . . [the problem with shasei is] Shiki's readiness to equate the ability of a verbal description of a concrete object to move men's hearts with the ability of the real object to do the same. Even a ‘real’ medium like a photograph leaves a large gap between the scene presented before our eyes and that actually experienced in person.”

Wrote Michael F. Marra in his Essays on Japan:

“Language reconstructs experience by putting in grammatical form the results of introspective analysis. Therefore, by reducing experience to conceptual categories, language fails to represent reality, whose portrayal falls prey to distortion and error, since language cannot catch the immediacy of the experience.”

Wrote Nietzsche, “ . . . the chemical analysis of the process of knowledge reveals that this is nothing but a series of metaphors.”

Friedrich Nietzsche
Transl. by Michael F. Marra

A famous photographer in America, a friend of mine, the late Meryl Simmons, told me, when I asked him how he took photographs that resembled paintings, the secret is in cropping, patience, and waiting for the light to hit the right spot, paint the right shadow, and envision at the same time. What he said next, took me by surprise. He told me that photographs are one-dimensional illusions, not the real thing, thus concurring with Koji Kawamoto’s assessment regarding the ineffectiveness of shasei (life sketches) haiku. What portrays the real thing and the real thing are different entities. True shasei is unattainable. Its source is the fragile, subjective human mind. Non-subjectivity is nearly impossible if the focus is an object or objects. The combination of object bias and subjectivity bias aren’t the ingredients one uses to compose a haiku. They are, however, ingredients that work well in Imagist or Modernist poetry. A true haiku is activity- (koto, process) biased orchestrated by zoka.

In many ways it was characteristic of Anglo-Western Imagist poetry popularized by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, etc.The Imagists wrote succinct verse of dry clarity and hard outline in which an exact visual image made a total poetic statement.

From the Imagist Manifesto:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

2. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.

3. Absolute freedom in the choice of subject.

4. To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the realdifficulties of his art.

5. To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of poetry.

Are many of these tenets in present day haiku?

Writes Professor Haruo Shirane in his book Traces of Dreams:

“The Imagists stressed concentration, directness, precision, and freedom from metrical laws, and gravitated toward a single, usually visual, dominant image or a succession of related images. The Imagists wished to communicate emotion without articulating it directly.”

The Imagists were influenced by haiku due to its shortness of form, its alleged “now-ness,” and a misunderstanding of the form via the few available English-language texts and books on haiku.

This Imagist poem by Ezra Pound is considered by many American haiku poets, including Professor Haruo Shirane, as a haiku:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

The following poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, by Imagist poet, William Carlos Williams, a man Allen Ginsberg told me in a personal letter in the mid 1980’s, had been a major influence on his poetry. This poem reads like some of the modern Anglo-English haiku written today:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain-
beside the white

William Carlos Williams


‘anti-war haiku wall'

Marlene Mountain

Haruo Shirane said much of the haiku in The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Heuvel in 1974 were primarily poetry written in the Imagist style:

“The majority of these haiku in English as well as haiku translations from Japanese are done in the style of the Imagists and Modernists such as Stevens, Eliot, and Williams.”

Recently, to his discredit, in an interview I conducted for Simply Haiku recently; Shirane said his statement written about the Imagist leaning of the haiku in van der Heuval’s The Haiku Anthology was an exaggeration. You figure.

What I read today in leading Anglo-Western haiku publications follows the same format mixed in with other derivatives of Anglo-American, Anglo-Oceanic, and Anglo-European free verse genres.

Through this mitate, the Anglo-Western mindset became the conductor, and the Japanese mindset, the conductor’s orchestra, thus the interpretation was dominated by the conductor’s internalization and conceptualization of a musical score, and played via cultural adaptation by the orchestra.

Sounds of snoring ---
a plate and a sake bottle
set outside the mosquito net


Sudden downpour ---
and all these maids
hauling out storm shutters


Sawing chunks of charcoal
my little sister’s hands
are all black!


Sketching from life
eggplants are harder to do
than pumpkins


Plunging into
a ripe persimmon ---
getting my bed all messy with it

Transl. by Burton Watson
Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems

Shiki’s conceptualization of shasei didn’t catch on during his short lifetime. His disciples kept the concept alive and helped to popularize it. Some, such as Saito Mokichi, even made changes to the form, thinking Shiki hadn’t gone far enough.

One of his tanka students, Saito Mokichi, developed a theory of shasei that differed from Shiki’s.

Wrote Mokichi:

“To penetrate into the true aspect [of the subject]and sketch life that is a union of nature and the self---that is what shasei means.”

Transl. by Makoto Ueda
Modern Japanese Tanka

Shiki wasn’t consistent with his theory of shasei and saw it as a good method for new haiku poets to use.

Writes Professor Makoto Ueda regarding Shiki and his theory of shasei haikuin hisModern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature:

“Generalizations about Shiki’s theory of poetry are difficult to make because it not only changed considerably in the course of his career, but also contained contradictions.

Shiki seems to have thought that a student who had mastered the art of selective realism could increase the amount of subjectivity in his poetry if he saw fit. ‘At times,’ wrote Shiki,’ the poet may even change the relative positions of things in an actual scene or subjectively replace part of the scene by something that is not there. An actual scene is like a beautiful woman without make-up. She will not be free from imperfections, so that the artist must correct her eyebrows, put on rouge and powder, and dress her up in beautiful clothes.’ Shiki, who discouraged amateur versifiers from ‘putting make-up’ on nature, here encouraged more advanced poets to do just that. He claims to have believed that an artist, a master artist, does not merely imitate nature but corrects her imperfections[A Western ideal that originated with the Judeo-Christian book of Genesis. Buddhist Daoists, Confucians, Shintoists, and shamanic animists did not share this belief, thus by exposing this belief, Shiki was allying himself with the Anglo-Western belief system that had no basis with the religious beliefs from Japan, China, and India (where Buddhism originated)]. Here an element of idealism modifies Shiki’s basic commitment to realism: once he has established a basic truthfulness to his own wishes and ideals.”

Continues Ueda:

“In order to correct nature’s imperfections, the artist must continue his own vision of how nature should be. Shiki was not blind to the pitfalls into which realistic poets fall.  ‘To realistic a poem,’ he once said, ‘is prone to be commonplace and lacking surprise. . .    poet too bent on realism tends to imprison his mind within the confines of the tiny world his eyes see. Forgetting about rare and fresh motifs that lie distant from time and space.’ It was from this single angle that Shiki praised Buson’s poetry. While recognizing objective beauty in Buson’s works, Shiki was also fascinated by the poet/painter’s fertile imagination. In his opinion, Buson was the only premodern haiku poet whose mind roamed freely between heaven and earth: he could ’soar to the sky without wings and sink into the ocean without . . . ’”

Shiki’s praise of Buson had nothing to do with shasei, as Buson was an avowed follower of Basho’s teachings. Shiki idealized Buson for his ability to transcend realism: to be gifted with a poetic mind that could “roam freely between heaven and earth.” 

This reminds me of the words spoken by Kuki Shuzo in his book A Philosopher’s Poetry and Politics, edited and translated by Professor Michael F. Marra:

“Today, everything has sunk into the past. Moreover, I have come to like smelling from the window of my library the garden’s sweet osmanthus on quiet autumn days. I sniff the fragrance fully, all alone. Then I am carried to a far, far place, that is even further away from my birthplace --- to a place where possibility remains a possibility.”

As previously stated, Shiki was highly influenced by the German-based university system.  In the essay series ‘Six Foot Bed,’ published less than three months before his death, Shiki stated that Western artists had valued shasei from early times, whereas the Japanese had neglected the principle. In advocating shasei, he emphasized the basic of realistic presentation; close and correct observation. A poet should, he felt, discipline himself to observe, not obtruding his thoughts or feelings, and subordinating fanciful impulses to the simplest, most direct, and most common expressions of the things around him; he should express his observations in equally direct and simple language.

Professor Makoto Ueda:
Beyond the Haiku Moment:
Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths
written for Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000)

Haruo Shirane stated:

 “One of the chief reasons for the emphasis in modern Japan on direct personal observations was Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the late nineteenth century pioneer of modern haiku, who stressed the sketch (shasei) based on direct observation of the subject as the key to the composition of the modern haiku. This led to the ginko, the trips to places to compose haiku. Shiki denounced linked verse as an intellectual game and saw the haiku as an expression of the individual. In this regard Shiki was deeply influenced by Western notions of literature and poetry; first, that literature should be realistic, and second, that literature should be an expression of the individual. By contrast, haikai as Basho had known it, had been largely imaginary, and had been a communal activity, the product of group composition or exchange. Shiki condemned traditional haikai on both counts.

Even if Shiki had not existed, the effect would have been similar since Western influence on Japan from the late 19th century has been massive. Early American and British pioneers of English-language haiku - such as Basil Chamberlain, Harold Henderson, R.H. Blyth - had limited interest in modern Japanese haiku, but shared many of Shiki's assumptions. The influence of Ezra Pound and the (Anglo-American) Modernist poetry movement was also significant in shaping modern notions of haiku. In short, what many North American haiku poets have thought to be uniquely Japanese had in fact its roots in Western literary thought.”

Haiku composed by members of the Haiku Society of America and those influenced by the society worldwide, and much of the haiku composed in modern-day Japan are becoming too much alike to go unnoticed. Is this a coincidence? Is it the result of a covert form of Anglo-Western colonization of Japan thought? Is Anglo-Western and Japanese thought today the antithesis of each other as many claimed during the twentieth century? Are the majority of haiku composed by many in the Anglo-West actually haiku, or are they a weakly defined poetic conglomeration of Anglo-Western German-based university thought, culturally inbred racial prejudice (via the U.S. and their allies war with Japan during World War II), misinformation and faulty research, the influence of Imagism, introduced by R.H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, Harold Henderson, poor translations using the modern Japanese language instead of the pre-modern Japanese with its infusion of Japanese mitates of Chinese words and script, the pure Japanese Yamato language the originators of hokku composed their hokku in? Are they also influenced, beginning in the mid 1950’s, via a pop/drug, free flowing, oh wow, “righteous shit, man,” Jesus is riding on a tandem bicycle with the Buddha, reiteration of Blyth and Yasuda introduced to North America through books and poetry by Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and a few other Beat poets, who later returned to composing more marketable long free verse poetry influenced by Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, William Blake. H.D., French modernists, European surrealism, Mr. Natural, Mickey Mouse, Dr. Timothy Leary, and precursors to the character portrayed by comedian Bobcat Goldwaithe? Is the Haiku Society of America, formed in 1968, the principle propagator of modern English-language haiku in North America and the world today, save for Japan? Is it in league with several Japanese poets who wield great influence among Japanese Modernist haiku poet todays?

Like in the Anglo-West, there is more than one school of haiku thought, though the traditionalists are the minority.

Not all haiku composed in Japan are off-kilter with the colonized thinking imposed upon those who were schooled in the German-based university system. There are some poets, like Ikumi Yoshimura, who is grounded in her cultural roots, even though she studied at German-based university in Gifu, Japan:

white fish
hold a spirit of the heaven
like indigo blue

Ikumi Yoshimura
WhiteFish ©2009

Another example is a haiku, penned by Yagi Mikajo, who wrote her poetry in what she considers to be “the greatest turning point of [her] generation, the gap between the pre-war and postwar eras (WW II), when Japan was ruled by a colony hungry Emperor without a conscience, who sought control over China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, and other South East Asian countries using some of the most vicious means possible; to when the war was lost to the Anglo-Western allied military, and occupied by the American Armed Forces, who forced the Emperor to renounce his title as a Shinto God, and Japan to become a westernized democratic nation ruled by Anglo-Western values.  Mikajo is an original thinker who values her Japanese heritage, yet doesn’t live in the past.”

between thighs
the birth cry stretches into
budding tree darkness

Yagi Mikajo
Transl. by Shiwa Kyotaro
Poems of Consciousness
Compiled and penned by Richard Gilbert

Two selections from another major modern Japanese poet, Hoshinaga Fumio, stand out:


     toward the mirage of water

the postwar fathers

                chasing after . . .


the spring tree ---

I climb until I can see

the war

Hoshinaga Fumio
Transl. by Richard Gilbert
Poems of Consciousness

States Fumio to Gilbert in one of two interviews with him:

“I think contemporary American Indians may also act in a similar regard. They have been able to preserve and revive their ruined world in the American continent through the propagation of language --- through kotodama [“the imagery or miraculous power behind the word – language, says Gilbert. “I don’t just describe just the tree,” responds Fumio,“but rather the tree infused with kotodama. I do not want to use the word just for describing ‘as it is,’ but want to touch behind the word, further, deeper.”]

Wrote Shotetsu (1381-1459) in his book Conversations with Shotetsu (Shotetsu Monogatari), translated by Richard Brower with an introduction and notes by Steven D. Carter:

“The best poems are those that leave something unsaid.”

“. . . just where the mystery is to be found depends upon the inner feelings of each individual. No doubt it is something that cannot possibly be explained by words or distinguished clearly in the mind.”

Wrote Shotetsu and translated by Professor Esperanza Rameriz-Christensen in her book Emptiness and Temporality:

“In truth, the ineffably profound and moving resides precisely in what is left unsaid, in what is empty of meaning.”

Shotetsu believed if someone was serious about poetry, he should study the works of the masters:

“When studying the poems of the masters one should carefully ponder each poem, and then if there are any places one does not understand, one should ask questions.”

This should not be construed as learning how to be the mush melon Matsuo Basho warned his follower not to become. If I want to be a good architect, I need to study architecture and the different styles used in architecture. The same goes for any other kind of art. A clone copies to the letter the voice or style of another. Basho didn’t want clones. Who does, except for the insecure? Like any artist, we need to have an original voice. A voice and changing a genre into something it isn’t are two different subjects. Basho practiced what he preached by developing an original hokku voice that used the language of the common people outside the walls of the Imperial Court. Too much of what I read today in journals, blogs, and on-line e-zines feature poetry that is mush melonized. Many use similar formulas, copy others’ styles, lacking originality. Recently, composing one- line haiku as modeled and popularized by Marlene Mountain is gaining in popularity, with most lacking a fresh un-mush melon voice. Marlene is an original voice and certainly not a mush melon. But is what she’s writing, haiku?


the tom-tom of peter paul and mary's drag on

Marlene Mountain

How this incomplete sentence can be classified as haiku is beyond me: no mystery, no room for viable interpretation, no use of ma, pauses, metrics, or kigo.

When I first started composing haiku seriously, I studied haiku by Basho, Buson, and Issa. I also subscribed to on-line haiku forums and purchased every book I could get my hands on, new or used, studying theory, and reading haiku written by poets on-line and in books. Even though I liked some of the poets, Michael McClintock, Anita Virgil, Hortensia Anderson, to name a few, most I found to be unmemorable, boring, sometimes cutsie, and lacking the depth of the haiku penned by the aforementioned masters.

In the on-line forums, I’ve encountered mean-spirited egotists who never contribute a haiku unless it’s received an award. Their critiques include adherence to rules I can’t find in anything written by the masters. I’ve noticed, however, that many of them contradicted the poetic styles of the masters. I asked myself again and again, “Are they blind? Do these people know what they’re talking about? How come they don’t workshop their haiku?”

After being mentored by Anita Virgil for two years, and upon studying several scholarly books she and others recommended, I came to the conclusion that the present Haiku movement, apart from that taught in schools, was headed up by what is called the “Good Old Boy’s Club:” poets who’d founded the Haiku Society of America, published journals, sold themselves as experts in the field, and were used to being thought of as the kings and queens of haiku. As with every group, there were reputation hungry vultures who valued reputation over expertise in the composition of haiku.

I, therefore, limited my study of haiku to the writings by and about Basho, Issa, Buson, Chiyo-ni, and other pre-Shiki poets. Something both Basho and Shiki advised their disciples to do.

I learned much by exposing myself to a variety of poets. There were mush melons, during Basho’s lifetime, after his death, and before his birth. I concentrated my study of Japanese poetry on those whose names were legendary. Almost all has the following in common:

1.       A love of nature

2.       An understanding of zoka

3.       Excellent when vocally read

4.       Didn’t tell all

5.       Periodically spent time alone in nature

6.       Didn’t try to change the physical form of poetry

7.       Had a fresh, clearly identifiable voice (style)

8.       Did their homework and practiced daily

9.       Were teachable


I would read many books of old haiku masters, analogize their poetry, and emulate their styles to better understand the form. After a while, I’d pick up something useful from one master, another thing of use by another, and so forth, all the while developing my own original voice.

I never cared for Shiki’s poetry. Most lacked depth and said little. I admired, however, the guts it took for a sick young agnostic without time to waste, university drop-out in a spiritually-entwined culture to seek to reform haiku. Thank God he did, as the poetry called haikai at the time was trite, corny, poorly written, and crude. It was as if the efforts of Matsuo Basho accomplished to turn haikai into hokku, and to get it accepted nationally as a serious art genre, were tossed into a waste can. When Issa died, good haiku went down the drain. 

The more I read from the masters, the better my haiku became.

I laugh now at some of my earliest haiku; haiku I thought at the time were good. Realize it or not, as a part of nature we are always in a state of becoming. 

The following two examples of my first attempts of writing haiku apart from school are worst than horrible:

the pelican---
scooping up sardines
in Neptune's smorgy


crow paints
white spots on a
mercedes benz


Before one dives deeply into haiku, they should follow Shotetsu’s admonition:

 “A novice should simply sit down with his fellows and compose verse that is straightforward and easy to understand.”

In time, through, study, practice, exposure, one must take on the role of the student, if he or she desires to compose serious haiku. If it’s only an occasional hobby and nothing else, study isn’t important. Just write and have fun. Traditionally, haiku for many in Japan was once thought of as a path, the Dao, the Way, a journey that is both short and long, where getting publishedor making a name for one’s self is unimportant, where becomingness is a continuum without an end, without a nationality, a pathway into the breath of nature, the house of zoka, where stars are sculpted in daylight and rivers become words smoothing stones raked in a garden regardless of the season.

To write haiku one must be in the state of becomingness. At the time I wrote the above, I was in a state of confusion. I knew nothing about Daoist, Zen, and other ancient isms. I barely understood what I’d been taught while studying Christianity at California Baptist University (one of my degrees is in Bible).

Becomingness? Dying to one’s self? Impermanence? Eternity? The said? The unsaid?  Karma? Reaping what one sows? To understand terms like these requires years of meditation and thought. Most poets don’t have the time for such pursuits nor do they want to make the time.

I learned from Shotetsu that:

“A poet should not be overly concerned about learning and knowledge. It is better that he has a clear understanding and grasp of the nature of poetry. To have such a clear understanding means that one’s mind is enlightened. A man who has a clear understanding of poetry can become a skilled poet if he wants to.”

I learned a valuable lesson in 1981 as a new member of the Wordsmiths, a group of poets from Northern California (USA) who met together to workshop their poetry regardless of the genre. We’d sit in a circle. One would start off by reading a newly written poem. Others in the group would offer suggestions on improving said poem. We were not a critical group with people posing as experts. We each sincerely wanted every poet in our group to succeed. Arguments at these workshops were almost non-existent. Theories weren’t debated. This system worked well. Many of us went on to perform poetry publicly at a variety of venues, we published a national journal called the Mindprint Review, sponsored monthly open Mic readings, and went to every reading we could possibly attend by a major poet performing in Northern California, including Michael McClure, Alan Ginsberg, Mary Tall Mountain, and Gary Snyder.

Ryoshun, according to Shotetsu, said when poets gather together it should be for the work-shopping of their poetry. He said this was more important than the quantity of poems one composed.

“Given the fact that people are [constructively] critiquing each other’s poems and expressing their opinions about them,” said Shotetsu, “it does sometimes happen that the other person may understand a poem in one sense while that is not the way one interprets it oneself.”

Such workshops, whether on-line or in a meeting room, like the Wordsmiths held, are worthless to those who cannot handle constructive criticism of any kind. Those who think they’ve arrived as poets stop growing, and their work stagnates. A good poet is never satisfied with his or her own work. They are in a state of becoming and don’t try to stop what they can’t stop. Instead, they become miserable to the point where they make those around them miserable, believing that all who critique their poetry are their enemies. In other words, they have an inferiority complex like the witch in the Walt Disney’s cartoon classic Snow White. I know I haven’t arrived and will never arrive. For me, writing haiku is a lifelong path, a spiritual path that teaches me the wisdom I once harbored as a baby and a toddler.

To grow, we need to be teachable and not think we have arrived just because we have written poetry for a long time, have won awards, and have a reputation. We need to realize, when writing poetry, that we too are an empty goblet. We need to step outside of ourselves and enter into the subject in nature we are viewing, and into the zoka that is continually changing, the permanently impermanent, into the state of becomingness that is and isn’t; as we are no more important than a cockroach or a locust. We are part of nature and have no authority to rule over something we don’t understand or know how to take care of.

When I interviewed Professor Haruo Shirane for Simply Haiku recently, he stated:

“The main weakness of North American haiku today is the lack of depth in some of the poetry. Poetry should have some complexity to it so that when you reread it, you see something new or there is something that lingers in your brain or heart.”

Anglo-Westerners and the Japanese need to gain a better understanding of haiku that will only come about by reading and studying haiku written by the great haiku masters of long ago that are still remembered. Most haiku penned today go unremembered, have little depth, and display little understanding of the styles used by the masters to turn their haiku into literary classics the world over. This, coupled with Japan and the Anglo-American West’s quick jettisoning of true kigo, metric schemata, and turning their haiku-like poems into circus mirrors the Red Queen of Hearts would be proud of, tells me and many others that unless things change quickly, haiku will dissipate into a non-entity, like Shiki feared hokku would in his day.

I am reminded of a note Hansha Teki wrote on Facebook’s Something Is Happening Here page, regarding a movie on autism that he and Svetlana Marisova had discussed:

“Why do  Beethoven's last string quartets have such power in the silence they almost create? Why do Michelangelo's imprisoned sculptures move us so profoundly? Perhaps if we can understand this, we have the beginnings of an understanding of how haiku can speak of the ineffable, offer glimpses of the unseen, recreate the childlike wonder and participation in all that is.”

A child is born with a tabula rasa (blank slate, genetically encoded with cultural memory, and in the Christian viewpoint, with the sins of their forefathers). A normal baby is open to learning, harbors no preconceptions or subjectivity, believing what he or she sees and hears. Like a computer: what goes in, comes out. Babies are sensitive to things we as adult are not aware of, or have lost sight of after entering the school system. A baby can sense evil in a person, and will cry tears if that person nears him or tries to touch him.

Wrote Shinkei echoing the belief of himself, and the lords Shunzei, Michitomo, and Teika regarding the Style of Meditation [ushintei], which they believed to be the consummate style (aesthetic principle) in the way of poetry:

“It is poetry in which the mind has dissolvedand is profoundly at one with the numinosity [aware] of things; poetry that issues from the very depths of the poet’s being . . . “

Transl. by Esperanza Rameriz-Christensen
Murmured Conversations
An annotated translation of Sasamegotu (1463-1464)
by Shinkei (1406-1475)

Yone Noguchi, who was a major influence on Imagists like Ezra Pound and the first Japanese person to introduce haiku to America, stated in his A Proposal to American Poets on February 1904:

“Hokku (seventeen-syllable poem) is like a tiny star, mind you, carrying the whole sky at its back. It is like a slightly-open door, where you may steal into the realm of poesy. It is simply a guiding lamp. Its value depends on how much it suggests. The Hokku poet's chief aim is to impress the reader with the high atmosphere in which he is living. I always compare an English poem with a mansion with windows widely open, even the pictures of its drawing-room being visible from outside. I dare say it does not tempt me much to see the within.


"A cloud of flowers! Is the bell from Uyeno or Asakusa?" (Basho)

Yes, cloud of flowers, of course, in Mukojima, the odorous profusion shutting out every prospect! Listen to the bell sounding from the distance! Does it come from the temple of Uyeno or Asakusa? Doesn't the poem suggest a Spring picture of the river Sumida?”

"On a Withered branch, Lo! the crows are sitting there, Oh, this Autumn eve!" (Basho)

What a suggestion for the solitariness of a Japanese Autumn evening! The crows--what a monotonous "Kah! Kah, Kah!"--are the image of melancholy for Japanese.

Basho was a master of Hokku, a great suggester. He made long excursions to the remotest spots frequently, leaving behind him traces which remain to this day in the shapes of stones with his inscription. His monuments are said to number more than one thousand.

Pray, you try Japanese Hokku, my American poets! You say far too much, I should say. Here are some of my own attempts in the seventeen-syllable verse:

‘My girl's lengthy hair
Swung o'er me from Heaven's gate:
Lo, Evening's shadow!’


‘Lo, light and shadow
Journey to the home of night:
Thou and I--to Love!’


‘Where the flowers sleep,
Thank God! I shall sleep, to-night.
Oh, come, butterfly!’”


Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the owner of City Lights Bookstore that sponsored the controversial reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which initiated a court case where the prosecutor accused Howl of being an OBSCENE book. The State of California lost their case due to the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Ferlinghetti is considered to be one of America’s finest free verse poets and was San Francisco’s Poet Laureate.

He was also a close friend of Snyder, Ginsberg, McClure, and Kerouac, and therefore, helped to popularize haiku in the United States before the HSA came into being.

In an interview, Laurence Ferlinghetti was asked if he had written a book of haiku. The following is an excerpt from this interview. I suggest you pay close attention to what he says:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-) on Haiku - Interview by Carl Freire

Carl Freire: “Did you publish any haiku collections?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Haiku? No. That term has been picked up by American poets and they call any three-line poem or any short poem a haiku -- which isn't the case. Allen Ginsberg had a very simple definition of a haiku, which none of these poets follow. He said, first you have the perception of an unrecognized, amorphous natural phenomenon, and then the second step is recognition of what it is... You know what an American haiku is?”

Carl Freire: “No, what is an American haiku?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti:“It's a bird, it's a man, it's …Superman!

But that doesn’t fulfill Allen’s definition either, strictly. First, there is an amorphous mass, second, a recognition of what it is, and third, an emotional response to that recognition. So it would be like:

A small distant cloud. It's a bird, it's a man -- (Laughter...)

To be more serious, we should take one of the classic Japanese haiku that really made it –“

Carl Freire: “For me that would be Basho's ‘The ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water…’"

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Well, Allen would add ‘Aha!’ -- that would be the emotion, the third part of the haiku, the reaction to the observation.”

Carl Freire: “And American poets just don't get it?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “They should invent some other word for these poems. It's not the correct transmission of the Dharma (laughter). There was a very early American haiku magazine, and I can't remember who was the editor, the first one in this country who got onto the haiku horse. This was in the 60s, probably. He asked me for a haiku -- I sent him this:

Ancient frog In ancient outhouse Plop!

And he rejected it, he said that won't do, it's too vulgar, it's obscene...”


Anglo-American, Oceanic, and European haiku poets are not writing anything near what the Japanese wrote between the time of Basho and Issa, with few exceptions.  Some say we have the public schools to blame, which is partially right, but many modern poets, many under the influence of the Haiku Society of America, who, according to Michael Dylan Welch, is the major voice in the Anglo-English haiku world community, is even more to blame because they are a major Internet influence of modern Anglo-English haiku. Coupled with the Japanese modernists groomed by the German-based university system, haiku is not even close to being taken seriously by the mainstream English-language literary world. They have no consistent definition, they think kigo is not necessary, don’t understand its essence (which is becomingness, koto, process, impermanence, non-static, sculpted by zoka, a term Basho didn’t make up) and believe it’s okay to substitute it with a key word that does or doesn’t have to do with nature, of which you, as a human being, are a part of. Most of what is placed on-line in forums, journals, blogs, and e-zines regarding haiku are primarily anything goes, with the good old boys slapping each other on the back like the haiku poets did prior to Shiki’s shake-up and renaming hokku to haiku.

Simply Haiku is making enemies with the good old guys and women who have done their thing for too long, not in tune, as Ferlinghetti claims, with what a true haiku is.  (Ferlinghetti has a PhD in Literature from the Sorbonne in France). It’s time to be silent no longer. Either haiku regains its identity or it will sink into the oblivion. People are fooling themselves into thinking the opposite. There are few books on haiku in the major bookstores. Why? Most of the books are older books (how-to books, and anthologies of poetry by the Japanese masters. None contain a single Anglo-English speaking poet’s body of works. Thanks to the Modern Japanese, Anglo-Western, and Oceanic school systems, the world haiku community’s identity crisis, the German-based university system, and the misrepresentations of haiku by Blyth whose books are elevated to a cult status, the offerings in Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Amazon Bookstore, and other major bookstores are a joke for a genre who claim to be a major poetic genre (or should I say two poetic genres with the same name and different rules, if any?).

Wrote Yone Noguchi:

“The heart of Nature is sad. Beyond the sounds of the wind and the waves you will be impressed by the loneliness and beauty of silence, which is the dignity of Nature.”

Shiki didn’t have a college degree, but no one called him a wannabe scholar. It’s considered heresy to criticize Shiki by the modern haiku community (he was influenced by the Japanese and American adopted German-based university system and praised by Blyth), yet it was okay for Shiki to criticize Basho and praise Buson, who in turn said he was taught by a disciple of one of Basho’s closest disciples; and who said Basho had the greatest influence on his poetry. And the praise heaped upon Buson by Shiki wasn’t predicated on his ability to adhere to the shasei doctrine. It was predicated upon Buson’s depth of imagination.

Shiki himself encouraged his followers to read the books of the old masters including Basho, even though he claimed publicly that Basho was a horrible poet.

Haiku is haiku. There are not two genres of haiku, just as there are not two genres called cubism. The time has come for a revival of the haiku that once became a respected literary genre, whose poets and haiku are remembered today, and not because they are dead. They are remembered because their poetry had meaning, depth, mystery, meter, and allowed room for a reader’s subjective analysis.

A poet’s job is to write a haiku and the reader’s job is to interpret it. Since we are not the poet himself, there is no way possible to think as he or she thinks. All of us have different backgrounds, levels of experience, cultural memories, parental upbrings, etc.

Writes Jane Hirschfield in her new book The Heart of Haiku:

“The reader who enters Basho’s perceptions fully can’t help but find in them a kind of liberation. They unshackle the mind from any single or absolute story, unshackle us from the clumsy dividing world into subjective and objective, self and other, illness and blossom, freedom and capture. Some haiku seem reports of internal awareness, some seem to point at the external, but Basho’s work as a whole awakens us to the necessary permeability of all to all. Awareness of the mind’s movements makes clear that it is the mind’s nature to move. Feeling within ourselves the lives of others (people, creatures, plants, and things) who share this world is what allows us to feel as we do at all.”

By interpreting another’s haiku and doing in a less than complimentary manner a sin, and is this my right as a reader of haiku to interpret what the poet has written?

In closing, it would be ridiculous to think that Japan and the Anglo-Western and Anglo- Oceanic countries can’t learn from one another. When we think we have arrived, we begin to stagnate. We no longer strive to improve our craft. Perhaps this is why so many on-line haiku teachers and well-known poets refuse to have their haiku critiqued publicly.  They’ll critique others, even newbies, but if you critique them, they’ll attack you and get their friends to support them in their malicious. I’m thankful for the secure poets who don’t live in class house.

Activity- (koto, process) biased haiku is neither Japanese or Anglo-English. It’s the essence of haiku, apart from the influences of Imagism, Japanese Modernism, the errors of Blyth and Yasuda, and the colonialism brought about by the German-based university system.

Below are examples of some of the finest non-Japanese-language haiku written during the past two centuries; poetry that is remembered, talked about, studied, and worthy of being called serious literature. We don’t need to portray the roll of the three blind mice playing chess. Below is proof that haiku can be defined and written properly. 

The following haiku are by the poet laureate of Catalan, Agusti Barta, from his book The Last Poems (1977-1982, translated by Sam Abrams), published in 500 copies. They were written in his deathbed in Mexico City where his daughter, Eli, teaches Women’s Studies at the University of Mexico City. Barta translated The Complete Works of William Blake into the Catalan language and was his native land’s finest free verse poet. He was exiled to Mexico City by the Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Ferdinand, during World War II. My copy was gifted to me by the poet’s daughter, Eli, when I met her at a friend’s house on the campus of U.C. Santa Cruz, California.

On their pilgrimage

   the eyes of the passing night:

         searching for the lark



The light is teaching

   the air that ever travels

        how roses are born



With words you begin,

    worlds of obscure syllables,

       close to the earth’s crust



With footsteps of air

   I draw near the steeple bells

      that are dreaming me



I open to things

   that come unto me, pilgrims,

       with no certainty



The heavy branches

   of the trees bend toward the earth,

        though now free from doubt



Untouchable youth,

   drawing knowledge from the stones

      and morning glories



as if distracted

    on my way, I touched the tree,

       now it answers me