Arriving Geese: Learning from Shugyō Takaha

First published in Hanami Dango: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society 2017 Members’ Anthology (San Jose, California: Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, 2017), pages 70–79. Originally written in March and July of 2003, and revised in 2013 and 2017. See David Burleigh’s review of Shugyō Takaha’s Selected Haiku on the Modern Haiku website and on the Japan Times website. And see profiles of the author at the Haiku International Association website, the Association of Haiku Poets website, and on the World Haiku Database. Takaha’s previous book of English-language haiku translations is One Year of Haiku, which you can view in PDF form at The Haiku Foundation website.


In 1978, the first haiku contest sponsored by California’s Yuki Teikei Haiku Society was judged by Shugyō Takaha (狩行 鷹羽), one of Japan’s most prominent haiku poets. But who is Shugyō Takaha, and what can we learn from his poems today? One answer is to turn to his best-known book in English, Selected Haiku (Tokyo: Furansudo), published in the spring of 2003. The book was edited and translated by Tsunehiko Hoshino and Adrian Pinnington. When the book was published, Hoshino was a professor of English and English literature at Waseda University. He has since retired, but continues to serve as international director of Tokyo’s Museum of Haiku Literature, and as vice president of the Haiku International Association (HIA). Pinnington is a professor of English and Japanese Literature at Waseda University, is a councilor of HIA, and has written articles about R. H. Blyth. The book they produced has much to teach Westerners about haiku in Japan, beginning with information about Takaha himself, and more particularly through his poems. While some of the book’s poems may be puzzling, in part because of cultural differences that render them less immediately clear outside Japan or because of differing haiku aesthetics, a number of the poems are startling, fresh, and particularly enjoyable, and may stretch our understanding of this genre of poetry.
        In the book’s introduction, Hoshino tells us something of Takaha’s haiku lineage and accomplishments and that, as a professional haiku poet, he is said to judge some 30,000 haiku each month. Think about that before reading further—that’s about 1,000 haiku per day, just the ones he’s judging, mostly for publication, let alone any others he reads for pleasure, not to mention doing his own writing. He’s even written a poem about this (4), and one may wonder if this is therefore an occasional feat rather than a regular one, but it is still an amazing achievement:

                the chirping of tree crickets—
                after having judged
                a thousand verses in one day

        Takaha founded the Kari Haiku Society in 1978 (“kari,”
, means “hunting”) and served for many years as president of the Association of Haiku Poets (currently honourary president), which, with 14,000 members at the time the book was published, is the largest association of haiku poets in Japan (numbers rose to more than 15,000 since publication, but are now down to about 10,000 members). Takaha is also an executive director of HIA, a haiku judge for the Mainichi newspaper and NHK television’s national haiku contest, a director of the Japan Writers’ Association, and has won many awards for his haiku. As Hoshino notes, Takaha “has consistently played a central role in the world of contemporary Japanese haiku” (6) and that Takaha “may be said to be one of the busiest and most productive professional haiku poets active in Japan today” (4).
        Hoshino also says that, in Japanese, Takaha “preserves the conventions of the 5 / 7 / 5 sound symbol pattern and the use of a season-word” (note that Hoshino does not use the word “syllable”), yet has “consciously striven to add a contemporary note to his own verses” (5). From this observation we can learn that it is a choice, even in Japan, to write 5-7-5 or not, and that the season word (kigo) is also a choice. What is not stated, perhaps because it may be so much more essential than a 5-7-5 structure and season words as to not even need stating, is the use of the cutting word (kireji) or juxtaposition, a technique present in nearly every poem in Takaha’s book. Hoshino explains that the “contemporary note” that Takaha adds to his poems is an “intellectual lyricism” and a skill for “composing haiku overseas” (5, 6). Hoshino remarks that this latter tendency “has provided us with many works which can serve as guides or models as to how to adapt season-words—poetic terms which were originally born from Japan’s climate, geography and culture—to the different seasons and climes of foreign countries” (6). I am particularly refreshed by Hoshino’s comment about Takaha’s use of seasonal references: “By employing season-words in a way that avoids unduly stressing particularly Japanese emotions, he has managed to find a means of expressing flexibly and insightfully an awareness of the changing seasons appropriate to the particular place being visited” (6). Likewise, in writing haiku in a language other than Japanese, we need not resort to Japanese emotions or other imitations of haiku sensibility, but can rely on our own emotions, seasonal understandings, and other haiku fodder that is applicable to where we live.
        What else can we learn from Takaha and his haiku? Let’s take a closer look at some of the poems in Selected Haiku, which are arranged chronologically from 1948 to 1997 throughout the book. Practically no North American has written haiku as long ago as 1948 (the late Robert Spiess was one such person), so the first lesson we can learn is that we are still just beginning to write haiku. From 1951, this poem (13):

               
雁渡るらし燭の火の揺れつづけ
                kari wataru rashi shoku no hi no yuretsuzuke

                geese seem to be flying south—
                the candle’s flame
                continues to flicker

        This translation, as with the book’s other translations, is precisely nuanced. A key word here, for example, is “seem.” Why “seem”? This word adds a touch of introspection to the poem, revealing that the content is not purely objective description, but offers a deft yet reserved human interaction with the fact that geese are flying south. The poet believes the geese are flying south, arriving from the north (Emiko Miyashita has told me that
雁渡る, kari wataru, is an autumn kigo, depicting geese that are arriving from northern parts). But for some reason he can’t be sure, seemingly because he is indoors and only hears them rather than seeing the geese. And in this context, too, the candle flame “continues” to flicker, another nuance that acknowledges ongoing human awareness of rich sensory detail.

               
スケートの濡れ刃たづさへ人妻よ
                sukēto no nureba tazusae hitozuma yo

                O, somebody’s wife!
                carrying ice skates
                with wet blades

        This 1958 poem (20) immediately strikes me with its fresh image of a woman carrying ice skates. The blades are wet, clarifying that these skates have just been used. What challenges me most in this poem, though, is the first line—the declaration that this is somebody’s wife. From this cry of awareness, I sense the poet’s possible longing, even if momentary, for another man’s woman. The wetness of the skate blades suggests activity and energy. The woman to whom the poet is subtly attracted—alas, somebody’s wife—is appealing presumably because of having just done something such as ice-skating. The poet seems to lament that this woman is married. We do not know from the poem whether the poet is married or not, but we do not need to know, for the lamentation is sufficient, and we can appreciate the image of the carried ice skates for more than just its visual beauty.
        Another point of view is to wonder if the poem describes the poet’s own wife. The poet’s longing for this woman then takes on a different meaning, an appreciation for the love of his life, yearning for her even more because of her passionate activity. Or perhaps it is a lament, that his wife is out enjoying an activity, but he, the husband, is not—he is the somebody of “somebody’s wife” who has become anonymous amid his wife’s momentary foregrounding as an ice skater. Perhaps the poet then feels a tinge of sadness for his (temporary?) disconnection from her activity of ice-skating. The poem has layers that keep the reader engaged.
        On 2 January 2009, Gabi Greve commented on the Simply Haiku online haiku discussion list that she had just seen Shugyō Takaha on a Japanese television program in which he had explained what makes a noteworthy haiku. According to Gabi, he said that language should be used correctly, and the poem must be easily understood on first reading, providing simple and immediate accessibility for the reader. However, the poem should provide additional tastes on rereading, offering layers of meaning. Most importantly, she also said he advised that the season word must feel “alive,” that is, to show real heart—not just the heart of the object, but the heart of the viewer experiencing the object. In the preceding poem, we see much of this noteworthiness—immediacy and clarity, layers of meaning, and a strong season word that comes alive in multiple interpretations.

               
落椿われならば急流へ落つ
                ochitsubaki ware naraba kyūryū e otsu

                fallen camellias—
                if I were one,
                I’d throw myself into the torrent

        Many English-speaking haiku poets erroneously believe that one should not mention the self (I, me, my) in a haiku, believing that there should be no ego in haiku. They confuse the objective mention of the self with the assertion of ego, yet they are not the same thing. Or, because the syntax of Japanese makes it easy to omit or imply oneself, they presume that one should therefore avoid mentions of the self in English. But this seems to be a misapplication of Japanese syntax to English, especially when the self is so emphatically implied in many Japanese haiku—and sometimes mentioned explicitly. Indeed, the first-person perspective occurs in at least 21 of this book’s 102 haiku. Here in this 1961 poem (26), the self-reference is vital, and indicates the utter identification of the poet with the subject. Instead of dropping its petals one by one, the camellia’s abandonment is more total and instant—the entire flower head drops at once. These fallen blossoms are associated with the decapitated heads of fallen samurai. As a result, in this poem Japanese readers may feel the camellia’s abandonment to its fate as being like the commitment of a samurai warrior. And yet the poet does not wish merely to fall—and fall whole, like the camellia—but wishes to fall somewhere with purpose, or more likely to be washed away. Indeed, the poet identifies with this abandonment, and presents his response to seeing fallen camellias by telling us that he would behave as a camellia does if he were one, yet not merely to fall whole. But why? This poem may not be a homage to the camellia, as we might first imagine, but to the torrent of water that sweeps the fallen camellias away to oblivion. Such water, rushing as it does in the spring rains, is vibrant and energetic. Why not abandon yourself to its forces, and do so as totally as the camellia does, with all its soul? The torrent may well be the focus here, yet how nimbly the poet has pointed at it.

               
馬小屋の一頭で満ちクリスマス
                umagoya no ittō de michi kurisumasu

                one horse fills
                the nativity stable—
                Christmas

        This poem is from 1962 (29). First, notice the romaji for the English word “Christmas.” In the romaji version of this adopted word, we can see that what we say as two syllables is said as five in Japanese. Many Japanese say this word quickly enough that it may be difficult for English speakers to hear all five syllables, but it serves to show how each consonant (save the “t” in this case, which is silent in English) is pronounced with a vowel in Japanese. This difference in pronunciation illustrates how English-language syllables can be more dense and variable, and thus not as readily appropriate for the 5-7-5 structure that schoolteachers unthinkingly present as the sole target for English-language haiku. Quite simply, English syllables can carry more “information” per syllable than do most Japanese sound-symbols, thus for us to write a full seventeen syllables is to provide much more information than classical or contemporary traditional Japanese haiku ever do. Or, as Patricia Donegan explained in Haiku: Asian Arts & Crafts for Creative Kids (Tuttle, 2003), “In Japanese, seventeen syllables makes about six words, but seventeen syllables in English usually makes about twelve words or more” (9), meaning that any poem as long as seventeen syllables in English “says” about twice as much as seventeen sounds in Japanese.
        This poem, at least in English, has two season words—“nativity” and “Christmas.” This immediately challenges the notion that haiku should (usually) have just one season word. In Japan in 1962, Christmas may have still been a novelty, and to some degree it still is today, though mostly as a secular holiday. We might wonder, because of this novelty, if the words “Christmas” or “nativity” were perhaps not yet strong season words by themselves more than fifty years ago in Japan. However, the fact is that this double seasonal reference exists only in the translation. Indeed, umagoya means a small horse barn or stable, and adding the word “nativity” to the translation turns the scene into a crèche, which not only creates the double season-word problem, but also nudges the original poem’s meaning. Still, it is worth noting that the translators did not see it as a problem that this translation sports two season words, trusting that both are necessary. In Japanese, the original poem does not have two season words.

               
楽器函ほど早春の水車小屋
                gakkibako hodo sōshun no suisha goya

                like a music box—
                the small water mill
                in early spring

        The figurative language in this 1966 poem (39) seems to exist in the original Japanese as well as in the translation, and creates a new challenge. This time the challenge goes against the notion that haiku should avoid simile and metaphor (at least a dozen translations in this book use similes). In the Japanese, the reference to the music box is offered to suggest that the water mill makes musical sounds like a music box, or as small as a music box—thus, a delicate sound. In translation, the implied metaphor is rendered as an overt simile. Indeed, just as a music box is wound up by turning a spring, so too the water mill is wound up by the water wheel, powered by water flowing from a different kind of spring, all of this happening when the water is most abundant—in springtime. Emiko Miyashita has told me that
楽器函ほど (gakkibako hodo) means “as big as, or as noisy as, or as merry as, we are not told how.” Generally I agree that metaphor and simile should be avoided in haiku, or used only rarely, for it takes a shrewd haiku writer to make a simile work, let alone a metaphor. In this translation, though, the simile succeeds. We are first presented with a gentle subjective response—that something is like a music box—and yet the first line tells us only that an implied “it” is like this, whatever “it” is. Then we are given the explanation—that the delicate sounds, which can indeed be like the tinkles of a music box, come from a water mill. And this is not just any water mill, but a small one, and not just at any time, but in early spring, when the run-off of winter snows is just beginning. The words “small” and “early” intensify the delicacy of the water’s trickling sound. The simile works, in this case, because I imagine that the poet’s first perception was to hear the sound and think of an actual music box. Then he sees the source of the sound and feels resolution. If the first perception were not of an actual music box, I do not think the simile would be nearly as effective or appropriate.

               
父とわかりて子の呼べる秋の暮
                chichi to wakarite ko no yoberu aki no kure

                recognising his father,
                a child calls out—
                autumn dusk

        This poem, also from 1966 (41), gives us only the barest details. We do not know where the father and son are, yet the act of recognition suggests a busy location where many faces may have first gone by as unrecognized, perhaps at a train station. We are also presented with a fairly common season word in this poem, one of the more basic ones in that it names the season itself. Yet what an uncommon deepening! Both autumn and dusk suggest the passing of time, echoed by the passing of generations suggested by the reference to father and son. Perhaps the child had been waiting for his father for a long time (it has even become dusk), and finally sees him and calls out. In this simple act, caught and depicted at this particular time of day, we are given a picture not just of the child’s love and longing, but also of the impermanence of life and ephemerality of childhood. The seasons pass just as surely as the day does. And so too does childhood and the child’s call. Even with the simplest of seasonal references, it is possible to present deeply effective haiku—ones that re-energize basic season words in the process.

               
ハート型彫られて一樹はや芽吹く
                hātogata horarete ichiju haya mebuku

                one tree,
                a heart carved on its trunk,
                buds early

        It is speculation to assume that the mark of love carved into this tree causes the tree to bud early, yet this is the tendency of human optimism. This 1969 poem (47) presents details with reserve: A budding tree. It does not matter what kind. A heart carved in its trunk. It doesn’t matter by whom, or what else might have been carved on the tree, such as lovers’ names. All that matters is what is seen and presented—and re-experienced by the reader: the early budding of this tree with a heart carved on its trunk. The key detail in the poem is that just this one tree is budding early. But rather than the heart somehow causing the tree to bud early, perhaps it is the other way round—perhaps the heart was carved on the tree because that tree was the first to bud, and thus caught the attention of the lovers who carved this symbol. What better expression of love—and the joys of spring—than this realization, so deftly yet subtly memorialized in this poem?

               
美しき五月の汗を拭はずに
                utsukushiki gogatsu no ase o nuguwazu ni

                sweat in May—
                too beautiful
                to wipe it off

        Again, such simplicity. The subjective judgment of this 1973 poem (55) that the sweat is “beautiful” challenges us because subjective judgments in haiku so often fail, taking us away from the image and into the poet’s mind, and thus not empowering our emotional interaction and interpretation. Yet here the subjectivity heightens the perception and manages to succeed. We know that it is May. In the northern hemisphere of Western cultures, this means that we are well into spring. Yet in Japan, both “sweat” and “May” are season words for summer (yes, another case of two season words, but effective and necessary in this poem—and it is really just “May” that functions as a season word here, because it trumps any other seasonal reference; for a further example, consider Bashō’s “first day of spring— / I keep thinking about / the end of autumn,” where the poem is clearly set in spring and “autumn” is something being contemplated and not actually happening). The hot and humid summer is just beginning. Yet for this brief period the poet sees beauty in the beads of sweat—and does so at this specific time of year and this moment of appreciation. So the normal thought to wipe off sweat is countered by the realization that it too has its momentary beauty. The poet recognizes this, describes the sensation, and the result is sufficient for a complete and fulfilling haiku.

               
刃を入れて拒む手ごたへ青林檎
                ha o irete kobamu tegotae aoringo

                as I sink the blade
                I feel its resistance—
                a green apple

        Not only do we have explicit self-reference again in this poem, but it is integral to the poet’s realization. The self—the body, the action of the hand cutting with a knife—is entirely accepted by the poet, and he reveals a subtlety of his own awareness. The key detail is that this apple is green. It is surely still hard, not completely ripe. The poet most fully appreciates this with the action of cutting the apple with a knife. At that moment, he becomes aware that the apple is not quite ripe, thanks to the apple’s increased resistance as he begins to cut it. This 1978 poem (75) puts the knife and apple in the reader’s hands, and we feel the seasonality of the apple ourselves in the increased resistance to the knife’s first cut. We are there with the poet, not cutting just any apple, but an apple that reveals the vestiges of the season in its tautness.

               
道化服ぬがずてんたう虫の死よ
                dōkefuku nugazu tentōmushi no shi yo

                still wearing
                its clown’s costume,
                the ladybird has died

        This 1982 poem (78) is not shy in using the metaphor. Yet, in its confidence, it presents itself naturally. It may not be a uniquely Japanese perception that the ladybird (or ladybug) is wearing a clown costume, but this is at least the author’s momentary perception. He is struck by the contrast between the gaiety of what he sees as a clown’s costume and the sadness of the beetle’s passing—or perhaps he is picturing a sad clown. The poem needs nothing more than this. It is a rare haiku where the metaphor works. Here it succeeds because the metaphor does not serve just to show the poet’s cleverness, but is part of his original perception that is then presented as simply and directly as possible. The difference is essential.
        Something else to note is that nugazu (
ぬがず) can be taken to mean “not to take off,” which is a slightly different meaning from “still wearing.” Nugazu therefore suggests that it is a choice to keep the costume on, and we may feel grateful to the ladybug for making that delightful choice. The buoyancy of such a preference becomes doubly sad, of course, when the ladybug is shown to have died. A sad clown, indeed.

               
秋暑し籠のひしめく小鳥市
                aki atsushi kago no hishimeku kotoriichi

                autumn heat—
                the cages jostle
                at the bird market

        This 1994 poem (99) has a headnote telling us it was written in or about Hong Kong. Some 21 of the book’s poems have headnotes, all naming the place of composition or the place that the poem was written about. In some cases, such as a later poem about an Indian elephant, the headnote of “India” seems unnecessary. In this poem, too, perhaps the headnote does not add much. It is autumn, and also hot, and the poet is at a bird market that happens to be in Hong Kong. But what is it that captures the poet’s attention so much? Is it the rush of people or perhaps the movement of the birds themselves that causes the bird cages to jostle? But perhaps not just that. What deepens this poem is the poet’s choice to identify with the birds jostled in their cages. He feels the heat with them, and their jostling or being jostled at a busy bird market makes him feel the heat all the more acutely. It feels hotter because of the jostling. Perhaps the headnote does add something after all, for this is a tropical heat, an intensely humid heat. And notice, if you think about it, how the season becomes much more subtle because of the poem’s setting in Hong Kong. In tropical climates, it may seem that it’s summer all or most of the time. Yet really the seasons just become fainter. The poet knows it is autumn, and he extends what he knows to what he imagines—the difficulty of being a bird jostled in a hot Asian market. He interpenetrates and empathizes with the birds and feels the heat the way they would, perhaps longing for the release of cooler weather, and maybe the release of not being caged.

               
日焼子を鼻もて散らし印度象
                hiyakego o hana mote chirashi indo zō

                scattering with its trunk
                the sunburnt children—
                an Indian elephant

        This 1997 poem (108) concludes Shugyō Takaha’s book, and it is a wonderful gesture to end with. The gesture is the elephant’s. Perhaps the happy, sunburnt children are pestering the pachyderm. The elephant scatters the children, either by swinging its trunk or maybe by spraying the children with water. The expedient word here is “sunburnt.” The children are hot, and perhaps water is just what they need to cool off. Thus I imagine the elephant spraying the children with water. Yet we do not know. So the gesture in this poem is also the poet’s. We are left to wonder if the elephant cools down the children or whether it just shoos them away. After reading Shugyō Takaha’s finely translated and selected collection of haiku, we, too, may be left with a refreshing cool sensation, and perhaps, along the way, at the foot of a master, we may have learned something about haiku.
        Twenty years have passed since Shugyō Takaha wrote the last haiku included in Selected Haiku. He has continued to write and publish his work, including books of essays about haiku. While this summary at most just skims the wave tops of the author’s many poems, it may serve as a window into contemporary Japanese haiku by one of its leading and most prolific writers. And perhaps, too, these poems may serve as inspiration to readers for haiku that may come like arriving geese—not just in the fall, but all year round.

My grateful thanks to William J. Higginson, Dhugal Lindsay, Emiko Miyashita, and Lee Gurga for their feedback on earlier drafts of this essay, especially to Emiko for her clarifications on Japanese meaning and context, and to Dhugal for his pointers on nuances in the original Japanese, not all of which made it to the quoted translations. My thanks also to Shugyō Takaha himself for his generous hospitality when I was once his guest on a visit to the Museum of Haiku Literature in Tokyo.