Beauty in Haiku

First published in Virals 5.6 on the Haiku Foundation blog on 10 February 2010, followed by an extensive discussion. Translation from Rose Mallow #58 (2003), page 46, by permission from Dhugal J. Lindsay. I think of John Jay Chapman, who said “Beauty is not the aim of the writer. His aim must be truth.”




ankō-no hone-made itete buchikiraru


the anglerfish frozen

right down to its very bones

is hacked to pieces


                Katō Shūson (1905–1993)

                (translated by Dhugal J. Lindsay)



This poem may startle readers because of its bluntness and violence. Many readers and writers of haiku prefer that haiku focus on the beautiful, so much so that they may believe that haiku should be limited to the beautiful. In Japan, however, the subjects of many haiku are often merely mundane, and not specifically beautiful (the subject is mundane, not the poem). Moreover, subjects also appear that are decidedly unbeautiful, as in the preceding poem. Nor is this just recent—think of Bashō three hundred years ago and the horse pissing by his pillow. Robert Bly has asserted that American haiku could represent darker content, in the way that Shiki’s haiku, for example, reflected the tensions of dying from tuberculosis, or the way Bashō’s haiku are often directly or contextually tinged with the dangers of travel. Our haiku, too, has plenty of room for duende, as well as dark subjects. Haiku need not dwell entirely on the dark or seemly, but just as too much salt spoils a meal, so does too much sugar. As James W. Hackett has said in his guidelines for writing haiku, “Lifefulness, not beauty, is the real quality of haiku.”