Even in Seattle: An Introduction to Haiku Poetry

First published in Raven Chronicles Journal #24, the “home” issue, pages 52 to 65 (in which I also have a rengay, “The Last Ferry”). Originally written in January and February of 2009, and revised in 2016 and 2017. Also recorded 11 April 2009 at the Art Institute of Seattle as an audio track for the Seattle Japanese garden audio tour.


Haiku are short poems from Japan that celebrate the seasons. They are now written around the world in many languages, even in Seattle, and you can write them too. The following are four haiku poems, one for each season of the year:

                the crane’s legs
                a little shorter—
                spring rain

                short night—
                beads of dew
                on the furry caterpillar

                grave visiting—
                my old dog
                leads the way

                a soft rustling
                through the bamboo—
                nighttime snow

These poems are by the four great haiku masters of Japan: Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Can you see how the crane’s legs look shorter to Bashō because of a fresh spring rain? On a hot summer night, are you as sleepless as Buson who notices a caterpillar at dawn? Like Issa, do you feel even older than your beloved dog who knows the way to a grave you traditionally visit in the autumn? And do you, like Shiki, delight in the magical sound of gently falling snow? Can you feel what these poets felt? Do these poems put you there by the water, in the garden, in town, or in the country? If you take a moment to dwell in each poem, you will experience what the poet experienced, and feel what the poet felt.
        This is the aim of haiku, to help you know the world around you a little better, through your five senses, to intuitively grasp the essence of what it means to be alive. In a Paris Review interview in 2001, Billy Collins says that haiku demonstrates “existential gratitude,” adding that “Almost every haiku says the same thing: ‘It’s amazing to be alive here’” A good haiku lets you feel simple yet profound emotions about ordinary life, and helps you be more deeply aware of nature’s unfolding pageant of seasons. These short poems show you the uncommon in the common, the extraordinary in the ordinary, helping you to notice what is too easily unnoticed. As translator R. H. Blyth once wrote, “Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew; it shows us that we are poets in so far as we live at all.”
        Here are two famous haiku in Japanese and English, first by Bashō, and then by Buson:

                古池や蛙飛こむ水の音                                                  芭蕉

                furuike ya                                                                           old pond—
                kawazu tobikomu                                                           a frog jumps in
                mizu no oto                                                                        water’s sound

                身にしむやなき妻のくしを閨に踏                                    蕪村

                mi ni shimu ya                                                                  a piercing chill—
                naki tsuma no kushi wo                                                I step on my dead wife’s comb
                neya ni fumu                                                                    in our bedroom

        Haiku poetry is one of Japan’s best-known art forms, and is now written around the world. To make a haiku succeed, the poet carefully describes an image or experience to create an emotion or insight in the reader. This realization is often referred to as an “aha” moment that some people think of as a taste of enlightenment. A leap of some kind exists in each haiku, and it’s up to you, as the reader, to find it, often in the jump from one of the poem’s two parts to the other.
        Traditional haiku uses concrete images to convey an experience or sensory perception typically taking place in one of the four seasons. Japanese haiku evoke the seasons by using a kigo or season word, such as “frog” for spring or “snow” for winter. Haiku also employ a kireji or cutting word to divide the poem into two juxtaposed parts. Japanese haiku are written in a single vertical line, and typically follow a pattern of 5-7-5 sounds, which are not the same as English syllables. Many people think a haiku is simply any words arranged in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, but this is not accurate. This is  really a violation of the Japanese form, not a preservation of it. The word “haiku,” for example, counts as two syllables, but three sounds in Japanese. Linguists and literary critics have observed that about 10 to 14 English syllables are equivalent to the 17 sounds of a Japanese haiku. In English, literary haiku use three lines to imply natural and human seasonal phenomena. They are frequently objective and imagistic, instead of being subjective, analytical, or judgmental. They usually avoid titles, rhyme, and most overt metaphor and simile. Haiku relies on images perceived through the five senses to convey meaning to the reader in the here and now. Haiku also has a cousin, known as senryu, that tends to focus on human nature in a humourous or satirical way rather than focusing on seasonal perceptions.
        Here’s an empathetic winter haiku by Buson:

                tethered horse—
                snow
                in both stirrups

The Origin of Haiku

Where did haiku come from? The term haiku, or “playful verse,” is only about a hundred years old, and was coined in the late 1800s by Shiki, one of Japan’s great haiku masters. Before then, haiku were known as hokku, which means “starting verse.” The hokku began a linked verse form known as renga, written by two or more poets. In a renga, the first verse (in a pattern of 5-7-5 sounds) was followed by a verse in a 7-7 pattern, followed by another 5-7-5 verse, and so on. Renga were typically written in lengths of 100 verses, sometimes even 1,000. The hokku poem set the tone for the entire renga, yet was also deliberately fragmentary and “incomplete,” a trait still evident in haiku today. Readers “finished” the poem in their imaginations. Hokku also commemorated the season in which the renga was written, and this seasonal element is still central to the haiku art. Bashō, the first great master of what became known as haiku, wrote mostly haikai no renga in a pattern of 36 verses (the modern term is renku), and his hokku were so good that his students collected them separately from the renga where they first appeared. It was not until the 1890s, though, thanks to the efforts of Shiki, that haiku became a truly independent poem. Here’s a haiku by Shiki, who was gravely ill with tuberculosis towards the end of his life:

                again and again
                I keep asking
                how high the snow is

Bashō

Of the four great masters who dominated haiku in Japan, the first was Matsuo Bashō, who lived from 1644 to 1694. Bashō came from a samurai family and spent much of his life traveling and writing haikai no renga. He also wrote haibun, which was a mixture of autobiographical prose with haiku, often in the form of travel diaries. His most famous diary is the Oku no hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior. This book was not just about the interior of northern Japan, where he traveled on foot for many months, but was a journey to his psychological and spiritual interior as well. Bashō has been called the “Shakespeare” of Japan, and Japanese schoolchildren memorize Bashō’s most famous poems. Bashō once said to “Learn of the pine tree from the pine tree, learn of the bamboo from the bamboo,” and this is good advice for anyone wishing to write haiku with depth and empathy.
        Here are three poems by Bashō:

                a crow settles
                on a bare branch—
                autumn evening

                from cherry trees,
                into salads, soups, and everywhere,
                blossoms fall

                deep autumn—
                I wonder how
                my neighbour lives

Buson

The second of Japan’s four great haiku masters was Yosa Buson. Compared to Bashō, who wrote his poems from a Zen-influenced spiritual perspective, Buson was more humanistic. He lived from 1716 to 1783, and not only excelled at haiku, but at painting as well. In Japan, Buson’s paintings are now considered national treasures. One type of painting that he excelled at was haiga, which is the art of harmoniously combining haiku, calligraphy, and brush painting. Buson’s poems were often strongly objective, employing an immediacy and imagism that we might expect from an accomplished painter. Through literary allusion, Buson helped to revive an appreciation for Bashō’s poetry, even while he added his own strong, distinctive, and sometimes philosophical voice to the history of Japanese haiku.
        Here are three of Buson’s poems:

                such coolness—
                the bell’s sound
                leaving the bell

                summer river—
                I cross it with sandals
                here in my hand

                sleeping in—
                cherry blossoms stuck
                to the soles of my shoes

Issa

Kobayashi Issa is often considered the most endearing and lovable of Japan’s four great haiku masters. This is because he wrote so appreciatively about small and seemingly insignificant things. His poems about snails, fleas, sparrows, and crickets epitomize his folksy and empathetic style. Issa lived a hard life, from 1763 to 1828, undergoing repeated personal and family tragedies. His mother died when he was three, his stepmother despised him and made him work in the fields instead of going to school, he was forced to leave home at fourteen, and he lived a life of much poverty. Although he later married and found some literary success as a haiku poet, his children died very young, as did one of his wives. Yet he wrote 20,000 mostly joyous haiku in his lifetime, influenced by his practice of Pure Land Buddhism. Indeed, the best of Issa’s haiku are remembered for their intimacy, buoyancy, and indomitable joy.

                in this world
                we walk on the roof of hell
                gazing at flowers

        Issa’s poems are deservedly among the best-loved poems of Japan. Here are three more:

                melting snow—
                the village flooded
                with children

                the radish puller
                points my way
                with a radish

                bugs on a branch
                floating down the river,
                still singing

Shiki

Masaoka Shiki, the fourth of the four great masters of Japanese haiku, lived from 1867 to 1902. He is said to have coined the term haiku. This was part of his successful effort to recognize the hokku (the starting verse of longer linked verses) as a separate and independent genre of poetry. Shiki was sometimes critical of Bashō, giving more favour to the imagism of Buson, yet, in the process, he helped to revive and elevate haiku. He was also innovative with tanka (a longer and much older cousin to haiku, written in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 sounds, often about love). In haiku, Shiki emphasized the technique of shasei, or “sketching from life.” With this technique, he promoted the use of objectivity in haiku, enabling the image to show rather than to tell. Despite the tuberculosis that he suffered from through much of his short life, Shiki probably had more influence than any other poet on modern haiku in Japan and even around the world.
        Shiki revolutionized haiku with his commentary and criticism, opening the door to broader variety and experimentation. Many of his own haiku, however, were fairly traditional, and he valued discipline, aesthetics, and careful crafting. Here are three Shiki poems:

                rear window—
                a woman’s face looking out
                at the falling snow

                my body pressed
                against the plaster wall—
                such heat

                my view of it
                through a hole in the shoji—
                slanting snow

Chiyo-ni

The poet Chiyo-ni should rightly be considered a “fifth” master of Japanese haiku of equal stature to Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. That she has not been recognized equally was largely because of patriarchal traditions in Japanese society, but she is easily Japan’s most celebrated female haiku poet. Chiyo-ni lived from 1703 to 1775. In her 50s, she became a Buddhist nun to pursue her poetic art, because nuns did not have the normal social expectations imposed on them that other women had. Being a nun gave her the freedom to write. This freedom nurtured Chiyo-ni’s heart and helped her to produce her best poems. Chiyo-ni’s approach to haiku, like that of Bashō and Issa, was spiritual and compassionate. She often wrote about impermanence, thereby celebrating its sad beauty. Like Buson, Chiyo-ni also excelled at haiga, or haiku painting.
        Here are three poems by Chiyo-ni, the first of which is about her son who had died:

                I wonder where
                he chases dragonflies today,
                my lost little boy

                the morning glory
                entangles the well bucket—
                I seek water elsewhere

                coming home—
                not a word to say
                after moon viewing

Contemporary Haiku in Japan

Translator R. H. Blyth once wrote that “A haiku is . . . a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.” He also said, “It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language.” In Japan, haiku attracts many millions of practitioners. According to the Kadokawa Haiku Almanac, in 2006 Japan had 835 known haiku groups, each typically having a monthly meeting known as a kukai where members vote anonymously for the best poems submitted by members. Most of these groups publish a journal, typically monthly, and each issue contains many hundreds of haiku. One of Japan’s largest haiku journals, Hototogisu, is available at newsstands across the country. It has perhaps the longest ongoing lineage—Shiki published in the journal more than a hundred years ago. Hototogisu has 15,000 members who receive the publication monthly, and each issue typically has about 350 pages and 10,000 haiku in each monthly issue. Japan obviously has a complex and active haiku scene. Television shows regularly feature haiku, including, in English, the current “Haiku Masters” program on NHK, available through Comcast cable television in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, and many cities maintain museums for haiku literature and its leading poets. You can find haiku in restaurants and hotels, in temples and shrines, on haiku stones by the side of the road, on soft drink cans sold in vending machines, and in daily newspaper columns read by tens of millions of people every day. Matsuyama, Shiki’s birthplace, is often called “Haiku Country” because of the many famous haiku poets who were born there, and you can find nearly a hundred “haiku boxes” all around the city where you can share your poems. In Japan, haiku is not only a highly respected literary vocation but also an adored pastime of ordinary people. The beauty of haiku is how these unassuming poems celebrate the ordinary. Their brevity makes them easy to write, and they are even easier to enjoy, because of the powerful emotions that they evoke through sensory imagery. Everyone can celebrate life through haiku.
        Here’s a selection of haiku by five contemporary Japanese poets. These translations are by Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch:

               
紅梅のは固し言                                        高浜虚子
                kōbai no tsubomi wa katashi mono iwazu

                the red plum’s
                flower buds are tight—
                I say nothing

                        Kyoshi Takahama

               
秋来ぬと思ふ木蔭に入るたび                                 鷹羽狩行
                aki kinu to omou kokage ni hairu tabi

                autumn has come—
                or so I think, whenever I enter
                a tree’s shade

                        Shugyō Takaha

               
夜桜を映せる水の深さかな                                    有馬朗人
                yozakura wo utsuseru mizu no fukasa kana

                the depth of water
               
reflecting cherry blossoms
               
at night

                        Akito Arima

               
秋澄むと石垣に手を当てにけり                                井上弘美
                akisumu to ishigaki ni te wo ate ni keri

                saying how clear
                the autumn is, I touch
                a stone fence

                        Hiromi Inoue

               
水槽に橋を沈める立夏かな                                    宮下惠美子
                suisō ni hashi wo shizumeru rikka kana

                I sink a little bridge
                to the aquarium floor—
                first day of summer

                        Emiko Miyashita

Contemporary Haiku in English

French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote that “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.” Haiku do indeed look easy to write, but to write them well can be much more challenging than the superficial way they are typically taught in schools. As already mentioned, haiku is usually mistaught as being a 5-7-5-syllable poem, yet this is not only inaccurate but neglects requirements of the genre that are more important than form—the season word and a two-part juxtapositional structure, usually presented using objective and commonplace language. In the West, the Haiku Society of America began in 1968, and there are now thriving haiku organizations in many other countries as well. In the Seattle area, the Haiku Northwest group was founded in 1988 (although greatly predated by the Rainier Haiku Ginsha, for Japanese-language haiku, which began in 1934). The Seattle Japanese Garden often has haiku-related activities, including a haiku contest for its annual moon viewing festival in late summer or early fall each year. Numerous haiku journals, such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and The Heron’s Nest, are published regularly, and the Haiku North America conference has been held biennially since 1991 in various cities around the continent, including Port Townsend, Washington in 2005, and at Seattle Center in 2011 (with the banquet up the Space Needle). The California State Library in Sacramento also houses the American Haiku Archives, the largest public collection of haiku literature outside Japan, founded in 1996. An online search of these societies, publications, and organizations will help you find more information. Further reading online or in essential books such as Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology and William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, and, more recently, Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, will help to inspire you to write some haiku of your own. The word haiku is both singular and plural, and haiku poems typically avoid titles, rhyme, and overt metaphors and similes. Haiku also tend to avoid initial capitals and closing punctuation because they are fragmentary and not complete sentences. Haiku may look easy to write, but it’s challenging to make them work well, without artifice. As Seattle-born haiku pioneer James W. Hackett once put it, a haiku is like a finger pointing to the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon.
        Here are a five haiku by contemporary poets from Washington State:

                snapped line—
                the salmon’s full length
                in the air

                        Francine Porad

                deeper pink
                where cherry petals overlap—
                my hand in yours

               
        Ruth Yarrow

                spring memorial
                the dampness
                in a handful of soil

               
        Alice Frampton

                moonlight billows
                through a mosquito net
                the sound of the sea

               
        Christopher Herold

                summer garden
                the full stretch
                of the hose

               
        Connie Donleycott

To conclude, here’s a poem of mine that parodies a Bashō haiku about Kyoto:

                misty garden—
                even in Seattle
                I long for Seattle