Haiku and the Japanese Garden

First published, in a shorter version, on the Haiku Garden Poetry Readings website in 2004, and also recorded for the Seattle Japanese Garden audio tour in 2009 (recording available on iTunes, free to listen or download [link no longer works]). The poems are all my own, previously published in various journals. The original version of this essay also appears in Japanese translation online at the Akita International Haiku Network, in Simplified Chinese , in Punjabi in Wah 1:2, September 2014 (India), and appeared in English in Pebbles 24:5, April 2012. The text here was revised and expanded in January of 2021. See also “Even in Seattle: An Introduction to Haiku Poetry.”

 
        “Gardens are poems where you stroll with your hands in your pockets.” —Pierre Albert-Birot

There’s something poetic about a garden. Sometimes any garden will do, but a Japanese garden seems especially poetic. As you walk around such a garden in the flow of the year’s seasons, you may notice a fallen camellia blossom, a blade of grass set to swaying by a passing dragonfly, a drying maple leaf clinging to a mushroom, or frost sparkling on a bright red berry. These details inspire poetry the world over. In Japan, they often inspire a special genre of poetry known as haiku.

 

                mountain morning—

                all over the red berry bush

                snow in tiny heaps

 

Haiku seeks to capture these details, these brief moments of keen perception and intuition, recording them so that the poet and reader might share and celebrate their universal authenticity. The sensitivities we can cultivate as we stroll through a Japanese garden can also help us tune in more closely to everything else that happens to us, even away from the garden, to notice and be more aware.

 

                clicking off the late movie . . .

                      the couch cushion

                      reinflates

 

Haiku is often a poetry of nature, but it is also a poetry of human nature. Haiku gives readers feelings and shows human existence amid the seasons. Not all haiku are about beauty, but they are always about what is real. We have an emotional reaction to the poem’s image, sense perception, and seasonal reference. On reading a good haiku, we are mentally and emotionally moved to experience what the poet experienced, yet we do so without being told what to feel. We simply see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, and smell it through the words—and thus feel it. We leap into intuitively feeling and understanding what the poet deliberately left out of the poem so we could figure it out for ourselves. This is the magic of haiku, and gardens are ideal places to make the most of this magic.

 

                winter wind—

                kite string tangled

                in the garden trellis

 

At a Japanese garden, you can walk around and notice the ponds, the bushes, the flowers, the fish, the birds. Or you can learn their names, notice their details, notice their seasonal changes. Bashō, the great Japanese haiku master, said to “learn of the pine tree from the pine tree, and of the bamboo from the bamboo.” He meant to ground yourself in the authentic, to be in the present, and to see the thing itself deeply and freshly, dwelling there rather than in your interpretation of the thing, and not to be distracted by what is going on other than where you are and what you are doing at the present moment. By writing haiku about what you sense in the garden, you can make the garden a more vibrant place, and by learning haiku that others have written and sharing them with others in the garden, you can also enrich the experience.

 

                tulip festival—

                the colours of all the cars

                in the parking lot

 

So, what is haiku? It is a brief poem capturing a moment of deep perception of nature or human nature, using the techniques of seasonal reference (kigo, meaning “season word”) and a pause or juxtaposition (kire in Japanese, meaning “cut””; Japanese haiku often employ a kireji, or “cutting word”)A seasonal reference grounds the poem not only in very real and present time but in the grand sweep of each season’s metaphorical associations, as well as to other poems that use the same seasonal foundation. The juxtaposition of two parts of the poem creates a space (referred to as ma in Japanese), producing a momentary tension that the reader can resolve by intuiting the relationship of the two parts. You can compose haiku well by writing about things themselves rather than your reactions to those things or your interpretations of them.

 

                an old woolen sweater

                     taken yarn by yarn

                          from the snowbank

 

Haiku is often misunderstood as a “form” of poetry, seeming to be anything that can be written in a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables in three lines. That pattern applies to traditional haiku in Japanese (although they count sounds, not strictly syllables—the word “haiku” itself is two syllables in English but counts as three sounds in Japanese), and is not used by the great majority of poets publishing in English-language haiku journals and anthologies. Also, haiku as a literary genre is too often tarnished by “joke” haiku that claim the name of haiku but nearly none of its highly developed aesthetics (these poems are closer to senryu, a sister genre to haiku that focuses or human foibles, often in an ironic or sarcastic way). Though haiku in English has been mistaught in schools as a “5-7-5-syllable” poem, such a focus on form, and an incorrect form for English at that, minimizes the much more significant characteristics of the seasonal reference and the two-part juxtapositional structure. In addition, most of the best haiku restrict themselves to chiefly objective sensory images. Hitting these targets is a much more challenging discipline than merely counting syllables.

 

                morning chill—

                the bag of marbles

                shifts on the shelf

 

As just mentioned, haiku are typically rooted in objective description (avoiding metaphor, simile, and other rhetorical or subjective devices, including judgment and analysis), and always try to leave something out (often the feeling one experiences) so that it might be implied. This is why it is much harder to write haiku than its deliberately simple language would imply. As French philosopher Roland Barthes once observed, “haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”

 

                home for Christmas:

                my childhood desk drawer                                                                                                    +

                empty

 

In English, haiku objectively suggests a moment of here-and-now realization (an “aha” moment) about nature or human nature, or human nature in the context of nature, often referencing the season, usually presented in three lines without requiring a set syllable pattern. Haiku typically avoid using a title, rhyme, or other devices that call attention to the words themselves (or to the poet’s cleverness) rather than what the words signify. American haiku pioneer James W. Hackett gave good advice on this topic: “A haiku,” he said, “is like a finger pointing at the moon, and if the finger is bejeweled, one no longer sees the moon.” Indeed, haiku are not meant to be obscure or private, and should, as Jack Kerouac once wrote, be as simple as porridge.

 

                warm winter evening—

                the chairs askew

                after the poetry reading

 

Most people who enter a Japanese garden expect an aesthetic experience, appreciating beauty yet also recognizing what might not be seen as beautiful. Japanese gardens can be islands of repose where we can direct our attention to whatever we encounter, filtered by our emotions and the contexts of whatever else is happening in our lives (we need not ignore or repress these realities if we bring them with us to the garden). When we leave the garden, we can take these aesthetic sensitivities and expectations out into the rest of the world. Indeed, not only can a Japanese garden inspire poetry, but so can the rest of the world. Haiku is a means of sense awareness, of mindfulness, a literary instrument of self-expression, a poetic window to the suchness of the full range of existence. You can take haiku sensibilities cultivated in the Japanese garden and apply them to the rest of the everyday world, making the ordinary extraordinary as you write haiku and see the world with wider eyes. In this way, both inside and outside the Japanese garden, writing haiku is a way to pay attention to your world.