Reading the Biographical Notes in a Haiku Anthology

      by Billy Collins

                        Walking the dog,
                        you meet
                        lots of dogs.
                                     —S
ōshi

One was a seventeenth-century doctor
arrested for trading with Dutch merchants.
One loved sake then disappeared
through the doors of a monastery in his final years.

Another was a freight agent
who became a nun after her husband died.
Quite a few lived the samurai life
excelling in the lance, sword, and horseback riding

as well as poetry, painting, and calligraphy.
This one started writing poems at eight
and that one was a rice merchant of some repute.
One was a farmer, another ran a pharmacy.

But after the name of my favorite, S
ōshi,
there is no information at all,
not even a guess at his years and a question mark,
which knocked me the rest of the way over

after I had read his perfect little poem.
Whether you poke your nose into Plato
or get with St. John of the Cross,
can you find a more unassailable truth

than walking the dog, you meet lots of dogs?
or a sweeter one? I would add.
If I were a teacher with a student
who required punishment, I would make him write

Walking the dog, you meet lots of dogs
on the blackboard a hundred thousand times
or until the boy discovered
that this was no punishment at all, but a treat.

And now I wish I could be that student
holding a sharp piece of chalk,
the panels of the board dark with promise,
ready to begin writing, while in the tall windows

the other students run around the yard
shouting each other’s names,
the large autumn trees sheltering their play—
everything so obvious now that we are all back in school.


First published in Raritan: A Quarterly Review 31:3, 2012.