First published in Virals 5.6 on the Haiku Foundation blog on 10 February 2010, followed by an extensive discussion. Poem translation from Rose Mallow #58 (2003), page 46, by permission from Dhugal J. Lindsay. See the new postscript at the end, and see also “Haiku on Shit,” a 2022 translation of a 1900 essay by Shiki, from Poetry magazine, translated by Ikuho Amano and James Shea.
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.”
“Beauty is not caused. It is.” —Emily Dickinson
In his book The Wordless Poem (Haiku Canada, 1969, 1978), Eric Amann says that haiku aims at what the Japanese call wu-shi, or “nothing special.” This means the ordinary and the everyday, which is surely why Kerouac said the haiku should be “as simple as porridge.” However, Amann adds the following (page 21):
But we must go even a step further. The “unclouded mirror” of the poet’s mind reflects with equal detachment what we generally call the good and the evil, pleasure and pain, the ugly along with the beautiful. The poet does not strain his experiences through a moral or aesthetic sieve to filter out Truth and Beauty, but embraces with an undivided mind even those aspects of reality that are shunned in most of Western literature.
I’m not sure that dark subjects are shunned by “most” of Western literature, but I do believe it’s true that some haiku poets shun dark or seemingly “unbeautiful” subjects in their poetry, and in the haiku they prefer to read. That’s always a personal choice, but it would seem to limit haiku in an unnecessary way. Amann quotes the following three poems as examples of the dark or seemly that is possible in haiku:
into the winter river:
the dog’s carcass! Shiki
and a horse pissing
close to my pillow! Bashō
How vivid the family faces
this autumn evening! Shihaku
I think of John Jay Chapman, who said “Beauty is not the aim of the writer. His aim must be truth.” And the truth is sometimes dark. Or as Keats said, equating them: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” In distinction, Amann writes that, “unlike other types of poetry, haiku is not concerned with expressing Truth or Beauty or any other type of idea, concept or symbol; it has no deep or esoteric meaning; it deals entirely with the here and now, with nature, with intuition arising from immediate sense experience, with the ordinary sights and sounds of this world.” Are we to believe him? Even if our haiku are not limited to the beautiful, we might ultimately side with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Or perhaps not. At the very least, I agree with Billy Collins who has said that haiku poetry dwells in “existential gratitude,” and I take this to be true regardless of whether the subject is beautiful or dark, as each poem seeks to honour the reality of experience in as full a range as possible.
—1 March 2020