Four Classic Haiku

For December of 2021 and January of 2022, I was guest selector for the “Haiku in English” column for the Mainichi, Japan’s oldest newspaper. Included with my daily selections were four “Haiku Classic” choices. Here are the poems I chose, with my commentary. At the end are seven other haiku selections from my two months of serving as guest selector.

Haiku Classic: 5 December 2021

fog . . .

just the tree and I

at the bus stop

Jerry Kilbride (1930–2005)

First prize winner in the 1987 East-West Haiku conference haiku contest, San Francisco, California, USA

This haiku, perhaps the author’s signature poem, won first place in a contest held at the East-West Haiku conference in San Francisco, California in 1987, sponsored by Japan Air Lines. It speaks of the poet’s home in that city, which is notable for its fog. In San Francisco, the term serves as a summer kigo (season word), even if fog is an autumn season word in Japan. The poem suggests how fog sharpens one’s focus, even turning it inward to introspection. All that seems to exist is that tree and the bus stop, and the poet who is present in the scene. In 1996 Jerry Kilbride cofounded the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento, the world’s largest public collection of haiku books and papers outside Japan. At age 70 Jerry was the oldest member of the “Climb Against the Odds” team of cancer survivors who summitted Mt. Fuji in 2000, during which he was known as “Mr. Haiku.”

Haiku Classic: 19 December 2021

白息の車窓に「誰」でもなくなりぬ

shirojki-no shasō-ni (dare)demo nakunarinu

winter’s breath

on the train window

i become a nobody

Dhugal Lindsay (1971–)

From Mutsugoro (Mudskipper), Fuyō Haiku-Kai, 2001

This poem dates from 1991, thirty years ago, but it still rings true and fresh. It appeared in the author’s 2001 book, Mutsugoro (Mudskipper), which won the seventh annual Nakaniida Grand Haiku Prize for best debut haiku collection, the first time the award had ever been won by a non-Japanese poet, competing with other haiku poets composing in Japanese. Readers will know its author as the usual selector, since 2017, of haiku for this column, and it is my pleasure, as guest selector, to honour Dhugal in return. It is a common experience to become introspective when seeing one’s breath fog a window, especially on a train, which symbolizes movement and change. Here the poet is lost in the experience. He moves beyond the introspection of thinking about himself and changes into a “nobody,” as if he no longer exists in this simple yet transcendent moment. The experience matters more than himself. Even the lowercase “i” points to his welcome disappearing. And is it his breath that has fogged the window, or is this the breath of winter itself? Either way, Dhugal Lindsay has become nobody, like Emily Dickinson, disappearing into the moment.

Haiku Classic: 2 January 2022

One resolution

this New Year’s Day—not to make

one resolution.

Robert Major (1920–2008) +

From Haiku World, edited by William J. Higginson. Kodansha International, 1997

We’ve all had this experience, no doubt, of wanting to avoid the pressure of resolutions. So why make them in the first place? We have many good reasons to make resolutions, of course (how about to write haiku every week, if not every day?), but we can also be kind to ourselves if we want to, and back away from any demand that feels unattainable. This poem frames its middle line with a repeated phrase, which contributes to its humourous effect. And we smile at the irony of contradicting oneself in making a resolution not to make resolutions! Some readers might consider this poem to be a senryu rather than a haiku, but the strong seasonal reference suggests that we might still consider it to be haiku. We can enjoy the poem either way and join the poet in celebrating the turn of the year with a deepened awareness of our human tendencies. Robert Major was active with the Haiku Northwest group in Seattle, Washington, in the United States.

Haiku Classic: 16 January 2022

目出度さもちう位也おらが春

medetasa mo chū kurai nari oraga haru

New Year’s Day—

everything is auspicious

but my spring is average

Kobayashi Issa (15 June 1763–5 January 1828)

This poem begins Issa’s renowned travel diary, Oraga Haru, which has been translated as The Spring of My Life. The Japanese title phrase, though referencing spring, is sometimes associated with the New Year season in Japan. In Issa’s day, when Japan followed the lunar calendar instead of the Gregorian solar calendar used today, New Year’s Day separated winter and spring rather than being on January 1. But then and now Japan’s most important day of the year is an auspicious occasion, a time for assessing one’s life. It is also a time for renewal and starting afresh. But maybe not for poor Issa. While everyone’s homes and businesses were organized, clean, and “blooming” (Robert Hass’s translation says “everything is in blossom”), Issa is feeling completely ordinary. You can sense that he wished he were just as buoyant as the spring season starting around him, but here we get a taste of everyday reality. This is what haiku does so well, celebrating the honest and the ordinary. As American novelist Jack Kerouac once said, “Haiku should be as simple as porridge.” We can relate to Issa’s New Year poem at any time of the year.


Seven Selected Haiku



1 December 2021

rainy pavement—

my wheelchair runs

through the clouds

Daniela Misso, San Gemini, Italy


9 December 2021

the sparrow against the window

my reflex

to close its eyes

Daniel Birnbaum, La Bouilladisse, France


11 December 2021

night haul

the fishing net full

of moonlight

Eugeniusz Zacharski, Radom, Poland


4 January 2022

first snow

my grandson looks back

at his footprints

Arvinder Kaur, Chandigarh, India


17 January 2022

chill December

the clenched feet

of a dead crow

Mohammad Azim Khan, Peshawar, Pakistan


20 January 2022

chirping birds

a new student raises

her hand

Agus Maulana Sunjaya, Tangerang, Indonesia


31 January 2022

small crocuses

my niece’s hand

slips from mine

Andrea Cecon, Cividale del Friuli, Italy