Haiku Missionary:
An Annotated Response
to Alan Watts’ “Haiku”

The following is an annotated presentation of the essay “Haiku” by Alan Watts, first broadcast on radio around 1958, released as a vinyl record in 1959 (cover shown below), and then published in print form in 1960. My introduction and annotations are not previously published. To read the commentary, presented in footnotes, you might prefer to open a copy of this essay in another window, so you can jump back and forth between the two windows to follow along. See also the New York Times review of the vinyl recording from January 1959, shown at the end of this page.

Alan Watts was among the early missionaries for haiku in North America. In addition to writing about haiku in The Way of Zen (Pantheon, 1957) and judging the influential 1964 Japan Air Lines haiku contest, which attracted more than 40,000 entries and launched many people into writing haiku, perhaps his most notable and influential contribution to the proselytization of this poetry was a short but insightful essay titled “Haiku.” It began life in 1958 or so when it was broadcast on KPFA radio in Berkeley, California. It was part of a weekly Pacifica radio program Watts started in 1953, “Way Beyond the West,” which became “Philosophy East and West.” The program continued until his death in 1973. Back around 1958, it is easy to imagine Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and other Beat poets listening in (Gary Snyder may have already left on a freighter for Japan—and Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti themselves had begun to broadcast on KPFA in 1955). They already knew about haiku (via R. H. Blyth’s translations, which Snyder shared with his fellow poets along with Blyth’s Zen-drenched poetics), but they surely would have resonated with what Alan Watts had to say. And so, it seems, did a wider audience. Watts reflects the largely debunked “haiku is Zen” perspective (it’s no surprise that all the translations he includes were by Blyth), but the essay remains one of the most inviting and inspiring introductions to Japanese haiku ever written. Eric Amann, in The Wordless Poem (Toronto: Haiku Publications, 1969), his book about Zen in haiku, called the Alan Watts haiku essay the “Best introduction to haiku and Zen available anywhere” (42), and this is still true half a century later. In 1959, Musical Engineering Associates released the recording as a vinyl record [see January 1959 New York Times review at the end of this page], and in 2004 it came out on CD from Locust Music. Modern Haiku reviewed the CD when it came out. You can also listen to the original radio broadcast in its entirety on YouTube, at Last.fm, and read more about other recordings of Alan Watts, with a comprehensive list at MusicBrainz. See also this overview.

        Alan Watts’ essay also appeared in a landmark 1960 book edited by Nancy Wilson Ross, titled The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books, 121–128). In a section on Zen and poetry, the editor quotes D. T. Suzuki, another early missionary for haiku, as saying “Zen naturally finds its readiest expression in poetry rather than in philosophy because it has more affinity with feeling than with intellect” (quoted from An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Kyoto: Eastern Buddhist Society, 1934). The rest of Ross’s overview follows the lead of R. H. Blyth as well as Harold G. Henderson (whose An Introduction to Haiku came out from Doubleday in 1958) in describing haiku, down to including Blyth’s thirteen characteristics of haiku, nine of which are exemplified with sample poems. She states that “a successful haiku must, in spite of its brevity, not only evoke a mood but also manage to convey a picture vivid enough to stir the imagination of the reader or listener” and that “One is expected to ‘fill in,’ to continue where the artist, so to speak, leaves off” (113). Ross suggests that haiku is a “Zen art,” and states that “Haiku’s artful simplicity can arouse and deepen awareness of the simple yet miraculous ‘is-ness’ of everyday sights and sounds, for haiku is concerned with the Here and Now, with the necessity to ‘catch life as it flows’ which is also so much a part of Zen philosophy” (113).

        This approach to haiku is also one advocated by Alan Watts, and his essay appears immediately after Ross’s overview. What follows is the text of the Watts essay. I should note that the essay is an edited and slightly shortened version compared with the original radio broadcast. In a note by Alan Watts in The World of Zen, he states that “This is an edited transcript of a talk originally given over Station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California” (121), so I think it’s safe to assume that Watts approved the edited version presented in the book—and reproduced here. I also include various comments and annotations on the text through footnotes. I invite you to read each footnote as you go along; you might want to open the footnotes in a separate window.

I believe this is Alan Watts sorting haiku competition entries for the 1964 Japan Air Lines international haiku contest, for which he was the final judge.



      by Alan Watts


                The sea darkens,

                The voices of the wild ducks

                Are faintly white.


                In the dark forest

                A berry drops.

                The sound of the water.[1]


These are two complete poems from a kind of Japanese poetry known as haiku. To my mind this is beyond all doubt at once the simplest and the most sophisticated form of literature in the world, for the invariable mark of great artistry is artlessness. It looks easy.[2] It looks almost as if it were a work not of art but of nature.

        When you are used to Western poetry the haiku comes as something of a shock. It seems to be no more than a fragment of poetry awakening anticipation which it does not fulfill.


                The stars on the pond.

                Again the winter shower

                Ruffles the water.[3]


It seems to be a poem just begun but left unfinished.[4] But with a little more familiarity you realize that haiku poetry excels in one of the rarest of the artistic virtues, the virtue of knowing when to stop; of knowing when enough has been said. And there are other respects in which this is the secret not only of art but of life itself. Haiku represents the ultimate refinement of a long tradition in Far Eastern literature which derived its inspiration from Zen Buddhism.[5] . . .[6] The unique quality of Zen Buddhism, and of all the arts which it has inspired, is a profoundly startling simplicity. There is a complete lack of the unessential[7] and a marvelously refreshing directness.

        When one of the great Zen masters was asked, “What is the ultimate principle of Buddhism?” he answers, “A sesame bun.” To the same sort of question another replied, “It is windy again this morning.” Another handled the questioner a piece of cake. To look for some sort of deep symbolism in these replies is to miss the point completely, for they are the plainest and most complete answers to the great problems of philosophy and religion.[8] For it is the chief intuition of Zen that the answer to the problem of life, or we might say to the problem of God, is so utterly obvious that one hardly needs even to look for it. According to Zen, the reason why our quest for some ultimate reality is so difficult is that we are looking in obscure places for what is out in the broad daylight. Our trouble is not that we haven’t thought about it enough but that we have thought about it entirely too much. Once again, the art is one of knowing when to stop. As another Zen master said, “If you want to see into it, see into it directly, but when you begin to think about it it is altogether missed.”

        Zen answers profound questions with simple everyday facts: “It is windy again this morning.” But watch out! This is not a kind of sentimental pantheism or nature mysticism. Still less is it a simple philistinism as if to say, “Stop asking silly questions and get on with your work.” The difficulty of talking about Zen is that every attempt to explain it makes it more obscure.[9] Somebody asked the Master Bokuju, “We have to dress and eat every day and how do we get out of that?” In other words, “How does one put up with insufferable routine?” Bokuju answered, “We dress. We eat.” The questioner said, “I don’t understand.” “If you don’t understand,” replied Bokuju, “put on your clothes and eat your food.”

        These answers may seem very prosaic, very matter-of-fact and dry, but haiku is the same insight, the same view of the ultimate reality in terms of poetry.[10] Yet I must warn you again, do not look for symbolism or for a sort of practical materialism. The point is far more obvious than that. I think one of the easiest approaches to an appreciation of haiku is through the realization that a poetry of this kind lies buried in our own poetic literature,[11] for there are quite a number of poems that are remembered only for a single line: “A rose red city, half as old as time,” a line in which the poem attained for a single second to pure poetry, which is something as utterly indefinable as the meaning of Zen.

        Blyth has made a considerable selection of haiku from English literature, conveniently saving me the trouble of searching around for examples:[12]


                The tinkle of the thirsty rill

                Unheard all day, ascends again.


                The weak-eyed bat, with short shrill shriek

                Flits by on leathern wings.


                Annihilating all that’s made

                To a green thought, in a green shade.


                Some bird from out the brake

                Starts into voice a moment

                Then is still.


                In shades the orange bright

                Like golden lamps in a green night.


        The wonder of these few lines is that in each instance they represent a moment of intense perception. Every one of us can recall a number of such moments in our lives, moments when we were aware of being alive in an unusually vivid way. I can recollect a glimpse of sunlit pigeons against a dark thundercloud. The sound of cowbells in a mountain silence on a hot afternoon. The noise of a distant waterfall in the dusk. The smell of burning leaves in the haze of an autumn day. A filigree of black branches against the cold blue of a winter sky. The moon hanging like a luminous fruit from a pine bough. And I describe such moments I begin almost to speak in haiku.[13] But I feel no desire to elaborate upon them, for the feeling is intense to the degree that I am not greedy with it, that I do not try to grasp it with my memory for more than a second or two.

        Now this is part of the secret of Zen; that life reveals itself most plainly when you do not clutch at it either with your feelings or with your questing intellect. Touch and go! That is the whole art. That’s why our eyes see best when they brush across things and do not stare in a fixed gaze. Everything kept goes stale. The reason is that whatever is momentous, living and moving is momentary. Minute by minute our experience moves along without return and we are in accord with it to the degree that we move with it as the mind follows music or as a leaf goes with the stream.[14] Yet this is to say too much, for the moment we stop to philosophize about it, to make a system of it, we have missed a beat. The greatest of all the haiku poets, Bashō, put it thus:


                When the lightning flashes,

                How admirable he who thinks not—

                “Life is fleeting.”


Though this is perhaps a poor haiku for the very reason that it begins to philosophize even though it philosophizes against philosophizing. But it only just beings—and this is the point. Being too much against philosophizing is just as much an arid intellectualism as being too much for it. Bashō is to the point in the most famous of all haiku:


                The old pond.

                A frog jumps in.

                Plop! [15]


These lines are said to represent[16] the moment in which Bashō’s study of Zen came to its sudden fulfillment, when the mystery of the universe was solved in the plop of the falling frog.[17]

        This state of mind is technically called mushin, literally the state of no-mind. This is when we are simply aware of what is without distorting it by the complexities of self-consciousness as when, in efforts to get the very most out of life, we not only feel that we feel, but feel that we feel that we feel. The state of mushin is thus an extremely clear kind of unselfconsciousness where the poet is not divided from his subject, the knower from the known.[18] If and when he speaks about his own feelings they are not seen as reactions but as an integral part of the experience which he records:


                The scarecrow in the distance.

                It walked with me

                As I walked.


                Sleet falling.

                Fathomless, infinite



                Winter desolation.

                In a world of one color

                The sound of the wind.


                The evening haze.

                Thinking of past things

                How far off they are. [19]


        The literary form of the haiku is even more rigid that that of the sonnet, which is perhaps the most formal style of English poetry. Not only must it be expressed in seventeen syllables[20] but there are a number of traditional restrictions of the subject matter. Haiku must always be written in harmony with the current seasons of the year,[21] and there is a strong tendency to adhere to certain customary themes; certain flowers, trees, insects, animals, festivals and landscape being the usual occasions of the poems.[22] This makes a classified anthology of haiku[23] rather monotonous reading unless you jump about haphazardly from one part of the book to another. But strict limitations of form seem to be a condition of great artistry, an essential part of the very art being to see how much can be done with so little.[24] Sometimes a haiku seems to represent a rather stilted and conventionally Japanese sort of scene as this from Shiki:


                A willow

                And two or three cows

                Waiting for the boat.


Or this, if I remember it rightly,[25] by Kobori-Enshiu:


                A cluster of summer trees

                A glimpse of the sea

                A pale evening moon.


Contrariwise there are times when the poet seems to outdo himself with ingenuity:


                A fallen leaf

                Returning to the branch?

                Butterfly. [26]


Or this by Issa:


                A brushwood gate

                And for a lock

                This snail.


        But the best haiku are those which arise from the tension between the rigidity of the form and the depth of the poetic feeling.[27] Both Chinese and Japanese artists admire beyond everything a certain kind of restraint, an expression which hints rather than states, indicates rather than explains, suggests rather than describes; an art which leaves an enormous amount to the beholder’s, or the listener’s, imagination, instead of excluding his participation by a perfection of finished detail.[28] Yet the listener is not expected to fill in the details literally but to share in the mood which the poem implies:[29]


                Not a single stone

                To throw at the dog.

                The wintry moon.


                Leaves falling

                Lie one on another.

                The rain beats on the rain. [30]


What is restrained is the temptation of every artist to show off, to leave his listener nothing to do but admire.[31] But the haiku poet must, at great pains, acquire a certain primitivity and unfinishedness of expression which comes off only in a social context when the reader or listener is also in the know. It is a poetry where the reader is almost as important as the poet, where deep calls unto deep and the poem is successful to the degree that the reader shares the same poetic experience which, however, is never explicitly stated.[32] This is not, though, as in the decadent period of Chinese poetry achieved by an extreme use of literary allusion intelligible only to an exclusive coterie of scholars. What the listener has to be in the know about is not literature but life, places, seasons, moods and, above all, the utterly indescribably insight of Zen Buddhism.[33] This has been called an acute perception of the Thusness of things. Not their goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness, usefulness or uselessness, nor even their abstract Isness or Being, but rather their very concrete Thingness.


                Sticking on the mushroom

                The leaf

                Of some unknown tree.


                The tree frog

                Riding the banana leaf

                Sways and quivers.


                Walking in the winter rain

                The umbrella

                Pushes me back.


                Evening rain.

                The banana leaf

                Speaks of it first. [34]


        Haiku is, of course, in harmony with, and often accompanies, a style of Chinese and Japanese painting which similarly lifts just one corner of the view and leaves the rest to one’s imagination, as when in black ink the artist merely suggests the barest hint of a bamboo swaying in the wind and leaves the rest of the paper blank. . . . And haiku is very frequently used as a type of accompanying verse to this sort of painting. [35]

        I believe that haiku had their origin in anthologies of short quotations from Chinese poems which the Zen Buddhists compiled for purposes of meditation. [36] There is a large collection of such poems in the first volume of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku and they are taken from a book called the Zenrin-kushu. One of these poems puts the quality of Thusness a little more philosophically and therefore for us, perhaps a little more intelligibly when it says:


                If you do not believe,

                Look at September!

                Look at October!

                The yellow leaves falling, falling,

                To fill both mountain and river. [37]


But again, and for the last time, let me say that you must not look here for any symbolism, and idea either of God revealed in the beauty of the autumn leaves or just autumn leaves with no God, or of the transiency of life, or of anything else. The mysterious and yet obvious Thusness of things is clear when you see it directly without asking questions.[38]

        Gensha, another old Zen master, was asked how to enter the path of Buddhism. He answered, “Do you hear the stream?” “Why yes.” “There,” he concluded, “is the way to enter.” And the poet Gochiku put it quite properly in a haiku:


                The long night.

                The sound of the water

                Says what I think.



Conclusion: The Frame of Haiku

In This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (New York: Vintage, 1958, 1973), in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, Zen,” Alan Watts writes the following (page 93):

Now a skilled photographer can point his camera at almost any scene or object and create a marvellous composition by the way in which he frames and lights it. An unskilled photographer attempting the same thing creates only messes, for he does not know how to place the frame, the border of the picture, where it will be in relation to the contents. How eloquently this demonstrates that as soon as we introduce a frame anything does not go. But every work of art involves a frame. A frame is precisely what distinguishes a painting, a poem, a musical composition, a play, a dance, or a piece of sculpture from the rest of the world.

Surely haiku is no different, and it too has both its skilled artisans and unskilled practitioners. In haiku, it is not a frame of syllables, but a frame of brevity, seasonal reference, juxtaposition, implication, and sensory imagery that matters. It is not the subject matter of haiku that makes it marvellous, for the subject matter is available to everyone. Rather, it is the framing of the subject that makes haiku marvellous.

        Alan Watts had a profound and widespread influence on a dynamic emerging generation of Western poets and others interested in Eastern thought and culture, especially in California. As with many missionaries, some of his influence was off base, as I’ve tried to suggest with certain comments here. But those biases may be relatively minor, and Alan Watts’ essay on haiku remains a historical highlight in the development of English-language haiku. I am grateful, above all, for his emphasis on how marvellous haiku can be.

Note: See also “The Frame of Haiku: Awareness of Daily Life.”



[1] Watts begins with both a well-known haiku and also one less well known. For those who already write haiku, the effect is both an affirmation of information already known plus a fresh push into possibly unknown territory. For those completely new to haiku, both poems offer strong images and are immediately engaging to sensitive readers. Personally, I think these translations (by R. H. Blyth) are problematic, starting with excesses of capitalization and punctuation. I also wonder why Watts chose two translations with the word “dark” in them that also focus on sound. How easy it would have been to pick poems that showed more diversity. Still, these are both memorable and distinctive poems, by Bashō and Shiki respectively.


[2] Here I can’t help but think of Roland Barthes who said in Empire of Signs that “Haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily.”


[3] Watts does not say, but this poem is by Sora.


[4] Indeed, haiku is often referred to as an “unfinished” poem (according to Seisensui), requiring the reader, as it does, to supply much of what the poem implies, to tell the rest of the story in his or her imagination. More importantly, the chiefly objective description of a good haiku tries to create an emotion, a subjective reaction, so it is up to the reader to engage with the poem to see where it goes, and to feel something significant, even if subtle, in response.


[5] Here, I would suggest, is a point of contention. Blyth’s influence seems heavy in points like this, although Watts’ own spiritual leanings, especially Zen, would lead him in the same direction. If all you have is a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail, and haiku is a nail that both Blyth and Watts hammer at with Zen. Yes, haiku is informed by Zen, but no more so than sonnets are informed by a Judeo-Christian ethos—but no one would say that sonnets are a Judeo-Christian poem. Haruo Shirane has debunked the Zen presumption in haiku in his book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), and in his influential article, “Beyond the Haiku Moment,” in Modern Haiku (31:1, Winter–Spring 2000). In her book The Haiku Apprentice (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2006), Abigail Friedman has a chapter that convincingly addresses the Zen presumption (chapter six, “Fog on the Lake”—a telling title), in which Japanese poets themselves clearly distance haiku from Zen. I read the following references to Zen with skepticism, even while agreeing that precepts of Zen do overlap with haiku. However, I would suggest that haiku was not seeking Zen, but at times, if anything, might have sought what Zen was seeking.


[6] The ellipsis here appears in the original publication of this text, and indicates an omission from the audio recording. In most cases the edits are appropriate. If you don’t have the CD, you can listen to the recording on YouTube.


[7] While of course the lack of the unessential is true of haiku, isn’t it also true of a car engine, or a longer poem? Simplicity and elegance are hallmarks of haiku, to be sure, but I think there’s more to it than just this. Thankfully, Watts also points to haiku’s refreshing directness, which often comes about because of its seeming ordinariness. As Jack Kerouac once said, “Haiku should be as simple as porridge.” Or, as Bashō put it, “Prefer vegetable broth to duck soup.” 


[8] Here again I think of Roland Barthes’ comments on haiku in his book Empire of Signs, in which he said that haiku is not a “signifier” but simply “is.” I can’t help but wonder if Blyth’s Zen perspective is also at work in such comments. There’s a story that someone once asked Robert Frost what a particular poem meant; in response Frost just read the poem again. Simply being is not purely the domain of haiku.


[9] Zen echoes with Taoism on this point. The Tao Te Ching famously begins with the phrase, “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.” When Eric Amann describes haiku as “wordless” (in his book about Zen and haiku, The Wordless Poem), it is this difficulty of defining haiku that he is partially getting at.       +


[10] The claim Watts suggests here, on its surface, seems plausible. However, I’m a little uncomfortable with the agenda it seems to be placing on haiku, as if haiku had this kind of intent to explain something or answer a question about ultimate reality. Some people, the Japanese included, have tried to use haiku to help create world peace, but such agendas strike me as polluting haiku as literature. An agenda such as helping to understand ultimate reality has the danger of taking haiku away from experience and implied emotion and moving it towards trying to accomplish some goal.


[11] I appreciate the reminder here that haiku and the haiku ethos is not purely the domain of the Japanese, that Western spirit and literature also has innate haiku sensibilities, which we see in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, or in certain Native American literature. R. H. Blyth went to some pains in his books to draw parallels between haiku and Western literature, citing Keats and Wordsworth, among others, and such Biblical passages as “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28–29). Watts discusses these explorations next, of course.


[12] Watts does not identify the sources of these five examples in his essay, but they are excerpted, in order, from Matthew Arnold’s “Bacchanalia,” William Collins’s “Ode to Evening,” Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” Lord Byron’s “Lake Leman” (Watts quotes it incorrectly; it should say “brakes,” not “brake”), and Andrew Marvell’s “Bermudas.”


[13] It is a lost opportunity that Watts did not move beyond this recitation of images to write haiku about them as well. Watts judged the 1964 Japan Air Lines international haiku contest (won by James W. Hackett), perhaps selected as judge as a result of the essay quoted here, but there is little evidence that Watts himself wrote haiku. I know of the following exceptions. In his book, In My Own Way: An Autobiography (Novato, California: New World Library, 1972, 2007, 2nd edition), Watts reports that he wrote a haiku in the autumn of 1932, while at King’s School in Canterbury, England (at age 17) after a sleepless night of trying to come to grips with the notion of satori or enlightenment. Watts says that “I was trying desperately to work out this problem: What is THE EXPERIENCE which these Oriental masters are talking about? The different ideas of it which I had in mind seemed to be approaching me like little dogs wanting to be petted, and suddenly I shouted at all of them to go away. I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept of what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or what should be meant by ME. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. Thereupon I composed a haiku:” (page 80)


                All forgotten and set aside—

                Wind scattering leaves

                Over the fields.


This feels like a description of enlightenment, and perhaps it was fitting that he should commemorate the moment, unlike no other but one in his autobiography, with a haiku. And in what seems to be a new haiku written for his autobiography, toward the end of the book, Watts describes visiting a particular Buddhist temple in Japan where he climbed a long uphill path, and then offers this verse (page 358), which feels for all the world like it might be a jisei, or death poem:


                This is all there is;

                       the path comes to an end

                       among the parsley.

In addition, the center insert of Dragonfly 1:2, published by editor Lorraine Ellis Harr in April 1973, featured the following four poems, with kanji for each of the four seasons, signed in English and Japanese and with Watts’ chop. The “All forgotten” poem had appeared in In My Own Way the previous year, but flush left instead of indented, and with initial capitals to start the second and third lines.

                Far down in the forest,

                     Heard, unseen,

                          the sound of water.

                Owl at night

                     is always sound,

                          not sight.

                All forgotten and set aside—

                     wind scattering leaves

                          over the fields.

                Falling, falling the snow—


                          white silence.

If any other haiku by Watts exist, whether published or not, I do not know of them. I would be delighted to discover if any more exist, and I do suspect that there are more. An interesting side note is that Musical Engineering Association, the record label formed by Henry Jacobs that released the “Haiku” record by Alan Watts on vinyl, also recorded commercials for Japan Air Lines.

[14] Again, echoes of Taoism with Zen.

[15] The original poem, of course, says “sound of water” (mizu no oto), and is not onomatopoetic. Hiroaki Sato has collected more than one hundred different translations of Bashō’s famous poem in his book One Hundred Frogs (most extensively in the second book he published with this title, from Inklings/Weatherhill, in 1995).

[16] It would be nice to know who said they represent the poet’s fulfillment of Zen. I suspect such a claim (not by Watts, obviously) was speculation, far after the fact.

[17] It’s important to note that Bashō’s poem was revolutionary at the time for its focus on the sound of the frog jumping into the water. For centuries prior to this, it was a standard trope in Japanese and Chinese literature to refer to the frog’s croak. In this way, the seemingly young frog is disruptive to the “old pond,” which might be seen as old ways of writing haiku, adding a possible interpretive and allusive layer to this poem’s immediate surface images.

[18] Here we may recall Bashō’s injunction to “learn of the pine from the pine tree, of the bamboo from the bamboo,” and thereby to “interpenetrate” with the object of one’s experience.

[19] Watts does not say, but these four poems are by San-in, Jōsō, Bashō, and Bashō again.

[20] Watts is talking of haiku in Japanese, of course, but it is excruciatingly easy, and thus dangerous, for undiscerning readers to assume that the same description applies to haiku in English. As a result, statements like this unwittingly contribute to the urban myth of haiku in English requiring seventeen syllables, when that isn’t strictly what they count in Japanese, but rather sounds (the word “haiku” itself counts as two syllables in English but three sounds in Japanese—ha-i-ku). It has been the bane of haiku instruction around the world that “syllable” has been used so cavalierly in describing the rhythm of haiku in Japanese. It is equivalent to assuming that 100 yen is equal to 100 dollars. This insufficient and misleading description has been exacerbated by the naïve assumption that the “syllables” referred to in Japanese are the same as those in English, when they are not—as many linguists, scholars, translators, and poets have attested or demonstrated. For a deeper exploration of this issue for those new to haiku, please see “Why ‘No 5-7-5.’”

[21] Watts strikes me as flat-out incorrect here, at least in terms of contemporary haiku written in the last hundred years or so. Haiku are routinely written about all seasons of the year at any time of the year, in both Japanese and other languages. While one’s best inspiration often arises from immediate personal experience of the present season, I don’t believe Japanese haiku poets were ever limited to that. Indeed, in writing the linked poetry form of renga (also known as haikai no renga and later renku), from which haiku evolved as the starting verse, participants were specifically required to write verses out of season (or with no season) for the majority of the composition, although they did usually start with the current season. What Watts might be sensing is the necessity for traditional haiku to include a kigo, or season word, but I would suggest that he’s mistaken to believe that haiku must be written only about the current season.

[22] This list sounds like the major traditional categories of a saijiki, or season word almanac. I would say it’s not really true that haiku tended strongly to customary themes, certainly not in the last hundred years or more. Unfortunately, Watts does not quantify the eras of haiku of which he speaks. If Blyth was his main influence, Blyth’s range tends more towards the classical era of haiku, and makes much less account of more recent haiku developments, heavily influenced as they were by Shiki late in the nineteenth century, who in turn was heavily influenced by the influx of Western culture in the turbulent period of the Meiji Restoration. A pre-Shiki aesthetic is of course a choice, and a perfectly valid one, and it seems that Watts is describing a sort of haiku that existed mostly before Shiki. After Shiki, haiku grew increasingly fragmented and varied in its aesthetics, so that it would be absurd to describe twentieth-century or later haiku as being limited to or even tending strongly towards the so-called “customary” themes Watts mentions.

[23] Is Watts referring to a saijiki here? A saijiki does deliberately classify haiku by their seasonal references, but is usually meant as a reference book, not one that readers would consume linearly. Other books of Japanese haiku have no such classificational structure.

[24] Kōko Katō, in the introduction to her 1997 book, A Hidden Pond: Anthology of Modern Haiku, says that “The effect it [strict form in Japanese haiku] has upon the content is an interesting one, rather like the dohyō or ring where sumo wrestlers engage.” For those writing haiku in English, the strict form is not a syllable count but usually three lines of poetry that employ a season word, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and primarily objective sensory imagery, among other characteristics. The art of the sumo wrestler lies in what can be accomplished within that narrow ring.

[25] If Blyth is the source of all translations in this essay, I have not checked Blyth to confirm their accuracy, but this poem does not seem to appear anywhere in the four volumes of Blyth’s Haiku, although the poet is mentioned in volume four (as Kobori Enshū, not Kobori Enshiu, as Watts says). Blyth usually indented the first and third lines on his versions, so the versions in Watts’ essay differ at least on that point. I suspect that Watts is simply being conversational here, unless he could not find the original version (by Blyth or perhaps another translator) in this one instance to confirm that he quoted it accurately. Having three parts, as this translation does, is nearly always shunned in haiku, although that could be the fault of the translation or of Watt’s memory.

[26] Watts does not indicate that this poem is by Moritake.

[27] This tension strikes me as more imagined than real. I don’t think the tension arises out of the form (certainly not 5-7-5), but from merely being brief and restrained (hinting at things), as Watts describes in the text that follows.

[28] Again we find the notion that haiku is best apprehended as an “unfinished” poem, requiring the reader’s engagement to truly finish it. It could well be that the notion of haiku in the West as an “unfinished poem” began with this essay by Watts.

[29] I particularly like Watts’ emphasis on mood and emotion here, not just on intellectually filling in the rest of each haiku’s picture. If art is meant to wash over us, surely that is true of haiku, at least in producing a precognitive response.

[30] Watts does not say so, but these two poems are by Taigi and Gyōdai.

[31] Here I think of Robert Frost’s poem “Dust of Snow”:

                The way a crow

                Shook down on me

                The dust of snow

                From a hemlock tree


                Has given my heart

                A change of mood

                And saved some part

                Of a day I had rued.

The first half of the poem lies mostly in the haiku aesthetic (except for “The way”), whereas the second half of the poem is Frost “showing off” with his own interpretations and conclusions—typically avoided in haiku. There’s nothing wrong with such poems, of course (this poem is one of my favourites by Frost), but they do differ from haiku in this regard. In teaching haiku, I have found that one of the chief difficulties students have is, first, to understand the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, and second, to control it in their writing. A certain amount of subjectivity, handled well, can be perfectly fine in haiku, but for beginning Western haiku poets the judgments and analysis they are prone to include nearly always doom the poem.

[32] I would suggest that the sensitive reader does not have to have shared the same experience, but can, if the poem is written skillfully, fully empathize with the experience, even if the reader has not had that exact experience. William J. Higginson begins his Haiku Handbook by saying that the point of haiku is to share them, and surely the point of sharing haiku is not only to celebrate experiences held in common, but to communicate experiences and their attending emotions even when they might not be held in common.

[33] I agree with Watts here until he mentions Zen. I do not see Zen as any kind of prerequisite to fully appreciating haiku. All one needs is a sensitivity to life itself. I should also add that the allusions Watts mentions are in fact rife in haiku; the poem is best if it works even if the reader is unaware of the allusions, but of course knowing the literature can deepen one’s experience of the poem even further. Allusions in haiku (and its sister genre, tanka, previously known as waka) are there because the audience for these poems did know the allusions. Westerners cannot be expected to know all the allusions of this transplanted poetry, but I would also suggest that it’s a significant loss for any Westerner to think that they don’t matter. For more on the topic of allusions in Western haiku, please see “A Sampling of Cultural Haiku.”

[34] Watts does not say, but these four poems are by Bashō, Kikaku, Shisei-jo, and Bashō again.

[35] Watts is referring to haiga, and I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t use the term. It would take more investigation to determine how widely known the term was around 1958, but perhaps Watts just omitted it for the same reason that he sometimes did not indicate the authorship of certain poems—it was not sufficiently important. For more information on haiga, see the Haiga page on this site.

[36] Blyth points out the antecedent, and the influence does exist, but of course haiku had a clear origin from another source, one that had nothing overtly to do with Zen. What did I say earlier about everything looking like a nail when the only tool one has is a hammer? About 1,300 years ago, when the first written language came to Japanese shores from China, it brought with it the uta, or “song,” which was chanted in Chinese. As Japan synthesized its own written language, the uta became the waka, which means “Japanese song”—meaning that it used specifically Japanese rather than Chinese diction and written characters. The waka adopted the natural Japanese speech rhythm of 5-7-5-7-7 sounds, and was frequently a love poem written in the Japanese court. The court also evolved a pastime where participants would cap a 5-7-5 starting verse (known as a hokku) with a 7-7 response verse. If the pastime stopped there, with just two verses, it was known as tan-renga, but mostly these collaborations continued for many more verses, typically one hundred, and might involve many participants. A kasen renga was thirty-six verses, and it later became known as haikai no renga. Each verse in these collaborative forms linked with the previous verse but also shifted away to something new as the renga attempted to “taste all of life.” A key feature in this linking process was the connection between verses. However, the starting verse had no predecessor to link to, so it was typically written with two parts within the single verse itself (unlike the later verses in renga, which came to be known as renku). This two-part juxtapositional structure, which was used to create energy in the implicative leap between the two parts, survives in haiku today, which Shiki named in promoting this verse as an independent poetry form late in the nineteenth century. All of this is to say that haiku is widely understood to have grown out of hokku, the starting verse of renga, not from the Zenrin-kushu. The Zenrin-kushu was compiled by Eichō, who lived from 1428 or 1429 to 1504, but it was apparently never even published until the 1680s, by which time renga (which contained the hokku, later known as haiku) had already been written for at least a couple hundred years.

[37] In the fourth volume of Haiku (page 33), R. H. Blyth presents this anonymous poem in a slightly different translation, in just two lines:

                If you do not believe, look at September, look at October,

                How the yellow leaves fall, and fill mountain and river.

[38] Yes, with haiku too, they are best if they just wash over you. In The Way of Zen (Pantheon, 1957), Watts wrote that “In poetry the empty space is the surrounding silence . . . of the mind in which one does not ‘think about’ the poem but actually feels the sensation which it evokes—all the more strongly for having said so little.”

January 1959 New York Times review of the Alan Watts vinyl recording, Haiku, reviewed by Thomas Lask.