Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Haiku

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

"From ancient times, those with a feeling for refinement […] find joy in knowing the truth and insight of things" (Haikai Ronshu, Collected Haiku Theories by Basho). What Basho, the great haiku master, observed centuries ago, is still true in our days.

The haiku is a miniature masterpiece of immediate perception, a snapshot of life (what Shiki calls shasei). The haiku must be perceived through intuition and enjoyed, not understood or explained. It conveys its meaning through concrete images that speak for themselves. There is an enormous power hidden behind apparently insignificant particulars, no word is superfluous in the haiku.

The haiku poet conveys images without intervening, without being affected by emotions. He must be receptive. Otsuji says that the haiku poet must be sincere and humble at the same time and surrender to his own experience, and that in this experience "the poet's nature and environment are one", and any dualism between subject and object, or art and life, disappears.

Basho says that "there is no subject whatever that is not fit for hokku", as the haiku poet discovers and perceives a whole world in particulars the common man doesn't notice. "In the sound of the frog leaping from the bank overgrown with wild grass, a haikai is heard. There is the seen; there is the heard. Where there is hokku as the poet has felt it, there is poetic truth." (Haikai Ronshu).

Everyone is a potential haiku poet, and yet most people are blinded by convention, tradition, or the routine of daily life, and are unable to perceive the higher order of reality behind appearances. The haiku poet is gifted and trains his giftedness and the sharpness of his senses daily, trying to "grasp" his experiences, which are always "funded" experiences, as well as the magic of the moment. The haiku poet must also be curious, regress to an almost childlike state in his discovery and perception of the world, that is to say, discover the world without preconceptions and prejudices, "as it is" (sono mama). Haiku "happen", they are not constructed or elaborated, they are "an act of intuition or vision" (Herbert Read), an act of enlightenment or satori, as it is called in the Zen religion. Their function is to open the reader's eyes, not to make him think rationally.

Let's take for example one of Basho's most famous haiku:

Listen! A frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!
The pond could be the ultimate truth, God, eternity, it becomes a transcendental symbol that goes beyond the limits of words.

Significantly, many haiku masters were pilgrims who wandered through the world "picking up" moments of life.

Haiku are not limited by time or space because they convey universal experiences. We enjoy Basho as if he were a contemporary poet.

A haiku like

On a withered bow
A crow alone is perching;
Autumn evening now
is revealing and delightful today as it was centuries ago with its simple, basic elements of object, time, and space.

In spite of the universality and simplicity of the images it conveys, it is not easy to write a good haiku. Basho calls the haiku poet who creates ten haiku in his lifetime a master,i which reminds us somehow of Ezra Pound's remark in "A Few Don'ts by an Imagist" ii: "It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous work."

Truly good haiku are unforgettable, not because of their breath-like shortness, but because they change your life, like a sudden revelation.

Historically, the haiku developed from renga to haikai (haikai no renga, a form of comical renga) to hokku to haiku. In the Heian court life (8-12th cent.), the long choka gradually lost in popularity to the short tanka, which then developed into the renga. Its starting triplet, the hokku, was always composed by the most distinguished poet of the group. Basho made it an independent poetic form, the haiku.

Today the haiku has established itself as a 5-7-5-syllable poetic form, although in English it is not compulsory to adhere to this rule. Attempts to change this structure have been made, but have not been successful.

Usually, the "wist" happens at the fifth or twelfth syllable (at the end of the first or of the second line), offering the haiku a sense of balance and symmetry. Yet the haiku can be perfectly balanced and crystallized without this turning.

Attempts have also been made to reform the haiku by omitting the traditional season word or seasonal reference. These attempts have also been unsuccessful in themselves, although they have developed into a new form of poetry, the senryu. The haiku itself though has retained its seasonal reference, which makes it so unique.

Haiku can also be combined to form a longer poem, the rensaku, and so can tanka.

The haiku makes use of quite common words, again a trait it shares with the Imagists of the Western world: "To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the merely decorative word." Significantly, Basho says: "In the poetry of haikai ordinary words are used", adding that the true merit of poetry is "to correct ordinary words".

The haiku is perfectly structured and formed in its simplicity, if we believe what Louis Danz has said: "Form is that kind of organization to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken." iiiIt is perfect as it is, "inevitable", as Basho puts it. Any change or "polishing" would ruin the effect. If we changed the crow to a crane in the above mentioned haiku by Basho, for example, the haiku would be spoiled.

The haiku also has a rhythm of its own that is unique and manifests itself as the pulsation the poet feels when he has the revelation that urges him to write a haiku. To render this rhythm in the language into which a haiku is translated is of fundamental importance, as in the following example:

Brushing the leaves, fell
A white camellia blossom
Into the dark well.

Sometimes words are also rhymed, as in this example, in order to "complete the circle" and create a perfect, encompassing whole. Rhyme is unsuited to the Japanese language, but in English it can help to achieve the original elegance.

Alliteration is also a quite common technique used in haiku, and can be of different kindsiv, the most popular and easily recognizable being the initial alliteration:

A falling flower, thought I,
Fluttering back to the branch "
Was a butterfly.

Finding the technique that most appropriately conveys the original image when translating a Japanese haiku is not an easy task. It is up to the translator to find the most suitable technique, sometimes also employing personal devices and tricks. Which tricks should be used, also depends on the target language. The above mentioned techniques refer mainly to the English language.

There are a few rules the haiku poet has to comply with in order to write a haiku.

The main "still valid … rule is the season word (kigo).

Similes or metaphors should be avoided. Associations, comparisons or contrasts should be implicit, not explained.

In her Haiku Primer, Betty Drevniok mentions several interesting techniques for writing a good haiku, for example the techniques of sense-switching, narrowing focus, double entendre, word play, pun, paradox, and the technique of the improbable word.

Other rules that should be taken into consideration when writing a haiku are that a haiku should never be a complete sentence in itself, but rather consist of sentence fragments (with a cutting at the end of the first or of the second line, as mentioned above), that it should be written in the present tense, possibly avoiding the use of personal pronouns, gerunds, and adverbs. Articles and even prepositions are also often omitted. If the haiku holds together without the preposition, it is probably better to leave it out. Punctuation is often also considered unnecessary. Sometimes its omission is a deliberate means to create ambiguity.

Images can evoke simple rustic seclusion or poverty (sabi), classical elegant distinctiveness (shuburni), romantic beauty (wabi), or mysterious solitude (yugen), or anything else which is not too complicated or abstruse.

These rules are particularly important for aspirant haiku poets who still need some directives. As Basho said, rules have to be learnt and forgotten again. This is particularly valid for the haiku.

Some haiku written by the masters:

Basho (1644-1694):

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

The air shimmers.
Whitish flight
Of an unknown insect.

Buson (1716 … 1783):

Sleep on horseback,
The far moon in a continuing dream,
Steam of roasting tea.

A whale!
Down it goes, and more and more
up goes its tail!

Issa (1763 … 1827):

A sudden shower falls -
and naked I am riding
on a naked horse!

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this -
and it passes by.

Shiki Masaoka (1867 … 1902):

A lightning flash:
between the forest trees
I have seen water.

I want to sleep
Swat the flies
Softly, please.


by Maria Faverio


There is more to dawn
than coffee and a cigarette,
or newspapers
hitting the doorstep …

time to pick up
spilled visions,
remembering that life
is on loan,

delete the messages
on the answering machine
and breathe.


At the sky's edge,
a shower of thunderbolts,
a Noh play on a cracked stage …
lovers who discover
each other's face.


Scarecrows drenched with rain,
corpses piled up on the field …
dancing party of crows.


Yasuda K., The Japanese Haiku, 1991 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

Britton, D., A Haiku Journey, 1974 Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London

Ueda Mokoto, Matsuo Basho, 1982 Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London

Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966 Penguin Books

Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Hoffmann Y., 1990 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

Taneda Santoka, Mountain Tasting, translated by John Stevens, 1989 Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo

A Chime of Windbells, translated by Harold Stewart, 1978 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

A Net of Fireflies, translated by Harold Stewart, 1972 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo



i He himself wrote about one thousand. We can categorize Basho's haiku into the following periods: 1. Haiku as Pastime (1662-72); 2. Technique of Surprising Comparison (1673-80); In Search of Identity (1681-85); 4. Manifestation of Sabi (1686-91); 5. Last Phase (1692-94).

ii Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. I (October … March, 1912-1913), p.200

iii The Psychologist Looks at Art, London, Longman, 1937, p.78

iv Initial, stressed, syllable, oblique, buried, and crossed alliteration

1 comment:

Princess Haiku said...

This is a very interesting post and I enjoyed reading it.