• Haiku: The Evolution of a Strict Poetic Game

    From Bashō to Salinger and Everything in Between

    Some years ago, during another one of those “crises” in U.S.-Japanese relations, there was an article in The New York Times—I think it was—about an officer at the Embassy of Japan in Washington who used haiku in a bulletin as a way to redirect Washingtonians’ attention from such pecuniary matters as trade with Japan to something more elevated: poetry. Here I have no such highfalutin hope. My only hope, indeed, is that you might have an amusing moment or two in the course of my unfocused, meandering discourse.

    Article continues below

    Haiku has completely become a part of American life. Last week, for example, I was on a program called “Where Haiku and Music Meet,” in which Kashiwagi Toshio explained how he set Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi) to piano music and Inaba Chieko played his compositions. Afterward, I asked a friend of mine, Arlene Teck, to give me her assessment of the presentation. She did so through a haiku:

    musician’s face:
    expressing the emotions
    of the music

    Arlene is vice president of a company that specializes in devising brand names for pharmaceutical and other products, and I have known her for quite some time. What I still do not know is whether or not she takes haiku seriously. I say this because there are people who do. Paul O. Williams is one of them.

    Two years ago, Mr. Williams, who I hear is also known as a writer of science fiction, gave a speech entitled “The Question of Words in Haiku,” and opened his remarks with these observations:

    Article continues below

    Haiku is often a poetry written around the edges of the consciousness of the poet. And haiku helps poets extend the borders of their attention to notice what is going on at the edge of the eye. . . . If effective, it does not represent official consciousness, demanded or conventional consciousness, occupational consciousness.

    Mr. Williams went on to speak of “the comparative absence in haiku of witty verbal acts.” This talk of “consciousness” in relation to haiku is clearly influenced by Daisetz Suzuki, the greatest 20th-century proselytizer of Zen in this country, and R.H. Blyth, the greatest 20th-century proselytizer of haiku in the English-speaking world. Of the two, Suzuki said in Zen and Japanese Culture, “a haiku does not express ideas but . . . puts forward images reflecting intuitions. These images are not figurative representations made use of by the poetic mind, but they directly point to original intuitions, indeed, they are intuitions themselves.” Blyth, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Suzuki in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, spoke of the “directness, simplicity, and unintellectuality” of haiku, asserting that “haiku is a form of Zen”—although it would not be fair to fail to note that he followed this with the declaration in Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture: “If there is ever imagined to be any conflict between Zen and the poetry of haiku, the Zen goes overboard.”

    Notwithstanding the assertions of two such greats to the contrary, the suggestion that the act of composing haiku is an almost unconscious one and that witticism is nearly absent in this literary genre would have startled Bashō, the first poet most people think of when the word “haiku” is mentioned. This I say not because of the trite observation that virtually no literary endeavor can be unconscious save automatic writing. Rather, haiku during Bashō’s days was occasional verse par excellence, or what Mallarmé called vers de circonstance.

    The term “occasional verse” is not used often these days, but the poem Maya Angelou composed for and recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration is an occasional poem; so is “Greetings, Friends,” which Roger Angell annually composes for the end-of-the-year issue of The New Yorker. The latter, as you know, attempts to incorporate as many personal names in the news as is manageable in “airy cols of rhyme.” The poem last year, for example, had two lines, “Harris Wofford, Kirkpatrick Sale, / Harrison Ford, and Pauline Kael.”

    Article continues below

    How, in what way, was haiku occasional verse? The answer: in Bashō’s days the haiku had not yet become completely independent of a larger poetic form. Not independent? A larger poetic form? you may ask.

    Yes. The haiku was originally called hokku, “opening verse,” and it referred to the piece that started the sequential poetic form renga, “linked verse.” The term haiku did not gain currency until about 1900, but Mr. Williams wasn’t wrong in calling Bashō’s piece haiku. Modern Japanese scholars also refer to hokku before then the same way, retroactively.

    Now, the sequential poetic form renga alternates 5-7-5- and 7-7-syllable verses up to 50 times, for a total of 100 verse units. Normally composed by two or more persons, at times even by a dozen, renga, in fact, is a literary game and, being a game, has a number of rules—highly complex ones at that. Of these rules, the basic one for the opening verse was traditionally tōki, “this season,” and tōza, “this session”—the requirement to incorporate a reference to the season when the game took place and to describe something directly observed at the session itself.

    Take Bashō’s piece that Mr. Williams cites as a perfect embodiment of his—Mr. Williams’s—concept of haiku. In his citation, it goes:

    Beneath the tree,
    In soup, in fish salad—
    Cherry blossoms!

    Article continues below

    The original reads:

    Ki no moto ni shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

    Despite the somewhat unfamiliar “fish salad,” you might feel that this, at least in the original, must be an innocuously pretty line of verse, especially if you learn that it describes a scene of a hanami, “cherry-blossom-viewing,” where an assortment of tidbits, along with an ample supply of sake, is taken out picnic-style under cherry trees in full bloom. No matter how innocuous it may seem, though, this hokku could not have been “written around the edges of the consciousness of the poet.” Bashō made a living as a sōshō, “master,” of rule-bound renga poetry, and had to take many things into account—especially when composing a hokku.

    First, there was the season. Bashō composed this hokku early in Third Month, the last month of spring in the lunar calendar. The proposed title for the session was hanami no less, so mentioning or at least suggesting sakura, “cherry blossoms,” was a must—although here I must add that to speak of a title for a renga sequence is misleading. Renga is a peculiar poetic form—I’m tempted to say “unique” but the Japanese are roundly ridiculed in this country for saying that something about themselves—let’s say, a cultural manifestation—is unique, so I must refrain from using the word. Renga is peculiar because its basic rule is what Professor Earl Miner of Princeton has termed “disjunctive linking”: Any two consecutive links or stanzas must make sense, but three may not. This rule means that the subject for description must change at every other turn. In consequence, a renga cannot, and does not, have a linear narrative line, as, say, an English ballad does. Indeed, when we speak of a title for a renga, we are talking about something that applies only to the opening verse or the notion that has prompted a particular session.

    So, there was, first, the seasonal requirement—with the word or phrase indicating a specific season that is called kigo, “seasonal word,” or kidai, “seasonal subject.” This seasonal requirement was an integral part of Japanese poetry in the court tradition, and mainly written in the 5-7-5-7-7-syllable tanka form. The general impression that the Japanese love nature derives mainly from the fact that a seasonal reference is found in most poems written in traditional forms and, by extension, in idle essays, epistolary greetings, and crafts designs.

    Article continues below

    Whether or not the Japanese actually love nature is a question that deserves contemplation. Kurt Singer, an astute German observer of Japanese culture, characterized “the Japanese claim to be closer to nature than the people of the West” as “paradoxical,” saying in Mirror, Sword and Jewel: The Geometry of Japanese Life that large doses of “convention, artificiality, and selectiveness enter into the Japanese cult of nature.” My friend Roger Pulvers, a Brooklyn-born Australian citizen who has done much of his literary and theater work in Japan, unintentionally seconded this judgment when he wrote to me that nature, for the Japanese, is nature viewed and defined from indoors.

    From a casual observation, in any event, it is doubtful that the Japanese can claim any special love of nature. Traditional Japanese gardening strikes me as an exercise in excessive pruning, albeit in an attempt to make the result look more natural, and bonsai as tortuous stunting. Meanwhile, corporate brochures and other pictorial presentations coming out of Japan continue to proudly show expanses of coastland or mountains cleared, leveled, and buried under state-of-the-art factories or power plants. In this regard, Japan still behaves like a developing nation.

    To return to the hokku, there was, second, an advanced sense of decorum that was assumed in renga composition. The requirement that the hokku describe “this season, this session” also meant that it had to be complimentary or positively commemorative of the occasion. This explains why with most classical hokku you have the feeling, which is correct, that the verse was composed in praise of something.

    This tradition lives on powerfully. Several years ago, for instance, the poet Takahashi Mutsuo—whom I have translated quite a bit, though only his non-haiku work—was commissioned to compose a series of haiku about Kanazawa, as well as Ishikawa, of which Kanazawa is the capital. The result was One Hundred Kanazawa Haiku (Kanazawa hyakku), which is accompanied by a separate volume explicating each piece, called One Hundred Views of Kaga (Kaga hyakkei). Kaga is an old name for part of today’s Ishikawa that lies northeast of Kyoto. In this country, one might be commissioned to compile an anthology of poems about—not necessarily in praise of—New York, let’s say, but one can hardly expect to be commissioned to write a whole series of poems in exaltation of the Empire State.

    Where a strong guest/host relationship existed among the people gathered to compose renga, the sense of decorum was readily linked to the notion of aisatsu, “salutation” or “greetings,” as an ingredient of the hokku, which was, as you can imagine, based on protocol. In a recent talk to a group of translators in the Bay Area, the famed translator of Japanese literature Edward Seidensticker testily remarked, “Honorics represent a very unpleasant aspect of Japanese culture: everything is up or down.” Without taking issue with the eminent professor, I submit that protocol, of which honorics are merely a linguistic manifestation, is no less important in old European tradition than in the old Asian nation of Japan, and that the English language also has, I believe, a range of expressions indicative of protocol.

    What is to be noted for our purpose here is that when protocol was brought into the poetic form of renga, it affected the nature of the hokku, the opening verse, and the second verse, called waki, “flank.” Being the most important part of the sequence, the hokku was usually assigned to the guest of honor, often a master, to compose, and this enhanced the complimentary, celebratory aspects of the hokku. In turn, the composition of the waki was assigned to the host of the occasion, who was expected to say something self-deprecating.

    Put this way, and since we are dealing with poetry, which is supposed to be an embodiment of truth and beauty, such an arrangement may strike you as a faked, insincere Japanese style, if you will. But renga was a game, and the situation may be understood by imagining a conversation between guest and host in a more traditional setting.

    Let us say you buy a particularly attractive piece of furniture, install it in a prominent spot, and later invite a guest over. The guest arrives, takes due note of it, and obligingly compliments you by saying something like, “It matches the color scheme of your living room perfectly. I love it!” In response, you underplay the furniture’s importance to you by mumbling, “Oh, it’s nothing. I just stumbled upon it at a garage sale.” (This analogy, of course, may not hold water in the United States. Here, as host, you are more likely to say something like, “I spent months finding it. I’m proud of it!”)

    The guest-host relationship in renga may be illustrated by the most famous haiku of all time, the one about an old pond and a frog (or frogs), although in that instance Bashō was at once master and host. In saying,

    Furyuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
    An old pond: a frog jumps into the water the sound

    Bashō, being the host, was deprecating himself, telling his guests that he was so destitute that all he could offer by way of entertainment was the occasional sound of a frog plopping into a stagnant pool of water. In response, Enomoto Kikaku, one of a group of his students who were visiting him, came up with a 7-7-syllable waki:

    ashi no wakaba ni kakaru kumo no su
    suspended over young rush blades a spider’s web

    In effect, Kikaku was saying, “No, sir, this is a wonderful place. Everything is so quiet and peaceful.”

    To go back to the haiku that Paul O. Williams discussed, the one about soup and fish salad under cherry blossoms, it is a typical hokku, indicating as it does the season, spring, through a specific plant, and complimenting the scene at hand through a laudatory image. Bashō used this hokku to start two renga sequences—one early in Third Month, the second later the same month. The second sequence is the more famous, and I myself have translated it in the anthology, coedited with Burton Watson, From the Country of Eight Islands. Here I note just the first sequence—though only the 7-7 waki, the second unit, written by a samurai named Ogawa Fūbaku:

    asu kuru hito wa kuyashigaru haru
    someone who comes tomorrow will regret spring

    Fūbaku’s line is based on the traditional poetic conceit that for appreciating cherry blossoms—which bloom suddenly, spectacularly, and then scatter with sheer abandon—tomorrow is always one day too late. Viewed this way, Bashō’s hokku does not—cannot possibly—suggest the poet’s “irritation,” as Mr. Williams proposes. Such an interpretative speculation is strictly modernist.

    The mention of Mr. Williams brings us to a third aspect of the kind of hokku (and renga) that Bashō composed. As you recall, Mr. Williams spoke of “the comparative absence in haiku of witty verbal acts.” In truth, “witty verbal acts” were the essence of what Bashō and his friends were doing. They characterized the type of renga they wrote as haikai, “humorous,” in order to distinguish it from orthodox renga based on court tradition. As writing hokku independently of haikai no renga became more common, the word haikai also came to mean hokku.

    In simplest terms, haikai meant rejection of poetic diction and adoption of language in daily use. Orthodox court poetry did not tolerate references to quotidian, down-to-earth things like shiru, “soup,” and namasu, “fish salad,” so incorporating daily elements was haikai. As Bashō himself explained, harusame no yanagi, “willow in spring rain,” represented the world of court poetry, but tanishi toru karasu, “a crow picking pond snails,” was haikai, according to Bashō’s disciple Hattori Tohō in his haikai treatise Three Booklets (Sanzōshi). You might have an inkling of this notion by imagining someone using a four-letter word in an elegant soirée—it would be out of place, jarring, and, therefore, humorous.

    More broadly, haikai derived from attitudinal and allusive twists. As for the attitudinal part of it, again Bashō himself is said to have explained, in reference to his own hokku, that the language does not contain anything unorthodox, but that the hokku is haikai because the proposal to go out in the rain to look at the grebes’ nests is unorthodox and, therefore, haikai.

    Samidare ya io no ukisu o miniyukan
    In the May rain let’s go see grebes’ oating nests

    As for the other, allusive twists, this is where scholastic speculation plays an important role. Since by now you must be bored stiff, I shall not aggravate the situation by citing poems to which Bashō might have alluded when he composed the one about soup and fish salad. Instead, I will simply say he was superimposing new, quotidian images onto more elegant ones. The suggestion is also made that this hokku alludes to the proverb, Atsumono ni korite namasu o fuku, “Someone burnt by hot soup blows on fish salad,” which is similar to “Once bit, twice shy.” In this view, the haikai twist lies in Bashō’s wry proposition that a carpet of cherry blossoms has rendered soup and fish salad indistinguishable, as Andō Tsuguo noted in Echoes of Poeticism (Fūkyō yoin).

    All this is merely to say that hokku composed in Bashō’s days were utterly conscious affairs.

    W. G. Aston, who translated and wrote about Japanese literature while a British foreign diplomat in Japan, published A History of Japanese Literature in 1899, most likely the first such account by a non-Japanese. In the section on Bashō, Aston quoted a Latin phrase, brevis esse laborat, obscurus fit, which my poet friend Michael O’Brien tells me comes from the Roman poet Horace’s Art of Poetry and means, “Striving to be brief, he becomes obscure.” Aston followed this Horatian quote with an observation: “A very large proportion of Bashō’s Haikai are so obscurely allusive as to transcend the comprehension of the uninitiated foreigner.” (Here haikai means hokku.) In all, he cited less than ten verses as among “the more lucid” of the roughly 1,000 hokku Bashō has left us. If you read Bashō in the original without much explication and annotation, you are likely to agree with him.

    European scholars of Aston’s generation had a range of classical training and a wonderful capacity to learn foreign things, yet were loath to yield to what I would call anthropological even-handedness, which is de rigueur for scholars today. So, Aston did not hesitate to observe: “It would be absurd to put forward any serious claim on behalf of Haikai to an important position in literature.” When you consider the Horatian quote coupled with this estimation, it is a safe bet that while writing his History, he never even dreamed of the transplantability of the hokku outside Japan.

    Nevertheless, soon enough English and French writers picked up haiku so that by the time Kurt Singer, the perceptive German soul I mentioned earlier, was setting his thoughts down on paper, counting the short verse among Japanese cultural phenomena that lacked “emissive power,” it had long been emitted.

    How that occurred, beginning around the turn of the 20th century, has been recounted a number of times. Here, let us take a different tack and recall how J. D. Salinger in his story “Seymour: An Introduction,” first published in 1959, had its narrator say the following:

    The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter; unlike certain prose writers and Western poetasters, whom I’m in no position to name off, he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa. . . .

    Issa here is Kobayashi Issa, one of the triumvirate during the Edo Period in a standard survey of haikai. Let us also recall how lovingly Salinger’s narrator goes on to describe the last two of the 184 haiku that Seymour, who committed suicide, is supposed to have left:

    The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. . . . She comes home very late one night from a tryst . . . to find a balloon on her bedspread. . . . The other poem . . . is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night . . . to look at the full moon. A bored white cat . . . comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.

    These are, I note, the explications of haiku, not the haiku themselves. As the narrator confides in his nervy sort of way, “I’m forbidden by the poet’s widow, who legally owns them, to quote any portion of [the 184 poems].” Elizabeth Bishop, who “hated” this story, wrote in a letter to Pearl Kazin, dated September 9th, 1959: “It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. . . . And if the poems were so good, why not just give us one or two and shut up, for God’s sake?” Three thumbs up for Elizabeth Bishop!

    Anyhow, the narrator of the story—Salinger, really—makes clear that Seymour’s source of inspiration on the haiku form and what it can and should do was R. H. Blyth, whose four-volume account, simply entitled Haiku, was published from 1949 to 1952. Blyth is “sometimes perilous, naturally, since he’s a highhanded old poem himself,” the narrator muses, “but he’s also sublime—and who goes to poetry for safety anyway?” You might hazard that a sizable portion of American people who turned to haiku in the last three decades did so on account of Blyth via Salinger.

    Here, you may wonder as I wonder: Which haiku on peony by Issa is the narrator of “Seymour” talking about? By some embarrassing oversight, however, I do not have all of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku, though I have some others by him, so I checked Japanese texts and found the following:

    Kore hodo to botan no shikata suru ko kana
    “This big,” a child gestures about the peony she saw

    This may not be the one about “a fat-faced peony in the garden,” but peony as a haiku subject gives me a chance to briefly touch on the great change that occurred to hokku during the 100-150-year period from Bashō to Issa. As I noted at the beginning, in Bashō’s day hokku were still linked to renga or formal considerations associated with the linkage, but by Issa’s time the link was becoming tenuous. This does not mean that Issa did not participate in renga sessions, because he did, or that all of his hokku—he is estimated to have left 24,000 pieces—are readily intelligible, because a number of them are not. Still, when you compare this piece by Issa with the following by Bashō, you may see the difference:

    Samukaranu tsuyu ya botan no hana no mitsu
    Dew that won’t be cold: the honey in the peony flower

    What does this mean? Well, Bashō wrote this in celebration of the new house a friend of his had built. “Dew” is a seasonal word for autumn and a metaphor for sadness and desolation; “peony,” on the other hand, is a seasonal word for summer and a metaphor for munificence and generosity. To paraphrase, Bashō is saying, “Your new house is so luxurious. As its resident, you won’t have to worry about feeling desolate when autumn comes.”

    Or at least that’s one interpretation. As the best-known haiku commentator Yamamoto Kenkichi noted, the actual meaning of this hokku is difficult to decipher—a typical case to which Horace’s maxim applies: “Striving to be brief, he becomes obscure.” The point, at any rate, is that a similar conclusion can be drawn by comparing many of the hokku by Bashō and Issa—that Bashō is formal while Issa is free and casual and his pieces are that much closer to what most of us today perceive to be haiku.

    To conclude, I’d like to bring up two topics on which I am often questioned when I talk about haiku. One has to do with the form, the other with the content.

    As to the form, are haiku in English all “three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku,” to quote Salinger once again? The answer is “no.” Some haiku writers follow that form, but most don’t. O. Mabson Southard is among the few accomplished haiku writers who write consistently in this three-line form. Here are two of them.

    Across the still lake
    through upcurls of morning mist—
    the cry of a loon

    The old rooster crows. . .
    Out of the mist come the rocks
    and the twisted pine

    But most write like John Wills, the most admired American “nature haiku writer.”

    honeysuckle . . .
    and for each blossom
    a bee

    river blu . . .
    a hawk sails out drops down
    over the pines

    Mr. Paul O. Williams belongs to the majority:

    wind fills the air
    with this year’s leaves—
    all perfect leaves

    In adopting the tercet, those who write haiku in English are doing the exact opposite of those who write haiku in Japanese: practically all Japanese haiku writers use a monolinear form. In syllabic count, virtually all Japanese haiku writers stick to seventeen syllables, whereas the majority of English haiku writers don’t, as just noted. So, in these two respects, you can say English and Japanese writers have reversed themselves.

    In form, in fact, English writers are more venturesome, more willing to experiment than their Japanese counterparts. Some English writers have written concrete or calligrammic haiku. Here are some one-line haiku.

    the sun lights up a distant ridge   another —John Wills

    blackbird and nightfall sharing the darkness
    `—Virginia Brady Young

    a stick goes over the falls at sunset
    —Cor van den Heuvel

    As for the content of the haiku, one big question in the U.S.—if only because the standard idea of haiku, both in Japan and here is that it describes a seasonal change—is whether the concept of kigo, “seasonal words,” should be adopted in English haiku as well. This question, actually, is most often asked by the Japanese who are suspicious about haiku written not just in English, but in any foreign language.

    At any rate, in recent years some American haiku practitioners have taken up kigo seriously. For example, Bill Higginson, an important figure in what the great haiku anthologist Cor van den Heuvel calls “the haiku movement” in this country, is now pushing the idea in earnest and is even compiling an anthology of haiku indicating the four seasons.

    I do not necessarily object to this movement or effort, but I think creating what may be called a seasonal paradigm comparable to the one that exists in Japan is going to be difficult mainly for two reasons that have nothing to do with the size of the country or climactic variations. Japan is one-twentieth the size of the United States but is not that small; the United States is simply big. Furthermore, Japan’s climactic variations are comparable to the whole range of the East Coast, from Florida to Maine.

    One difficulty arises from the fact that Japan is culturally uni-centered whereas the U.S. is multi-centered. Most of Japan’s literary and aesthetic notions were first formed and elaborated upon in Kyoto centuries ago and then carried to outlying provinces. This cultural uni-centralism has allowed the creation and maintenance of things like the seasonal paradigm—not a likely possibility in this country.

    There are also the different structures of human relationships in Japan and the U.S.. I do not wholeheartedly subscribe to the vertical versus horizontal, group versus individual, dichotomy in social relations, most famously propounded by the Japanese social anthropologist Nakane Chie. Still, compared with the Americans, the Japanese do tend to form groups and, in each group, create and accept a teacher-student relationship.

    American haiku writers also form groups or associations, but they do so mainly for the casual purpose of getting together with other people or having their pieces published. They do not do so to have one “teacher” or “master” and allow themselves to be guided and led by that person. Most American haiku writers would be shocked to learn that the primary task of the head of any haiku society in Japan, called kessha, is to revise his or her students’ haiku at will, automatically, routinely. Americans are too independent to allow that kind of thing to happen.


    From On Haiku
    Courtesy of New Directions. Copyright © 2018 by Hiroaki Sato.

    Hiroaki Sato
    Hiroaki Sato
    Hiroaki Sato was born of Japanese parents in Taiwan in 1942; his family fled back to Japan at the end of WWII, and in 1968 he moved to New York, where he has lived ever since. He is the translator of many volumes of Japanese poetry and literature. The president of the Haiku Society of America from 1979 to 1981, Sato received the PEN Translation Prize and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Translation Prize twice. He is the author of the books Legends of the Samurai, Snow in a Silver Bowl, and One Hundred Frogs, and from 2000 to 2017 wrote the monthly column “View from New York” for the Japan Times.

    More Story
    Meet National Book Award Finalist Rae Armantrout The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.