Mt Fuji

Clouds lowered beneath

a snow melting

Mt. Fuji:

the garlands of spring!


Review of `Posthumous Keats`

I needed a book to read in my hotel room during my recent travels and I ended up choosing Stanley Plumly’s “Posthumous Keats” which I found to be an entertaining read shedding light onto the footsteps of Keats, the relationships between the people who shared in his brief live, their actions and connections after he died, as well as such esoteric things as his portraits, the decisions made on his gravestone and memorials, and his life and death masks.

Plumy is to be commended for realizing that the letters from Keats, and from other people about him, give an unique insight into the humanity of the man in a way that a normal biography doesn’t and his decision to make the thinking in the book “circular rather than linear” works in bringing this out.

But it is also important to consider how this decision does lead to some problems of omissions and inconsistencies that do flaw the book.

One glaring problem comes with what he writes about the famous epitaph Keats requested. Early in the book (pg.69) Plumly remarks:

“Yet “here lies one whose name was writ on water”does not mean the unnamed name will always be so written. Was is the operative verb. And the fact that Keats did not want his name to appear on the tombstone adds only interest of who might be buried so anonymously. The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water……He feared he had failed, his body brought down by disease, his poems belittled by Tory critics. But he also knew something: Trust the writing.”

You can either agree or disagree that Keats had ulterior motives with this epitaph, but at the end of the book we are confronted by this (pg. 305):

“Keats, at the end, is unable to separate, in the worst way, himself from his art —- a skill, if he could but see it, he has already won. His mortality becomes, in his last mind, less the mortality in than the mortality of his poetry. As he says to Fanny Brawne a year before he dies, “If I had time I would have made my myself remember’d” — a prediction that at once misunderstands what is valuable already in his work and assumes what value will be found in a wished-for future of work still unwritten.”

So, Keats actually didn’t trust the writing? It is all well and good for Plumly to have changed his mind about this while writing the book, but it would have been better to have gone back and edit either side to reflect what he believes now.

This circular style also allows him to be flippant with ideas, simply popping them out and then leaving them without expanding on them very much.

Writing “it will be the New Critics who comprehend in Keats the crucial distinction of the lyric poem as an ongoing contemporary experience, the experience of dynamic poetic form” (pg.340) or stating “tone is one of the terms that modernism began to use to define the inevitability of sound as sense, voice as vision, and not merely its seeming echo” (pgs.344-345) without giving any examples leaves no ability to consider how this is so in either Keats or modern poetry.

An exasperating example of this is when he includes T.S. Eliot’s quote of how there “is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which, when considered carefully and with due allowance for the difficulties of communication, will not found to be true: and what is more, true for a greater and more mature poetry than anything Keats ever wrote”. (pg.347)

Plumly quips “This complicated opinion is both right and wrong” and simply follows it up with and quite lengthy exhortation about how Keats’ writing is ‘mature’ without any consideration of how Eliot saw the discrepancy between the theories of Keats and the kind of poems he ended up writing. (pg.347)

I have read enough of Eliot’s criticism to understand his use of the term “mature” generally is a derogatory byword to denigrate the type of poetry he doesn’t like, which is something I certainly don’t agree with, but I do agree with him on the point that his statement implies, i.e. that what Keats said about poetry in his letters wasn’t naturally followed up in his poems.

Keats wrote this in a letter to J.H. Reynolds dated February 3, 1818: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” Keeping this in mind when reading the great odes, it’s becomes quite clear to see how they actually contradict this.

The famous five named Odes all have arguments in them and when you make arguments you are making a “palpable design”upon the reader because you are trying to persuade them to either take or, at least, understand your position.

These odes all are arguments in one way or another: for accepting melancholy, for staying indolent, for why he will become Psyche’s priest, for why he should fade away like a nightingale, and why this bird is immortal. As for putting one’s hands into their “breeches pocket”, it is hard to find any better example of it when you encounter a poem that ends like this:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
 Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Writing out an idea about something in a letter doesn’t necessarily mean it is a position paper on a subject. The odes were written in the spring of 1819, a little more over a year later than the date of the letter, and since the first ode was written as an endeavor “to discover a better Sonnet stanza,” as he explained in a different letter to his brother, Keats could have intellectually moved on some of his previously scribbled positions about poetry as well.

The unfortunate circumstances of his life has left us only the letters, it is perhaps best to think of them as signposts of the way he was thinking at the time rather than dyed in wool ideas about poetry.

Plumy responses to Eliot’s comments by arguing:

“Keats’s statements about poetry are brilliantly, intuitively true; his statements of poetry, particularly in the odes and the two Hyperions, are not only true but mature in the way that tragic art must be”, (pg.347)

It is hard to think that all of the odes are “tragic poetry.” Two, Nightingale and Melancholy, undoubtably are, and there might be in argument for it in Grecian Urn, although I think the way the poem ends makes a strong case against it, but the other three, Psyche, Indolence and Autumn are certainly not tragical poems.

I also find Plumy’s statements about ‘Ode to Psyche’ a bit baffling:

“Keats invents in this ode what he will explore in the others: an interior, intimate sublime whose world and dimensions are the mind made multiple but whose first source is loss, longing, desire at the lip. ‘Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu’ —this frozen, ambiguous moment will be echoed through out the odes”(pg.355).

Of course, when you go to the ode you’ll find the line quoted above is bracketed by the statements about “arms and pinions embraced”, “disjointed by slumber” and “ready still past kisses to outnumber” which presents a pair of sleeping lovers who have kissed and will kiss even longer than they had before. This isn’t about “desire at the lip”, it is about having that desire fulfilled and the expectation of fulfilling it again.

I guess the problem I have with the book is that I don’t find the arguments Plumly makes about Keats’ poetry very convincing, rather I see them the other way, that there isn’t any argument to made about how Keats actually was a ‘modernist’.

But, it did enjoy the parts where the humanity of the poet and the people in his life are brought to life in ways that a normal biography wouldn’t. And that has made me think about Keats’ poetry in a way which I would never had if not opened this book

17 Count Haiku

A few years ago I got into a long private conversion with someone about haiku and free verse and by the end of it I was hit with the realization that no matter how anyone in the West wanted to argue it, the Japanese always count when they write haiku. Basho, the one given credit for developing the genre, always counted the number ‘syllables’ he used. Any definition of haiku you see in Japanese will immediately state that it must be counted to being 17, although rigid conformity to this number was never, nor still is, doggedly pursued. Yet, even when they aren’t writing 17, the Japanese are still counting what they write.

This realization led me into writing 20 syllable haiku, which I have posted to this blog, as well as my reasoning why I thought it was proper to do so. Then, I got put on Jim Wilson’s ‘Formal Haiku’ Facebook page and he argued for counting 17 well enough for me to see it as something viable for English language writers.

I found writing 17 count haiku surprisingly liberating, which may seem a bit contradicting because in essence it does constrict what I am able to write, but what being confined to a set number means is that I have the freedom to explore and use grammar in ways that I never did when I wrote free verse. This empowered me to be more concise and gave me the sense that I was actually using the full spectrum of my language in ways that I hadn’t before. I’m sure that this is universally felt by anyone who writes count defined verse forms.

The genesis of the haiku below are from an old notebook that I have had laying around for many years. I had polished some of the haiku in this notebook enough to type them in my computer, but I had left some of them in manuscript form and I decide to work these unfinished ones into 17 count.

It is also generally thought that in the structure in English must be three lines, but my experience in free verse has made me understand how important lines break can be in providing poetic syntax. As Stephen Adams wrote in “Poetic Designs” (pg.154):

In free verse, the line breaks, cunningly placed, open up slight hesitations that focus attention on implications just under the surface……one of the functions of free verse, it seems, with its disruptive fragments, is to expose the various undertones in language that continuous prose glosses over. The line break, carried over from the conventions of end-stopping and enjambment in metrical verse, is one of its most powerful devices.

I find that always writing three lines is like pouring slurry into a mold that reproduces the same pattern of sound over and over again, especially when I try to strictly write in a 5-7-5 pattern, but expanding the form to 5 lines or less gives me an inexhaustible supply of line breaks that open up the possibilities of how I can generate sound and syntax. Another part of the definition of Japanese haiku is that it has one break in the phrasing of it, and trying to mimic that in English is oblivious to the fact that line breaks in our language mean more than it does in theirs. All they need is one line break, but our language requires that we use more, of which, I’ll argue, even three is not enough.


A lazy summer afternoon:
the oak has arched
itself on the

Summer late afternoon:
a man snoozes as
his bench etches more leaves.



Whose eye dare framed
a hawk into a
dove’s body?
A windhover.

A straightened
windhover bombing
towards prey;
the brown start of winter.

Today’s wintery sun:
the flecking flash
of a wing hung windhover.

A mouse clawing
back on
dappled wings;
the cold of this day.

Unrivaled aerial mastery;
what hunger has
made this
mid-day windhover?

Gashed unconscious
prey delivered by a saviour?
Ravenous windhover.

Winter wind!
A drapery stretched
seconds before buckling.

That cruel brute flash
in a windhover
buckling both wings:
winter’s sun.

A deadly wind!
Even the
windhover has
given up today’s hunt.

Winter stillness…..
A windhover’s fierce
glares finds
nary a movement.


Winter sunrise!
The dull
ache of knowing
realized today.

Deadly February!
Unable to
work a
snow chunk
off the sidewalk.

Could life
be any bitterer
or crueler?
February at night.

Again, we’re asked
keep a
trickle in the pipes.

The afternoon rays:
on the porch
don’t even reflect any.

An afternoon sun;
the driveway’s
puddle ice
bothered not a bit.

The doldrums!
An endless crisscross
of sparrow
under our feeder.


The whiz,
jiggle, and fiz
of everything
thawing at once:
Today’s noon!

I can’t help but
remember their stunning beauty!
Bare wet cherry trees.


As if
no other
name could
be as complete!
Snow surrounded snow drops.

Have the
    bulbs willfully
         emptied themselves out?
               Snow drops
                        with snow patches.

Do they
mourn the snow
that has finally melted all away?
Snow drops.

The loud
trumpets of Spring!
snow drops
ignoring the morning sun.

  The portrait where, 
         head bent, he
                       like a snowdrop.



The keenness of
a Reece’s
Butter cup!
Upright daffodils.

Daffodils on the kotatsu….
Like a
lemon bath
from a masseuse!!

The perfume
of Demeter long
before she ever gets here.

Spring has come!
Smelly daffodils
in a chilly
snow fed patch of mud.

White tuxed
‘Battle of the Bands’
revolving horn solos!
Daffodil clumps.

Clarions of Spring!
Daffodils jazzing
up the
chilly morning air.

Has something cracked
in traveling
Demeter’s perfume rack?

After Wordsworth

The twinkle of rays 
            on a sunny bay!
Upon the knoll 
            daffodils loll.

As if the
had gone on a
twenty pound diet!

Warm wind!
Daffodils tittering
like a
group of school girls.

A quick whiff
of rye and ginger as she
jiggles her hand.

As if
cracked down
by a bolt
hurled from the sky!
One fallen narcissus.


Narcissi spilling
on snow,
she paused to compose in
salute of him.

The nemesis
of menacing clouds
angrily above.

Amid all
those just as
green idly standing stalks
one thrice bloomed narcissus.

Shut eyes refusing to
      see the terror,
a seven bloom 
      tilting narcissus.

Winter wind!
All the
narcissi have started
like blind beggars.

One half bloomed,
one slightly bent,
one totally fallen.
Narcissus stalks.

The dull pupils of a
girl who refuses to dance,
Narcissus blooms.


Two sparrows at the
feeder gleefully shucking shells;
the ballet of spring!!

Reenacting how
the fattened sparrow’s
neck feathers roughed up…..
March wind!

The sprong in
        the slight sprig
             the brown redstart 
                      had sailed from!
Pink plum blossoms.

The Ides of March;
the wind’s slow unrhythmic
strums of electric blues chords.


Four pitiful
querying me,
her torn branch
of pussy willows.

A passel of
love sick cats
squalling by the creek,
cottoned pussy willows!

Looping, and scooping, and
hooping, all day;
pussy willows white in March.

Did winter neuter them
to begrudge
Clumps of cottoned pussy willows.

Why do I get a sense rain coming
while glancing at them?
Pussy willows.

Spring’s first full moon!
A ashy glint to
all of the
tall pussy willows.

My pain from them!
Five pussy willow straps on
my dining room table.

Passing Winter
coming Spring,
clumps of cottoning
pussy willows.

A pussy willow strap 
bangs my chilly hand again.

Thirteen baleful ways
of eyeing me,
a freshly
cut pussy willow.

The tail end of winter!
Cottony fluffs blurred out on
the pussy willows.

The sturm and drang of it……

Eunuchs in the court
of a tyrant!
Pussy willows
beginning to burr.

A southerly March wind!
The pussy willow straps all
squeak like field mice.

Does a
field mouse
believe they’re
beautiful flowers???
Pussy willows.

Pussy willows in
             brown meadows;
hoarse utterances
            from long dead ghosts.

What Marlene Mountain Got Wrong About 5-7-5


This article by Marlene Mountain has had a big influence on my thinking about how the Japanese haiku form of 5-7-5 morae relates to the possibilities of how much we can import this form into our own language. I have long thought that she has made a very cognizant and clear cut case how a 5-7-5 syllable pattern doesn’t really work in English. Now, however, I’ve changed my mind about this.

Mountain’s argument is compelling because she gives concrete examples of how our speech pattern will always slide into fitting an extra syllable in to reach an even number of them, thus making the three line 17 syllable form an impractical one in English.

This example she gave, I think, is simply brilliant:

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

When I read this I find myself completely out of breath at the end of the second line, I lose breath so fast that it feels that I have blown out air like a tire that’s run over nail. So, I am left to conclude that a 5-7-5 pattern does have a breathing pothole in it that I only can deal with by falling into an unnatural speech pattern to get through the the whole three lines.

One of the things that free verse has taught us, and something that perhaps metrical verse never could, is that indentation and line spacing does make us read lines differently than when they are normally squared to the left of the page on top of one another. And, of course, the lines of this example are squared and on top of each other, so what happens if I indent the second line?

five five five five five
 seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

For what ever reason spacial relationships has on the way we read the printed page, the second line seems very manageable now, I can glide through the ‘sev’ at the end of line two and slide into the third line with no hesitation, probably because the indentation makes me take a natural pause at the end of the first line. How about changing which line to indent?

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
 five five five five five
 five five five five five
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

Even when I indent the other two lines, I am able to navigate them pretty smoothly, so I now believe that 5-7-5 pattern is acceptable if one line is indented.

Another thing about Mountain’s example is that it has no punctuation, and punctuation marks are the street signs that tell us how and when to stop, so what happens when we put in some punctuation into the mix?

five five five five five:
seven seven seven sev
five five five five five

The colon lets me line up the five of the first line with the sev of the second line, which lets me naturally break onto the last line.

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev:
five five five five five.

When it is on the second line, it makes me naturally stop without blowing up, so I can move onto the third line in a smooth manner.

I’m not going to give anymore examples using other punctuation marks because I do think that this shows that with indentation and proper punctuation 5-7-5 becomes a very viable poetic pattern. Mountain’s example only proves it is impossible to write in a three line 5-7-5 syllable form if that you ignore any protocols of poetic variation or normal standard punctuation. If you don’t choose to follow her minimalistic example, I seems that you can do something smoothly in English by adopting it.

So, all the stuff I have written on this blog about 17 syllables not fitting the English language: it’s bunk.

Why Don’t We Say ‘Bad Big Wolf’??


When my Facebook friend shared this article by Mark Forsyth, I read it with enjoyment because one of the things my long years as a teacher of English as a second language in a foreign country has taught me is that I didn’t really understand my own language until I had contact with people who were struggling to learn it. Which is to say my students have taught me a great deal about the ins and outs of speaking English. And it was nice to see Forsyth writing about how we actually use language without haven’t much detailed knowledge about the inner workings of it.

The problem I had with the article was that while Forsyth tells us about the unspoken rules we have, he never goes into why we have these rules in the first place. He does tell us what the rules about ablaut reduplication are, yet he never delves into why of them. My long years as an ESL teacher, and yes thanks to the myriad of questions I’ve gotten from students about why things are said they way they are, I naturally start asking myself what the basis of having such linguistic rules are in the first place.

To understand the why for the rules of ablaut reduplication in English you have to understand what rhyme is, which Forsyth obviously shows he doesn’t understand when he tells that this limerick ‘has no rhymes’:

There was a young man from Dundee
Got stung on the leg by a wasp
When asked does it hurt
He said, ‘Yes, it does.
‘I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.’

Although the above has no ‘perfect rhymes’, it does have something called ‘slant rhymes.’ A good explanation of a slant rhyme is on this website:

Slant rhymes (sometimes called imperfect, partial, near, oblique, off etc.) Rhyme in which two words share just a vowel sound (assonance – e.g. “heart” and “star”) or in which they share just a consonant sound (consonance – e.g. “milk” and “walk”).

In the limerick above ‘wasp’ and ‘does’ are slant rhymes that are playing off the linguistic similarities that ‘wASp” and and ‘dOES’ share because the ‘s’ in ‘wasp’ deadens and softens the bite we usually say when speaking a ‘p’, (the ‘p’ in the word ‘warp’, for example, isn’t soft) and the ‘does’ as a verb vocalizes the ‘oe’ towards the sound of an ‘a’ rather than the ‘o’ which we do when we are talking about female deer in the plural. So this is an assonance slant rhyme. The words ‘hurt’ and ‘hornet’ are slant rhymes because the share the same end consonant sound of ‘t’.

Forsyth writing that the ‘rhymes aren’t as important as the rhythm’ is, well, wrong. These slant rhymes still slide the reader into the rhythm of the words, just like limericks that have perfect rhymes do, because even slant rhymes anchor the end of their lines and by doing so tie them together with the other rhyme.

Now, turning to why ‘big bad wolf’ is what we say rather than ‘bad big wolf’, the reason is because of an another type of rhyme, called ‘alliteration’ or ‘head rhyme’, which matches initial consonant sounds.

‘Big bad’ sets up an alliteration because the sound of the ‘b’ in both of them match each other. However, when we turn the words around and say ‘bad big’, the head rhyme between the two is lost because the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ is no longer pronounced the same as it is in ‘big’. The way the ‘g’ in ‘big’ is pronounced allows us to smack our lips for the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ the same way we have ready done on the first ‘b’. However, when the words are reversed, the ‘d’ of ‘bad’ gets in the way of the lip smacking and we don’t pronounce the second ‘b’ quite the same as the first one now, thus breaking the head rhyme and killing the alliteration.

(Of course, if we take a breath pause after saying ‘bad’ we can reload and make ‘big’ match up the head rhyme, but it is impossible to do if we keep it in a natural speech rhythm.)

All the other examples that Forsyth gave (‘clip-clop’, ‘zig-zag’, ‘crisis-cross’ etc.) are something called pararhyme, which is the type of rhyming that occurs when all the consonants in the two words match. As above, once we turn the word order around, the pararhyme disappears. ‘Clop-clip’ no longer rhymes because we neither speak the ‘cl’ nor the ‘p’ of both words the same because the switching of the vowels has made it impossible for us to do so. The ‘o’ forces us to smack so heavily on the ‘p’ following it that we shorten the way we pronounce ‘clip’ coming after it to the point where it no longer rhymes with ‘clop’ because we have to work the sound of the ‘i’ into the mechanics of our mouth.

Forsyth’s rules start to have meaning for us when we understand that speaking is the physical act of our mouth, our lips and our tongue working in concert, and because of this there are physical limitations to how we can fit the sounds of our language together. Sure, the patterns of language changes, we certainly don’t talk like people in Chaucer’s days did, probably because in the end we always are trying to find smoother ways to fit our thoughts into language. But acquiring this smoothness takes generations of time, just as it takes time for anyone to build up any muscular part of their body.

I don’t think we have to over think why Little Richard never sang ‘Tall Long Sally’, but even this should remind us how rhyme really is a part of the English language, and it is a part of it in ways which we often aren’t very aware of. And it reveals something that we as native speakers innately understand: that the same word can be pronounced differently depending on where you place it in relation to other words. It is the heritage of speaking a stress timed language. And who knows, maybe in the future people will develop a stress pattern so ‘bad big’ will come out as a rhyme in a natural rhythm??

A Famous Buson Haiku: Is It ‘Kite’ or ‘Kites’?


One of the peculiarities of the Japanese language is that while it’s does have a plural form for nouns it almost never gets used, mainly because the context that speaker is in dictates if they mean more than one of something. This gets a little tricky when it comes to reading haiku because the reader isn’t in the same physically present context as the speaker. And this haiku by Yosano Buson is a good example of it:

Ikanobori/ kinou no sora no aridokoro

Kites Yesterday’s sky’s having place.

Kites have been in Japan since the 600s when the were imported from China and in the past they were used in many ways as symbols of good luck and talismans for good fortune. Nowadays, we tend to think of kites as something children enjoy, but in the Edo era adults enjoyed them as well. Besides flying them as omens, kite fighting was something that people pursed with enthusiasm as well. Kites became so popular that the Edo government finally banned them except during the o-shougatsu holiday (the few days before and after New Years Day).

The banning of kites caused a problem for haiku. Kites as a “kigo” (season word) were listed as something done in spring, but with what is the now metropolis of Tokyo having forced the flying of them into the New Years’ holiday, the “kigo” had to accommodate that as well. Any seasonal reference books for haiku (‘Saijiki”) are in five volumes, four for the seasons and the extra one for the New Years period which is the most important religious holiday of the Japanese calendar. The old “Saijiki” I have has a double listing for kites, one in spring and the other for the New Year. However, the practice now is to only have kites listed as something done in spring.

Understanding the history of kites in Japan is important in the context of reading plurals into this haiku because, as anyone who lives long enough in Japan learns, there is a right date and a wrong date for everything. My wedding, for example, ending up being on a Tuesday instead of the more preferable Saturday because of it being a more auspicious day, or as it got explained to me “Saturday is no good because it is a bad Buddha day.”

Having good days and bad days makes religious things a bit more communal because people will always do things on good days. So, if someone wants to fly a kite as an omen of something then they would necessarily do it on a good day and not a bad one, meaning that there will be more than one person out flying kites on the good days. Since kites could only be flown during a short period of the year in Edo, probably not longer than a week, then there will be hordes of people out flying them before the ban kicks in again,

The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to read this haiku and not think of there being more than one kite up in the sky and that Buson was actually implying the plural here. The Nihon Daisaijiki, a large full color “saijiki” published about ten years ago, discusses this haiku and states this about the number of kites:

This doesn’t have to necessarily refer to the whole of the sky. It indicates the scene of a part of the sky that has one, or more likely, several kites in it.


Above is the picture that is included in this book under the heading of kites. Because is a wood block print, you can’t say that it is of the whole sky, but it is a part of the sky that has several kites floating in it.

Even when a commentator wants to you read this as being about only one kite, they have to couch it in terms of other kites in the sky. A book titled “Haiku Daikan” published by Meiji Shoin explains it like this:

There aren’t a large number of kites flying in the sky. In the very least, there are no other kites nearby this one, to follow this instruction to its obvious conclusion, there is a solitary one afloat.

Asking the reader to follow this instruction is a dead give away that the writer automatically assumes that the reader is reading the plural for kites.

I don’t find the argument for a single, or actually separated, kite very compelling because it makes the image a very personal one, which is exactly how at the end this commentator reads the symbolism of the kites:

It seems that the loneliness of human existence is suggested with this kite, sadness and at the same time a kind of fond remembrance is to be felt in this expression.

Whenever we feel fondness and sadness at the same time it means we are becoming nostalgic about something. It’s easy to understand how Buson would get nostalgic about his childhood from a kite, but I’d argue that the experience of flying a kite rather than watching one is what would more likely trigger the flood of emotion that would bring the bittersweet memories argued for above. I think it is next to impossible to read that Buson is flying this kite because I don’t think he would be able to make the topographical description of them being in the same spot as they were yesterday if he was.

The commentator in the Daisaijiki makes this conclusion about the haiku

Everything is calm and peaceful, indeed, there is a deepness to the feeling of the mild spring. Getting that as a scene, the impression in a person’s mind too will surely be similar.

This reading has the scene influencing the feelings in the writer, it’s a lovely spring day and people are enjoying it by going out with their kites and the scene has Buson feeing relaxed and secure about life. The immediate problem with this reading is that there aren’t any emotional markers in the haiku to expresses the “feeling” that the commentator mentions. In haiku, particles of speech are how the writer attaches personal emotions onto images, but in this haiku Buson didn’t use any. If he was feeling the mild spring so deeply you’d expect that there would be a particle used somewhere to express it.

Japanese is my second language, and, so sure, there might be a nuance in this haiku that I am unable to catch because I’m not a native speaker, but for me the lack of a particle shows that Buson is being intellectual rather than emotional here. Saying that the kites are in the same spot as yesterday is not a visceral reaction to the scene, rather it is a measured logical one.

Therefore, the symbolism for me becomes a little more generic and less personal. Instead of being a privatized experience, I tend to see this as a universal one. Everyone has flown a kite or watched kites in flight sometime during their life. Besides the universality, kite flying is also a timeless enterprise. How long have people been flying them? Although the popularity of kites wane, somebody somewhere still enjoys flying them. The kite designs are timeless as well, kites patterned after those made in the Edo era still fly as true today as they did back then, and I’m sure that the even older designs will still be able take to the air.

So, with ‘timelessness’ as the optimum idea in my mind:

    in the spot
        of sky 
           they were  
               in yesterday.

The problem with this literal translation is that the Japanese language doesn’t need adjectives to fill scenes for the reader because connotations between words implies scenes that don’t need to be openly stated. Unfortunately, in English, we need adjectives to paint the scene, and since we use sound as a way to imply emotions, adjectives are also the means of achieving syntax as well.

Kites aloft....
      in the same exact 
              spot of 
                clear sky 
            they wafted in yesterday.

All I have done is put in some adjectives around the images and use a verb that adds a descriptive element rather than a nondescript one. I don’t think I have impinged in on what is in the original is by doing this.

Kobayashi Issa’s Mist: Haiku or Senryu?


Years ago (in fact the Internet tells me that it was on January 1st, 2002) I saw a TV special about Kobayashi Issa that starred the famous Japanese actor Tomoyuki Nishida playing the role of him. The show portrayed Issa as a young man in Edo who was writing senryu and I still remember how shocked my wife was at this, she just couldn’t believe that Issa had written something other than haiku and dissed senryu as being a very low brow thing. I have since asked a few other people about this and they have answered that he did write senryu, the latest being a guy I met not long ago at a coffee shop who was reading a magazine about Issa.

Because of this, whenever I run into a humorous haiku by Issa I start asking myself if this is a senryu or a haiku. I recently encountered this Issa haiku on Facebook, and I started wondering about it:

san mon ga kasumi minikeri toomegane

Three mon (old Japanese coin) /but /mist /see (in a past tense form with an exclamation). /telescope.

Translators in English always play up the humorous humanistic side of Issa’s poetic character so I went and saw how David Lanoue and Makota Ueda translated the haiku and how they read its meaning.

Lanoue gives this translation and comment:

for three pennies
nothing but mist…

Issa’s tone is wryly ironic. He (or someone) has paid three pennies (three mon) to peer through a telescope to see … only mist. On one level, he groans at the waste of money to have paid to see, magnified, nothing–the same nothing that the naked eye views for free. On another level– and there’s always another level in Issa’s best haiku– he smiles at human enterprise and its futility.

This how Makoto Ueda, in “Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa” (pg.16) saw it:

three pennies’ worth
of haze -that’s all I see
through this telescope

He paid three pennies to rent a telescope, but what he saw through it was nothing but mist.

Ueda mentioned that Issa wrote this haiku on “Yushima Hill, which overlooked the Ueno and Asakura districts of Edo”, and Lanoue mentioned this, so I was a little surprised when I opened the book of collected Issa haiku in Japanese that I have to find that this haiku had this “maegaki” (preface): “白日登湯台” (hakujitsu toutoudai) which translates as “Broad Daylight Elevated Yushima Deck”.

The one thing to understand about the Japanese language is that it is very situationally based, which is how they can get away without using pronouns, articles and plurals. You can get away with this in conversation because the speaker and the listener are sharing the same experience as they converse, but in literature the shared existence isn’t there anymore, so haiku will often have prefaces which set the situation so the reader is able to understand what subject is being written about.

Presented the situation that the language is being used in with this preface, it doesn’t take a a great leap to understand how you see mist with a telescope in broad daylight, apparently they were a thing that the Japanese were surprisingly bad at copying after they had started getting them from the west:

In the early 1700s, Japanese manufactured telescopes were becoming more common, and the general public would have seen only domestic models, but quality was inconsistent and imported telescopes were preferred, although Mitaku Yorai indicated that not all imports were so favored: ‘China has failed to supply any of outstanding quality’, continuing, ‘every now and again an inability to see much with a Japanese one is to be marked.’

Broad Daylight on Yushima Shrine’s Viewing Platform…….

Only three coins
but I did
see the
unseen mist!
The telescope.

Nowadays we see single comedians on the stage all the time and although we know that there were comedian duos or groups in the past we really don’t think of comedy in that term anymore. In Japan, however, a single comedian is the exception and duos or groups are the norm. The groups perform skits and the duos banter and joke, and a lot of the style of comedy is based on Manzai where one of the pair plays the straight man and the other plays a stupid character that misunderstands the situation which in turn gets intensified when he misinterprets everything that the straight man says to explain it to him. Abbott and Costello’s famous “Whose On First” routine is a great example of this.

The laughter in the above haiku/senryu all rides on knowing that Issa is playing the stupid character. He’s payed a very small amount of money, saw the mist and now thinks this is a great telescope because he saw something that he couldn’t see with his naked eye and is telling everyone about this, blissfully unaware that the poor quality of the lens is what made the mist.


Issa started studying haikai at the age of 26 and he was 28 when he wrote the above, which puts him in the time frame that the drama I watched a long time ago had him in, as a young man in Edo and writing senryu. The easiest way to judge the difference between a haiku and a senryu is to look at the authorial intent of the writing, if the verse is written for the sole purpose of making the reader laugh, then it is a senryu. Given the preface here, there isn’t much of an argument against that Issa is doing anything here but going for a laugh.

Leaving this broad definition aside, there are also formal considerations to the difference between a haiku and a senryu. Haiku by definition must contain both a seasonal word (kigo) and a cutting word (kireji) while senryu doesn’t have to include either. The way Issa uses “mist” here really isn’t in a seasonal way but the verb ending of “keri” is a cutting word.

Another difference between the two is the type of language they use, haiku uses a literary style while senryu uses colloquial every day language. By using “keri” Issa is using language that is never spoken and only used in literature while the way he uses “ga” as a conjunction rather than a subject marker is a an every day speech pattern.

Because of the use of a literary style, haiku rings with the reverberations of language like all poetry does, while the language of senryu is straight forward with no poetic frills. The use of both “keri” and “ga” are a commingling of the two genres.

So, is this a haiku or senryu? I’m not sure, but since the main purpose for the writing of it is to get a laugh and no more, I will give it the label of being a senryu. But, perhaps this quote from this website sums it up the best:


(Although I did intend to write a haiku, I have had other people say to me “oh, that’s a pretty good senryu.”)