Category Archives: Essays

The Spaces of Robert Hass




One of the peculiar things about haiku written in English is that it the people who creatively write it have often followed those who have translated it as the models for what they write. It is natural for translators to have somewhat of an unchallenged status about their knowledge of another language, but what if the translators simply misunderstand what they are translating and generally give translations that completely change what the haiku were in the originals?


Robert Hass is a distinguished poet and critic who has had a successful career that led him to even being the poet laureate of the United States for awhile, but it when comes to his book, “Translations from The Essential Haiku: versions of Bashö, Buson & Issa”  (The Ecco Press, 1994) it can unequivocally be stated that what he has published as the essential part of the first three great masters of Japanese haiku is often flawed by the single worse thing any translator can do, i.e. make the translations read as the complete opposite of what they are in the original language.


Tracy Koretsky has written an article titled “Haiku and its Relationship to Space” and she uses examples from Hass’ book to show how the Japanese masters used space in their haiku and what follows is such a comedy of errors in talking about the Japanese haiku used in the article that one can only shake their head and smile at them. And yes, you can blame Hass for this.


Koretsky starts off interestingly enough when she talks about the tonal quality of the Japanese aesthetic of sabi:

That is exactly the effect the unresolved tanka that is haiku has upon the Japanophone’s ear. This trailing off, this ellipses leading to nothing, effectively imbues haiku with its predominate tonal mode: the untranslatable quality known as sabi. Inadequately understood, sabi is the sadness of aloneness, or perhaps better phrased as the more Zen concept of the solitariness of no-mind.

Notice how space functions to convey this quality in this haiku by Bashö:

         first snow
         on the half finished bridge


The haiku she quotes does add to our understanding of what she has written, but since this is a Hass translation one has to assume that what the haiku aims for in Japanese might be a bit different than what he presents it as being in English.


In the early 1990s a Japanese man named Toshiharu Oseko self-published a two volume called “Basho’s Haiku” where he translates about two thirds of Basho’s haiku into English giving insight and commentary on each haiku. This haiku is in Volume Two on page 548 and this is how Oseko translated it:


Hatsu-yuki ya
hashi no ue ni.

The season’s first snow,
Is falling on the new bridge
Almost completed!


Immediately we are struck by the difference between the “half finished bridge” that Hass gave us and the “almost completed” one that Oseko does. The difference is so striking that there isn’t even a semantical argument about the two ideas.


The great thing about Oseko’s book is that he lays out and explains what the verb is in each haiku and how the conjugation of them works out in English. The way verbs are conjugated in classical Japanese are difficult enough for the average Japanese person, so this is an invaluable guide to how verbs work and the effects they give in the originals. He explains the verb conjugation here as:

Kake = kakeru: to build (a bridge)
kakari= kakaru: to start  ~ing
tari= taru: almost finished


Which is easy to see that this literally translates as “building bridge starting to finish” which although might seem like a tortured phrase to us in English is something that is natural to the Japanese. Sure, the language of Hass’ translation is more poetic, but there isn’t any doubt that Oseko correctly understands the grammar of the original and is able to accurately render the sentiments Basho expressed in this haiku.


Oseko also notes how the haiku has a preface that says “When Fukagawa O-hashi is almost finished” and also more information about what bridge it is:

The official name of the bridge was Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). The construction started in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693. It was about 200 m. long. People living on the east side of the Sumida River were anxious for the completion, because they expected much easier access to the city center.


The woodblock print that is the picture on this article is of the Shin Ohashi and it is an imposing structure due to it having the height to let ships pass underneath it. Basho lived on the east bank of the Sumida River and no doubt having this bridge built affected his life and this haiku is attaching the thrill and excitement of the first snowfall with the feelings that accompany seeing a much welcomed bridge nearing completion. The woodblock print makes it easy to imagine what a sight it would be (and if you click on it you’ll get a fuller sized picture.) Which of course makes Koretsky’s conclusions on this haiku completely superfluous:

The bridge, the only mode of connection between people of the day, is not only unfinished, but, because of the snow, will remain so for the long winter ahead. The image confirms an unbroken emptiness of space and time lying ahead.


The only way she can get the reading of this haiku so backwards is because Hass has made the translation into something that the original never was. It also needs to be mentioned that although Tokyo does get some snowfall during the winter, the snow never accumulates and within a few days what has fallen melts away.


Yosano Buson is famous for writing some panoramic haiku that are able to convey an astonishing wide sense of view and space, so it is a bit surprising to have Koretsky arguing the opposite when talking about him:

One way, to borrow a term often applied to the paintings of Edgar Degas, is to “break the frame”. He was the first painter, at least in the Western tradition, to “crop” in ways that implied extension or continuation beyond the composition. For example, by depicting only the thigh and forearm of one of his famous dancers, Degas left the viewer to complete the partial limbs mentally. This is, in a sense what the second of the great classical masters, Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is doing in this haiku:

field of bright mustard,
       the moon in the east -
the sun in the west.


The problem with Hass’ translation is that he added the image of a “field” to it which isn’t in the original:


Na no hana ya Tsuki ha higashi ni hi wa nishi ni


The opening phrase of the haiku simply states “the mustard flowers” so the image isn’t delineated into the space of a field as Hass gives us, and although the translation faithfully follows the original after this, it is easy enough to see how inserting a field into the reader’s view crops the imagery. As Koretsky writes:

Notice that in Buson’s haiku above there is just pure description, and sparse description at that. Not only must the continuation of the mustard field be supplied by the reader, so too must the emotional content, the sense of awe, or perhaps humility, the poem instils. By the way, take care not to read meaning into the moon coming before the sun. The haiku has been translated both ways.


But the problem is that the “pure” and “sparse” description occurs because space has been defined by the translator’s decision to crop the mustard flowers into a defined place and not by the person who wrote the haiku. The idea that the emotional content of the haiku is supplied by the reader and not the writer is also another thing that comes about by another translation decision to completely ignore the spoken particle of “ya” altogether. In fact, the particle of “ya” is the thing which makes this whole haiku come together for the Japanese because it indicates where the writer is placing their emotional content in the haiku.


Toshiharu Oseko in the introduction in Volume One defines how “ya” works a particle:

It is an interjection for a strong impression, emotion, excitement and exclamation. This is used most often as a “kire-ji” (cutting word) to cut a haiku into two sections giving a pause for intensifying the impression and emotion giving more depth and the expansion of imagination.


An good example of how this is used is in Haruo Shirane’s “Claasical Japanese, A Grammar.” (Columbia University Press, 2005). It states, using a quote from the Genji Monogatari (Yugao, NKBT 14:139):

If “ya” has an exclamatory function, it is an interjectory particle. An example of “ya” as an interjectory particle is

あはれ,いと寒しや     Aware ito samushi YA.

Well (aware), it’s very (ito) cold (samushi)!


Buson is using “ya” here to intensify his emotional response to the mustard flowers in the same manner it used above to state the speaker’s reaction to the cold. Because of it, the reader picks up the cue and reacts to it the same way we would if someone had said “Ah, the mustard flowers!” Since the writers attention has been captured by it, the reader then fills in the space between the eastern horizon the moon is rising in and the western horizon the sun is falling on by realizing “oh, the mustard flowers!” and thus filling out the panoramic view that Buson expresses by placing an interjection on the flowers.


To put it a bit more succinctly,  the interjection attached to the flowers piques the reader into wondering why Buson has had a reaction to them, and then, because of it, come to understand that his emotional response was to the vast swarth of yellow. The use of “ya,” the personal emotion of the writer, is where the poetry of the haiku blooms from.


Cheryl A. Crowley in her book, “Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho” (Brill, 207), on page 278 says that this haiku was the opening hokku of a linked verse sequence and notes that “scholars have pointed out the similarity between this verse and the second of Tao Yuanming’s “Untitled Poems:”

The white sun sinks into the western slopes,
the pale moon rises over the eastern peaks.
For ten thousand leagues the light shines,
Over a great distance the sky is bright.


The allusion is quite apparent and this isn’t the only haiku Buson wrote which is indebted to Chinese poetry. Crowley also notes that there are two separate headnotes for this haiku in different sources that have “Spring scene” and “Scenery outside the capital” which “later critics have tended to ignore.” (pg 279). Anyone who has spent some time in Japan can attest that there are many amazing places where the scope and amount of the same wild flowers in bloom can be a sight to marvel at, but, considering how clear the allusion is in this haiku one has to wonder if Buson had actually witnessed this or not.


Robert Hass is an accomplished poet and his ability with language is shown in this translation:

A poem from the third of the triumvirate of classical masters, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) demonstrates the point:

        the snow is melting
and the village is flooded
        with children



He made a great connection that catches the idea of the melting snow, tying the water that comes out of  it together with the image of children out to play in it. However, the word “flooding””isn’t in the original at all. Rather, all Issa wrote was “full of” (ippai):


Yuki togete mura ippai no kodomo kana

And, as in the other haiku above, Hass simply ignored the exclamation that Issa included, which here is the particle of “kana.”


Toshiharu Oseko’s introduction in volume one of book on Basho explains “kana” as a “conclusive particle” that is “also used very often as a “kire-ji” like “keri” which is an auxiliary verb, cutting haiku not in the middle, but at the end, giving a strong feeling of exclamation.”


Haruo Shirane’s grammar book on page 241 states:

In the Heian period, the Nara period exclamatory final particle “kamo” was replaced by “kana,” which derived from the exclamatory final particle “ka” and the exclamatory final particle “na.”

And in separate entries on pages 239 and 240, ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” and “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation. “(The note below at the end of this article quotes the example usages the book has for them.)


So again, it is the use of an exclamation to bring the poetry into this haiku; by strengthening the the image of the village full of children with an exclamation, the reader understands what the most important part of the haiku is for Issa and now can share his wonder at the joy that the children are expressing as they play in the melting snow. Although Hass’ translation does perfectly mirror the sentiment that Issa expresses, it is important to understand that he still did add his own imagery in and ignored the verbal context that the exclamatory particle sets into the haiku.


Koretsky’s comments take everything that Hass did as being a literal translation of the haiku:

Notice how the poem sets up its first two ominous lines and then cuts, like a punchline, to its resolution. In Japanese, Issa would have had a variety – nearly 50 – ways to punctuate the end of the lines to build toward the joke, then to let us know it was time to relax and smile. Western poets, on the other hand, have about four end punctuations from which to choose. There is the dash, the ellipses, the comma, the colon.


It’s hard to understand what is “ominous” about the first two lines because it is hard to imagine that a village would be seriously flooded by the snow in it melting, but of course in the original this is something that isn’t there anyway. Nor is the break in the same place either, it is after “melting.” It is interesting to see in her list of end punctuational that she left out the exclamation point and the period, which are ones we often use in English.


This punctuation list is wherein the problem lies with this idea about the Japanese haiku always being “unresolved, (“the predominate tonal mode of the Japanophone’s ear” as Koretsky calls it.) Imagine if all you ever spoke could never come to a full punctuation stop, and that every verb you used had to be in present tense and you couldn’t express any self-emotion, then everything you said would be the ellipsis of some idea that left the resolution of what you were saying all in the listener’s mind because all you could ever present was an image of what you wanted to express. Wanting to write this style of haiku is one thing, trying to say that this is the only kind of haiku that the great Japanese masters produced is another.


The problem with haiku in the English language is that it has always been a monolith to mistaken ideas that translators have propagated about it. Robert Hass’ translations aren’t literal representations of these great writers in English, they are faint copies by someone who didn’t have the grammatical background to properly get all the poetry in them into his translations; because of this he was only left with the imagery and if there wasn’t enough imagery to fill out the poetry in the original he added in his own.


Hass wrote in his preface, “When the “hokku” became detached from linked verse….what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images of themselves.” It is better to take this as an unconscious admission of his own inability to understand how  haiku, because of the imbedded grammar of kire-ji, layers poetic meaning onto the imagery. He only saw the concrete parts of haiku and never understood how these great writers were filling in the spaces around the imagery.


I’m not arguing that these three great haiku writers never wrote “unresolved” or “open ended” haiku if it was the sensibility they had at the time the wrote it, but they certainly wrote a lot more “connected” haiku with as much personal emotion and poetic technique as any conventional poetry in the west did.


The reason why they could do this is that they understood haiku as a verse form and not a single style of writing,  which is what what Hass’ translations aimed for and what Koretsky’s  article is arguing for.  The first hundred years of haiku in our language has been hampered and held down creatively by this and the wrong ideas about Japanese haiku it profligates. One has to wonder if the second century of it in our language will ever pull itself from the sand it continues to keep its head stuck into.


Note on Shirane’s examples.

On page 238 “ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” with this example from the Kokinshu (no. 73, NKBT 8:117):

うつせみの世にも似たるか  Utsusemi no yo ni mo nitaru KA

How it resembles (nitaru ka) the ephemeral world (Utsusemi no yo)!


On page 240 “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation.”

The example for the exclamation comes from the Kokinshu (Ono no Komachi, Spring 2, no. 113, NKBT 8:124):

花の色はうつりにけりな   Hana no iro wa utsurinikei NA

The colors (iro) of the cherry blossoms (hana) have faded completely (utsurinikerina)!

And for assurance and confirmation it is from the Gengi Monogatari (Yomogiu, NKBT 15:152:

ここは常陸の宮ぞかしな.  Koko wa, Hitachi no Miya zo kashi NA

This is (the residence of) the Hitachi prince, am I right?


“Kana” is still used in modern Japanese. This entry in the “A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar” (The Japan Times, 1995) pg. 90 explains its usage:


Konshumatsu ni wa nani wo shiyo KANA

I wonder what I should do this weekend.


If you read “kana” in the Issa haiku as being spoken by a writer who isn’t looking at the scene he is describing, then it is possible to get the reading that Issa is wondering if the children are out at his old village which he has left. As Koretsky noted, Issa moved from his home in the mountains into the city at an early age so he could have been wondering about the action of this haiku instead of seeing it.

There are two extant versions of this haiku. One has “town” (町) instead of “village” (村) and the other has “town” as well as “sparrows” (雀) instead of “children” (子ども). Town indicates a more urban setting than village does so this might give credence to Issa being away from the mountains when he wrote it. It could also just prove that he just rewrote it and put kids and village in when he had made back to a rural area. You would need to know when and where Issa was at the time.


Feet, Not Syllables


Michael, thanks for your comments.


In your article you wrote that poets should understand what syllables are and should know how to count them, but the truth is that English language poets have never counted syllables, rather they they have counted the feet which measure the metric value of stressed and unstressed syllables. This is something different than just counting syllables.


English is a stressed timed language, which means that syllables aren’t uniform in the length of time and some are longer than others, this is different from syllable timed languages where every syllable has the same amount of time with no variation between them. This is why we in English count feet rather than syllables.


The first line of haiku that you quote in your article is an example of why this is:


tired old work horse

stands thirsty and sweating in

summer’s sizzling heat


You state that the word “tired” has been mistakenly counted as two syllables here and it is true that “tired” spoken alone is a one syllable word. But what happens when you read it with the same timing as the other one syllable words that follow it?


/           x        /         x

tired old work horse


By the time we get to the end of the line we are all of out breath and just crash and cannot easily connect the sentence nor the thought to the next line. We are hung out at our wit’s end here.


Even when we change the stress pattern:


x            /        x          /

tired old work horse


The same crash at the end happens. Now let’s scan it like the person who wrote it did:


x    /     x        /          x

tired old work horse


By reading tired as having a stress at the end of the word we have placed it in rhythm that leads smoothly into the next line and allows our thought to follow as well.


It’s easy to get fooled into believing that by just counting syllables we can get the music measure of poetry because so much of our good poetry has been written by using similarly timed syllables, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any written that didn’t use syllables that had different time values. I had never thought of the difference of counting feet until I read your article, so I am guilty of it as well.


Of course, there is a way to write this line to make tired read as one foot and still keep it in a natural speech rhythm:


tir’d old work horse


By using the elision the stress is taken out and the word fits into a natural rhythm. Poets in the past used this a lot as a way of to fit the past tense -ed verbs into rhythmic patterns because it knocked off a syllable from the word. It would do the same to the verb which added an extra foot to the second line of your raccoon haiku.


Of course, just using an article like we are supposed to do would do the trick as well:


a tired old work horse


This takes out the stress as well. I’d guess the reason why we stress the word without the article is because we unconsciously fit it into a workable speech pattern. But that is the kind of affection in language which happens when you try to mimic the writing in Japanese.


Stress is, of course, is something that Japanese language really doesn’t have, but it does use pitch and by looking at pitch we can get some ideas about how Japanese words work as feet (and syllables) in relationship to how we see them per our words.


To quote from the translated version of “The Poetics of Japanese Verse” by Koji Kawamoto (pg. 189-190):

“In modern standard Japanese, words of two morale or more can be divided into two broad categories, namely, those in which the first mora only is pronounced with a high pitch (A-me, SU-ga-ta, O-o-ka-mi, KA-ge-bo-shi) and those which start with a low-pitched first mora followed by one or more high-pitched mora. Of these, the latter group can be further subdivided into those words which end on a high pitch (sa-RA, o-N-NA, to-MO-DA-CHI, o-SHO-O-GA-TSU) and those which return to a low pitch before ending (ko-KO-ro, ka-RA-KA-sa, i-NO-CHI-BI-ro-i, ka-MI-NA-RI-O-ya-ji). The arrangement of high and low pitched morae within individual words thus comes down to a simple dichotomy:  “whether a high pitch will stop one mora, or continue for two or more –not forgetting of course the restriction that a high pitch cannot emerge more than once within a word (i.e., with low-pitched morae spaced in between)”  (quote is from Shibata Takeshi’s “Nihongo no akusento”).


The important part to consider in the above is how “a high pitch will stop at one mora, or continue for two or more” because it explains how a high pitch will eat up feet. A word noted above like “tomodachi” shows how the high pitch will take a 4 syllable (mora) word and reduce it two two pitch feet, and how in a Chinese character compound “onyomi” word like “oshoōgatsu”  it moves  across two characters and reduces six mora into two pitches. It can even move across two compound words like “inochibiro” and two separate words like “kaminari oyaji” to reduce 6 mora into 2 pitches and 7 mora into 4 pitches.


In the previous post I mentioned that “kawa” was one syllable and you corrected me by saying that it was two and you are right, ka-WA makes it two pitches. But if you put it together with something like se-MI you will still get the word ka-WA-SE-MI (kingfisher), which is a good example of how the high pitch dominates the low pitch in terms of feet and changes something that you would think naturally would be 4 pitches into being 2.


There are dictionaries in Japanese that are only for showing how to accent words properly and using the NHK Japanese Pronunciation Accent Dictionary (NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典) I went and checked where all the high pitch and low pitched was for all the words in the haiku that were in Keiko Imaoka’s article.


yuKU HARU YA/  toRI naKI uO NO ME ni NAmida

Has 11 transitions between high and low pitch.


NEko no meSHI shoUBAN suRU YA / suZUME NO ko

Has 10 transitions.


WAre to KIte aSOBE YA /oYA NO NAi suZUME

Has 11 transitions.


uGUisu no naKU YA / CHIISAki kuCHI aKETE

Has 9 transitions.


So once you start to consider these haiku on the terms of how our language is scanned the Japanese lines actually shrinks in feet, which something that is impossible in English, and thus shows the difficulty of trying to consider what the length of haiku should be in English. You can just look at it uncritically and say that Japanese haiku scans less this 17 syllables,  so English should also be cut down to 11 syllables, but to argue that this is acceptable because 17 syllables in English carries more information than the Japanese misses the fact that the Japanese carries much more information per pitch foot than the English does. Which is how it is able to shrink 17 down to 11 or less in the above.


Keiko Imaoka made mention of how “The mnemonic quality of 5-7-5 Japanese phrases is much closer to that of metered rhymes in English” and the theory of how this works is explained clearly in Kawamoto’s book. In 1922 Doi Kichi developed the idea of the “bimoraic foot,” which is “a unit of time which is always –at least in theory– of the same duration, regardless of the number of (vocalized) morae” (pg. 200). This foot “entails one important condition, namely, that a single mora alone may count for a whole beat under certain circumstances.” This is accomplished when this single mora is made to “either lengthen (the additional mora) or place a stop (pause) after it so that it balances with the preceding two.” (pg. 202)


Doi also argued that bimoraic foot showed a stress pattern and that by “clapping or tapping to the beat” one can understand “where such stresses occur, it soon becomes clear that they fall consistently on the first mora of each two-mora unit.” When it comes to the single mora that counts more than one, the reader “accents” it and “then inserts a pause (or lengthens the vowel) to ensure that an appropriate stress falls on the first mora of the next bimoraic group.” (pg. 204) This idea of that Japanese prosody has stress, and has a stress pattern that is accented and unaccented is something that we can readily understand. It is what feet are in English.


Kawamoto (p.g. 283-284) used two of Basho’s haiku to show how this works in them:

fu-ru | i- ke | ya — | — — |

ka-wa | zu — | to- bi- | ko- mu ||  mi- zu | no — | o- to| — — ||


It is pretty easy to pick up the beats in this if you accent the beginning of each mora. The vowel in “ya” in the first line gets lengthened to complete the bimoraic rhythm and the two pauses that follow it give the reader the breath space to accent on the “ka” that follows it. The vowel of “zu” and the vowel for “no” are lengthened to complete the rhythm.


Kawamoto also gives this Basho haiku as an example of when the first 12 mora are connected:

sa-mi- | da-re |o — || a-tsu- | me-te | ha- ya- | shi — ||

Mo-ga- | mi — | ga-wa ||


And then says that the meter above had been extinct for centuries and it was probably never intended to be read this way and gave this as a better example:

sa-mi- | da-re |o — | —  — ||

a-tsu- | me-te | ha- ya- | shi — || Mo-ga- | mi — | ga-wa | — — ||


Both examples have the single mora with the vowel elongated and the the second version has the five mora lines elongated to fit in with the meter and the two five mora sections have the silent bimoraic feet at the end to fill out the measure.


Kawamoto argues that “the individual seven and five mora verses of Japanese prosody each form a discrete metrical unit compared of four bimoriac feet, or in musical parlance, a four-beat quadruple-time bar” (pg. 223). This is why he adds the  silent bimoras at the end of each 5 section to fill out the measure. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, but we, and maybe it is because our own poetry has a lot of line breaks, don’t have the need to fill out the form so roundly.


Which means, then when you look at this model which is the accepted view on what the metrics of Japanese poetry are, then it is easy to see that what is discussed here is that the lines of a haiku will always scan out as being 6-8-6 feet. So, then 20 feet is what haiku counts out to in the way we scan our own poetry (discounting the two bimoras which are used to fill out the two 5 lines.)


It’s unfortunate that Imaoka never went into how 5-7-5 in Japanese related to English metrics, rather instead she inferred that if English haiku was written in something that approximated the length of the “mnemonic quality of 5-7-5 Japanese phrases” it meant that we were “concerning ourselves too much with the outward form of haiku” and thus “can lose sight of its essence.” Its a little hard to understand how, given how our language and our poetry relies on sound as a means to create added meaning, giving up on the mnemonic qualities would make English language haiku the poetic equal of Japanese haiku.


One gets the sense the Imaoka was the one who was more interested in form over language. If we look at this example she gave us we find this to be true:


across the arroyo

deep scars

of a joy ride


could be rewritten to approximate the 3-5-3 form as


across the

arroyo, deep scars

of a joy ride


without affecting the meaning. As it is, doing so sacrifices too much in the natural flow of words and interferes with the image.


She argues that the second version has an unnatural flow to it  and that this blurs the image, when in fact the opposite is true. The first line in the first version is unnatural, and because it isn’t in a natural speech pattern we run out of breath at the end of the line and our mind just flattens out. This unnatural breath pauses damages the images in the haiku because we spend time and energy just to find the proper linguistic syntax to fit it into, and by doing so are made unable to focus on the imagery. However, by rearranging the lines and inserting a comma, the second version is now into a natural speech rhythm and we are able to see the images a lot brighter and clearer because of it.


Imaoka’s statement that the “the type of unnatural line breaks seen in the latter is a problem associated with the 3-5-3 (or other short) form, whereas the 5-7-5 form is long enough to accommodate natural line breaks dictated by the English grammar,  due to a greater degree of freedom provided by the extra syllables,” is only an argument about form because it missed the point about how the English language works and how unnatural the whole first line of “across the arroyo” is in the first place. Besides adding the proper punctuation in, if we use proper grammar and and rearranging the imagery to “there are deep scars across…..” etc. the writer is able to use language to reinforce and add unstated emotional content into this haiku.


Which returns us to my point about poetry being more than just imagery. Poetry is a mix of sound and images to produce the emotional energy that the poet feels towards what they are writing about. The reason why English language haiku is such a dead dry language is because people have conned themselves into believing that all you have to do is to create poetry is to write out imagery and this was OK because that is what the Japanese did in their haiku in for centuries. Of course, these ideas about Japanese haiku were completely wrong and are now cached in the dust bin of history. This imagery only theory about haiku lingers on, but people are only fooling themselves because in the end all haiku written in English will be judged on the what the standards of English language poetry are and those standards will always insist that both sight and sound are essential for good writing.


I am not advocating a strict mandate that states that all English language haiku must be 20 feet in length, but I do advocate that haiku has enough space so one can write in a natural voice within a haiku. I find that Imaoka’s ideas about the length of haiku to be based on uncritical thinking and are ideas which deaden of the use of language in haiku. Instead of continuing to come up with schemes that try to emulate Japanese haiku, it is high well past the time that writers in English start to write within the poetic traditions of their own language.


I know that this sticks in the craw if a lot of people in haiku because they have been deceiving themselves for such a  long about how they are “so different” from “mainstream poetry.” The truth is that haiku writers aren’t different and that they have only made themselves worse poets by thinking that they are. It’s time to realize this.

Buson’s Hokku: Butterfly, Temple Bell and the Taira Clan



釣鐘にとまりて眠る胡蝶かな          蕪村

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kotefu kana

Stopping to sleep on the temple bell……a butterfly!


The movement and imagery of this hokku is easy enough to understand, a butterfly flits into the quiet courtyard space of a temple and then lands on the big cast iron hanging bell that is there and falls asleep. Since the movement of the butterfly is expressed so quietly, we immediately relate it to the silence of the courtyard, which in turn amplifies the experience of having it be so silent that a butterfly could actually sleep in this kind of public place. We also are able to fill out this experience by realizing that the butterfly on the bell is only a temporary state of being and that it will be flying off, as all butterflies do, from the bell and out of the temple grounds sometime in the future.


Once we realize the temporal nature of the butterfly, we begin to see the hokku as starting to work as a deeper and symbolic message. Since the season word (kigo) is butterfly (kotefu), and this a butterfly that sleeps, it leads the into immediately recognizing an allusion to the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu’s famous dream of himself being a butterfly. The World Kigo Database has the translation from “The Chuang Tzu”, Chapter 2:

“Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly.
All day long, he floated on the breeze
Without a thought of who he was or where he was going.

When he awoke, Chuang Tzu became confused,

“Am I a Man”, he thought,
“who dreamed that I was a butterfly?
Or am I butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?
Perhaps my whole waking life is
but a moment in a butterfly’s dream!.
This is a story of transformation”


When we read this allusion into the hokku, we now understand that it is an allegory for the human condition where every thing is transient and that life is illusionary. The butterfly, like us, is bound to be woke up from sleep. Are we that butterfly, or is that butterfly us?


Besides the Chuang Tzu’s butterfly, there is also another famous passage from Japanese literature that deals with the fleeting nature of human existence and worldly fame and this one has a temple bell as the image for it. That is the opening to the Heike Monogatari where the lines state:

“The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation”


Although Gion is a famous part of Kyoto, and most Japanese people believe that this is the setting for these lines, the temple bell being described here is really in India at the famous temple of Jetavana where Buddha is said to have given many of his teachings. The legend has it that the temple bells there were rang for those close to death to remind them of the impermanence of their lives and comfort them with the knowledge of knowing they will move into a new life.


It is generally accepted that the bells at a Jetavana Temple were either glass or silver and not the cast iron kind that are found in Japan. However, as noted above, the Japanese have always tended to think of the bells described in the “Heike Monogatari”  as being a hanging cast iron bell which most temples throughout Japan have.  So persuasive has this image of a hanging bell been for them that in 2004 the Japanese donated money to have a Japanese style bell built on grounds of the Jetavana temple ruins in India. Here is a photo of it and, except for the building structure,  it is a replica of a Japanese temple bell:



There is a pretty high chance that Buson also mistakenly thought that the ringing bell at the start of the ‘Heike Monogatari” was the kind he found at the temples in his own country. Once we accept this, we can move on into a further reading of this hokku.


The “Heike Monogatari” is a tale that deals with the fall of the Taira clan that came to power in the late 700s and was then later utterly defeated in the Genpei War which ended in 1185. The tale deals with the acts of the leader of the Taira clan, Kiyomori, who is quite ruthless in carrying out his dream of controlling the court and the politics of Japan, and goes through the wars that followed. Kiyomori summarily kills a lot of people in power and has no qualms about burning temples or persecuting monks. The opening lines of the tale are a Buddhist theme which is prevalent through out the story, that life (and political power) are fleeting and that evil acts in life will have an adverse consequence later in life.


The butterfly is the thing which ties the Taira family into this hokku. Every leading clan in Japan had a family crest (kamon) to identify themselves and their relationships, much the same as coats of arms were once used in Europe. The Taira clan lead by Kiyomori actually used a butterfly as their crest, this impressive swallowtail butterfly design:




Now, we able to read the hokku as an allegory for the Taira clan. Kiyomori with his dream of controlling Japan has come to sleep on the Buddhist bell which will soon ring the truth about how the prosperous and famous will fall into decline. And when the bell rings the butterfly will awake from its slumber and fly away with its dreams driven away like dust in the wind. Which is what happened to the Taira clan when it finally was defeated, it’s leading members killed and it’s lower ranking remnants escaping to the mountainous areas far from center of the power in Kyoto. We can now look at the hokku in a new light and change the translation:


On the temple bell…..the butterfly that stops to sleep!


If we turn the focus around by attaching the action to the butterfly, rather than cutting it into two as the first translation does, we can imply a more ominous tone of foreboding about what the fate of this butterfly might eventually be because it hints at how in the  near future the bell probably will be rung.


The picture that I used at the top of this blog post is of the bell at Renshoji Temple in Fujieda City which has a deep connection to a one of the most famous parts of the “Heike Monogatari,” the scene where Naozane Kumagai kills Kiyomori’s 16 year old nephew Atsumori Taira. Kumagai eventually repented this killing and became a monk of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. He went around preaching and building temples to atone for his life as a samurai and he built this temple in 1185 about 10 years after he reluctantly, and famously, beheaded Atsumori on the beach at Suma.


I happen to work in the building right in front of this temple and I have heard its bell rung from time to time. The next time I do hear it ring, there is going to be a lot more resonance in its tone because this hokku by Buson brings everything full circle for me. Not am I going to think of the Taira clan, I am going to think of Naozane Kumagai as well.


Wow! Cutting Letters!


When I ran into this article on the Boston Globe website by Christopher Muther that talks about how the exclamation point has proliferated in electronic messaging I immediately thought, “Wow! Cutting Letters!” 

To explain it I’ll have to start with Muther’s article:

“Without an omnipresent exclamation point, my electronic communication sounded as if it was written by a certain curmudgeonly and crusty green muppet who resides in a trash can.”

I think that it is safe to say everyone has had this experience. With texting now being a big part of how we communicate, written messaging has taken on a bigger role in our daily lives, and because of it we probably are a bit more conscious of how our electronic messaging language needs mood markers to convey the tone and inflection of speech. It is only natural that, as the more and more we use this new medium of communication, our ears would start to listen for these markers.

“ ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they wrote. “ ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.”

If you compare the tone between the two statements above, the first one without the exclamation point seems a bit dark because dead panning is the way we scoff or threaten someone.  As noted, the second example shows how the exclamation point expresses that the speaker has positive emotions towards the conference.  Depending at what gets written before or after this statement, it could also include being positive about meeting the fellow conferee as well.

These examples show how the exclamation point does more than just indicate that the speaker has emotion about something, it shows that the speaker is using it to express a mood to the reader. Having lost the ability to create emotional meaning through tone of voice or facial gestures, because we aren’t engaged in person to person speech anymore, so as writers of our own conversation we are using the exclamation point as a marker for expression. And as readers we expect them to be there as well.

““In e-mail, I think that exclamation points serve some useful functions, because they can convey extra meaning in brief messages,” says Jean Berko Gleason, a Boston University psycholinguist. “They can mitigate the brusqueness of a brief reply by indicating the writer’s enthusiasm, sincerity, surprise ­— it all depends on the situation.””

To be able to indicate different emotions with punctuation is something that the Japanese have long considered the spoken particles that are “cutting letters” of haiku as doing. This is a quote taken from a book 名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (Learning the Knack of It From Famous Haiku) which is a two book set where a group of haiku writers talk about all aspects of haiku and go into the nuts and bolts of how and why famous haiku work as poetry. I’d say it is a middle level book for those who are looking for ways to improve their own haiku. Since it goes into details about how haiku works as a language, and since Japanese is my second language, it was an influential book for me because it simply and clearly explained most everything about the genre.

切字の役目ですがかたちを整えるということとともに詠嘆、感動、余情を写え、一句に広がりや情趣がでてきて、暗示性が加わり、しかも調べを整えることができるというわけで、いろいろな意味で出てきて (名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (下} pg.10 )

A rough translation that tries to keep the flair of the original:

“The role of a “cutting letter” is to arrange the shape (of haiku) as well as bring a sense of admiration, a deep emotion, and express deep feelings to bring out the expanse and elegance in a haiku and add to its suggestive qualities. Besides this, it can shape the melody and for these reasons it adds a variety of meanings”

Take away the statements in the above about influencing the shape and melody and we are left with a definition that is very similar to what Gleason says about how an exclamation point conveys “extra meaning in brief messages” and how, depending on the situation, the use of one can express emotions that “expand” and add “elegance” to what we’ve written. This is what the difference between “ I’ll see you at the conference,” and “ I’ll see you at the conference!” is.

This is not to say that we are writing “a haiku” in our electronic messaging, or that we are achieving a deep “poetic elegance” when we use an exclamation point, but it should lead one to seriously reconsider the idea from many people, both in Japan and those interested in haiku outside of Japan, that the “cutting words” themselves are something that are untranslatable from the Japanese. The truth is we are using one of them, the exclamation point, daily to create the same emotional tone as they do.

“Let me give you an answer, and hopefully you’ll feel less offended by the exclamation point. People are using the written word in a much more conversational manner,” Boroditsky says. “What people do with written language is that they adapt it to meet their needs.”

The adoption that has occurred in text messaging is that with the need to replace the verbal tone and facial gestures that comes along with face to face conversation we have to start to rely more on punctuation to express ourselves. Some might see that as a dumbing down of the language, but I tend to see it simply as a natural extension of keeping our communication lines open. After all, language, and poetry, does change.

To explore more about how punctuation can work in haiku, let’s take a look at the opening of Basho’s most famous haiku:

Furuike ya

The old pond!

How about if we take the exclamation out:

The old pond.

I think it is pretty easy to understand why he used an exclamation point here. He took the old pond out of the realm of just being a cold fact and with the lilt expressed by the exclamation he has set up a musical tempo to build off of in the rest of the haiku as well.

How about the dash, which is what has been the conventional way to write the break in English:

The old pond —

The bar shows that writer is thinking about something, but what it is we can’t be sure of because it shows no emotion. And since the dash flattens out the musical inflection of the line, the writer can only write in a declarative tone after it. So it is obvious that the dash simply does not cut it as the sole representation of the exclamative “cutting words” as translators in the past have presented it as.

Let’s take a look at no capital letters and no punctuation:

the old pond

There isn’t much difference between this and the version with the period above. It’s hard to see how this could lead into anything but a flat declarative tone. So between  no punctuation and the dash, the space where the “cut” in English has mainly lived for the past 100 years, it’s easy to understand how the language in haiku has always been devoid of diction and sounds all alike. There isn’t anything around the break for the writer to build sound off of.

Let’s check how other punctuation marks work:

The old pond,

Gives the sense that the writer is going to attach an thought to the image.

The old pond…….

Deepens the sense of what the writer is thinking about, and the pause adds a sense of mystery to the image.

The old pond;

Gives the expectation that there will be an juxtaposition or some other thought that plays off the image.

The old pond:

The expectation of something that will be added to expand the writers thinking about the image.

And in all we see five different musical angles off of which to work prosody from.

So, when it comes to prosody and spacing, we can use punctuation in haiku pretty much the same way as the Japanese do. Of course, there are those who will argue, “But, I don’t want to write like the Japanese!” But they are missing the point that it isn’t about using their language, it actually is about using the all the abilities in your own language to create lasting poetry. 

Yes, using correct punctuation is in the realm of poetic license and the poet always doesn’t have to use it, but that doesn’t mean you should summarily ignore it. Especially if you want to build a a poetic diction and escape from always writing in a flat descriptive tone. You would think that after a hundred years of it that people who write haiku would want to move on to something more besides just that. 


The Haiku Moment: The Reader’s Emotional Hole


Michael Dylan Welch also has written an essay that tries to give intellectual cover to the “haiku moment.” In a piece titled “Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story” he takes Francis Bacon’s ideas about history, poesy and philosophy and argues that haiku is “a an objective record of history” and by writing in the present tense one can “keep the poem immediate and accessible.” He goes on to qualify that even writing in the present moment means that one is “nevertheless writing from memory.”

So where does haiku fit in Bacon’s trilogy of ideas? Since haiku springs from “intuition” rather than from “reason”, that excludes it from being put under Bacon’s definition of philosophy, and since it generally “does not  spring from imagination or present imaginary content but from remembered reality,” then it isn’t poesy, so he places it into the category of history without going much into the reason why except for it being something that comes from memory of one’s past. He then caps this by adding  “even if the memory is of a very recent moment, haiku is a poetry of the past—powerful emotion, as Wordsworth put it, recollected in tranquility.”

It’s a little strange to see Wordsworth’s famous quote about poetry here because Bacon, when it came to learning, had nothing to say about poesy “but to ascribe unto it that which is due, for the expressing of affections, passions, corruptions, and customs, we are beholding to poets more than to the philosophers’ works” (Advancement of Learning).  Bacon believes that poesy is a “feigned history” and this quote shows that he believes it is “feigned” because it is about “affections” and “passions”, and yet Welch is telling us that haiku is powerful emotion.

I do find myself in agreement here with the idea of poetry being something that comes from memory, which is something that is being hinted at with the quote from Wordsworth. For the Greeks, the muses of poetry came from the mating of the god head Zeus with the personification of memory Mnemosyne. Even T.S. Eliot, in the passage from “Tradition and Individual Talent” where he attacks Wordsworth, describes the poetic process as, “it is a concentration, a new thing resulting from concentration, of a very great number of experiences,” which the poet carries in his memory. My own experience with writing poetry and haiku is the same, my memory is very active when I sit down to do it.

I also find myself agreeing with the idea that haiku is about emotions as well, but this message starts to get jumbled as we move through the essay. Welch writes about haiku in the present moment:

“Yet, as we know, haiku is also in the present. We craft the poem to convey a sense of the present moment—specific moments written as if in the present. And readers apprehend the poem by recalling their own memories, and the poem can remind them of what they have experienced and already know but perhaps haven’t really noticed. In the present moment of being read, the poem enables the reader to experience the poet’s initial intuitive response to sensory perception by objectively depicting that perception (the best haiku usually present the image that causes an emotional response, not the emotion itself). In this manner, the experience of life is imparted from writer to reader. With a haiku poem, personal and intimate knowledge is profoundly imparted from one person to another.”

First, one has to wonder how well you have expressed emotions when you simply write a present tense version of it. The problem with this idea is the fact that different verb tenses imply deeper emotional states in the speaker, especially those that filter experience through the lense of time. It is an implausiable argument to make that you want to write about emotions while you state that they always must be in the present. The way our language works automatically makes that suspicious.

And secondly, one has to wonder how haiku could ever possibly be powerful emotion when the best haiku don’t present “the emotion itself.” I do agree with the idea that haiku without the writer’s emotion presented would “impart” the “experience of life” to the reader, which is what descriptive writing does, but I don’t understand how not having the emotion itself stated would “profoundly impart personal and intimate knowledge” to the reader. Isn’t our personal and intimate profound knowledge about things our emotional responses to them?

This idea about present tense non emotional haiku being an deeply emotive force gets restated later:

“Haiku is a poetry where we share something with others—not just the surface knowledge (facts) of some experience, but also the deeper intuitions and realizations of dwelling in the here and now. Thus haiku is a poetic means of sharing a deep kind of knowledge.”

How can the writer share “deeper intuitions and realizations” and haiku be “a poetic means of sharing a deep kind of knowledge” when the writer can’t write what their emotions are? Take Robert Burns’ famous “my love is a red, red, rose” which is a snatch of poetry where the emotion is written out. What if he had only written “a red, red rose”? Wouldn’t that mean he was just giving us “the surface knowledge (facts) of some experience?” And doesn’t connecting the metaphor share something deep and personal about Robert Burns? And by understanding Burns’ emotions don’t I find a deeper knowledge about life?

To be honest about it, this is why the haiku moment has always been problematic for me, because it never quite matches up with the rhetoric those who write it use when explaining it.

The fallacy of the haiku moment is that it forgets we are people who, although having different experiences in the world about us, all have the same range of emotions within us. The fallacy is based on the wrong idea of believing that the reader can feel an emotion when the writer hasn’t written one. That by creating an emotional hole for the reader to fill in they will naturally fill it in themselves. You can’t argue about how profound and sharing a haiku is that hasn’t got an ounce of emotional weight in it because when we come down to it emotions are all we have to share. And by seeing emotions in others we feel ours and understand them more, which is the way we learn and better ourselves.

I can’t end this essay without taking on Francis Bacon’s deriding of poesy as something that gets in the way of learning. I will simply quote William Blake:

“a Tear is an intellectual thing”

Then again, it isn’t surprising that the “father” of empiricism with his “dismal steel” and “reasonings like vast serpents” wouldn’t grasp this.

An MRI Of the Haiku Moment


An MRI Of the Haiku Moment

Back in the old days, the editors who controlled what haiku got into print told you that you had to write it in the present tense because that was what the Japanese did, and since not many people knew any better, no one every challenged them about it. Now, with the information saturated lives we all live on the internet, it is not as easy anymore because the truth that the Japanese never “just” wrote haiku in the present tense is there for all to see. So, now you need to write out a theory as to why you should write in the present tense.

Which is what Jim Kacian did with the speech he gave at the International Haiku North America Conference 2009 titled “Haiku as Anti-Story.” You have to give Kacian credit, it’s not an easy thing to come up with a theory for the very audacious act of telling the world that the present tense will always be the way to great poetry. You need to bring out all the bells and whistles you’ve got, a few personal anecdotes, a bear you once crossed paths with, a metaphor or two, a visit to your doctor, an MIR result, something from a famous philologist and, of course, a straw man to make to your argument work.

The straw man Kacian set up is pretty ingenious because of its simplicity.  Since present tense haiku really don’t move in time, then all you have to is prove how the rest of the writing in the world does. Since stories have beginnings, middles and ends, Kacian uses them as a starting point:

“Story unfolds in time, like music or film, but unlike, say, painting. Story is therefore an inductive art — it depends on piling up sufficient quantities of data to make its resolution plausible (unless of course it’s working to confound expectations, which is the same thing but inverted). It takes time to lay up this information, and time is one thing story has in abundance.”

It’s easy enough to understand this as the linear sequence of telling a story in an act of time. Now, he gives us a metaphor for it:

“So let us have before us some clean metaphor of story: think of it as a process with a definite shape evolving in time: a snake.”

His metaphor is clear enough, but defining the opposite anti-story leads into some murky waters:

“Anti-story is not the opposite of this process. Anti-story is the absence of it. In other words, don’t think of a snake and then a no-snake. Think, instead, of a snake — and then cut right across it. An anti-snake.  Anti-story is this action, the anti-process of story. It is not cumulative but instantaneous, not inductive but intuitive. It could not exist without the story. Still it is not the story, but rather the lightning strike across it, that defines it.”

Anti-story as a “lightening strike” is extremely vague, but if we take a trip with Kacian to his doctor’s office we are finally able to understand that “anti-story” is an MRI scan:

“But this isn’t the only information my doctor will want: she will also want to take some tests which are the equivalent of anti-story: an MRI, for instance, a cross-section image of, say, my kidney, one cell wide.  When you look at that image will it look like a kidney? Not as it looks from outside, not as it looks in a narrative. But such an image provides a different kind of information that might prove helpful in determining its health. The means to this kind of information is that lightning stroke across the linear, biological reality.”

Aha! Now anyone who has been interested in haiku since the the 1990s can understand what he is explaining, it is the “haiku moment,” the “snapshot that catches a moment in time.” The lightening flash of awareness that is always written in the present tense.

(Just to clear any doubts if Kacian is arguing about “the haiku moment,” let’s take a look how the man who coined it, Kenneth Yasuda presented it in his book “The Japanese Haiku” (pgs. 24-25): “The nature of a haiku moment is anti-temporal……in which there is no sense of time…..the haiku moment results, then, in a new insight or vision.” Which is the argument that Kacian is making verbatim.)

He adds this about how this is beneficial to haiku:

“To return to literary terms, then, and to approach haiku: anti-story intersects story at 90º to its flow, yielding a cross-section of its content that surrenders one dimension (time) to gain another (depth). And, I contend, this is what the very best haiku have always done.

So, haiku, by surrendering “time,” done by only writing in the present tense, gives “depth” like an MRI can do to a kidney. Just like the “lightning stroke” that happens when you are in an MRI machine and they shut the door and you hear the click of the x-ray machine. Oh, wait a minute, we are confusing the two here, aren’t we?

Of course, as any one who has had both x-rays and MRI scans done can tell, the x-ray machine flashes and takes a picture while the MRI machine whirls, makes noises, moves around and then scans you, repeating it again and again. Which means that Kacian has done what I believe to be is a first in the history of explaining a theory of poetry, he has disproved the idea he is promoting by the very metaphor he uses. MRI machines scan you, which means they act through time, which means, as he has put it, they “pile up sufficient quantities of data” and, “it takes time to lay up this information.” So, just like “a story” an MRI piles up information to make these great 3D scans of your kidney.

And wouldn’t the same be true in writing haiku as well? That by using all verb tenses (i.e. attributes of time) a writer would be able to add depth to the experiences they are writing about? Arguing that you can only write in present tense shows the exact opposite, for wouldn’t that be a rather shallow approach to haiku?

Kacian may think that present tense haiku can escape time, but when he starts writing about them he proves you can’t. When talking about James W. Hackett’s haiku he posits:

“The first line, or the context line, establishes the first image — “A bitter morning”.  Stop for a moment and consider that phrase — “a bitter morning.” It could lead anywhere, and the typographical pause is meant to allow us the time and space to do just that. The poet then adds his own selected idea, the unforgettable image of huddled birds. That’s it. It’s that pause that allows the reader or listener to stop the flow, to remove himself from the narrative, to move outside of time.”

It is impossible to believe that the reader has been able “to move outside of time” when you talk about a pause that “is meant to allow us the time and space to do just that.” The whole passage above is an utter contradiction. Even when you think about the image of “a bitter morning” the adjective itself implies that there are other mornings that have different qualities about them, which means they are in a time narrative story line.

I won’t move on to talking about the other haiku that Kacian talks about, but if you take the time to look at them you’ll see that he refers them in same moving through time reference as above because that is what the human condition is all about: we are always surrounded by time. And this is the straw man that he strung up for this idea about haiku as a anti-story: that we can escape time.

It was more than a little strange to see Kacian weave in something from Mikhail Bakhtin while arguing that haiku can move outside of time. Bakhtin came up with the idea of the “chronotope” (literally meaning”space-time) and argued that space and time are inseparable and that literature made time “take on flesh.” As he wrote in “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Towards a Historical Poetics”:

“But any and every literary image is chronotopic. Language, as a treasure-house of images, is fundamentally chronotopic.  Also chronotopic is the internal form of a word, that is, the mediating marker with whose help the root meanings of spatial categories are carried  over into temporal relationships (in the broadest sense)” (p. 251).

Literature is a chronotopic because images have spatial categories that extend into temporal relationships, which is how James Hackett’s “a bitter morning” moves through time by implying other experiences of it being something else besides bitter.

Of all the silliness that got said in this speech, the thing Kacian was completely right about was the how “the single most identifiable characteristic of haiku is the kire — not 5-7-5, not three lines — the kire, the cut, which not only identifies relationship (and all haiku are about relationship).” The “cut” is an important literary device and it is the thing which grants haiku the potential for great poetry because it gives the writer the ability to make unlimited relationships between the two parts of the haiku, not only for sparking unwritten meanings on both sides of the break, but also musically as well, because it allows the writer to play the two parts off each other for sound as well. It is a powerful tool for creating poetry.

The problem with Kacian is that he, like so many others before him, mistake their style as being the only style that haiku could ever be. He understands the form well enough, but then uses the knowledge of it to control and demand that others write in ways that conform to what his natural talents are. In fact, in an article Kacian penned called “Haiku Content” he openly tells you that unless you follow his style you can’t write a haiku:

“Haiku must contain a moment of insight. Haiku is not the only form in which such moments are essential — it might even be argued that all poetry is essentially the recording of such insights, and that this is the characteristic which unites haiku with these other forms — but without such a moment, there is no haiku.”

All I will say in response is that it is pretty safe to assume that someone who has botched a metaphor as badly as done in this speech simply has little talent for making them.

Given how closely Jim Kacian is following Kenneth Yasuda, I’m not so sure how much he has fallen into the we are now free of the Japanese ideas about haiku (after having argued for so long that we must follow them) crowd, but by not mentioning Yasuda’s name at all in the speech, one has to wonder if he isn’t hiding his roots here. Regardless, there still is the problem of the established literary standards in our own language. If English language haiku wants its own space as a serious form of poetry, the acknowledged leaders of it have to write well about how it works a poetry. Rather than prove how deep and profound it is, this explanation of the poetry in the “haiku moment” moves the opposite and proves how shallow and self aggrandizing it all is.

Buson Haiku: Komabune (The Korean Ships)


高麗舟のよらで過ぎゆく霞かな            蕪村

Komabune no yorade sugiyuku kasumi kana

Koma Ship/’s/without stopping/go pass/mist/(exclamation)

The ship from Koma doesn’t stop and passes…… the mist!

Koma is the Japanese shortened reading of the Chinese character for Goryeo, which was the name for the country of Korea from 936 to 1392. After a long 25 year war against the Mongolians the country signed a treaty in 1256 which made Goryeo a tributary ally of the Mongols for 80 years. After the power of the Mongolian empire waned in the 1350s, the country returned to being free of foreign influence and the name of it was changed in 1392 to Joseon by the general who had been the shadow leader of the country since 1388.

Most modern Japanese commentators on this haiku will back off from the reference to Korea and state that it just means any big continental sailing ship from another country that was different from the types of boats the Japanese used. The reason why the reference to Goryeo gets whitewashed out is because having it in the haiku gets in the way of the Shiki idea that everything must be a sketch of life around you. That the change in the country’s name predates Buson’s birth by about 320 years is the antithesis of this.

The commentators who read the reference to Goryeo as being relevant to the haiku tend to see the ship in terms of the country before the Mongols took power of. As Haruo Shirane explains:

“Komabune were the large Korean ships that sailed to Japan during the ancient period, bringing cargo and precious goods from the continent, a practice that had long since been discontinued by Buson’s time.”

So, to write a translation that follows this reading:

The merchant ship 
from Koma 
passes without stoping……
the mist!

Although the countries enjoyed good relationships in,the beginning of the Goryeo era, the political situation between the two countries was warlike for quite a long time after the Mongol lead invasions in the late 13th century. Their relationship wasn’t repaired until the regime change in 1392 to Joeson when the new Korean leaders began to make overtures towards the Japanese Shogunate. This led to the Koreans sending official emissaries for a wide variety of differing reasons into Japan until the late 1800s.

This blog (written in Japanese) has an impressive wood block print of visiting Korean ships in port at Murotsu in Hyogo and looks at this haiku in terms of the emissaries that Joseon occasionally sent into the Japan.



For certain, as shown by the wood block print, the coming of the emissaries was a memorable event. They came to Japan three times during Buson’s life, in 1719, 1748 and 1764, and since this is a Buson haiku from 1670s you have to wonder if this was something that he actually saw first hand. Especially in light of how the official government ships were the only ones he could have seen since for most of his adult life the Japanese foreign policy had closed its borders on the point of death, and trade between the two nations was confined to the island of Tsushima that lay in the strait between them.

To do a translation that looks at the ship being an official government vessel:

The elegant Koma
emissary ships
without stopping…..
the mist! 

The problem most Japanese people now have with this haiku is that they don’t understand what “yorade” mean because it is archaic. The commentators above took it to be an ancient verb construction of the verb “yoru” (to stop in, to drop by) being conjugated by “de” (which is the negative) to make the phrase “yorade” (without stopping).

However, if you check in a Classical Japanese dictionary, there is an entry for the word “yora” (夜ら) which is defined as meaning “yo” (night) plus “ra” (the suffix for the plural) which would translate into “nights.” “De” is an article that indicates space and time the way we do with “of,” “at,” or “in.”  So, since “yora” is written in hiragana, and the Chinese character isn’t used, then the phrase can also be read as “yora de,” which translates as “the nights of,” meaning that the haiku is employing a “kakekotoba” (pivot word)  word play that allows the reader to read this haiku with a double meaning.

A “kakekotoba is:

“A kakekotoba (掛詞?) or pivot word is a rhetorical device used in the Japanese poetic form waka. This trope uses the phonetic reading of a grouping of kanji (Chinese characters) to suggest several interpretations: first on the literal level (e.g. 松, matsu, meaning “pine tree”), then on subsidiary homophonic levels (e.g. 待つ, matsu, meaning “to wait”). Thus it is that many waka have pine trees waiting around for something. The presentation of multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows the poet a fuller range of artistic expression with an economical syllable-count. Such brevity is highly valued in Japanese aesthetics, where maximal meaning and reference are sought in a minimal number of syllables. Kakekotoba are generally written in the Japanese phonetic syllabary, hiragana, so that the ambiguous senses of the word are more immediately apparent.”

Although the wiki entry only states that it was used in “waka,” it was widely used in haikai as well. The reason why it has disappeared in haiku is mainly because of Basho who first studied this style to later abandon it. (Well, not completely, Donald Keene has written about Basho’s development in “World Within Walls” and states that the “Kisagata ya” haiku in “Oku no Hosomichi” (Narrow Road of Oku) is a “kakekotoba” that plays on the word “nebu” to have two readings.(pg.74))

To fill in this second reading of “the nights of,” we must turn towards the time when relationships between Japan and Goryeo were not as cordial. Specifically, when under the control of the Mongols the Koreans tried to invade Japan and there were many nights of many Korean ships In the waters around Japan. The first invasion in 1274 was with mainly Goryeo ships that were built for this purpose, since Mongolia is a land locked country and had no navy. The invasion failed because for some reason the forces that had gained a foothold in Japan were ordered back on the fleet ships that then sailed into a typhoon.

The second invasion was in the spring of 1281. By this time, the Mongolians had also taken control of Southern China and now had two navies to attack Japan from. The plan was for the Korea invasion force and the Chinese invasion force to meet and attack together. However, the fleet from Goryeo reached Japan first and decided to attack without waiting for the Chinese to arrive, but found that the Japanese had fortified their coastline so their attempts to breach it were futile. With the Chinese attacking by day and getting nowhere, the Japanese took to guerrilla warfare on the seas by night:

“In July 1281, the eastern army which carried 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 sailors aboard 900 ships attacked Tsushima and Iki before attempting to land at Hakata Bay without reinforcements. The Mongols launched attacks along the bay for about a week. The Japanese would respond to each attack with night raids. The Japanese ships would carry between 10 – 15 samurai and would close on the Mongol ships under the cover of darkness. When the ships were close enough the ship’s mast would be lowered to act as a bridge and the samurai would close in on the Mongol crew. The samurai excelled in close-quarter fighting and the Korean, Mongol and Chinese were no match for them in such tight quarters. On one occasion 30 samurai swam out to a Mongol vessel, decapitated the entire crew and swam back. Kusano Jiro led an attack in broad daylight and set a ship on fire even though he had his left arm cut off in the process. Kono Michiari also led a daylight raid in which the Mongols were led to believe they were coming to surrender. Instead of surrender Kono and his samurai boarded the vessel and captured a high-ranking general. These raids began unsettling the Mongols.”

It’s easy to imagine that the samurai in their boats were using the mists on the sea to cover their movements against the Goryeo fleet. Reading the phrase as “yoru de” also changes the position of the break in the haiku because it now makes a phrase out of “sugiyuku kasumi” which makes “de” as the point where the cut is:

The nights of 
        the warships from Koma……
the mists that
        go passing by!


Bowdoin University has a great site that digitalized the “Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba” which is a picture scroll that illustrates the two Mongol invasions of Japan. There are plenty of boats in the mist in it.