Category Archives: Essays

Wither Tom Tico


The book that the Haiku Society of America published, “The Haiku Path,” to celebrate Its twentieth anniversary is a great glimpse into how early ideas about haiku were argued and came into prominence. One of its interesting sections is entitled “Friend and Mentor: A Correspondence with Harold G. Henderson,” (pg.29-36) written by Tom Tico to celebrate his eight year correspondence of forty letters until Henderson’s untimely death in 1974. Tico’s article is historically interesting because it quotes passages about haiku and haiku theory from someone who dominated the rise of English language haiku in the 1960s and 70s but is now for the most part is a lost figure in history save for an award the society gives in his name.

Tico says that he wrote Henderson with the hope that the haiku scholar would take a look at some of his haiku and comment on them. He states that one of the first haiku that he sent which Henderson liked was this:

a lonely park path...
  only my grinding footsteps
   and the birds' silence.

This was what Henderson found in the above:

“(a) It has the haunting ‘growth’ quality of haiku (at least for me!).
“(b) It has enough detail to allow the reader to put himself in the poet’s place”
“(c) It has no unnecessary words. (This is almost a corollary of (b) –i.e.: unnecessary words use up space so that usually there is no room for the needed details.)
“(d)” It has what seems to me a rhythm and line-duration proper for haiku. (That it also has a strict 5-7-5 syllable count is, to me, much less important.)

The first thing to say about the first part of Henderson’s comments are that they are philosophically pretty much a rehash of Kyoshi Takahama’s “kyakkan shasei” ideas about haiku.

The on-line article “The Quiet Joy of Peace and Harmony: Kyoshi Takahama’s Life and Literature” by Katsuya Hiromoto has many direct quotes from Kiyoshi about his haiku aesthetics. (If you want see the article just google the title and it should come up, for some reason the url for it keeps changing making it impossible to link to.) Hiromoto on page 45 lists these ideas as:

“In the chapter on subjective haiku, he invites people to examine: 1 the truthfulness of subjectivity, 2 the great effort that should be made to describe objects, 3 the importance of simplicity and impressiveness, and 4 the deep feelings beneath simplicity.”

“1 Try to approach majestic nature, shedding small subjective elements. 2 Come into direct contact with nature and make a sketch in depth. 3 Be focused on the point of what is to be written. 4 Be well aware that each person’s character and taste are revealed through the portrayal. 5 Objective description is needed before speaking one’s mind. 6 Keep in mind that one should make continuous efforts to write objective haiku even if one is a skillful poet.”

It is easy to see how Henderson’s ideas about “haunting growth,” “detail to allow the reader to put himself in the poet’s place” and “no unnecessary words” are echoes of Kyoshi’s rules about “deep feelings beneath simplicity,” “approach majestic nature, shedding small subjective elements,” “be focused on the point of what is to be written” and “the importance of simplicity and impressiveness.”

Since Kyoshi was the dominate haiku writer of the early twentieth century it’s only natural that his style of haiku, which was in vogue by the 1920s, was the convention that Henderson picked up on, but it is important to remember that Japanese haiku, like any other world literature, has a historical time line of ideas and that the revolution that Masaoka Shiki started did outdate writing styles that the famous haiku writers before him admired. To say that you want to write in Kyoshi’s style is a matter of choice, but to say that this style is the only way haiku was ever written in Japan is simply a fantastic argument that must be disregarded as very grave misunderstanding of the genre.

Janine Beichman in “Masaoka Shiki” (Kodansha International, 1982) in a section about Shiki’s development as haiku writer (pg. 49) talks about how a haiku he wrote in 1886, before having formulated any new ideas, which is about the “yaezakura” (literal translation is “8 layered cherry blossoms” which in English means a “double flowered cherry blossom”) is where “the play of the words layered/ eight layered (hito-e/ya-e) is the poem’s center, although Shiki later rejected  such verbal play with much distaste.” The haiku and Beichman’s translation are:

Hitoezutsu hitoezutsu chire yaezakura

scatter layer
by layer, eight-layered
cherry blossoms!

Beichman states that “Shiki wrote this poem only two years after writing his first haiku and when he still, by his own account, believed that beauty was a sort of pleasure that arose from the exercise of the intellect.” Just the language of this haiku itself alone makes it hard for anyone familiar with “shasei” to believe that the writer could ever be Shiki. Beichman explained earlier how “Applying (Tsubouchi) Shoyo’s idea of realism to the haiku, Shiki had already concluded that it had to be based upon the realistic observations of nature rather than the puns or fantasies often relied on by the old school.” (pg.45)

Puns and fantasies aside, it is important to realize that word play was a big thing in Matsuo Basho’s time and that these verbal machinations also led haiku writers into trying to use diction and grammar as a way to split their haiku into as many plausible readings as possible. While although this, vis-a-vis English at least, is something that is unique to the Japanese language , the use of it was a poetic convention that lasted centuries in Japan before Shiki was influenced by the new western ideas of literature that flooded into Japan with the Meiji Revolution.

Although Shiki and Takahama advocated haiku realistic observations written with simpler language, they certainly didn’t argue that poetic diction should be flattened out to accomplish it. Tom Tico also notes how Henderson also wrote:”In the same letter he comments on a poem that he felt lacked rhythm: “The sound of a haiku, of course, is not as important as the feel—but it can help to convey it.””

To say that “sound is not as important as the feel” is to miss the fact that in English the two go together because we use sound all the time as a way to convey meaning and feeling. Sound actually IS the way we accomplish putting feeling into words and to argue that sound only helps in evoking feelings is an argument that automatically DEVALUES poetic diction into prose. Modern poets, of course, have become more prosaic since they have left metered verse and gone with free verse, but no one has ever argued that this means poetry should sound like prose.

The ‘walking’ haiku above by Tico is a pretty good technical type of descriptive prose. The “grinding” of the second line plays off of the “silence” that follows in the third line which amplifies the sound of footsteps, which gives a it the “quality of growth” that the reader puts together as they move through the haiku. However, as well it may work technically, one can not say that it is poetry by any definition because it simply aims for a muted description of the experience and nothing else. As Edmund Gosse explained it in the “Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition”:

“It will be obvious this definition that the danger ahead of all purely descriptive poetry is that it will lack intensity, that it will be frigid if not dead. Description for description’s sake, especially in studied verse, is rarely a vitalized form of literature. It is threatened, from its very conception, with languor and coldness. Therefore, it must exercise an extreme art or be condemned to immediate sterility. Boileau, with his customary intelligence, was the first to see this, and he thought that the danger might be avoided by care in technical execution. His advice to the poets of his time was (translation from the French by William Soame):

Soyez riches et pompeux dans vos descriptions;
C'est là qu'il faut des vers étaler l'élégance

In your descriptions show your noblest art
There 'tis your poetry may be employed

“Sterile” is the exact word to use when talking about this haiku. It is sterile because it leads nowhere. There is no function of language in it to transport us past the description it gives us. No one can claim that it works on any meta-level of language. As soon as you start to think that it can be read as a allegory, the unwritten part about how it is the footsteps that have caused “the bird’s silence” trips you up and you are back to reading it as a pure description.

Boileau’s point about how “in descriptions show your noblest art,” i.e. the “technical execution” that Edmund Grosse called it, is how descriptive writing escapes the “languor” it casts because, since it purposely erodes the meta-ranges of words that poetic devices give language, the poet must rely on visual and verbal accuracy to recreate the scene for the reader. Achieving such accuracy means the use of the whole spectrum of one’s language to capture what is being described.

Description has always been a part of English language poetry, and even poets when writing subjective poems rely on it. William Wordsworth, for example, sketched this scene in one of his famous poems:

A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The sound of the lines add to the experience of seeing the daffodils moving in the wind. Percy Shelley gave us this description of a sun rise on the sea which captures it perfectly by moving our sight from the red sun to the line of the horizon it climbs:

Lo! the sun upsprings behind,
Broad, red, radiant, half reclined
On the level quivering line
Of the waters crystalline;

And Walt Whitman who sketches so wonderfully through each of these lines:

With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,/
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,/
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,/
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,/
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,

These three examples above were taken from poems that are subjective in the sense that they are were written to expresses certain individual sentiments that the poet was feeling, but there are also a lot of poems that were written by poets that were written just for the sake of capturing the essence of what they saw and nature and nothing more:

Nor, shower'd from every Bush, the Damask-rose:
Infinite Numbers, Delicacies, Smells,
With Hues on Hues Expression cannot paint,
The Breath of Nature, and her endless Bloom.

James Thompson in the above has captured rose bushes with such a great delicacy that it is hard not to imagine the scent of  their blooms when you read the above. On the other hand, John Clare, using a a simpler and less adorned and colloquial vocabulary, was able to create a lot of poetry that are no more than apt descriptions of things he experienced:

The frog half fearful jumps across the path,/
And little mouse that leaves its hole at eve/
Nimbles with timid dread beneath the swath;/
My rustling steps awhile their joys deceive,/
Till past, and then the cricket sings more strong,/
And grasshoppers in merry moods still wear/
The short night weary with their fretting song.

Although Clare’s language is similar to Tico’s in syntax, there is more verbal expressiveness to it, which makes these lines much more memorable and enjoyable because they don’t suffer the “languor and coldness” that arises with lack of poetic execution in description. These are just a few quick examples of some descriptions done by western poets, there are millions more out from every century there as well.

Of course, to be fair to Tom Tico, the haiku above is one that he wrote when he was just starting to seriously write haiku, so we must take a look at what some of his other efforts are. These three were in the “The Haiku Anthology Revised Edition” (Simon and Schuster, 1986, pg. 242):

A wisp of spring cloud
 drifting apart from the rest. . . .
  slowly evaporates.
After gazing at stars . . .
 now, I adjust to the rocks
  under my sleeping bag.
The tinkle of chimes
 mingles with the steady fall
  of the autumn rain . . .

And these were in the “The Haiku Anthology 3rd edition” (Norton 2000, pg.222):

As day breaks...
 the lightness of her breath
  on my back
Sitting in the sun
 in the middle of the plants
  that I just watered
In an autumn wind
 looking through a box of books
   left on the corner

Taking these as representative of what Tico accomplished, there has been no progression from his early haiku. It is the same sterile descriptions in the unadorned language as the haiku he sent to Harold Henderson. Even the personal haiku above are given the lifeless treatment that he has given the scenes in nature. It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t have any emotional attachments to his personal moments, but he made no effort to express them. To call this juvenile writing would be to over praise it because even young poets at the start of their writing careers show more acumen and a stronger grasp at the possibilities of language than Tico does in any of the above. Anyone with any genuine interest in poetry recognizes this and would immediately set down this kind of writing quickly aside and pay it no mind, and to be frank about, nor is there any argument to be made by anyone that they shouldn’t.

Tico’s “autumn wind” haiku is interesting because it echoes this one by Masaoka Shiki:


Harusame ya Kasa sashite miru ezōshiya

The slight soft spring rain!
Opening up an umbrella
to gaze at the
colorful picture book store.

The grammatical difference between the two is that by using “in” to make a prepositional phrase Tico localizes the “autumn wind” as part of the scenery of his haiku and thus makes the haiku an act of description while Shiki made a clean cut between “spring rain” which opens up space from what follows it so that there can be some poetic interplay between the action and the setting of because they are grammatical separate from each other.

The book “Learn The Knack of Haiku Through Famous Ones, Book 2” (名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (下) (角川選書、2001) is a transcription of conversations between some modern haiku writers about the language and techniques that are used in famous haiku and there is a discussion in it about Matsu Basho’s famous frog pond haiku that centers on the what if Basho had written “Furuike ni” (Into the old pond) rather than “Furuike ya” (The old pond!). (pgs 21-22). Yūko Kagiwada starts the discussion by stating:

“If you change the beginning of “Furu ike ya Kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto” to “Furu ike ni”, in comparison there is clearly is big difference between then two. If it was “Furu ike ni” then this haiku becomes a simple description of a place and now none of us would know it and it would have been forgotten and disregarded a long long time ago. It is generally considered that it spreads out into an unlimited expanse because of the use of the cutting letter “ya”.”

As to how “ya” makes this great poetry rather than forgettable description he says:

“”Ya” sets the pitch. The writer adds in an emotional response by expressing how there is an old pond and this invites the emotional response of the reader. It strengthens the image of an old pond, but here it isn’t just the general way that the use of “ya” works. Here the sound of the water that happened when the frog jumped in is wholly connected to the old pond making it into a single universe and the reason why this haiku became famous is because of “ya.””

Akira Oogushi chimes in about how “ya” opens up the haiku to be read as poetry:

“The difference between “ni” and “ya” is that with “ya” further associations can be made and the scope of the haiku extraordinarily opens up because one expects something to occur after the use of it, but the use of “ni” makes this limited. When the reader comes to “Furu ike ya” there is a huge sense of expectation about what will follow it.”

One if the first things which jumps to mind when considering the use of “ya” being described here is how it automatically indicates an emotional element that is indicated by the writer and is received by the reader, something which is totally void in Tim Tico’s haiku. The second is how the use of “ya” sets the pitch (調子} which is to say that it adds an musical element to the haiku that Basho built the rest of the haiku off of.

“Ya” is kireji (cutting word). It is a sentence ending particle. There are also five other kireji that act as end particles (kana , mogana, zo, ka, yo), there are ten kireji that are verb endings (keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke), and two others that are a speculative verbs and an adjectival endings (ikani and shi). These are parts of grammar taken from the classic canon of Japanese literature written by the courtiers several centuries ago in a language which is now so archaic that nobody has spoken it for many centuries.

Roman Jakobsen argued that grammar was the essential way to understand poetry because “poetry successfully combines and integrates form and function, that poetry turns the poetry of grammar into the grammar of poetry.” Looking at it from this perspective, the use of “kireji” in haiku is an actual example of Jakobsen’s theory being true, that the Japanese have integrated and combined the old grammar of the old poetry with contemporary language and thus have literally turned the “poetry of grammar into the grammar of poetry” by lifting it from the past and making an integral part of poetic composition.

The discussion above about how “ya” is the part of the Basho’s frog haiku that has made it memorable poetry shows how invaluable the use of “kireji” are to haiku. Without it Basho simply writes forgettable prose. With it Basho writes a masterpiece of the genre. The reason why it creates great poetry is because it provides the grammar which elevates language out of the mundane and into the realm of high diction. The definition of haiku always states that it must include a “kireji” and a “kigo” (season word) and recently there are some Japanese who advocate that “kigo” are too confining and that they should stop being part of the definition of haiku. But, you never hear anyone argue that “kireji” should be taken out of the definition and the reason for is that without it haiku lacks the grammatical tension that gives the high diction associated with poetry.

Now that we have a little better of an understanding of “ya” and how it effects Shiki’s ‘gazing at a bookstore’ haiku, it is obvious that Tico’s similar version is nothing but a nondescript description of something that he or somebody else is doing. Indeed, since Tico attached a preposition to the “autumn wind,” going by the discussion of how using a preposition would have made the famous frog pond haiku a forgettable one, it’s clear to see that his effort falls well short of what Japanese standards for poetry are as well as the ones in our own language. It maybe that Tico was caught on the wrong side of history because of the mistakes that were made by the early translators, but that doesn’t change the fact that way he wrote is well below the accepted standards of both cultures.

The now deceased haiku writer John Crook once commented on a mailing list something about how just because haiku in the west were written under mistaken auspices about Japanese haiku doesn’t automatically invalidate them, and that would be true except that haiku in the west has never been able to pull itself far away from these wrong ideas to enter western poetry mainstream because its keepers refuse to use the language of poetry. This dooms haiku to the silly idea that you can write lasting and worthy poetry in a poetically devalued language. What invalidates most of the 20th century English language haiku is what throws all bad poetry into the dust bin of antiquity: i.e. bad writing. And what makes this more heinous is that in haiku it was often the case of poor writing done on purpose, which was and is a sad sad waste of a lot of possibly great talent.

Apparently, somewhere along the line Tom Tico changed his haiku style, while searching on the internet I ran into these two haiku:

now my son
measures me
her letter . . .
I'd forgotten
paper can cut

He now seems to write haiku that have “a meaning,” well not a clear meaning per se, rather he follows the standard method of “show but don’t tell” that often gets argued as the “soul” of haiku which simply presents a situation to the reader that feigns an emotion so that the reader can read anything into the situation. The operative word in haiku is that this feint is “resonance” between the two parts of the haiku that leads the reader into filling in the emotional gap that the writer intentionally leaves out.

The are two obvious problems with this theory that “haiku resonance” is great poetry, the first is that the normal kind of usually poetry written with emotion and the use of diction and imagery to express the subjective feelings of writers always have “resonated” with us because we can readily relate to the emotional content that poets incorporate into words, so in expressing the said emotion then good poetry speaks to us in ways that reach into us and we retain and remember it. Memorable poetry takes on “a particular importance that appeal to us in a personal and emotional way,” which is the definition of “resonance.”

The second problem is that haiku people who spout off about “resonance” are distorting the term to camouflage the idea they are really pedaling, i.e that haiku must be a “conundrum game” of language that they enjoy unravelling. This is very clear in the article “Meaning in Haiku” on the Haiku Society of America website by Charles Trumble where he writes about how “too much meaning” kills a haiku:

“Wordiness or overuse of poetic devices. Is it possible to have too much meaning in a haiku? Perhaps the haiku with morals or messages that we just saw fall into this category. Certainly haiku that use too many words and lack concision do, as do those that overuse poetic devices. When too much meaning is provided, all the joy of discovery evaporates, as in this poem by Rengé:

scores of birds
 on a staff of wires
  ―autumn symphony

This is clever use of language―the puns on “scores” and “staff”―but in the end the poet spoon-feeds meaning to us, and thereby kills the haiku.”

The only thing killed by this haiku is “the joy of discovery” that Trumble laments as being absent in this haiku. This “joy” that he feels only occurs when the writer plays  “a game of conundrum” that obscures the meaning to the point of where the reader must engage in a mental game of “seek and discover” to garner any meaning from the haiku. This makes haiku a parlor game akin to charades where the writer throws out clues to the reader who then guesses at what the writer has mutely expressed.

Since the performance of the writer is the most important part of this game, as it is in charades, the writer then must always intellectualize their haiku so that it leads into an intellectual maze that the reader takes pleasure in escaping, and since there can be no game unless the writer keeps true to this format, then this type of haiku is always bound to a very strict formalized notion of writing. Indeed, haiku people argue all the time that unless one follows these strict rules they haven’t written “a haiku” at all, which is the implied meaning when Trumble wrote that Rengé has “killed the haiku.” However, as most other creative writers in the world know, any type of poetry that is strictly bound to certain formal rules that are incapable of being used to express human emotions is a dead form of art upon arrival.

These two later period haiku by Tico above are perfect examples of this dead style. The second haiku was actually chosen  as the “Museum of Haiku Literature Award” in 2014, which really isn’t surprising given that the meaning is so distorted that the reader must jump through a series of mental hoops before deciding on what Tico is trying to say. Everything in this haiku, even grammar, is subservient to the form of the “conundrum game” to provide the reader with tons of mental wanderings to peruse through the half information that he provides in it to reach their own conclusion about what they think it ought to mean.

This is about as dead as one can be when it comes to creative writing. When the sole purpose of writing is not expression but rather the fulfilling of a set rule that prohibits self-expression for the sake for providing the reader with a game they must engage in, then there is no possibilities at all for haiku to ever be anything but a second rate type of poetry. The bald truth about “resonance haiku” is that any personal interest in this type of writing only lasts as long as there is a game to play, which is until you work through to find an answer for the conundrum, and once you “solve” it the haiku becomes disposable and you simply toss it away like a rumpled napkin.

Playing this game with the two Tico haiku above, after you come to a conclusion about them you simply see how shallow they really are and you move on. In comparison, the haiku by Rengé, with all its “clever use of language,” stays with you longer because it uses language (or as Trumble ironically states it “word play) as the way to imprint and convey the scene and to deepen the sense so the music of the birds stay with you. That’s how poetry works. Haiku poets have been trumpeting for decades now how observantly profound their works are, but they are inexcusably blind to the fact that poets have been doing it since the dawn of language and poets are decidedly a lot better at relating observations to the reader. One doesn’t have to be profoundly wise to understand why: poets unabashedly use everything that their language has to offer when they write. Haiku writers, on the other hand, have always argued that the language they employ must be cropped or diluted in someway, as if it was the defining characteristic of the genre.

Actually, the history of haiku in Japan is the exact opposite in the terms of language usage, the development of of “haikai” through the development of “renga” (linked verses) came, as Kōji Kawamoto explains in the “The Poetics of Japanese Verse” (translated, University of Tokyo Press, 2000, pg. 62) from these ideas:

“a “haikai renga” was any “renga” sequence in which each of the verses contained a “haikai” word. These “haikai” words (known as “haigon”) referred to all terms outside the restricted body of allowable “waka” words. The varieties of “haigon” included colloquialisms, contemporary terms, Chinese loan words, Buddhist terminology, and other foreign expressions……….In one passage of “Sanzōshi” (Three Booklets, ca. 1792, in a section known as the White Booklet) we read that “Chinese poems, “waka”, “renga” and “haikai” are all forms or poetic art. However, the first three first three leave certain things aside while “haikai” embraces all. Elsewhere Kyorai wrote that “”haikai” is freedom,” and this, we can say, became the rallying cry for “haikai.””

Kyorai was “free” because he had the full range and power of his language to create poetry with. “Freedom” sure has never been the rallying cry for haiku in the West, rather it has been loaded down with a number of “do nots” which has left it as a sterile and empty as the “waka” in Japan was for centuries before it was revived out of itself in the late 19th century. And here too, on this same lonely island of “self referential literature” withers Tom Tico and a whole colony of self-minded writers who think that having a set in stone format means they are writing great haiku. Given that the development of haiku was the diametric opposite of that, one has to wonder if they actually have ever really written any “true haiku” at all. One thing for sure, they haven’t written much of anything that “resonates” in the world at large.

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.