Basho Tells How to Make Haiku: 19 statements from his letters and spoken word
Selected, translated, and explored by Jeff Robbins
Words of Basho in bold
Commentaries in ordinary print.
From the hundreds of passages of Basho’s letters and spoken word on the mental and spiritual path which leads to a haiku, I have culled 19 of the most concise and profound. I offer this advice from the greatest of all haiku poets to everyone writing haiku in English today.
1: In poetry is a realm which cannot be taught. You must pass through it yourself. Some poets have made no effort to pass through, merely counting things and trying to remember them. There was no passing through the things.
Haikai wa oshite narazaru tokoro ari. Yoku tōzuru ni ari. Aru hito no haikai wa katte tōzezu. Tada mono o kazoete oboyuru you ni shite. Tōzuru mono nashi
To follow Basho’s path, we must “pass through things”, experiencing them ourselves.
2: In the verses of other poets is too much making and the heart’s immediacy is lost. What comes from the heart is good; the product of words shall not be preferred.
Aru hito no ku wa, saku ni sugite kokoro no massagu o ushinau nari. Kokoro no saku wa yoshi, kotoba no saku wa konomu bekarazu.
Words from the heart are good. Words from other words are not.
3: This path has a fresh lively taste in both heart and words, giving life.
Kono michi wa kokoro, kotoba tomo ni shimmi o motte inochi to su
4: You should know that a poem combines things . . . Poetry is the experience of the heart which goes and returns …
Hokku wa tori awaseru mono to shiru beshi. Hokku no koto wa ikite kaeru kokoro no ajiwai nari
to announce a whale
blows on a shell
Ami no ko ga / kujira o shirasu / kai fuite
This single renku stanza, like a haiku, combines the intriguing trio of child, whale, and shell. We start with medium-size child, then move out to enormous whale, return to small shell in boy’s hand, then his breath, his life-force, spreads out to fill the area with sound, then the whale flees, the waves surge, the men running to their boats, the boy watching excitedly from his post. So much sound and action. We go and return with the energy of living beings.
5: Only this, apply your heart to what children do.
Tada, kodomo no suru koto ni kokoro o tsuku beshi
Not what children say or how they appear, but what they do. Children’s actions are whole, not divided by the endless conflict of adult concerns. Strive to write poetry with that wholeness.
6: Now in my heart the form of poetry is as looking into a shallow stream over sand, with lightness both in the body of the verse as well as in the heart’s connection.
Ima omou wa tei ni asaki suna-gawa o miru gotoku, Ku no kata, tsuke-gokoro tomo ni karuki nari
This statement Basho made in the summer of his final year, 1694, contains the two concepts I see as central to his poetry:
- Lightness: The opposite of heaviness, a rejection of oldness and conventionality, an affirmation of child-like clarity.
- Heart’s connection: A connection to the image through inner personal feelings.
The following haiku of spring 1690 was the first he described with the word karumi, or lightness
Under the trees
soup, vinegar salad, and
Ko no moto ni / shiru mo namasu mo / sakura kana
The scene is the same in Basho’s time as in ours. The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish-white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favourite foods. The soup is brought to the picnic in an iron pot and heated over a fire. Namasu is raw vegetables, typically carrots and daikon radish, sliced thin, and marinated in vinegar, popular at celebrations. Amid the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom-kimono, the chatter and songs and laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the food.
At the time of this verse, the Master said:
7: As I gained some feeling for the rhythm in this verse on blossom-viewing, I made lightness.
Hanani no ku no kakari o sukoshi kokoete, karumi o shitari
Basho says that lightness comes from the kakari, or rhythm of words. Haruo Shirane in Traces of Dreams, from his native Japanese ear describes the rhythm in Japanese:
“[the verse] starts slowly with four successive ‘o’ sounds (ko, no, mo, to) and then plunges into a strong consonant beat: (shi-ru mo na-ma-su mo sa-ku-ra) with each new syllable seeming to pick up speed, and then ends on the emotive, exclamatory kana, thus suggesting the inebriated mood of a cherry blossom party.”
The final kana is “emotive, exclamatory”, so “hurray!”. We are celebrating the season of warmth and new life. Lightness is us, real people having fun, sharing food.
In a 1690 letter, Basho describes lightness, and offers an example:
8: According to your various talents, make the verse from your heart, whether linked verse or haiku, neither heavy nor merely spinning about.
Bungen sō ō no kokoro ni tsutomotaru ku domo itasase sōrō. Nao haikai hokku omokurezu motte mawarazaru yō ni go-kōan nasaru beku sōrō.
(Sōrō is a classical form used in letters, equivalent to the modern imasu or arimasu.)
There is a man
covered by a straw mat,
glory of spring
Komo o kite / tare bito imasu / hana no haru
A beggar sleeps under a straw mat in the freezing cold New Year’s weather. He has an identity, a dignity within the glory of spring. If not for fortune, I could be him. The verse goes straight to its sociological meaning; it does not “spin about” aimlessly, yet is not “heavy” – it does not shove that meaning at the reader’s face.
Basho’s follower Shado wrote this haiku:
Rays of the sun
shining on the garbage
Hi no kage ya / gomoku no ue no / oya suzume
9: Study this poem to find out why we should favour lightness and detest heaviness.
Kono ku o motte karumi o konomi, omosa nikumu no sabetsu o oshie tamae
Focus on the garbage, and the verse is heavy, even gross. Maggots! Yuck! Now, focus on the sunlight and the affection of mother providing for her babies, and it is altogether light and life-giving.
10: The skillful have a disease; let a three-foot child get the poem.
Kōsha no byō ari. Haikai wa sanjaku no warabe ni sase yo
That disease is oldness, conventionality, heaviness in writing. A three-foot child would be five or six, so have little higher cortical function to circumvent the native spontaneity of the ancient brain.
11: Oldness is the worst disease a poet can have.
Furubi tsuki sōrō wa haikai dai-ichi no yamai nite sōrō
By oldness I believe Basho means what is conventional, conforming to standards.
In a letter of 1681, Basho wrote to a follower:
12: Without a sense for how to use ordinary words, you will get mixed up in oldness.
Zokugo no tsukai you fuuryuu nakute mata kōryuu ni magire sōrō koto
Years later, Basho put this idea in positive terms:
13: Poetry benefits from the realisation of ordinary words
Haikai no eki wa zokugo o tada nari
This Basho haiku demonstrates his “realisation” or mastery of ordinary words:
things come to mind,
Sama zama no / koto omoi-idasu / sakura kana
Basho’s seven words are completely, utterly simple. No complications: seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese and likewise in English. He says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these flowers and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. The plain and ordinary words are “realised” through the thousand years of associations of Japanese life with cherry blossoms. Ordinary words take on extraordinary meanings and feelings.
14: A stanza may have extra sounds, 3, 4, even 5 or 7; if the phrase has good resonance, it is okay – however if even one sound stagnates in your mouth, you should examine it.
Moji amari san-yon ji, go-nana ji amari sōrō shika, ku no hibiki yoku sōrōeba yoroshiku, ichiji nite mo kuchi ni tamari sōrō o go-ginmi aru beki koto.
Basho advises that we speak the verse out loud to ensure that the phrases have “resonance” (hibiki) and do not “stagnate” in the mouth – like water in a stream stuck behind a wad of fallen leaves, old, foul, and heavy – but rather flow with natural rhythm that resonates in the listener’s ear. For many years I have enjoyed the natural resonance I hear when I speak: Many, many /things come to mind / cherry blossoms”. At one time I considered changing the middle segment to “things brought to mind” or “thoughts come to mind” – but when I spoke these phrases out loud, I found that they “stagnate” in my mouth. “Things come to mind” is natural English and resonates.
15: Do not allow your verse to be artificial.
Ikku saiku ni shitate sōrō koto, fuyō ni sōrō koto.
Basho compares an artificial verse by Kikaku with his own naturally occurring verse:
monkey’s white fangs
moon over the peak
Koe karete / saru no ha shiroshi / mine no tsuki
their gums so cold
a fish store
Shio-dai no / haguki mo samushi / uo no tana
Basho scholar Kon Eizo says: “Along a street in the desolation of winter, a few salted bream are lined up on a tray in a fish store. The lips drawn back in death reveal gums frightful in their coldness.”
16: The verse ‘Hoarse shirek’ is Kikaku. ‘Gums of salted bream’ is the poetry of my old age. The lower segment, “a fish store”, saying only this, is my style.
‘Saru no ha-jiroshi mine no tsuki’ to iu wa Kikaku nari. ‘Shiodai no haguki’ wa waga o-oi-ku nari. Shita wa uo no tane, to tada iitaru mo jiku nari
Basho in his old age has discovered something else: Lightness. Poetry can be excellent without heavy and exaggerated imagery such as monkeys shrieking through fangs like jagged mountain peaks; poetry can reveal ordinary scenes in daily life. Kikaku wrote his verse from imagination, not from any actual experience of monkeys or mountains or the moon. It has nothing to give us; once the shock is over, there is nothing in the verse we can learn. Basho said “No one surpasses Kikaku in exaggeration, so let us forgive him”. (Saku Kikaku ni oyobu moro iku nashi. Kare wa yurusu beshi.)
“A fish store” is Basho’s genius. Another poet would have ended the poem with something bold, striking, philosophical, or religious. Basho however just says “a fish store” with all its daily life associations in smell and sound and sight. Any woman in the temperate zone near the sea can see Basho’s haiku right before her eyes when she goes shopping in winter. Kikaku’s verse is suitable only for people off in some fantasy world where monkeys shriek. It is literary and “old”. Basho’s verse is real and light.
17: Settling for standards and searching for reason places one in the middle grade of poets; one who defies standards and forgets reason is the wizard on this path.
Kaku o sadame, ri o motomuru hito wa haikai chi’i ni oki, Kaku o hanare, ri o wasureru hito wa kono michi no sennin nari.
On the saddle
sits their ‘little monk’
Kara tsubo ni / kobouzu noru ya / daikon-hiki
This is not an actual apprentice monk but rather an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close. Because ‘daikon gathering’ in Japanese tradition suggests a happy family excursion, I have added in “their”. We feel not this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family. Basho said
18: “To have the little boy stand out in relation to the daikon-gathering was the making of this verse.”
Noru ya daikon hiki, to kobōzu no yoku me ni tatsu tokoro, ku sakari ari
The image of “little monk” makes the child’s bald head “stand out” on a child‘s body on the saddle on the horse rising vertically above the horizontal field, watching his elders at work. This “standing out” is what “makes” the verse.
19: Make poetry ride the energy.
Haikai wa ki ni nosete su beshi.
Ki is the ch’i or “universal energy” or life force of Oriental medicine and martial arts, “The Force” in Star Wars. Our haiku can ride the energy to a higher, wider, or deeper place. Those who ride a horse, play a musical instrument, surf the waves, fly a kite, or practice a martial art may best understand Basho’s meaning.
Editor’s note: Jeff Robbins is an American who has lived in Japan for 30 years and studied in Japanese the haiku, renku, tanka, journals, haibun, letters, and spoken word of Basho for all those years. This article appears here with his permission.
His website Basho4Humanity explores several hundred Basho works which appear nowhere else in English. He believes Basho’s several hundred works on women and children are the earliest and more numerous, diverse, and insightful female-centric verses in world literature: see more here. His ultimate wish is for affiliation; an individual or group to take over this material, co-operate with him in developing it, receive full royalties, and continue doing so after he is gone. He also hopes you will respond to this article. Email Jeff here.