Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson & Modern Haiku Myths
by Haruo Shirane
One of the widespread beliefs in the English-speaking world is that haiku should be based upon one’s own direct experience, that it must derive from one’s own observations, particularly of nature.
But it is important to remember that this is basically a modern view of haiku, the result, in part, of 19th century European realism, which had an impact on modern Japanese haiku and then was re-imported back to the West as something very Japanese. Basho, who wrote in the 17th century, would have not made such a distinction between direct personal experience and the imaginary, nor would he have placed higher value on fact over fiction.
Basho was first and foremost a master of haikai, or comic linked poetry. In haikai lined verse, the 17-syllable hokku, or opening verse, is followed by a 14-syllable wakiku, or added verse, which in turn is followed by the 17-syllable third verse, and so forth. Except for the first verse, which stood alone, each additional verse was read together with the previous verse and pushed away from the penultimate verse, or the verse prior to the previous verse. Thus, the first and second verse, the second and third verse, third and fourth verse formed independent units, each of which pushed off from the previous unit.
The joy and pleasure of haikai was that it was imaginary literature, that the poets who participated in linked verse moved from one world to the next, across time, and across space. The basic idea of linked verse was to create a new and unexpected world out of the world of the previous verse. Once could compose about one’s daily life, about being an official in China, about being a warrior in the medieval period, or an aristocrat in the ancient period. The other participants in the haikai sequence joined you in that imaginary world or took you to places that you could reach on with your imagination.
One of the reasons that linked verse became so popular in the late medieval period, in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it first blossomed as a genre, was because it was a form of escape from the terrible wars that ravaged the country at the time. For samurai in the era of constant war, linked verse was like the tea ceremony; it allowed one to escape, if only for a brief time, from the world at large, from all the bloodshed. The joy of it was that one could do that in the close company of friends and companions. When the verse sequence was over, one came back to earth, to reality.
In short, linked verse, both orthodox linked verse (renga) and its comic or casual version (haikai), was fundamentally imaginary. The hokku, or opening verse of the haikai sequence, which later became haiku, required a seasonal word, which marked the time and place of the gathering, but it too had no restrictions with regard to the question of fiction. Indeed, poets often composed on fixed topics (dai), which were established in advance.
Buson, one of the great poets of haiku of the late 18th century, was in fact very much a studio or desk poet. He composed his poetry at home, in his study, and he often wrote about other worlds, particularly the 19th and 11th century Heian aristocratic world and the subsequent medieval period. One of his most famous historical poems is Tobadono e gorokki isogu mowaki kana, probably composed in 1776 (all translations are my own).
To Toba palace
5 or 6 horsemen hurry
Toba palace, which immediately sets this in the Heian or early medieval period, was an imperial villa that the Cloistered Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129) constructed near Kyoto in the 11th century and that subsequently became the location of a number of political and military conspiracies. The galloping horsemen are probably warriors on some emergency mission – a sense of turmoil and urgency embodied in the season word of autumn tempest (nowaki). The hokku creates a powerful atmosphere and a larger sense of narrative, like a scene from a medieval military epic or from a picture scroll.
Another noted historical poem by Buson is Komabune no yorade sugiyuku kasumi kana, composed in 1777.
the Korean ship
not stopping passes back
into the mist
Komabune were the large Korean ships that sailed to Japan during the ancient period, bringing cargo and precious goods from the continent, a practice that had long since been discontinued by Buson’s time. The Korean ship, which is offshore, appears to be heading for port but then gradually disappears into the mist (kasumi), a seasonal word for spring and one associated with dream-like atmosphere. The Korean ship passing into the spring mist creates a sense of mystery, of a romantic other, making the viewer wonder if this scene is nothing but a dream.
Another example from Buson is inazuma ya nami moteyueru akitsushima, composed in 1776.
girdled by waves
islands of Japan
In this hokku, the light from the lightning (inazuma), a seasonal word for autumn associated in the ancient period with the rice harvest (ina), enables the viewer to see the waves surrounding all the islands of Akitsushima (an ancient name for Japan that originally meant the islands where rice grows richly). This is not the result of direct experience. It is a spectacular aerial view – a kind of paean to the fertility and beauty of the country – that would only be possible from far above the earth.
Even the personal poems can be imaginary.
stepping on my dead wife’s comb
in the bedroom
The opening phrase, mini ni shimu (literally, to penetrate the body), is an autumn phrase that suggests the chill and sense of loneliness that sinks into the body with the arrival of the autumn cold and that here also functions as a metaphor of the poet’s feelings following the death of his wife. The poem generates a novelistic scene of the widower, some time after his wife’s funeral, accidentally stepping on a comb in the autumn dark, as he is about to go to bed alone. The standard interpretation is that the snapping of the comb in the bedroom brings back memories of their relationship and has erotic overtones. But this is not about direct or personal experience. The fact is that Buson (1706-83) composed this while his wife was alive. Indeed Buson’s wife Tomo outlived him by 31 years.
Why then the constant emphasis by English-language haiku poets on direct personal experience? The answer is historically complex, but it should be noted that the haikai that preceded Basho was almost entirely imaginary or fictional haikai. Much of it was so imaginary that it was absurd, and as a result it was criticised by some as “nonsense” haikai.
A typical example is this hokku found in Indoshu (Teaching Collection, 1684), a Danrin school haikai handbook: mine no hana no nami ni ashika kujira o oyogase.
making sea lions and whales
swim in the cherry blossom waves
at the hill top
The hokku links cherry blossoms, which were closely associated with waves and hill tops in classical Japanese poetry, to sea lions and whales, two non-classical, vernacular words, thereby comically deconstructing the poetic cliche of “waves of cherry blossoms”. Basho was one of the critics of this kind of “nonsense” haikai. He believed that haikai should describe the world “as it is”. He was in fact part of a larger movement that was a throwback to earlier orthodox linked verse or renga. However, to describe the world as it is did not mean denying fiction. Fiction can be very realistic and even more real than life itself.
For Basho, it was necessary to experience everyday life, to travel, to expose oneself to the world as much as possible, so that the poet could reveal the world as it was. But it could also be fictional, something born of the imagination. In fact, you had to use your imagination to compose haikai, since it was very much about the ability to move from one world to another. Basho himself often rewrote his poetry: he would change the gender, the place, the time, the situation. The only thing that mattered was the effectiveness of the poetry, not whether it was faithful to the original experience.
One of the chief reasons for the emphasis in modern Japan on direct personal observations was Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the late 19th century pioneer of modern haiku, who stressed the sketch (shasei) based on direct observation of the subject as the key to the composition of the modern haiku. This led to the ginko, the trips to places to compose haiku. Shiki denounced linked verse as an intellectual game and saw the haiku as an expression of the individual. In this regard Shiki was deeply influenced by Western notions of literature and poetry; first, that literature should be realistic, and second, that literature should be an expression of the individual.
By contrast, haikai as Basho had known it had been largely imaginary, and had been a communal activity, the product of group composition or exchange. Shiki condemned traditional haikai on both counts. Even if Shiki had not existed, the effect would have been similar since Western influence on Japan from the late 19th century has been massive. Early American and British pioneers of English-language haiku – such as Basil Chamberlain, Harold Henderson, R.H. Blyth – had limited interest in modern Japanese haiku, but shared may of Shiki’s assumptions. The influence of Ezra Pound and the (Anglo-American) Modernist poetry movement was also significant in shaping modern notions of haiku.
In short, what many North American haiku poets have thought to be uniquely Japanese had in fact its roots in Western literary thought.
We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English language haiku (such as D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the Beats) who mistakenly emphasised Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku, that haiku should be about the “here and now”. This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience.
Haiku is extremely short, and therefore it can concentrate on only a few details. It is thus suitable for focusing on the here and now. But there is no reason why these moments have to be only in the present, contemporary world or why haiku can’t deal with other kinds of time. This noted haiku appears in Basho’s Narrow Road: samidare no furinokoshite ya hikarido.
have the summer rains
come and gone, sparing
the Hall of Light
The summer rains (samidare) refers both to the rains falling now and to past summer rains, which have spared the Hall of Light over the centuries. Perhaps Basho’s most famous poem in Narrow Road is natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato in which the “dreams” and the “summer grasses” are both those of the contemporary poet and of the warriors of the distant past.
summer grasses –
traces of dreams
of ancient warriors
As we can see from these examples, haiku moments can occur in the distant past or in distant, imaginary places. In fact, one of Buson’s great accomplishments was his ability to create other worlds.
Basho travelled to explore the present, the contemporary world, to meet new poets, and to compose linked verse. Equally important, travel was a means of entering into the past, of meeting the spirits of the dead, of experiencing what his poetic and spiritual predecessors had experienced. In other words, there were two key axes: one horizontal, the present, the contemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems.
As I have shown in my book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Basho believed that the poet had to work along both axes. To work in the present only would result in poetry that was fleeting. To work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world. Haikai was, by definition, anti-traditional, anti-classical, anti-establishment, but that did not mean that it rejected the past. Rather, it depended upon the past and on earlier texts and associations for its richness.
If Basho and Buson were to look at English-language haiku today, they would see the horizontal axis, the focus on the present, on the contemporary world, but they would probably feel that the vertical axis, the movement across time, was largely missing.
There is no problem with the English-language haiku handbooks that stress personal experience. They should. This is a good way to practice, and it is an effective and simple way of getting many people involved in haiku. I believe, as Basho did, that direct experience and direct observation is absolutely critical; it is the base from which we must work and which allows us to mature into interesting poets. However, as the examples of Basho and Buson suggest, it should not dictate either the direction or value of haiku. It is the beginning, not the end. Those haiku that are fictional or imaginary are just as valid as those that are based on personal experience. I would in fact urge the composition of what might be called historical haiku or science fiction haiku.
Haiku as Non-metaphorical
Another rule of English-language haiku that Basho would probably find discomforting is the idea that haiku eschews metaphor and allegory. Haiku handbooks and magazines in English stress that haiku should be concrete, that it should be about the thing itself. The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B, as in simile or metaphor; instead the poet concentrates on the object itself. Allegory, in which a set of signs or symbols draw a parallel between one world and the next, is equally shunned. All three of these techniques – metaphor, simile, and allegory – are generally considered to be taboo in English-language haiku, and beginners are taught not to use them.
However, many of Basho’s haiku use metaphor and allegory, and in fact this is probably one of the most important aspects of his poetry. In Basho’s time, one of the most important functions of the hokku, or opening verse, which was customarily composed by the guest, was to greet the host of the session or party. The hokku had to include a seasonal word, to indicate the time, but it also had to compliment the host. This was often done allegorically or symbolically, by describing some aspect of nature, which implicitly resembled the host. A good example is: shiragiku no me ni tatete miru chiri mo nashi:
at the white chrysanthemums –
not a speck of dust
Here Basho is complementing the host (Sonome), represented by the white chrysanthemums, by stressing the flower’s and, by implication, Sonome’s purity.
Another example is botan shibe fukaku wakeizuru hachi no nagori kana, which appears in Basho’s travel diary Skeleton in the Fields (Nozarashi kiko).
Having stayed once more at the residence of Master Toyo, I was about to leave for the Eastern Provinces.
from deep within
the peony pistils – withdrawing
regretfully the bee
In this parting poem the bee represents Basho and the peony pistils the host (Master Toyo). The bee leaves the flower only with the greatest reluctance, thus expressing the visitor’s deep gratitude to the host. This form of symbolism or simple allegory was standard for poets at this time, as it was for the entire poetic tradition. In classical Japanese poetry, object of nature inevitably serve as symbols or signs for specific individuals or situations in the human world, and Japanese haikai is no exception.
Furthermore, poets like Basho and Buson repeatedly used the same images (such as the rose for Buson or the beggar for Basho) to create complex metaphors and symbols.
It is no doubt a good idea for the beginner to avoid overt metaphor or allegory or symbolism, but this should not be the rule for more advanced poets. In fact, I think this rule prevents many good poets from becoming great poets. Without the use of metaphor, allegory and symbolism, haiku will have a hard time achieving the complexity and depth necessary to become the object of serious study and commentary.
The fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent. The metaphor in good haiku is often buried deep within the poem. For example, the seasonal word in Japanese haiku tends often to be inherently metaphorical, since it bears very specific literary and cultural associations, but the first and foremost function of the seasonal word is descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied.
Allusion, Poetry about Poetry
The emphasis on the “haiku moment” in English-language haiku has meant that most of the poetry does not have another major characteristic of Japanese haikai and haiku: its allusive character, the ability of the poem to speak to other literary or poetic texts. I believe that it was Shelley who said that poetry is ultimately about poetry. Great poets are constantly in dialogue with each other. This was particularly true of haikai, which began as a parodic form, by twisting the associations and conventions of classical literature and poetry.
One of Basho’s innovations was that he went beyond parody and used literary and historical allusions as a means of elevating haikai, which had hitherto been considered a low form of amusement. Many of Basho and Buson’s haikai in fact depend for their depth on reference or allusion to earlier poetry, from either the Japanese tradition or the Chinese tradition. For example, one of Buson’s best known hokku (1742) is yanagi chiri shimizu kare ishi tokoro dokoro.
fallen willow leaves –
the clear stream gone dry,
stones here and there
The hokku is a description of a natural scene, of “here and now”, but it is simultaneously an allusion to and a haikai variation on a famous waka, or classical poem, by Saigyo (1118-1190), a 12th century poet: michinobe ni shimizu nagaruru yanagi kage shibashi tote koso tachitomaritsure (Shinkokinshu, Summer, No. 262).
by the side of the road
alongside a stream of clear water
in the shade of a willow tree
I paused for what I thought
would be just a moment
Basho (1644-94) had earlier written the following poem (ta ichimai uete tachisaru yanagi kana) in Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no hosomichi) , in which the traveller (Basho), having come to the place where Saigyo had written this poem, relives those emotions: Basho pauses beneath the same willow tree and before he knows it, a whole field of rice has been planted.
a whole field
of rice seedlings planted – I part
from the willow
In contrast to Basho’s poem, which recaptures the past, Buson’s poem is about loss and the irrevocable passage of time, about the contrast between the situation now, in autumn, when the stream has dried up and the willow leaves have fallen, and the past, in summer, when the clear stream beckoned to Saigyo and the willow tree gave him shelter from the hot summer sun. Like many of Basho and Buson’s poems, the poem is both about the present and the past, about the landscape and about other poems and poetic associations.
The point here is that much of Japanese poetry works off the vertical axis mentioned earlier. There are a few, rare examples of this in English haiku. I give one example, by Bernard Einbond, the late New York City poet, which alludes to Basho’s famous frog poem: furuike ya kawazy tobikomu mozu no oto (an old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water).
a leaf falls in
without a sound
This haiku deservedly won the Japan Airlines First Prize, in which there were something like 40,000 entries. This poem has a haikai quality that Basho would have admired. In typical haikai fashion, it operates on two fundamental levels. On the scenic level, the horizontal axis, it is a description of a scene from nature, it captures the sense of quiet, eremitic loneliness that is characteristic of Basho’s poetry. On the vertical axis, it is an allusive variation, a haikai twist on Basho’s famous frog poem, wittily replacing the frog with the leaf and the sound of the frog jumping in with no sound. Einbond’s haiku has a sense of immediacy, but at the same time it speaks to the past; it enters into dialogue with Basho’s poem. In other words, this haiku goes beyond “the haiku moment”, beyond the here and now, to speak across time. To compose such haiku is difficult. But it is the kind of poetry that can break into the mainstream and can become part of a poetic heritage.
The vertical axis does not always have to be a connection to another poem. It can be what I call cultural memory, a larger body of associations that the larger community can identify with. It could be about a past crisis (such as the Vietnam War or the loss of a leader) that the poet of a community is trying to come to terms with. The key here is the larger frame, the larger body of associations that carries from one generation to the next and that goes beyond the here and now, beyond the so-called haiku moment. The key point is that for the horizontal (contemporary) axis to survive, to transcend time and place, it needs at some point to cross the vertical (historical) axis; the present moment has to engage with the past or with a broader sense of time and community (such as family, national or literary history).
Nature and Seasonal Words
One of the major differences between English-language haiku and Japanese haiku is the use of the seasonal word (kigo). There are two formal requirements of the hokku, now called haiku: the cutting word, which cuts the 17-syllable hokku in two, and the seasonal word. English-language haiku poets do not use cutting words per se, but they use the equivalent, either in the punctuation (such as a dash), with nouns, or syntax. The effect is very similar to the cutting word, and there have been many good poems that depend on the cutting. However, there is no equivalent to the seasonal word. In fact, the use of a seasonal word is not a formal requirement in English-language haiku, as it is for most of Japanese haiku.
In Japan, the seasonal word triggers a series of cultural associations which have been developed, refined and carefully transmitted for over a thousand years and which are preserved, transformed and passed on from generation to generation through seasonal handbooks, which remain in wide use today. In Basho’s day, seasonal words stood in the shape of a huge pyramid. At the top were the big five, which had been at the core of classical poetry (the 31-syllable waka): the cuckoo (hototogisu) for summer, the cherry blossoms for spring, the snow for winter, the bright autumn leaves and the moon for autumn.
Spreading out from this narrow peak were the other topics from classical poetry – spring rain (harusame), orange blossoms (hanatachibana), bush warbler (uguisu), willow tree (yanagi), etc. Occupying the base and the widest area were the vernacular seasonal words that had been added recently by haikai poets. In contrast to the elegant images at the top of the pyramid, the seasonal words at the bottom were taken from everyday, contemporary, commoner life. Examples from spring include dandelion (tanpopo), garlic (ninniku), horseradish (wasabi) and cat’s love (neko no koi).
From as early as the 11th century, the poet of classical poetry was expected to compose on the poetic essence (honi) of a set topic. The poetic essence was the established associations at the core of the seasonal word. In the case of the warbler (uguisu), for example, the poet had to compose on the warbler in regard to the arrival and departure of spring, about the emergence of the warbler from the mountain glen, or about the relationship of the warbler to the plum blossoms. This poetic essence, the cluster of associations at the core of the seasonal topic, was thought to represent the culmination and experience of generations of poets over many years. By composing on the poetic essence, the poet could partake of this communal experience, inherit it, and carry it on. (This phenomenon is true of most of the traditional arts. The beginner must first learn the fundamental forms, or kata, which represent the accumulated experience of generations of previous masters.) Poets studied Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji and the Kokinshu, the first imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry, because these texts were thought to preserver the poetic essence of nature and the seasons as well as of famous places.
Famous places (meisho) in Japanese poetry have a function similar to the seasonal word. Each famous place in Japanese poetry had a core of poetic associations on which the poet was obliged to compose. Tatsutagawa (Tatsuta River), for example, meant momiji, or bright autumn leaves. Poets such as Saigyo and Basho travelled to famous poetic places – such as Tatsutagawa, Yoshino, Matsushima, Shirakawa – in order to partake of this communal experience, to be inspired by poetic places that had been the fountainhead of the great poems of the past. These famous poetic places provided an opportunity to commune across time with earlier poets. Like seasonal words, famous places functioned as a direct pipeline to the communal poetic body. By contrast, there are very few, if any places, in the English-speaking world that have a core of established poetic associations of the kind found in famous places in Japan. And accordingly there are relatively few English haiku on noted places.
The point here is that the seasonal word, like the famous place name in Japanese poetry, anchors the poem in not only some aspect of nature but in the vertical axis, in a larger communal body of poetic and cultural associations. The seasonal word allows something that is small to gain a life of its own. The seasonal word, like the famous place name, also links the poem to other poems. In fact, each haiku is in effect part of one gigantic seasonal poem.
People have often wondered about the brevity of the Japanese poem. The 17-syllable haiku is the shortest form in world literature, and the 31 syllable waka or tanka, as it is called today, is probably the second shortest. How then is it possible for poetry to be so short and yet still be poetry? How can there be complexity or high value in such a simple, brief form?
First, the brevity and the overt simplicity allow everyone to participate, making it a communal, social medium. Second, the poem can be short and still complex since it is actually part of a larger, more complex poetic body. When the poet takes up one of the topics at the top of the seasonal pyramid or visits a famous place, he or she enters into an imaginary world that he or she shares with the audience and that connects to the dead, the ancients. To compose on the poetic essence of a topic is, as we saw, to participate in the larger accumulated experience of past poets. It is for this reason that the audience takes pleasure in very subtle variations on familiar themes.
This communal body, the vertical axis, however, is in constant need of infusion, of new life. The haikai poet needs the horizontal axis to seek out the new experience, new language, new topics, new poetic partners. The seasonal pyramid can be seen as concentric circles of a tree trunk, with the classical topics at the centre, followed by classical linked verse topics, the haikai topics, and finally modern haiku words on the periphery. The innermost circles bear the longest history and are essentially fictional worlds and the least likely to change. The outer circles, by contrast, are rooted in everyday life and in the contemporary, ever-changing world. Many of those on the circumference will come and go, never to be seen again. Without the constant addition of new rings, however, the tree will die or turn into a fossil. One of the ideals that Basho espoused toward the end of his life was that of the “unchanging and the ever-changing” (fueki ryuko). The “unchanging” implied the need to seek the “truth of poetic art” (fuga no makoto), particularly in the poetic and spiritual tradition, to engage in the vertical axis, while the “ever changing” referred to the need for constant change and renewal, the source of which was ultimately to be found in everyday life, in the horizontal axis.
Significantly, the Haiku Society of America definition of haiku does not mention the seasonal word, which would be mandatory in Japan for most schools. Maybe half of existing English-language haiku have seasonal words or some sense of the season, and even when the haiku do have a seasonal word the usually do not server the function that they do in Japanese haiku. The reason for this is that the connotations of seasonal words differ greatly from region to region in North America, not to mention other parts of the world, and generally are not tied to specific literary or cultural associations that would immediately be recognised by the reader. In Japan, by contrast, for hundreds of years, the seasonal words have served as a crucial bridge between the poem and the tradition. English-language haiku therefore has to depend on other dimensions of haiku for its life.
In short, while haiku in English is inspired by Japanese haiku, it can not and should not try to duplicate the rules of Japanese haiku because of significant differences in language, culture and history. A definition of English-language haiku will thus, by nature, differ from that of Japanese haiku. If pressed to give a definition of English-language haiku that would encompass the points that I have made here, I would say, echoing the spirit of Basho’s own poetry, that haiku in English is a short poem, usually written in one to three lines, that seeks out new and revealing perspectives on the human and physical condition, focusing on the immediate physical world around us, particularly that of nature, and on the workings of the human imagination, memory, literature and history. There are already a number of fine North American haiku poets working within this frame so this definition is intended both to encourage an existing trend and to affirm new space that goes beyond existing definitions of haiku.
Senryu and English-Language Haiku
Maybe close to half of English-language haiku, including many of the best ones, are in fact a form of senryu, seventeen syllable poems that do not require a seasonal word and that focus on human condition and social circumstances, often in a humorous or satirical fashion. I think that this is fine. English-language haiku should not try to imitate Japanese haiku, since it is working under very different circumstances. It must have a life and evolution of its own.
Senryu, as it evolved in Japan in the latter half of the eighteenth century, when it blossomed into an independent form, was heavily satirical, poking fun at contemporary manners and human foibles. English-language haiku magazines have established a distinction between the two forms, of haiku and senryu, in which those poems associated with nature are placed in the haiku category and those with non-natural subjects in the senryu category. According to the Haiku Society of America, haiku is the “essence of a movement keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature”. Senryu, by contrast, is “primarily concerned with human nature; often humorous or satiric”. While this definition of English-language senryu is appropriate, that for English-language haiku, which tends, by nature, to overlap with senryu, seems too limited.
One consequence of a narrower definition of haiku is that English-language anthologies of haiku are overwhelmingly set in country or natural settings even though 90 percent of the haiku poets actually live in urban environments. To exaggerate the situation, North American haiku poets are given the alternative of either writing serious poetry on nature (defined as haiku) or of writing humorous poetry on non-nature topics (defined as senryu). This would seem to discourage haiku poets from writing serious poetry on the immediate urban environment or broader social issues. Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theatres, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku, as much recent English-language haiku has revealed, and should be considered part of nature in the broadest sense.
For this reason I am now editing a volume of New York or urban haiku, which, according to the narrow definition of haiku, would often be discouraged or disqualified, but which, in my mind, represents the original spirit of Japanese haikai in focusing on the immediate physical environment. Projects such as Dee Evett’s “Haiku on 42nd Street”, in which he presented urban haiku on empty movie theatre marquees in Times Square, are, in this regard, both innovative and inspiring.
Conclusion: Some Characteristics of Haikai
The dilemma is this: on the one hand, the great attraction of haiku is its democracy, its ability to reach out, to be available to everyone. There is no poetry like haiku when it comes to this. Haiku has a special meaning and function for everyone. It can be a form of therapy. It can be a way to tap into one’s psyche. Haiku can do all these things. And it can do these things because it is short, because the rules are simple, because it can focus on the moment.
However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics. For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.
How then can haiku achieve that goal in the space of seventeen syllables? The answer is that it does not necessarily have to. One of the assumptions that Basho and others made about the hokku (haiku) was that it was unfinished. The hokku was only the beginning of a dialogue; it had to be answered by the reader or another poet or painter. Haikai in its most fundamental form, as linked verse, is about linking one verse to another, one person to another. Haikai is also about exchange, about sending and answering, greeting and bidding farewell, about celebrating and mourning. Haikai was also about mutual composition, about completing or complementing the work of others, adding poetry and calligraphy to someone’s printing, adding a prose passage to a friend’s poem, etc.
One consequence is that haikai and the hokku in particular is often best appreciated and read as part of a sequence, as part of an essay, a poetry collection, a diary or travel narrative, all forms that reveal the process of exchange, linkage, and that give haikai and haiku a larger context. Basho’s best work was Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no hosomichi), in which the haiku was embedded in a larger prose narrative and was part of a larger chain of texts.
In Basho’s day, haikai was two things: 1) performance and social act, and 2) literary text. As a social act, as an elegant form of conversation, haikai had to be easily accessible; it had to be spontaneous; it had to perform social and religious functions. Thus, half of Basho’s haiku were greetings, parting poems, poetic prayers. They served very specific functions and were anchored in a specific place and time, in a dialogic exchange with other individuals. For Basho, however, haikai was also a literary text that had to transcend time and place, be understood by those who were not at the place of composition. To achieve this goal, Basho repeatedly rewrote his poetry, made it fictional, gave it new settings, added layers of meaning, emphasised the vertical axis (linking it to history and other literary texts), so that the poem would have an impact beyond its original circumstances. One hopes that more North American haiku poets can take inspiration from this complex work.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
Dr Shirane is Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book in English is Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts (Columbia University Press, 2012).