Building an Excellent Birdcage
by Jane Reichhold
clouds of fog
quickly doing their best to show
one hundred scenes 1
What is poetry?
The art of poetry is such a hard thing to describe. Everyone is looking for a way to put words to something that is larger than words, more alive than thought, and longer lasting than any one poem. Poetry is the art of piling up dissimilar images to create an idea that has no exact name.
Picture this. A woman is standing at an open window. Just staring into space, a bit unfocused, lost in a world of thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a small, brown bird alights on the window sill. She knows she should carry the bird out the door and let it go but before she does, she has to do one more thing.
She builds a cage out of words. A cage she can share with others. The work on the cage goes on for days, maybe it is even years until the cage comes under the eyes of another person. In that moment, when the cage of words enters another’s mind, it begins to expand. It breaks up into thought – images created by the reader. Through the maze, and amazement of the reader, two cupped hands come forth.
The woman relaxes and lets the bird go. Now its dry feathery weight is in the man’s palm. What does it look like? What is it like? Slowly he makes a tiny finger-crack window in his hand and he sees the same eye staring at him that stared at the woman a long time ago when it stood on her window sill. With a flurry of feathers, that shed a magic rarely found, the bird flies back into the sky. It is impossible not to say, “Ah ha!”
So that is what haiku is all about. How to build the cage of words to hold the miracle safe and full of sound until the images in a reader’s mind open the door to the wonderment and delight the author found in one part of the world. It is the cage that will attract and intrigue the reader, but it must also be well-built enough to bring the experience intact across time and space.
Part of what makes haiku so interesting is that in learning how to read it you have to learn how to build these images.
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
You read “old pond” and you instantly imagine some old pond – and everyone’s old pond in different.
“a frog jumps into” and your mind sees a frog, jumping left or right or straight ahead and every one of us imagines a different frog.
And then comes the kicker in the last line “the sound of water”. What does he mean? It jumps into its own sound? But it does, and if you can imagine the frog jumping then you will be able to hear that sound.
So haiku, as you can see, make excellent cages. They are the perfect size for carrying our deepest experiences. Not big and clumsy with too many words. Not with thick bars of old ideas and abstract thinking. Haiku are alive. Like a cage made of living branches, they support and nourish the art of poetry until it arrives – safe and alive – in the mind of the reader. You’re not going to teach anybody anything with your haiku – you’re going to show them the experience.
I believe that every person has the ability to be a poet, whether you think you can or not. Some of you may suspect this about yourselves because of an undefined yearning – a place within you that you cannot scratch or reach. Perhaps some times this yen sublimates into a joy in words, a delight in the melodies of dialect, or in other forms of writing. Often it manifests in an interest in reading poetry by others. Or it can come in the simple desire of noticing a beautiful thing and wishing to hold on to the feeling it gives you.
You don’t need talent, you just need to do it, and do it and do it, and enjoy it … and to do it some more. If you go back to poetry that you have written and been unhappy with, go to the best and most interesting part of it and I can almost guarantee that there will be a haiku right there.
You can be a poet if you really want to be and to the degree you want to be, and I believe Basho can show you how. He can at least show you how to write haiku.
Learning to write haiku has advantages for learning to write anything. This was his final poem …
scattered on the waves
green pine needles
and its revision …
no dust on the waves
the summer moon
Being a poet will make your life richer
If you allow yourself to write haiku your life will change. I guarantee you that. Haiku writing is different to any other kind of writing because it demands that you change the way you act, the way you look at the world and think.
It begins where you are – in the present. Kierkegaard said that the unhappy man has no present, and I think much of our unhappiness lies with old memories that are painful and fears of the future, but if you come to this moment, this place where you are and, as you think about your uncomfortable chair or the temperature of the room you accept them, and that helps everything.
Haiku are brief and that makes them easy to write because you don’t have the chance to make that many errors. You always write them in the present tense, keeping them simple, keeping them brief and using common words, not fancy ones.
The other good thing about haiku is that it will connect you to the world outside – one of the ways of learning to write haiku is to take a walk. You will see things, things will call out to you and you will suddenly see something different that you’ve never seen before or you’ll see a relationship between the rolling surf and a cloud above; or you’ll see something odd and you’ll watch and your whole focus will leave your body and go to what you’re watching.
And that is the most freeing thing you can do. I think you live longer if you can do that. We’ll see.
seeing them extends my life
seventy-five more years
The question of syllables
Many people think haiku are not real haiku unless they have 17 syllables – but this does not have to be. In Japan if you’re counting the sound units there should be 17, but English syllables and Japanese sound units are different. The sound units are much shorter, and so if you would write a 17-syllable haiku it would come out about one-third too long. For instance, if you say “Tokyo” it has 3 syllables, but in Japanese it has 4 sound units.
When the Japanese tried to translate English haiku into Japanese they ended up with big, clunky poems and way too many words. So we’ve taken the idea of using short-long-short lines and this conforms to the haiku form, but it allows us a little more freedom in how many words we use. Also, in Japanese instead of having a full stop or a comma or a dash they have a word for the break the punctuation creates, and those words take up a couple of sound units so that’s another way of shortening it.
Modern haiku writers think you should not count English syllables when writing haiku and this allows a lot of freedom – you can forget about those particular bars of the cage.
Should haiku be written in English?
There’s an old idea that haiku cannot be written in English. In the 1960s RH Blyth wrote: “Women cannot write haiku.” So, here I am.
Earl Miner wrote a book about Basho’s renga and said it’s an interesting form and a beautiful thing to study … but we shouldn’t try it in English. And this is still the attitude in a lot of universities where they start with the idea you’re taught haiku in the 2nd grade (aged 8), therefore it’s something for elementary school.
Well, you learn addition and subtraction in the 2nd grade too, but that doesn’t stop you from studying calculus and algebra. And the same is true for haiku. The more you know about the form the more there is to learn.
I would like to see haiku, or Japanese genres, taught in universities because I feel there is so much more to be learned. In the 1920s when poets first began to be exposed to translations, like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, they got this idea of how important it is to work with images instead of abstract ideas, and so they began to use these methods with their own poetry.
But they didn’t take it far enough. They didn’t study the form so they could write really well. But it is possible, I believe, to write very good English haiku. I suppose I’ll be struck dead for saying it, but I take a Japanese magazine of haiku in which they translate Japanese into English, and I would say that what is being written in English is better.
The Japanese are working with the ideas of how to build a haiku, but we’ve had to study it so much and we’ve had to figure it out. A lot of Japanese have heard the Japanese poems from their childhood and therefore think they can do it. And they can. They bring a spirit to haiku that I don’t think English-speaking people will ever have – their sensitivity, their grace, their elegance. We can’t do that. But we can bring what we are to that form.
again I’ll lean on
Stop telling stories
One of the early mistakes people make when writing haiku is that they want to tell a story because we come from a literary tradition of storytelling and it’s hard to stop that. It’s very easy to say “the door opened, the dog came and spilled his water on the cat”.
That’s not haiku. Haiku focuses in, it goes right to the very heart. In this story you would focus on the water hitting the cat and that’s all you would talk about because that’s all that’s important in that story.
This is something that it takes a while for people to understand. One of the best ways of finding out what haiku are is to read them.
storm-torn banana tree
all night I listen to rain
in a basin
Reading and writing
But reading them is not easy. I handed a friend of mine a haiku book and she called me up weeks later and said, “Jane, you know I love you, but I cannot figure out what these are”. And she simply didn’t know how to read them – it’s true that you have to learn how to read a haiku.
When they were first introduced in English people thought they were epigrams or aphorisms and that implies that they are one sentence long. Haiku are not sentences. A haiku is built of two parts: The phrase and the fragment. The fragment is usually in the third or first lines, and the phrase combines two lines, usually the second and third, or first and second.
I think Basho is the one who can show us most clearly that haiku is poetry. When he started writing they were like a game or a pastime, and unfortunately this aura still hangs around haiku and you see with this the online jokey haiku.
Basho took the idea that if you’re a serious, deep person then your haiku will be serious and deep. Even though haiku are very small, they’re extremely elastic (but remember that brevity doesn’t leave room for mistakes). You can put in everything that you can feel, and it’s only your lack of writing skills that would make that not possible.
Haiku can be, and sound extremely, simple but they hold vast reservoirs of meaning in their layers, like the Basho poem about the crow:
a crow settles down
on a bare branch
It’s also interesting that haiku being so small have the most rules. Everybody who has learned it in the 2nd grade has learned 17 syllables and something about nature and you think you’ve got it covered, but you haven’t – I’m still learning new rules, many from working with Basho’s poems.
I wish you many delights on your own journey to being a poet and may haiku be your starting point and companion.
Footnote 1 All the haiku that appear in this article are by Matsuo Basho, translated by Jane Reichhold.
Editor’s note: Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) wrote more than 30 books, mostly on haiku. She was a three-time winner of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award, and won two Museum of Literature Awards (Tokyo) for her haiku. She started the AHA publishing company (later a website) in 1987. In 2008 a book containing her translations of all of Matsuo Basho’s haiku was published, Basho: The Complete Haiku (Kodansha International). Jane lived in Gualala, California.
This article appears here with her kind permission and is adapted from a speech she gave to celebrate Poetry Month in California (April 2009). See the video here.
Read Basho’s haiku in chronological order and translated by Jane.