Whenever I fall out of love with haiku, which happens from time to time, I return to the work of the masters – Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki – and my affections are renewed. Reading their work, I am reminded how haiku can clarify our perceptions so that we experience the world in a more direct and penetrating way. Here are 10 of my favourites:
come and drink of this clear water,
The river is there for everyone. Both humans and animals lower their heads and drink from its waters. This haiku has a fairytale aspect to it, and something of the comic as well.
they’ve cut down the willow –
don’t come anymore
Here Shiki show us the other side, what happens when humans are out of harmony with nature. And this is not a didactic verse; Shiki is just showing us the way things are. Our actions have repercussions.
an ant climbs
on to the ink-stone
Haiku reveal the way everything is interconnected: cloud, ant, ink stone; the massive folds of cumulus, the grinding of the ink stick, the thin legs of the ant. So much is contained within three lines.
the moon has sunk below the horizon:
all that remains
the four corners of the table
This is another verse that unites the faraway and the close-at-hand. With the disappearance of the moon there is a sense of the mysterious, intermingled with the domestic – just the top of the table visible in the twilight.
the sound of hail –
I remain, as before,
an old oak
Basho instructed his disciples to learn about the bamboo from the bamboo and to learn about the pine from the pine. Now he goes one step further; he becomes the old oak tree. To fully enter into this haiku you need to become Basho-as-the-oak. There is no metaphor involved.
a tethered horse,
in both stirrups
Buson has been described as the most painterly of the great haiku poets, and this scene could have come out of a painting by Brueghel. There is also the stillness of the horse along with its stoicism, both highlighted by the accumulated snow.
a summer shower:
stick in the mud
This is a great verse when introducing haiku to kids. On a whiteboard or sheet of paper you can illustrate the way the angle of the rain continues through the angle of the pine-needles. And then there is the sharpness of the green needles contrasted with the softness of the brown mud.
the winter rain
shows what is before our eyes,
as though it were long ago
The winter rain is heavier and forms a veil before our eyes. We go back in time, or the distant past comes towards us. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again”. I’m also reminded of lines by the Chinese poet Meng Hao-jan: “Thoughts deep among rivers and mountain/I experience this mind my former lives all share”.
when will we meet again?
all’s unknown, like sea fires
in the distant haze
Issa wrote this verse for those who were seeing him off when he left Edo in 1792. “Sea fire” is a type of will-o’-the-wisp.
we drink from tiny cups
as we wander
through the chrysanthemums
Japanese cups, in particular sake cups, are tiny. Issa and his friends wander among the large flowers, taking small sips. Life passes, all is unknown, and yet we have haiku, this small verse form, to help us appreciate the mystery and the beauty of this fleeting world.
Editor’s note: Richard von Sturmer has published three books: We Xerox Your Zebras (Modern House, 1988), A Network of Dissolving Threads (Auckland University Press, 1991), and Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose (HeadworX, 2005). For 10 years from 1993 he lived and worked at the Rochester Zen Center, a Buddhist community in upstate New York. His most recent film project is Tanka Films. Read some of his own haiku in his Showcase entry.