These are some of the poems that always seem to reappear when I’m asked to talk to adults about haiku or to introduce haiku to younger writers. First, some examples from the Japanese masters, who no one can emulate but who set the standard to aspire to. Good models: no one can aim too high!
Bashō was a “favourite” world poet of mine long before I ever thought about writing haiku in English. There’s even a poem called ‘Autumn Dusk’ in my first book (1971). His crow haiku is also a fine example of breaking the rules about metaphor, steeping the moment in the unmentioned blackness of the bird.
on a bare branch
a crow settles
The cosmic grandeur in so many of Bashō’s finest examples is also measurable against genuine experience of nature in our own world.
a heron’s cry
pierces the dark
I’m less likely in this context to refer to Buson, Bashō’s next major successor, because his highly visual work reminds me more of his own time and circumstances in the 18th century.
In Issa, however, I feel the strong and companionable presence of someone who speaks in his own world as well as mine. Issa’s surfaces are deceptively obvious. Look at the possibilities of interpreting “the way” in his wonderful, funny and so accurate radish haiku.
the man pulling radishes
points the way
with a radish
And it doesn’t take much of a sense of Buddhist teaching to recognise that more is going on with this fly than mere anthropomorphism:
don’t swat that fly
it wrings its hands
it wrings its feet
Shiki, like Issa, was a poet who knew and understood solitude.
his back to you
any way you look at him
Beside these haiku ikons, I have no hesitation in considering next the work of currently active practitioners in English. I read and enjoy a wide range of Australian, American (fewer English), and New Zealand authors of both haiku and tanka. This shows me the genre evolving and spreading (an exciting process to be part of), and actively encourages me in the development of my own work.
Predictably, I admire most those believable but often surprising haiku that make us see our own world in a new and enriching way. Let’s look, for example, at two lively Kiwi favourites.
Younger students love this poem by Sophia Frentz. It’s a great way of introducing the vertical complexity of meaning in haiku, of course, but they just like the way it happens while it’s happening (which is not a bad definition of haiku in itself).
with the traffic lights
– Sophia Frentz
John O’Connor is the nearest I’ve had to a teacher or master during my haiku writing years. He’s usually very strict with me, which is the right approach. Among many others, ‘garage sale’ exhibits the fine qualities of observable reality, suppressed narrative and quiet melancholy which are so characteristic of his work.
garage sale –
in the dressing-table mirror
a stranger’s face
– John O’Connor
Otherwise, read, read, read. Kokako, paper wasp, The Heron’s Nest, the annual NZPS anthologies, and so on. It’s one thing to talk about high standards and unmatchable examples but even a bad poem and deciding for yourself why you don’t like it can teach you so much.
Then again, there’s the true teaching that comes from observing nature and human nature in the real world: “Go to the pine to learn about the pine” (Bashō).
Editor’s note: After a period living in New Plymouth, Tony Beyer has returned to Auckland. His haiku have won several awards. To see some of Tony’s own haiku and to read a short bio note, go to his Showcase page.