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Basho neither saw an old pond nor a frog…it was a desk haiku!

A while back there was a controversy on the Haiku Now Facebook page. I wrote a poem about a spider slipping on ice. Quickly, someone said you didn’t see that, that was a desk haiku and the debate began!

Contributors admonished me so thoroughly for this egregious act that even I was convinced I had done wrong.

The mob with sticks had cornered my little poem.

But what if I told you that Basho never saw that famous frog? He never saw that old pond!?

That’s right! I just read that in an essay from the book Poems of Consciousness by Richard Gilbert. In this essay entitled, Basho’s Old Pond, Realism and Junk Haiku, that is exactly what is said.

“Therefore, we can say that this ku is not consecutive, and on the contrary has a break within it — there are two different levels, two different elements, intermixed.

“So, Basho neither saw an old pond nor a frog…

“Examining these two ideas leads to the conclusion that Basho was listening to the frogs-jumping-into-water-sound, and then he imaged an old pond. This means he was listening to sounds of frogs jumping into water, and a vision of an old pond arose in his mind.”

So if the most famous haiku in the world was a desk haiku, how do you feel about desk ku?

Is it a fine idea or a no-no?

This Post Has 34 Comments

  1. On the subject of time in haiku, I’ve written at some length about the subject in the following two essays. Essentially, I think of all haiku as “history” — we can never write in the moment, but at best, as mentioned, from the moment. I also find that moments in haiku are typically either what I call dynamic or static (which could also be called active and passive), and that, for me, each haiku is an approach to infinity — both the infinity of all existence in time and space, and the infinity of the smallest possible here and now. Comments welcome on the following essays.

    Haiku as History: The Ultimate Short Story
    (first published in Modern Haiku XXIX, Winter-Spring 1998)

    A Moment in the Sun: When Is a Haiku?
    (first published in Notes from the Gean 3:3, December 2011)

  2. Hi Don,

    Thanks! Glad you like what I said–and that we perceive the world (whatever that is) the same way. I worked on that last sentence, trying to get it to say just what I thought / think / felt / feel! When you read my FP essay you’ll see the results of that in action.

  3. Hi Penny! …

    Excellent points you’ve made. In a way, there is only a present – an everlasting continuum of present. All the rest is an illusion and most likely, our perceptions are as well! We can call it desk-ku or past-ku: I call it haiku.

    We write in the present (as a function) … but, in a technical sense, our topics are “from” memory, no matter if the inspiration was from moments ago or years ago. It indeed is all the same (give or take some fuzziness). You’ve made and brought up an excellent point in your comment. “future, fact or fantasy, are all happening within my psyche as I perceive and write them, in “now” ~ penny.


  4. I have an essay coming out in the next *Frogpond* that explores how I define “the present”. Since it’s almost impossible to isolate the present, any haiku we write is already based in memory, even as we are writing it. Plus, whether I write a haiku in response to something in my immediate here and now; in response to a memory or dream; evoked, or even invented, in response to what I’ve just written in the prose of a haibun; or, as on NaHaiWriMo, in response to a prompt (which may pluck a response from my memory, or may prompt me to totally fantasize)–it’s all the same.

    Any thought or feeling I am having becomes my present, and in my essay I share a number of haiku and short poems that came from what the ancients might call “the muse.” We would probably call it the subconscious, or the psychic. Anyway, to me, poems prompted by perceiving experiences in the past, present—or future, fact or fantasy, are all happening within my psyche as I perceive and write them, in “now”.

  5. Also, as various scholars have pointed out, some of the events depicted in the Oku no hosomichi are fictional. One of the most remarked-upon fictional events is the supposed meeting with the prostitutes at an inn in Ichiburi, about which Basho wrote this haiku:

    hitotsuya ni yuujo mo netari hagi to tsuki

    in the same house
    prostitutes, too, sleep:
    bush clover and moon

    –Basho, trans. Barnhill

    This leads me to believe that this may be a ‘made-up’ haiku as well (not that there’s anything WRONG with that…)

  6. My impression has always been that Basho considered himself to be first and foremost a linked-verse poet. Although the first verse, the ‘hokku’, was often prepared in advance, most all of the rest of the verses in a linked-verse sequence were ‘made-up’ on the spot. Some of those ‘inner’ verses of various linked-verse sequences that Basho participated in are considered to be significant parts of Basho’s ‘haiku’ oeuvre.

  7. Dear Bill Cullen,

    If you are able to repost your lost comment, that would be great.

    The loss of posts, both here and in the forum itself, is explained by Dave Russo:

    THF Tech Update: We Lost Some Data
    by Dave Russo on January 31, 2012

    Today, one of our technical consultants accidently deleted a folder that should not have been deleted. As a result, some of our applications lost data that was added between Sat Jan 28th at 4AM to Tues Jan 31 at about 12:00 noon.

    The Haiku Now! Contest entries are not affected by this data loss.

    However, the blog and the forums were affected. Updates before Sat Jan 28th at 4AM are still there in the affected applications. Updates after Tues Jan 31 at 12:00 noon are still there. But updates between these two end points are lost.

    I’m sorry for this inconvenience.


    I’m always interested in several sides of any argument, so do please repost.


  8. Hi Bill,

    Due to a highly unfortunate incident beyond the control of THF, some posts have been lost on the forum and the blog.

    Dave has done his best, but it’s totally out of his control.

    Dave says:

    “Folks, tech support from our web host (hostgator) accidently deleted a set of files
    that ultimately resulted in a few days of permanent data loss. I had hoped that our
    databases were not affected, but that is not the case, apparently.

    I regret this but I do not think we can recover that data. This situation is not one
    that is likely to be repeated.

    Sorry to have to convey this bad news.”


  9. >how do you feel about desk ku?
    >Is it a fine idea or a no-no?

    Whatever works best for the poet.

    It isn’t anyone else’s business where or how or when a poet writes her or his haiku unless the poet wishes to reveal that information.

    A good haiku poet can leave any reader or hearer guessing in the dark about the conditions under which he or she wrote a haiku.

    Pragmatism in poetics will beat rigid aesthetics every time.

    Which is another way of saying that a poet should be flexible and experiment with different approaches to writing haiku or any poetry for that matter.

    To sum it up, a desk haiku can be a fine idea for some poets, and for some others maybe it’s not such a fine idea.

    But it’s never a “no-no” unless the poet freely chooses to operate under that self constraint.

    I posted something previously on this subject this morning and it mysteriously disappeared. If somone censored what I wrote, he or she should at least have the moral courage to inform me of that fact.

    Of couse if it was Basho’s ghost, then I’ll take that as a sign that I’m on the wrong track.

    All good things,

    Bill Cullen

  10. I believe one of the main issues here could be regarding the thought that there was also a pre-existing water sound besides the possibility of the frog making one himself. It is not definitive that the frog was causative regarding all water sounds. While the two activities have been paired up for years, a third possibility is present: Basho heard the sound of water before the frog jumped in, possibly adding to that sound – therefore, two sounds in the end. “The frog jumps in”: Basho is aware of that by the sound of the frog plopping; he also knows there was an existing water sound/gurgle etc. of which the frog jumped into? He couldn’t see the frog. How would he know he jumped in? He imagined it because of a larger “plop” of which, frankly, could have been made by a natural water gurgle etc. from a little area where the water was flowing into the pond? Do we know much about this pond. Is it stagnant? Is there a little stream or trickle leading into it like many ponds have? Does ancient mean stagnant?

    Literal Translation

    Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya,
    ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu (jumping into)
    mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)

    Translated by Fumiko Saisho

    old pond
    frog jumping into
    water sound

    Was the water sound already present with the addition of the frog sound? Are there two sounds Basho is getting at? Basho may have heard a plop into a pre-existing water sound which actually raises the reader’s awareness to both sounds. Possibly there is even more activity going on here than commonly thought?

    Just thinking out loud . . .

  11. For me the compelling factor is surprise. If I sit at my desk or under a pine tree and write from the point of view of what I know and want you to know as well– I would say that’s journalism. Bit if I sit at my desk or under a pine tree and am surprised by something I perceive or by the manner of perceiving it, and if I am able to submit that surprise to language in such a way that a reader, including myself, may respond with: “Oh, I never saw it that way before”– that’s poetry.

    For me poetry begins with that response to the world, with that response to oneself.

    If one has the impulse to sit at one’s desk or under a pine and write a poem, that impulse could come from a number of places. It could come from a need for affirmation that one is a poet, which is a poor excuse, but not a negligible one. Or it could come from the compulsion that things (objects as well as inner states) seem to have to be seen and felt and experienced as alive and in constant movement, ever changing.

    That compulsion to be seen may manifest in numerous and strange ways, even by way of experimentation, as for example, devoting a week to writing poems that emphasize one vowel sound, at the end of which one may discover what really wanted to be said and that a hawk or a rusty hinge had something to do with it, as well as an unseen door within oneself behind which a caged raptor was calling to be set free.

  12. Pondering desku … there is no Japanese equivalent to this word, as far as I know.

    A haiku is an experience, where the poet is leading his normal life, practising awareness and suddenly becomes aware of something special … a haiku is born.
    (genba ni tatsu, to be there on the spot) as my sensei would say. The AHA moment is not a common expression in Japan.)

    The haiku comes to the poet.

    A deskku is said to be one where the poet sits down with the intention :
    Now I am going to write a haiku about xyz kigo or xyz keyword.
    Of course (hopefully) he takes the material from memories and past experience, or uses his imagination and wit, but anywy ….

    The poet looks for a haiku.

    Another version of a “desk ku” is the toriawase, joining two ideas.
    Once the poet has his inspriration from an experience, usually in two lines of a haiku, he now looks for an appropriate kigo in his vocabulary.
    Poetry needs finetuning and crafting like any other craft, and toriawase is one step in this direction.
    toriawase is taught to the students at school (I was teaching this to the fifth and sixth grade in grammar school in our village).

  13. Still, like a gawky teenager (which I think I am in haiku), I’ve reread this discussion thread a number of times, taking notes; I never seem to learn enough about haiku. Such knowledge here awes me no end so much so that my first impulse has been to demur from sharing what I feel as a forever-novice in this genre. But perhaps my thoughts might help you guide other would-be haiku poets. Here is where I stand:

    I’ve always thought since I strayed into haiku five years ago after stumbling into a collection with the ‘crow in autumn’ that it’s not unlike all other forms of poetry–my background is literature and philosophy. Haiku never struck me as something like ‘copying’ nature the way a camera would. But we know of course that the camera’s eye isn’t its own but of a person training his eye with an inner mind so that the object isn’t actually a copy in his frame, and that we can distinguish a snapshot from art photography: isn’t reality in all great art transfigured to reflect universal thought and memory? For me, the senses hardly ever capture stimuli as is but recreate them. Not even news where objectivity is supposed to be the rule isn’t because an angle a reporter takes reveals a facet he takes to ferret out what’s not obvious or hidden, or polish and ‘create’ the news refreshed, hence, a degree of subjectivity (I was a journalist in a ‘former’ life). I’ve never read haiku as mere notes, which the debate on the legitimacy of ‘desk haiku’ so strikes me. On a ginko walk in my experience, for instance, rarely is a good haiku or any haiku, for that matter, written on the spot—notes and impressions, yes, which may or may not be actually written but absorbed by the mind, yet the writing is often a back glance that produces the ‘poem’. What I’m learning is that unlike other forms of poetry where metaphor may weave and out of reality, haiku by the very nature of the form transforms reality—with a kigo or not–into a metaphor.

  14. Mr. Myers, who is going to stir up by my statement, assuming that we are both
    referring to English Language haiku? There are reasons why editors would rather read
    a seasonal reference/implied kigo phrase, etc., within a haiku.

  15. Scott,
    Yes, you are right. This is an essay that Richard collected and may or may not be his own personal feelings/beliefs. Thanks for clarifying. My post does look confusing in that regard.

    I am waiting to see if your statement “kigo is accepted cliche’” gets anyone stirred up!


  16. yeah well, this is all interesting, but at least Junk Haiku is spelled out, which I call: “hacku.” The truth of the matter is, and I have said this for 15 years: kigo is accepted cliche’; period. So, what do we do; live with it? Now, I am assuming that we are referring to: English Language Haiku? Here is the west, haiku forums are going tokill the genre. We have become an society of co authors. And sure, a haiku can
    be written in the moment. Probably all of my bird haiku were written within the moment.

    My otter scat poem that Jim included within his Per Diem theme was a free poem, gees,
    even my infamous pissing poem was within in the moment, like any good father, you have toteach your five year old son how to write their name: yellow in snow. Come on, a haiku is a genre of observation too and a nature poem. If I wasn’t heaaded to the
    office, I never would have written: dawn bumps the jesus fish, if I wasn’t headed to
    the off at 6:45 .a.m., or:

    morning chiil
    a child’s shadow
    moves thru mine

    If it wasn’t a Saturday morning, headed to the corner store, walking on one side of the
    garage and, on the other side; a child about to hit me head-on. Sure, you can write a
    haiku in the moment, I just choose not to write them down, if I forget the moment, well
    then; it is lost. If it was not for MDW and Chistopher Herold beating my “stillborn” poem
    out of me; I probably would not be here today. I pobably would have given up haiku
    for the third time. Within email corresponence, MDW beat the poem out of me, and
    Christopher to the selfishness out of the poem. Simple by changind “my” to “our”:

    spring mist. . .
    a mallard paddles thru
    our stillborn’s ashes

    (something like that?)

  17. Just to have it out there for reference, here’s something Shiki actually wrote, at least as translated by Harold Henderson in his classic “An Introduction to Haiku” (pp. 161-62):

    “Use both imaginary pictures and real ones, but prefer the real ones. If you use imaginary pictures you will get both good and bad haiku, but the good ones will be very rare. If you use real pictures, it is still difficult to get very good haiku, but it is comparatively easy to get second-class ones, which will keep some value after the lapse of years.”

    There’s a fair bit of nuance there. He also advises:

    “Know all kinds of haiku, but have your own style.”


    “Gather new material directly; do not take it from old haiku.”


    “Know something about other literature also. Know at least something about all art.”

    I’d like to add that all artistic movements (mis)interpret history to suit their own ends. And, personally, when it comes to any kind of work worth considering at all, I reject both reductive terms: “desk haiku” and “junk haiku.”

  18. Gene,

    i believe you’re referring to the interview in Richard’s *Poems of Consciousness* with Hasegawa Kai (that can be watched here, in 2 parts):

    Not Richard’s own personal feelings/beliefs (though he might certainly agree). So this viewpoint has nothing really to do with “edginess” but, in fact, plain old, accurate, history.

    Kai, as David Burleigh points out in his excellent and extensive article about him in Modern Haiku 42.3, is quite the new-traditionalist (pre-Kyoshi), not a radical whackadoodle, and, while quite respected by the Modern (Gendai) Haiku Association (as noted in Burleigh’s article), is a member of no organization. He seems very interested, from what i can gather, in how haiku is a poetry of the imagination, and how this aspect is highly important to haiku poetics. For example, he is highly critical of objective realism (which he has noted a number of time has helped to create what he calls “junk haiku” in the 20th and 21st c), a concept/technique put forward by Kyoshi Takahama, not Shiki, whose shasei/sketching-from-life idea has been extraordinarily maligned, twisted, and whittled (as Kaneko Tohta and Kai have both noted).

  19. Basho wrote an activity (koto, process) biased haiku that is remembered and studied centuries later. None of the great haiku pioneers advocated or taught that haiku was a “zen/R.H. Blyth “in the moment” genre. Some of Basho’s journal haiku were written prior to his journeys and added later when it work well in his haibun, diaries, etc. Haiku is haiku.

  20. Fine set of comments here – Michael’s “It’s impossible to write IN the moment, as some people claim to do” is exactly, or almost exactly, on point (and I carry a tiny notebook everywhere). Threaded with Patrick’s “Basho most certainly heard the frog leap into the water’s sound,” which I believe most everyone here would agree with, THAT was the moment.

    Is it too presumptuous to say we try to get as close to ‘replicating’ that moment as we possibly can? For those with spiritual leanings, to be exactly IN the moment is the goal, striving to enlightenment or satori. A reader conceivably may be enlightened by the act of reading the haiku, which is even further removed from the moment.

    Regardless, spiritual or no, the moment is key and how it is captured and communicated is the poem.

  21. I hear ya about it being late Don? damn it, I just killed my only surving son. I ment to
    write: Jacob Ryan. Derek is now 14, hopefully he’ll find a little humor in this?


  22. It’s interesting to note that Basho wrote the phrase before he wrote the fragment which references the old pond. It seems his student (travelling companion) suggested something quite different and Basho decided “old pond” would be best. It is also very clear that Basho was not in view of any pond at all and nor did he actually see a frog. He heard a sound and wrote the poem from there. There may be no fact at all that the “plop” was indeed a frog, however. A small boy could have thrown a rock? Unlikely, but a good point for the discussion.

    Basho takes the sound as a frog. From there he builds the haiku/hokku around it. “jumps in water’s sound” makes complete sense as the phrase to him. But, now what? He desperately needs a fragment. The discussion begins with his associate and “old pond” becomes line one. The poem is done – on a situation he never actually observed. No matter what it is a desk-ku, that is, a haiku/hokku constructed from imagination … primarily.

    I, as well, do not like the term desk-ku. It comes off degrading the art and imagination of writing haiku. The inference is that the poet has done something wrong. The truth of the matter is that all haiku are desk haiku just as Michael has quite nicely outlined. In Basho’s case, it may very well be scroll-ku or?

    The frog poem is one that is entirely made up from imagination. It’s historically clear and documented. I suppose however, that while he worked out the hokku, time was elapsing. In that, as time goes by the experience may become less fresh and therefore, the poem more difficult to write (accurately)? Possibly this aspect of elapsed time between observation and the writing of the poem might be another excellent subject.

    In the end … how does the poem work? That’s it in a nutshell. If it’s good, it’s good. End of story.

    Just thinking out loud, randomly at 2:30 a.m. Probably shouldn’t write this late, this tired. Goodnight … 🙂

  23. Basho most certainly heard the frog leap into the water’s sound… though the master was not above rearranging his journals for literary purposes. What’s really interesting to me, is that the sound was waiting for the frog’s body to plop down into that one great existential splash. When a poet arrives at his or her desk, or takes a forest trail into the unconscious, the inevitable happens. Inside or out, we are all leaping toward the water’s sound.

  24. I agree with Micheal. I do not care for the term “desk-ku,” or even a “ku” when
    referring to a genre. How can you possibly write well if you do sit down and
    think about what you are attempting to convey? Do I carry a notepad and
    pencil around in my pocket; hell no. The fact is, my most famous haiku, my
    “stillborn” is fiction; in part. A mallard never paddled through my stillborn son’s
    ashes, the fact is, I could never give his ashes up, that is all I have of him. If
    you have ever delivered and baptized your child, you would understand. The
    fact is, I was at Miller’s pond, Unexpected Wildlife Refuge, Newfield, NJ. working
    on my free form poem: Miller’s Pond, which is all fact. I was sitting there watch
    the wood ducks and mallards dabble, hooded mergansers and eared grebe dive.
    It was so tranquil and I thought: wouldn’t this be a wonderful place to have your
    ashes scattered, along with my son, Derek Micheal’s? Writing is a gift, that
    does not come easy; there is always a price. Well, unless your partner is
    another writer? At one point early within my haiku career, everything that I
    looked at was a snapshot, almost in slow motion, which I posted at one forum,
    and Micheal chimed in and said: that’s not normal. Probably not, and I was
    probably going through DTs at the time, drinking to heavy while struggling
    through post mortem depression. When you write haiku, something triggers
    an idea, whether it is from an personal experience, or something you have
    seen/read in the media, or even the Nature channel. Other than my performance
    poetry, every form and/or genre that I write is a short biography. Does it really
    matter how Basho got his poem? I have no idea how many poems that I have
    written about my stillborn son, but I had to stop, they were becoming a burden
    to me and the audience.

  25. Gilbert probably overstated his case. His sense of structure is acute and one of the cutting edges — pun intended — of current criticism, but structure can’t cancel possibilities within personal experience. No one knows whether Basho’s frog is a real frog in a poetic pool or just a poetic frog. And so it doesn’t matter when reading the poem. Perhaps in our love of haiku we too quickly abandon the task of discussing the structure of the poem as symbolic experience.

  26. My feeling is that ALL haiku are desk haiku, or none of them are. It’s impossible to write IN the moment, as some people claim to do. The best they can do is write FROM the moment. All haiku are history, written about something after it happens, powerful emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would say (I have an essay about this at The term “desk haiku” is simply unhelpful because its tone and meaning are too ambiguous. If people want to decry poems that lack authenticity, that’s one thing, but “desk haiku” is the wrong term for that, because we all write haiku after the fact, often with the addition of imagination. Buson’s wife was alive when he wrote about stepping on his dead wife’s comb. The term “desk haiku” is usually used in a perjorative fashion, yet it does so naively because the very practice that the term seems to dismiss was in fact common for many of the Japanese masters. If it were up to me, I’d banish the term “desk haiku” completely. And as has been said here already, there are many paths to haiku inspiration, and I welcome them all.

  27. Great conversation, folks. I learn a great deal from an awesome community like you! As a new haiku poet, I find myself writing a lot of desk haiku. I am just learning and discovering and wiggling around in this form… and I think it’s a-ok!

  28. I am a big fan of poetic licence. I write haiku at my computer and other poetry as well. We use the NaHaiWriMo facebook page, get the prompt, write, post our haiku then read what others have written. This is done at my desk in front of my computer. I personally feel that desku is a valid way to express the feelings we have. Thanks Jim

  29. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, “desku” is not a dirty word. Professor Shirane also agrees with you ( We have to use our imagination when we write. Sometimes the poem is better with a different species of bird, some other weather effect, etc. Our only duty is to the truth of our poetry.

    (And on a side note, I always think of Buson’s poem about stepping on his dead wife’s comb when I think of the desku argument. His wife outlived him by 31 years, but we don’t feel the poem is any less true for that.)

  30. “Desku” are unavoidable or even the only possible ku’s. No one can write in the same now they’re experiencing what might become a haiku. Even the slightest postponing/hesitation will cause you to be “influenced” by experience, thought, more or less conscious associations etc. We use all we possess as human being to write: memory, thought, myth(ology), “truths” about the world or about “being”, our culture and its inherited images, our languages with all its inherent “tones”. The “now”-ku is a myth and an impossible ideal.

    Buson used already passed history to write some of his haiku and so on.

    AND if writers don’t use all they can access and are a part of (again: culture, place, era, history etc.) they’re likely to write against anemic ideals of the world where poetry can live.

    I really enjoyed that section of Gilbert’s book – as I am enjoying everything I’ve read in it so far …

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