If you click the "Log In" button and get an error, use this URL to display the forum home page:

Update any bookmarks you have for the forum to use this URL--not a similar URL that includes "www."
Welcome to The Haiku Foundation forum! Some features and boards are available only to registered members who are logged in. To register, click Register in the main menu below. Click Login to login. Please use a Report to Moderator link to report any problems with a board or a topic.

Main Menu

Personification and anthropomorphism in haiku

Started by AlanSummers, April 01, 2013, 11:35:42 AM

Previous topic - Next topic


This will be a place where published haiku can be posted, where personification and anthropomorphism can have been considered as successfully incorporated into a haiku poem.

I hope this will become a useful resource to newcomers coming to learn about haiku.

Alan Summers

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Haiku & Western Poetry By Peggy Willis Lyles

Haiku along with other poems deserve more than one reading. If possible, they should be read aloud. While they often spark immediate recognition and appreciation, they give up their full meanings more slowly. They are, in fact, the most compressed of all poems. I like to think that means they are charged with extra energy and vitality. Certainly, they engage the reader as a co-creator.

All good poetry is selective, leaving much unsaid. As Yoko Sugawa tells us: "In order to say ten things a haiku presents only two". Those two, though, are so carefully selected, simply and clearly presented and so interwoven with rich textures of suggestion and association that the receptive reader, willing to enter the poem and do his part, has what he needs to find the other eight things and possibly even more!
Western poetry often introduces additional sense imagery through figurative language. In his valuable essay "Toward a Definition of the English Haiku" George Swede examines various criteria or "rules" governing haiku and concludes that the one which insists it "usually avoids poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, etc." is unnecessary. 1

Why, then, are newcomers to haiku writing urged to avoid simile, metaphor, personification and other traditional tropes? There are many good answers, I think, but the most important is that haiku poets place high value on the creatures and things of this world just as they are, each unique in its essential nature and worthy of unobscured attention. Comparing one thing to another often seems to diminish both.

Consider Speculation 813 by Robert Spiess 2: "Although simile occasionally occurs in Japanese masters' haiku, it is rather rare. Perhaps for us the main reason that good haiku seldom use simile is exemplified by the proverb 'Comparisons are odious'. Haiku is the comparison-less poetry of Suchness."

Writing on the subject of poetics and personification in haiku in 2001, Christopher Herold said: "The haiku is capable of taking us to a place of simplicity and thusness that cannot be even closely approached with the use of flowery Western poetic devices. For the most part I find that those devices, used as lavishly as we tend to use them, block our reaching to the very crux of an experience. Simile, personification, overt metaphor, personal pronouns, narrative constructions, all tend to be jewelled fingers. We gaze at them rather than the moon towards which they point."

Please don't get carried away, though, and start drafting a strict rule prohibiting figurative language. Instead, let's look at a delightful haiku:

night rain
the small serrated song
of a frog
             - Ferris Gilli 3

The nine words tell me enough that I can recreate the essence of the experience. Can you? I can imagine it as either an inside or outside moment. I am conscious of darkness and of the sound of rain, and perhaps the sight, touch, and smell of it, too. Then the frog song starts - small in the context of night and the rain, but this is not a weak sound. Not a smooth one either. I would like the haiku if it read "night rain/the small song/of a frog". But I like it ever so much better because Ferris has included the figurative adjective "serrated".

How can a song be serrated? It is not a thing with saw-like teeth or sharp projections. A frog doesn't even sound much like a saw. Besides, don't we usually trim adjectives from haiku whenever we can? I happen to know that Ferris counts this among her personal favourites. Both the experience and the words to record it came simply, clearly, and naturally as true haiku gifts. How do you "see" the haiku? How do you "hear" it? Thoughts of patterned roughness, and of ability to cut slowly, expand sensation and meaning. What other associations do? What does the haiku say about nature and the poet's response to it? How do you enter the poem and participate? What do you find there?

As you are considering "night rain" and collecting your thoughts, please have a look at this award winner which also suggests more than it says:

June breeze
a hole in the cloud
mends itself
              - an'ya 4

(It might help Southern Hemisphere readers to be reminded that June is a summer month in the author's American home.)

Ferris' essay about it might help you decide how to approach an appreciation of "night rain". Even if you don't need that sort of model, reading an'ya's haiku and Ferris' commentary side by side will be a fine experience. You will find them here.

Now let's think a little more carefully about the figures of speech we would want to use sparingly, if at all, in haiku. Laurence Perrine describes them clearly and well: "Metaphor and simile are both used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The distinction between them is only that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems; in metaphor the comparison is implied - that is the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term". 5

Personification gives "the attitudes of a human being to an animal, object, or concept". An apostrophe "consists in addressing someone absent or dead or something non-human as if that person or thing were present and alive and could reply to what is being said". Probably you are already thinking that you would not want to waste valuable words setting up a formal simile in a haiku. 6

Maybe you are thinking, too, that juxtaposition in haiku sometimes calls attention to similarities between two essentially dissimilar things. That is a much more compressed and efficient way of doing so, isn't it? It seems to show more respect for the reader, too, letting her draw her own conclusions instead of directing or spelling things out.

Are you also thinking about Issa's use of personification and apostrophe? Maybe you have some specific examples in mind from other haiku masters, too. There are many of them. Such tropes are seldom used in contemporary English-language poetry, though, except perhaps to create humour. Most of us would feel awkward and a bit silly using them. That's probably just as well because our readers would be likely to find direct address to an owl, lily, or moose pretty far out.

Perrine says, "a symbol may be roughly defined as something that means more than what it is".. Then he goes on to clarify various figures of speech in a passage that I find especially relevant to haiku: "Image, metaphor, and symbol shade into each other and are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In general, however, an image means only what it is; the figurative term in a metaphor means something other than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more, too. A symbol, that is, functions literally and figuratively at the same time. . . . Images, of course, do not cease to be images when they are incorporated in metaphor or symbol." 7

We know the importance of sensory experience to the perception of haiku and the value of concrete images in presenting those perceptions to readers so that they can recreate the experience and share the feelings it evoked. We know too that words and images stir associations in perceptive readers and suggest more than the haiku says. Some simple words, "home", for instance, or "forest", or "snake" may call up deep images with associations that touch the universal or archetypal. Colours often mean more to us than we can explain. Tastes and smells are powerful in raising memories.

Some haiku mean what they say and nothing more. If they recreate a given time and place in clear sensory detail so that readers can go there again and again - and continue to find value in doing so - that is certainly enough. I don't think good haiku mean something different from what they say. Haiku have a way of being honest and true. They don't mislead us. Most, though, mean what they say and more as well.

Let me say that again: Most good haiku mean what they say and more as well. Take season words, for example. Frogs, herons, chrysanthemums, and snowstorms mean what they are in haiku, but they also enrich the poems with a whole context of the season they represent and whatever the poet and reader may associate with that season. Spring suggests youth and beginnings; autumn ripeness and completion - and we could write pages and pages about the connotative, suggestive, associative, and symbolic possibilities of each season.

We often hear comments about the metaphorical qualities of kigo. According to Perrine's definition we would do better to think of them in terms of symbol. For those who know traditional Japanese literature, season words stir memories of earlier haiku, too. Sometimes a haiku alludes to a well-known earlier one that uses the same kigo. Image, metaphor symbol, allusion? There is little to be gained by quibbling over definitions and distinctions. What matters is that season words can expand the meaning of a haiku and deepen its emotional resonance. Please have a close look at another exceptional haiku:

a curtain billows
before the rain
scent of roses
            - Ferris Gilli 8

Beautiful, isn't it? I feel the motion, sense the coming rain, smell the roses. If there were nothing more to the haiku than that, it would be a gift and a pleasure. The specific details create a strong sense of anticipation, too. Pleasant anticipation. "a curtain blows" means what it says . . . and much more. Christopher Herold's appreciative Heron's Nest Award essay presents a fine reading of it. You will find it here. For enjoyment and to learn more about good haiku, I recommend all The Heron's Nest essays. The haiku discussed are of high quality and are varied in subject matter and technique. The essays underscore many ways that haiku can succeed and excel.

Susumu Takiguchi has posted an especially fine discussion of Yamaguchi Seishi's superb 1944 haiku about winter wind blown out over the sea and unable to return, a poem of deep imagery and profound sadness. That universal, perhaps archetypal, sadness of winter and loss deepens almost unbearably as we realise the poet was thinking of young Japanese airmen flying toward their deaths at sea. They were given enough fuel to reach their targets but none for return or escape. I agree with Susumu that this may be one of the best haiku ever written.

blowing itself over the sea,
there's no place for winter wind
to go back

Haiku thrives world-wide. It can be both accessible and profound. It celebrates moments of human life and establishes bonds among poets and between poets and readers. For many, it is at least as much a way of life as a form of literature. There is every reason to believe it will become even more popular in the 21st century and that among the millions of haiku composed and shared there will be many that should be recognised as great literature.

Is it safe, then, for haiku poets to remember some of what they know about Western poetry and even, perhaps, to have a fresh look at its characteristics? I think so. If haiku poets keep the basic criteria firmly in mind, they are not likely to go astray as they consider the many ways that haiku communicate experience and the many levels on which some of them can be read. It won't hurt us either to review ways we can make sound reinforce meaning. But that is a topic for another time.

For now let me go on record as one who will continue to use overt figurative language and other poetic devices sparingly, if at all, while concentrating on openness, participation, and discovery. At the same time, I believe that genuine haiku are likely to be multileveled and not easily exhausted. I would expect perceptive observation, deep feeling, and fresh insight to result in images that mean what they say - and much more. English-language haiku is a valuable part of world literature with an audience capable of nurturing great poets.

1: Global Haiku: Twenty-five Poets World-wide, edited by George Swede and Randy Brooks (Mosaic Press 2000).
2: Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXII, No 2, page 89.
3: The Heron's Nest, Vol. II, No. 1, January, 2000.
4: The Heron's Nest, Valentine's Awards 2001
5: Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, fifth edition, Laurence Perrine with Thomas R. Arp, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1988).
6: Ibid.
7: Ibid.
8: The Heron's Nest Award, Volume II, No. 8, August 2000

Peggy Willis Lyles (Sept. 17, 1939 - Sept. 3, 2010)

To Hear the Rain: Selected Haiku was published in 2002 (Brooks Books

Alan's Extra note:

umi ni dete kogarashi kaeru tokoro nashi

Yamaguchi Seishi

blowing itself over the sea,
there's no place for winter wind
to go back

(version by Susumu Takiguchi)

Yamaguchi Seishi, Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, August 2001.

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page



Some of these haiku may or may not contain personification and anthropomorphism.  My concern is that if haiku writing becomes too proscriptive with certain writing techniques we may lose out as readers, and constrain our writers.

If we narrow the writer's choice do we narrow our readers and their choices, and do we not also narrow haiku and haikai literature itself?

february moon
not one single flying fox snared
on its horns

Alan Summers
Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac, Kodansha International (William Higginson and Penny Harter, Japan 1996)

bright breeze
the kettle warms up
a cloudless day

Alan Summers
Presence #44 (2011)

through the blizzard
particles of me

Alan Summers
The Haiku Calendar 2012 (Snapshot Press); The Humours of Haiku (Iron Press 2012); The In-Between Season (With Words Haiku Pamphlet Series 2012)

Award credit:
Winner, The Haiku Calendar Competition 2011 (Snapshot Press)

Published as a one-line haiku as originally intended:

snowing through the blizzard particles of me

Cornell Library, Mann Library Selection (Selection by Tom Clausen for March 2013)

this delicate rain
the petal makes a typo
of a gravestone date

Alan Summers
tinywords, haiku & other small poems ( July 2011)

dandelion wind
mending bridges
in the mist

Alan Summers
Blithe Spirit (British Haiku Society journal Vol 22 No. 3 2012); Does Fish-God Know (YTBN Press 2012)

this small ache and all the rain too robinsong

Alan Summers
Modern Haiku vol. 44.1 winter/spring 2013

lullaby of rain
another pinch of saffron
in the pumpkin soup

Award Credit: Editors' Choices, Heron's Nest (Volume XIV, Number 4: Dec. 2012)

pull of stars turning cold the snail's navigation

Alan Summers
Does Fish-God Know (YTBN Press 2012); Blithe Spirit (British Haiku Society journal February 2013)

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Gabi Greve

fune to kishi to hanashite iru hinaga kana

a boat and the shore
are talking together . . .
days getting longer

Masaoka Shiki 
Tr. Gabi Greve

a boat and the shore ... Japanese haiku-shorthand for
a person on the boat and a person on the shore.
This is not a personification of the boat and shore doing the talking.

- - -
Yosa Buson has this

harusame ya mono katariyuku mino to kasa

spring rain -
a mino-raincoat and a rain-hat
talk to each other

Again, no personification, but the people who use the coat and hat.

Anthropomorphism (personification, gijinka 擬人化)
is usually avoided in traditional Japanese haiku, since it collides with the idea of "shasei", but of course, there are exceptions when a very special effect is aimed at.
The skilfull use of a juxtaposition can be used.
and some samples by Matsuo Basho

. uuru koto ko no gotoku seyo chigo-zakura .

. yo ga fuuga wa karo toosen no gotoshi .

. ayu no ko no shirauo okuru wakare kana .
Basho (the whitefish) at Senju, departing from his young disciples (ayu no ko).

降らずとも 竹植る日は 蓑と笠
. furazu tomo take uu hi wa mino to kasa .
farmers described by their outfit, a raincoat and rain hat

. yamabuki no tsuyu na no hana no kakochigao naru ya .

Greetings from Japan


Anthropormophism - Some Thoughts by Jane Reichhold

    Jane Reichhold's answers to my question:

    Rosa Clement:Many times I have heard from reviewers and publishers that anthropomorphism and personification are not good in haiku. However, Basho, Issa, Buson and others wrote haiku using anthropomorphism...

    Jane Reichhold:

    Dear Rosa,

    You have put your finger on a very sore spot in haiku-writing rules. And you are right to question the rule concerning personification.


    1. The personification of inanimate things is a basic part of our language. We so easily speak of the head, feet or legs of the beds, tables and chairs; rivers run, and we even allow that 'time flies.' Thus, it becomes very hard to determine when the author has broken the rule by personifying something which shouldn't be.

    2. Personification of things does make a positive connection the author and the thing which seems to be an actual haiku technique.

    3. The old masters occasionally did it.

    4. Modern authors do it.

    5. It often adds a lyrical or deeper aspect to a poem.

    6. Haiku written due to the influence of tanka (or even cut off of and out of a tanka) - especially those written by the Japanese - may have personification in them because it is an acceptable technique of tanka and many of the old masters based their haiku on tanka examples.


    1. English language haiku rules have been handed down to use requiring that we avoid personification. This could have come about from the idea that haiku were not poetry and should not use poetical techniques (such as metaphor and simile). When the pioneers were introducing haiku to English writers they were reacting against the prevailing poetry fashions and wished to present haiku as something very new and different - non-poetry poetry. Therefore, Spiess and others made rules hoping that if they were followed our haiku would be more like the Japanese examples and much less like the poetry being written in English at the current time. Not using personification does separate the haiku from lyrical poetry - which many people see as a definite plus.

    2. Part of the charm of haiku is the pure is-ness of things. In order to create a personification, the intellect and imagination must be engaged by both the author and the reader. This moves the haiku off the basic element of the simplicity and clarity of is-ness. In figuring out the personification one must use fantasy - a facility one usually tries to avoid using in haiku. The cool, calm, rational aspect of haiku is then lost.

    3. Haiku seek to flow gently in the calm creek of reality. The jerk of the jolt of creativity can, for some people, yank them out of the contemplative mode.

    4. Creating a personification can be seen as 'showing off' - something egoless authors never do.

    As I see it, when we question these English rules which someone made up, we open up incredible possibilities for our haiku. It is very well known that non-Japanese haiku ARE different from those written in Japanese, and given our questioning natures, our inventiveness, our urge to make everything anew, it is practically a given that in our hands haiku will end up very different from the ones written in Japan in either the 1600s or yesterday. Again, I think each writer has to decide which of the many rules to follow or not. And our degree of tolerance for understanding and accepting when another author has different rules is one of the lessons we need to practice as our world grows smaller.

    Blessed be!

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson

The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret . . . It has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.

Albert Einstein

Heike crabs -
long ago they moon-gazed here
on boats

Koybayashi Issa
Translated by David D. Lanoue

Who is it in Japan that first said man is superior to animals? Who's the haiku poet who first shed his cultural memory, what his ancestors taught his family throughout time, and let the rice field snails eat what the tree spirits planted in his reflection?

Was it the Chinese who colonized and introduced civilization to the indigenous people inhabiting the archipelago today called Japan, who convinced those who later became poets to write down for posterity that what had been taught to them via Animism and later in the Shinto doctrine, wrong in seeing life in both the animate and inanimate, proclaiming themselves god-like and superior to everything that didn't mirror the illusions they painted of themselves?

Was it Anglo-English speaking poets from across the ocean who introduced laws regarding what in Japanese haiku should be followed with their conceptualization of haiku and what had to be jettisoned, telling Westerners that Japanese cultural aesthetics and their own were in many ways incompatible, necessitating changes that have changed what we read, understand, and write regarding English haiku to the point where it is beginning to look like a different genre than what was first introduced to Westerners when Japan opened up its shores to foreigners in 1858?
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Occidental poets, especially those in the United States, were early on influenced by R.H. Blyth, Harold Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and other contemporary 20th century poets. The majority of these poets believed haiku to be the bi-product of Zen Buddhism, with the exception of Harold Henderson, who focused on the suggestive clarity of well composed haiku, especially when it came to the use of a cutting word, which does two things: encourages ma (what publisher, educator, and poet, Denis Garrison calls "dreaming room") and divides the haiku in half allowing the reader to put together two contrasting sections of a haiku (opposites) to form a whole that creates deeper meaning that is symbiotic in meaning.

The understanding of haiku and like genres were primarily limited at this juncture in time to the translations and research in English penned in a series of books by a handful of Occidental scholars that naively developed rules that conformed to the studied illusions of these authors coupled with their own individual illusions of viewing life, people, and poetic meter.

Available were only a few anthologies of Japanese haiku translated into the English language, one set published by Peter Pauper Press in New York in 1955. There were other resources, but not enough written in English to give educators and readers as thorough a knowledge of haiku as we have available today.

Few original manuscripts written by Basho, Issa, Chiyo-ni, Buson, and other poets and teachers of their era in a form of Japanese that is different than the Japanese language as it is spoken and understood today had been translated into English or made available for translation, as many of these manuscripts were the property of private families who were unwilling to share with foreigners what their heirs had bequeathed them or with rival poetic schools.

Let's examine some of the teachings regarding the writing and definition of haiku by Occidental educators and poets during the first half of the 20th century when haiku began to be noticed in any real depth. Some are valid and some are not.


Kenneth Yasuda said haiku

"eschews metaphor, simile, or personification."

Wrote R.H. Blyth in A History of Haiku, Chapter One:

"Haiku being poetry of sensation, ideally speaking, what happens is this. We [Western writers of English language haiku] receive, or create, a sensation, a mere sensation, almost entirely physical and mechanical. It then becomes humanized, and at that stage is called Zen. To these are added emotions, and then thoughts, and more emotions and more thoughts, so that we get dai-ni-nen. Haiku is dai-ichi nen but is not mere description, just photography, and to divide the haiku in half allowing the reader to put together two contrasting sections of a haiku (opposites) in order to form an entity of it's own."

Wrote James W. Hackett, a close friend of Blyth, and one of the founders of the haiku tradition in English, in his Introduction to That Art Thou: A Spiritual Way of Haiku, a manuscript in progress as of March 2005:

"As applied to haiku poetry, 'That Art Thou' (or 'spiritual interpretation') refers to a sense of identity intuited between poet and subject. Basho was influenced by this ancient spiritual principle and urged its use in creating haiku poetry. Zen interpenetration is, in a very real sense, the consummation of the haiku experience . . ."
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Counters Professor Haruo Shirane, Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, from an interview entitled "The Shirane Tapes" (Blithe Spirit, Vol 11:4, December 2001):

"I'm not saying that the Zen inspired model is not haiku, because that would be a misunderstanding. It's fine, but it's not necessarily the essence . . . I guess my own motive was that I saw these American scholars looking at Japanese culture that way. That was a serious misunderstanding. This was something that had been imported and was then being re-imposed on Japan. To me, that was unbearable."

Dated and poorly researched articles and statements regarding English Haiku are still being used, especially in regards to the use or non-use of personification and anthropomorphism in English language haiku, which for some is a subject area necessitating serious perusal.

George Frost, the author of Teaching Through Poetry: Writing and the Drafting Process, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1988, in Haiku Lesson #7, The Knowledge of English Haiku, on his website "In The Moonlight A  Worm," writes:

"We try to avoid projecting human viewpoints into natural things. So as not to humanise (and so patronize) the things of Nature, the English haiku poet is wary of personification and anthropomorphism, even though their use is tolerated in ancient and even modern Japanese poetry."

Tolerated? Based on what information and resources? Animism is deeply ingrained in the cultural memory of the Japanese. We versus a weak reluctant they?

Continues, Frost,

"Haiku is the poetry of meaningful touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell; it is humanized nature, naturalized humanity, and as such may be called poetry in its essence . . . when the word and the object are divided or divisible, when the man and the thing are in any way separated or separable, no poetry, and especially that of haiku in any language, is possible."

The Haiku Society of America (HSA) defines haiku as a:

"short poem that uses imaginistic language to convey the essence of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

In the notes below HSA's definition, the assertion is made:

"Most haiku have no titles, and metaphors and similes are commonly avoided. Haiku do sometimes have brief prefatory notes, usually specifying the setting or similar facts; metaphors and similes in the simple sense of these terms do sometimes occur, but not frequently. A discussion of what might be called "deep metaphor" or symbolism in haiku is beyond the range of a definition."

This, of course, would include the usage of personalization when saying haiku is an imaginistic short poem "intuitively linked to the human condition."

Wrote poet, Anita Virgil, in an unpublished manuscript, who was a member of the HSA's original definitions committee, about the HSA's official definition of haiku:

"Although haiku often includes images of nature, it strives to convey the significance of the poet's experience, his thoughts and feelings, in accordance with the object or event . . ."

"The deep sense of the transient nature of all existence present in haiku is," according to Virgil, "rooted in its close associations with the religion of Buddhism and the Japanese concept [abstract aesthetic} of Yugen . . ."  [depth and mystery]

Stated Lorraine Ellis Harr, in one version of her famous Guidelines for Dragonfly: East/West Haiku Quarterly (Harr was the editor of Dragonfly from 1972 to 1984):

"Haiku isn't figurative language. It typically avoids figurative devices like similes, metaphors, and personification. These artificial devices attempt to humanize life. Try instead to naturalize man. Symbols, however, do exist in nature. Cherry blossoms, with their multitude of fragile petals lasting only three days, represent of themselves the brevity and beauty of life. Let an object speak for itself instead of superimposing a value on it."

Will each reader of a haiku making use of Symbolism using anthropomorphic terminology see it as such, since each reader's job is to interpret a haiku according to his or her cultural memory and life conceptualization?

Is Harr privy to the beliefs and inner workings of the haiku poet's mind during its composition, and positive without doubt that poet is using symbolism and isn't an animist or a person with a metaphysical visage who views the world contrary to accepted Western norms?

Due to its metamorphic, transient nature . . . one thing becomes another, which in turn forms another and another, always changing, although, as recent research has proven, haiku equally enjoys a close association with the animism passed down through the centuries by Japan's original indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu, the anthropomorphic beliefs of the Shinto religion, Daoism, and the philosophy of Confucianism.

Not buying into this kind of reasoning, Bruce Moss wrote in his book Haiku Moment, An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1993), xii:

"The movement from a special attention toward non-human nature to some kind of union with that nature is a central facet of Japanese culture and is derived from Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. This movement from attention to union at the heart of the haiku tradition is for the most part alien to Western culture."

"This point was recently addressed," wrote Moss in his book, "by Sono Uchida, President of the Haiku International Association."

"Haiku has also developed as a poem which expresses deep feelings for nature, including human beings. This follows the traditional Japanese idea that man is part of the natural world, and should live in harmony with it. This differs considerably from the Western way of thinking, in which man is regarded as being independent of, and perhaps superior to, the rest of nature."

The use of anthropomorphism (personification) in English language haiku, some claim, is to describe something human and should not be taken literally. A question to consider:

Who in the West came to this conclusion; and from what culture, since most nations in the West are multi-cultural?
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Haiku is a minimalist poem aiming at the raw, simple truth as interpreted by the reader via his own frame of reference and cultural memory. Minimalism is a catalyst necessitating that every word, every pause, and the unspoken are important to a haiku's meaning. The poet must say in a few words what an Occidental poet says in several words, hinting, not telling all; drawing the reader into a haiku's essence; and not necessarily a photograph of the moment, since not all haiku are a poet's now.

Too many today say haiku is an "aha" moment, a metaphysical now, an illumination, based upon personal experience that can't allude to the past tense nor be fictional even if used as a parabolic lesson, a merging of nature and the poet, a common belief held by Imagist poets including Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and e. e. cummings.

Writes Michael Dylan Welch, in his online Captain Haiku column:

"It's a poem  (haiku) recording a moment of heightened awareness of nature or human nature. It should come across like a moment of realization, producing an 'aha!' moment in the reader in the same way that it gave you that moment of realization when you, as the writer, experience the haiku moment in the first place."

Professor Haruo Shirane, one of the world's leading authorities on haiku disagrees with Captain Haiku's assessment:

"One of the widespread beliefs in North America 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 nineteenth 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 seventeenth 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."

Beyond the Haiku Moment,
Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter Spring 2000, 48.

The writer of the introduction in the Peter Pauper Press book, Japanese Haiku, notes:

" . . . the haiku is not expected to always be a complete or even clear statement. The reader is supposed to add to the words his own associations and imagery, and thus become a creator of his own pleasure in the poem."

This is the beauty of haiku. It is the reader who completes the poem. No one can interpret a haiku for you as each reader has his or her own way of understanding and viewing life. Here is where the "Zen" some adhere to haiku comes in.

Taught D.T. Suzuki in The Manual of Zen Buddhism, excerpted from the 2nd edition of The Complete Works of D.T. Suzuki (available online at:

"By 'what is seen of the Mind-only' is meant this visible world including that which is generally known as mind. Our ordinary experience takes this world for something that has its 'self-nature', i.e. existing by itself. But a higher intuition tells us that this is not so, that it is an illusion, and that what really exists is Mind, which being absolute knows no second. All that we see and hear and think of as objects of the vijnanas are what rise and disappear in and of the Mind-only."

THE IS AND ISN'T: myths, truth, and the in between . . .

Wrote Blyth:

" . . . even where an English haiku lacks a season word, when they are too long, or have too many adjectives, or tend to morality or emotionality or philosophy, they have something in common with the Japanese haiku. This common element is sense in thought, thought in sense, the thought that is not mere thought, but the thought subsumed in sensation; the sensation is not simply sensation, but the sensation involved in real thinking, that is poetical thinking. When they are divided or divisible, when the word and the object, the man and the thing are separated are in any way separated or separable, no poetry, and especially that of haiku in any language, is possible."

Looks like Frost had been studying Blyth.

In Blyth's statement, he expounds a belief that many in the West blindly believed when his writings were published and are still believed today, that English haiku doesn't necessarily need a season word or have to conform to the metric structure indigenous to the genre, thus weaving into Western poetic thought the concept that English and Japanese haiku don't have to follow the same rules but follow a Zen-like free fall pattern of thought, which was culturally hip though not thoroughly comprehended in the circles Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, Corso (the Beat Generation), Imagist poets, and those who were part of that generational - cultural mindset . . . a mindset that is and isn't, each poet painting illusions on paper that differing from one another and only loosely complimenting the other, given the complexity of human thought, cultural memory, lifestyle, education, and physical chemistry, that, at times, strays due to mental illness, alcoholism, and illegal drug use.

They were and are, dead or alive, sailors sailing through what each perceives or has perceived, as Heaven's River (The Milky Way), laughing, smiling, sharing this and that, each one a rule breaker, a free spirit, and oddly, with many skeletons in their closets, each bone a scale from a dragon's tail, taunting them with what was, could be . . . and too few who commit or have committed themselves seriously to Japanese short form poetry which requires study, and a non-psychedelic understanding of Asian aesthetics (to understand the essence of the form) that will never become the flavor of the moment.

Wrote Jack Kerouac, who some claim fathered the Hippie Generation via the publishing of his book On The Road, probably under the influence of alcohol, a tormented drunk, who sought release from almost all forms of responsibility through drug use, alcoholic consumption, wandering through the halls of this world experimenting with this and that without a definite except when he was dying from alcoholism and was, at the time, a strict political conservative:

"The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don't think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again... bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi's Pastorella."

Kerouac is talking here from his hat and according to the biographies written about his life, hadn't taken the time to study haiku in any depth except for his brief tutelage under the poet Gary Snyder (a genuine scholar and Buddhist), and via the reading of Blyth's books on haiku, and Harold Henderson's book An Introduction to Haiku while visiting Snyder in his home upon his return from Buddhist monastic studies in Japan. Keruoac was a transient, unwilling to stay anywhere for too long.

One doesn't become overnight, or in a few short, unstable years, an expert on haiku, especially when it comes to comparing the linguistically and metric schemata of a poetic genre as given to the world originally by the Japanese with the intricacies of English language poetics and how the American version can differ from the Japanese conceptualization, then telling us the American conceptualization is hip and ready to "pop."

States Susumu Takiguchi:

"Initial exploration of HAIKU by non-Japanese was like gunmo taizo wo naderu (a lot of blind men feeling a great elephant) whereby one says that the elephant is a tree trunk and another says that it is a giant fan, and so on. The loud voices saying that HAIKU was Zen, or HAIKU was not poetry, or HAIKU was Here and Now, or HAIKU was the product of the HAIKU moment, or HAIKU was nature poetry, or HAIKU was a verse in present tense, or HAIKU was devoid of ego, or HAIKU was an extremely serious and sacred business, or HAIKU reached some mysterious and profound truths captured in a few words, or HAIKU was not anthropomorphism, and all other hundreds of things rang out across the world and muffled any other voices saying things to the contrary." (World Haiku Review, 2008)

No one is one. No one is apart. All live in the collective mindset of what was, is, and will be, as interpreted individually by human beings, some who think they are superior to Blyth's "objects" and some, those with animistic views, who do not feel superior to what is and isn't around them, and are not threatened by what they don't understand like some do who belong to specific spiritual sects, scientific ideologies, and educational institution: the same mindset that laughed at the idea that the world was round.

Blyth was a serious scholar who gave much to the understanding of haiku, and without him, haiku may not have become as popular as it has become in the West. He had great insight when it came to haiku but was limited to the knowledge accessible during his day.

I wonder what people will think of the writings of modern scholars like Makoto Ueda, Donald Keene, and Steve D. Carter fifty years from now, when even more is known, and more manuscripts are translated and made available to Western scholars including insight into the secret coding integrated into many Japan poems centuries ago (and today?) by competitive poetic societies in the Japanese Imperial Court when haiku made its debut, causing a stir, as it became the poetic voice of the people instead of a pastime limited to society's elite.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Blyth, and other Western haiku scholars in the 1950's and a few decades before, wrote insightful informative books about haiku but at the same time made some mistakes in their assessments that linger today that have become doctrine to some highly visible Occidental poets who publish journals, e-zines, author books of poetry, and hold leadership posts in well  publicized poetry societies. They do not speak for or represent the majority of Western poets (public and private schools have the most influence), but their voices are authoritative.

Unfortunately, many with authoritative voices have different interpretations regarding the English expression of Japanese short form poetry. These disagreements weaken the credibility of English language Japanese poetic expression.

Thus, the basis for this paper: the use of anthropomorphism in Japanese haiku and related genres and whether or not they can be a part of Occidental English language haiku.

David Landis Barnhill, in the chapter he contributed to the book Matsuo Basho's Creative  Spaces, entitled The Creative in Basho's  View of Nature and Art (©2006, Palgrave Macmillan), tells us that:

"The role of Shinto and folk religion in Basho's religious-philosophical mindset is poorly understood by many. Basho was influenced by Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and folk religion (animism). We should not impose our western tendency to metaphysical specificity or logical consistency on the complexity of Basho's experience or the multi-faceted expressiveness of his language."

Merrian Webster's dictionary defines personification as:

The "attribution of personal qualities; especially: representation of a thing or abstraction as a person or by the human form."

Personify: "To conceive of or represent as a person or as having human qualities or powers."

Anthropomorphism:  "An interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics."
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


In essence, the two terms, personification.and anthropology are one and the same and often used interchangeably. Interestingly, the word anthropomorphism comes from the Greek, meaning "human form," and it was the ancient Greeks who first made the use of anthropomorphism (personification) in literation and oration a social taboo. The philosopher Xenophanes objected to Homer's poetry because it treated Zeus and the other gods as if they were people. Xenophanes thought it arrogant and irreverent to think that the gods should look like us? If horses could draw pictures, he suggested mockingly, they would no doubt make their gods look like horses.

Much of Occidental philosophy is derived from Greco-Roman influences: politics, poetry, literature, art, architecture, and Judeo-Christian theology. Few realize that Judeo-Christian beliefs were influenced also by oral transmissions from traders and travelers, let alone the Coptic beliefs from Egypt and the metaphysical Gnosticism of Irael's Essenes.

I am reminded of the thinking of highly influential Occidental psychologists and behaviorists like B.F. Skinner who thought of animals as lower forms of life without personality or reason. This kind of thinking has also influenced Occidental theology (re: The Scopes Monkey Trial).

The dichotomy of the following statement by Blyth regarding the British poet, William Wordsworth, is just that, a dichotomy. He says Wordsworth believed the main purpose of a man's ability to think was to distinguish between what is and isn't alive (as if the West and the East shared the same perceptions regarding poetry).

Wrote Blyth, "Haiku is at its best when Wordsworthian, that is, Wordsworth at his most simple, a sort of thought in sense"
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Coupled with what Blyth called the common element between English and Japanese poetry, Blyth believed that man and nature are one and cannot be separate; one is a thing, the other, a human being with his ability to describe and speak of nature by using symbolism, metaphors, parables, and symbolism. A poet looks at something in nature, associates himself with it, literally becomes it, and then entertains illusions as to that "thing" in nature feels.

Buson did this very thing when he took walks in nature. Something would capture his eye and he'd stop, and with an emptied mind, and, momentarily, become the object he focused on.

Did Buson believe he was superior to the "thing" in nature? Did he assume human traits when he became the object of his focus? Did he metaphysically become both human and what he was viewing with an empty mind, in a sense, the two forming a symbiotic whole? And more importantly, did he view life with the same mindset of an Occidental?

Even more
because of being alone
The moon is a Friend

Yosa Buson
Translated by Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffert
Haiku Master Buson
Heian International, Inc. ©1978

What is Buson saying in this haiku? Am I to interpret it from my cultural memory and viewpoint or should I try to understand it from Buson's mindset? Did he make use of personification by saying the moon is his friend? Did the poet/painter consider the moon to be his friend or a temple from which a spirit lived and communicated with him? No researcher then or now will know as no human being has direct access to another person's inner thoughts except for possibly an identical twin.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Personification can be used metaphorically to represent or paint one's feelings; and Buson was an artist. Anthropomorphic thought can additionally transcend its use as an aesthetic tool, and be in concrete terms, animism personified.

Sometimes late at night, when I am alone, and feeling lonely, I talk to the moon, and, in a metaphysical moment of transference and positive self-talk, it answers me in my mind:

"Robert, you're a good person, but because you're different than most, people think you're a jerk. We both know they're wrong, but you let what they say about you behind your back, get to you. Ignore the idiots. They aren't you. They don't know what or how you think, they just think they do. Why? Because they don't like themselves and transfer their fears and inadequacies on you."

Is the moon really talking to me or am I using the moon subconsciously as an aide to get me to think more positively?

Isn't this like a small child talking to his teddy bear? Have we come to the point in western culture where we jail our inner child and forbid him to go outside and play?

Are we at a point where we don't believe anything we hear, believe half of what we see, and in our own metaphysical illusionary journey, check things out for ourselves?

Have we become so educated that we buy into everything a professor reads or writes, although what he or she is teaching may be a theory based upon the current beliefs of the day, or what I call, "The flavor of the month?"

Look at the field of psychology. What is the right theory for a psychology major to follow and eventually use in his practice? This field is classified as a Social Science.

Is the field of History consistent, or does it too fall victim to a variety of interpretations?  History too is labeled a Social Science.

We must always be students; never satisfied with the status quo, know that all is in motion. Yet, we must also accept some things as fact. A bone is a bone. A fish is a fish. A cat is not a dog.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Cubism is an artistic genre of painting with room, of course, to be creative and explore but also has a definition and a set of rules that help us to distinguish it from other artistic genres such as pop art or Dadaism. Is Haiku a genre of poetic expression given to the world by Japan? How do they define a haiku? Does a haiku remain a haiku when it is changed into something it wasn't when it was first created?

Should we as Westerners cut up haiku like a cubist cuts up reality and reassemble them and still call them haiku?

If Westerners remove the kigo, ignore the S/L/S metric schemata, and write three verses anyway they want to: long, long, short; short, short, long, etc., and eschew metaphors, similes, and personification, can Westerns call what they are writing, haiku?

Or, are Westerners writing a haiku-like genre, that is not a haiku but a genre they've invented but insist on calling haiku? Are they instead writing what they call haiku in a way that subscribes to what the Imagists thought haiku was, such as Ezra Pound who wrote In A Station Of The Metro in 1913:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Jump back as section

Pound's poem belongs to the Imagist school of poetry that is not describing in concrete terminology as he sees but is using imagery to make a point via the juxtaposition between the first line and the last two.

Of note is the length of each line. Pound's short three line is the same as the number of lines in a sonnet. The words are distributed with eight in the first line and six in the second, mirroring the octet-sestet form of the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet.

Pound's poem at first was 31 lines in length. Impressed with the minimalism and tightness of haiku, Pound kept paring down the primary poem until it consisted of three lines. Pound never claimed to be a haiku poet but openly identified with the Imagist school of poetry.

According to Literature Dictionary:

"Influenced by the Japanese haiku and ancient Greek lyrics, the Imagists cultivated concision  and directness, building their short poems around single images; they also preferred looser cadences to traditional regular rhythms."

Explains Dr. Donald Keene:

". . . the haiku, for all its extreme brevity, must contain two elements, usually divided by a break marked by what the Japanese call a 'cutting word' (kireji). One of the elements may be the general condition – the end of autumn, the stillness of the temple grounds, the darkening sea – and the other the momentary perception. The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective; otherwise it is no more than a brief statement. That is the point which has been missed by such western imitators of the haiku form as Amy Lowell, who saw in the haiku its brevity and suggestion, but did not understand the methods by which the effects were achieved."
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Personification: A Taboo In English Language Haiku?
by Robert D. Wilson


Two of Amy Lowell's haiku-like poems:

If I could catch the green lantern of firefly
I could see to write you a letter.

Brighter than the fireflies upon the Uji River
Are your words in the dark, Beloved.

In these examples the words are poetic, but the verses do not have the quality of a haiku, for the reason I have given.
Japanese Literature:
An Introduction for Western Readers, 1955

Pound was a firm believer in the Imagist outlook on poetics until he changed allegiance and joined the Vorticism poetic school in 1914.

If you compare The Station of Metro with some of the poems Westerners are labeling today as modern English haiku, you will discover a semblance closely associated with Imagist poetry:

Starry night . . .         3 syllables
Hot popcorn              3 syllables
In white paper cups   5 syllables

Carol Raisfeld

sigmoidoscopy        5 syllables
reading the comics  4 syllables
in the waiting room  5 syllables

jerry ball
Walnut Creek, CA, USA
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

SMF spam blocked by CleanTalk