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Personification and anthropomorphism in haiku

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

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


Haiku or Imagism?

Did Imagists follow the metric schemata of S/L/S found in Japanese haiku?

Do a lot of poets claiming to be haiku follow the same metric schemata?

Did Imagists believe in brief statements?

Do a lot of so-called haiku poets write what are in actuality brief statements that lack real depth, meter, or memorability?

Is it a sign of madness to talk to an animal or a flower, to feel equal with another form of life, flora or fauna?

Can a western poet believe and write differently than the average Occidental, being that every poet, regardless of his geologic biosphere, have their own specific cultural memories and illusions based upon their own experiences, education, upbringing, and tradition?

Just as it is wrong to say that Westerners should become Japan-ophiles and adhere only to Japanese aesthetics, it is equally wrong to expect a western poet to become an English-ophile?

Poetry in any form is an expression of the creator and the creator should have the freedom to express himself with integrity and his own voice.

Wrote Fujiwara Teika:

"... both the gifted and the untalented have an individual style that is congenial to them...  It would result in terrible damage to the Art of Poetry to insist that a person who has no disposition for it composes in a certain style that the teacher prefers simply because he happens to find it personally congenial to himself. A given style should be taught to a pupil only after careful study of the particular style of poem he tends to compose for with every style it is essential to keep in mind that it must be honest and right." (Translated from the original manuscript by Robert H. Brower from the Maigetsusho /"monthly notes," 1219?/ in NKBT /Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei/ Japanese book).

Animism as practiced by the indigenous people of pre-civilized Japan, the Ainu (who still exist), along with Buddhists, Daoists, those following Confucianism and practictioners of Shinto, believe that humankind and other forms of life are just that, forms of life, one no more superior than another.

Many also attribute life to the inanimate, believing that many were(are) inhabited by spirits.

Some North American tribes talk to spirits, and see animals as their equals. If one of these tribal people were to write haiku, would he have to write haiku that adhered to Judeo-Christian influences, and deny his real beliefs in order to follow the rules of writing English language haiku developed by scholars, poets, and others who relied and still rely on outdated beliefs unsupported by up-to-date research?

As of 1975, children from Native American tribes were required by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to attend schools in urban cities far from their tribal homes and required to speak only in English, dress in non-tribal clothing, and to give up their beliefs.

States F.B.M. de Waal in his 1997 article in the journal Discover, entitled Are We In Anthropodenial?:

"Logically, these agnostic attitudes toward a mental life in animals can be valid only if they're applied to our own species as well. Yet it's uncommon to find researchers who try to study human behavior as purely a matter of reward and punishment. Describe a person as having intentions, feelings, and thoughts and you most likely won't encounter much resistance. Our own familiarity with our inner lives overrules whatever some school of thought might claim about us. Yet despite this double standard toward behavior in humans and animals, modern biology leaves us no choice other than to conclude that we are animals. In terms of anatomy, physiology, and neurology we are really no more exceptional than, say, an elephant or a platypus is in its own way. Even such presumed hallmarks of humanity as warfare, politics, culture, morality, and language may not be completely unprecedented. For example, different groups of wild chimpanzees employ different technologies -- some fish for termites with sticks, others crack nuts with stones -- that are transmitted from one generation to the next through a process reminiscent of human culture. Given these discoveries, we must be very careful not to exaggerate the uniqueness of our species. The ancients apparently never gave much thought to this practice, the opposite of anthropomorphism, and so we lack a word for it. I will call it anthropo-denial: a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves."
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


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


The other day, a poet friend sent me an e-mail asking me: "Isn't personification a no no?"

Is it or isn't it? Opinions vary.

States 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 . . .

"We [the English speaking poet] try to avoid projecting human viewpoints into natural things. So as not to humanise (and so patronise) 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."

I wonder who Frost was referring to when he used the term WE?

L.A. Davidson in an article he wrote for Feelings Magazine in 1996 was adamant when he stated, "One great difference between haiku and other poetry is that there is no anthropomorphism in it, no giving human attributes to non-human things. Each thing, whether animal, bird, insect, plant, even a physical form such as a rock, is viewed as it is in its own right. Other forms of Japanese writing and myth use personification extensively, but not haiku. Western poetry has reveled in portraying other forms of life and nature with human characteristics."

Wrote Robert Spiess: "Simile, metaphor, personification, anthropomorphism, seldom are necessary, especially in the best haiku, for a genuine haiku poet is aware that every entity has to be the way it is and could not possibly be any other way."

Spiess's use of "a genuine poet" is opinionated based upon the recognized Judeo-Christian conceptualization of the relationship between human kind and other life forms of life of his age in the occidental world. His statement negates the use of imagination, inference, imagery, and other ascetic and descriptive tools in the composition of quality haiku.

The use of such tools were used by the Chinese who introduced poetry and written language to Japan. They were also utilized by Issa, Basho, Chiyo-ni, Buson, and other great haiku pioneers.

Skinny frog
Don't give up the fight --
Issa is here

Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Makoto Ueda

The bush warbler
In a grove of bamboo sprouts
Sings of growing old

Matsuo Basho
Translated by Sam Hamill

at the Buddhist altar --
the purple violets

Translated by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi

Enroute to the monkey chief
On a cold night,
A visiting rabbit.

Yosa Buson
Translated by Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shudders

Issa the rebel rouser! It was he more than any past Japanese haiku master who used personification without clothing it, and gave a liveliness to haiku that attracted the masses and their children.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


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


Writes Art Durkee:

"Issa's body of work is full of 'rule-breaking' haiku. He often breaks away from purely imagistic haiku, and uses personification and anthropomorphisms in his famous animal and insect haiku, ascribing to them the same emotions humans have; some of his haiku are forthrightly humorous rather than contemplative; others are purely philosophical, and contain only one image, not the two contrasting images often required by the 'rules'; still others are one-sentence haiku, rather than two fragments with a turn, or hinge."

Exciting as Issa's openly animistic haiku are, he knew the dangers of overuse, and relied on multiple aesthetic tools and a variance in subject matter.

To be fair to Dr. Speiss, there's validity to the segment of his statement regarding the necessity of using these tools, unless necessary. No tool should be overused. There is more than one tool in the toolbox.

States Dr. Gabi Greve:

"Anthropomorphism is usually avoided in traditional Japanese haiku, since it collides with the idea of shasei (Shiki's term meaning sketch of life), but of course, there are exceptions when a very special affect is aimed at."

She also writes, "Within the tradition of shasei, sketching from nature, it is better just to observe and not interpret your experiences."

Dr. Greve's statement works well for students of shasei, even though shasei's a poetic school of thought that too experienced and still experiences metamorphism as the term, shasei, is further understood, defined, and explored, as was the case with Shiki. Shasei is one teaching and interpretation of haiku in Japan. There are other schools of haiku thought in Japan.

Greve is right when she advises a haiku poet to avoid the overuse of anthropomorphism in haiku. Every tool has its use.

The composition of a haiku is dependent on the poet's frame of thought, and what he is conveying. Similes, metaphors, imagery, etc. all have their place in the composition of haiku, western or Japanese, and can or should not be used depending on what is said and/or referenced to.

Is the use of anthropomorphism (personification) a legitimate taboo in the composition of haiku?  Or, is this a thought patterned part of occidental cultural memories and social conditioning?

Over Blyth's grave:
an offering of spring rain
muddy knees, and brow

J.W. Hackett
The Moss of Tokeiji
©2010 Deep North Press

Wrote David Landis Barnhill, the Director of Environmental Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, to me two weeks ago,

"A thorough answer (regarding the usage of personification in English language haiku) would require an analysis of different ways and degrees haiku is similar to the western notion(s) of personification."

Professor Barnhill also stated in the essay he wrote for the book Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces (©2006, Palgrave Macmillan):

"While it is important to recognize the sophistication of the metaphysical elements in his [Basho's] world view, 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."

In an e-mail conversation between myself and Professor Esperanza Rameriz-Christensen, she stated:

"Personification was used in classical or premodern haiku, and in waka as well. In those times, haiku (a name that came into common usage only in the modern era) was known as hokku, same 17-syllable 3-line verse form but commonly occurring as the very first verse of the longer 100-verse linked poetry sequence known as renga or of the 36-verse renku favored by the Basho school. Personification is almost inevitable in hokku (or haiku) because this first verse was required to allude to the actual time and occasion for convening the renga or renku session.

Thus, for example,

na wa takaku
koe wa ue nashi

High is its name
and unsurpassed its song,
the wood thrush!

Murmured Conversations, p. 109
Stanford University Press ©2008,

. . . is one of the hokku for poetry sessions held at the residence of the Regent Nijo Yoshimoto in the Fourth and Fifth Month of 1355. The poet, Gusai, clearly means the wood thrush (or cuckoo) in the hokku to be in praise of Yoshimoto's poetic fame and talent and more important, his crucial role, as a high court official, in the promotion of renga. It is a greeting to the host of the sessions. In other words, personification was used to allude to actual persons involved in the occasion for the renga or haikai sequence, using natural images. In the hokku below by Shinkei the personification is more overt, as it is based on an analogy between the beauty of the poetic heart-mind and the plum blossoms:

Yo ni wa hito
hana ni wa ume no
nioi kana

Man's being in the world:
the radiant glow of plum blossoms
among all flowers.

Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei, pg. 71."

"Modern haiku, continues Rameriz-Christensen, "composed outside the context of a session and occasion, have no need to allude to them, and so seldom employ personification. It is, I believe, the social occasion that generates personification. And even then, the hokku will not necessarily include it, if the focus is not on people but on the occasion or the actual landscape of the session. In that case, it is more likely to be metaphor or symbolism that is employed rather than personification."

E. Ramirez-Christensen
Professor of Japanese Literature
Department of Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Michigan

In an e-mail a month ago, Robin Gill, the translator of several academically acclaimed books of haiku told me:

"In the case of Japan, haikai turned over the old use of nature as a backdrop and metaphor for the romance of old waka [tanka]. Actually waka was at first more interested in nature itself -- and used anthropomorphism to make the poetry of nature more interesting.

Even when more anthropomorphic, I do not find any fallacy there, as adult poets are not children, and they are not falsely reading nature, as their readers are not naive enough to think that a fly is praying for his life:

Don't kill the poor fly!
He cowers, wring
His hands for mercy

Kobayashi Issa
Translated by Sam Hamill

and, while Issa's poems are not early haikai, take note of the way I describe what he wrote as being anthropomorphic, yet not being so because of the ease of the metaphor which becomes grossly or childishly anthropomorphic when "englished" because of the accidents of language.

We [Westerners] find most of our early nature poetry was at first filled with Greco/Roman gods -- as much theo-morphic as anthropomorphic.

In the 1900's and early 20th century, we see an enormous body of work mostly for children -- maybe that and the thought that the ancients were children to us with our science gave rise to the ridiculous anthropomorphism phobia in regards to western poetry.

When the Japanese were exposed to western literature when Japan reluctantly opened up its borders in 1858 to western influence, due to pressure from the United States and the presence of armed American warships, some Japanese poets and authors seem to have reacted in some cases by denying they anthropomorphosized and that was ridiculous as the critics who wrote that obviously did not read much of their own old poetry."

1858 was an exciting time for Japanese intellectuals and writers, with many wanting to emulate, digest, and understand occidental literature. Even today, the Japanese people are influenced by western music, art, literature, fashion, etc. And equally the West is adapting some facets of eastern thought and culture.

Integrity was and still is an important virtue to the Japanese people, so when Japan opened up itself to western influence, and even though many immersed themselves in the newness of occidental thought, most then and now stay(ed) true to their cultural memory, especially when it comes to the writing of haiku, a genre they gave to the world. Today, over 5 million people in Japan study and write haiku.

In the synopsis for the Columbia University Press book Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (2006) by Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, the publisher comments:

"Humans use animals to transcend the confines of self and species; they also enlist them to symbolize, dramatize, and illuminate aspects of humans' experience and fantasy. Humans merge with animals in stories, films, philosophical speculations, and scientific treatises. In their performance with humans on many stages and in different ways, animals move us to think."

Are "things", and other forms of life, props used to illustrate haiku with its limitations of space and words?

With this in mind, let us examine more statements made by major voices in the English language Japanese haiku arena:

In a personal e-mail, Professor Steven D. Carter, Yamamoto Ichihashi Chair in Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, wrote:

"Personification (of flowers, birds, the moon, etc.) is very common in hokku and in haiku. So is apostrophe, which is I guess a kind of personification. Now, someone might try to argue that what we are confronting is not really personification, because people actually believed the plants and birds had consciousness, but I don't think that approach will explain most examples."

Writes David Landis Barnhill,

"The countless cross references to Chinese religious and aesthetic thought require that we place his {Basho's} texts in the context of Daoism and Confucianism as well as in Buddhism {not just the Zen sect of Buddhism}, and in the context of the Chinese aesthetic tradition (both poetry and painting) as well as in Japanese literature."

Basho wasn't the only haiku pioneer who made references to Chinese poetry written during the Tang dynasty, nor was he the only poet influenced by a variety of Japanese and Chinese religious beliefs. Many combined their thinking into a universal mindset indigenous to the times and the great  influence China still had on Japanese philosophy, prose, and poetics.

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 . . . entertains a different conceptualization regarding the use of anthropomorphism in modern English language haiku poetics:

"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."

Is the use of personification in the composition of English language haiku a taboo?

Is the use of personification in Japanese haiku as Frost states tolerated? And if so, I wonder where he obtained that information. Taboos against the use of personification in western haiku are the inventions of well meaning prominent occidental poets (most of them Anglo-Americans) who distance themselves from the genre called haiku that Japan shared with the world, their justification, that the West has a different sense of poetic meter, cultural memories, and aesthetic taste; and as western poets, they should be free to adapt haiku to their culture.

North America, however, is a cultural melting pot without a dominant culture. In California, there are more Mexican Americans than Anglo-Americans. In the United States, there are large populations of Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Irish, Romanian, and other cultural groupings, each with their conceptualizations of aesthetics, religion, cultural memory, ethics, and background.

I think it's a mistake, therefore, to define haiku in a way different than what it is as defined by those who gave us haiku. Yes, there is a logic in using less syllables, but the S/L/S/ metric schemata is indigenous to haiku as is the unspoken, and other aesthetic terms that are used in both eastern and western circles such as ma (dreaming room), metaphors, imagery, suggestion, and so forth.

I also find it hard to buy into the reasoning of those advocating that English language haiku doesn't have to adapt itself to Japan's definition and understanding of haiku and, therefore, they have the freedom to alter it to a point where it more closely resembles American short free verse and imagist poetry, especially when I read excellent poems like these that adhere to the traditional form of Japanese haiku minus the use of less syllables:

even the fish
could lose a little
Buddhist temple

Peter Newton

Snow moon --
within the tunnel of trees
the wind takes refuge

Patricia J. Machmiller

Dawn --
the bullfrog with the moon
on his breath

Alexis Rotelli

a sunbeam
glistens in the tears
. . . of the snowman

Dana-Maria Onica

weeping cherry tree
fills the breeze with petals—
soft april shower

Denis Garrison

rain in gusts
below the deadhead

John Wills

States American haiku poet, Dennis Chibi:

"We must allow room for different mindsets especially those that differ from our own. I think this allows for the "western" taboo of personification in haiku-like poems. Ironically, I contend that there is no western haiku at all. Haiku is indigenous to and exclusively Japanese. Variations of short poems that embrace haiku aspects in other than Japanese are a different genre."

What amuses me is how serious the critics are of the use of personification on modern English language poets, yet none of them said a word when Cor Van den Heuval penned his famous one word haiku "tundra", published in Curbstones (1998). If this poem is a haiku, it means I can call a sonnet a limerick. The poem made western haiku a joke among serious scholars and a mockery in the eyes of the Japanese people. It was then that western haiku made the declaration that it would go in any direction it wanted to as long as it was a short poem of 31 to 1 syllable in length. It's the elucidation one could expect from someone on an LSD trip.

It is imperative that we as Western Haiku poets accept and respect haiku as a specific genre of poetry, and study it in detail, before looking at it and saying,

"Heck, I don't want to write my haiku like this. I want to write it the way I want to write it, the rules from Japan be damned. We have our own metric schemata and the Japanese have their own. If I copy their use of meter and follow their rules, I'll be, a "Japanofile [a derogatory term sailor, poet, M. Kei uses to call Westerners who adhere to the Japanese schemata and the use of aesthetics]. I'm a Westerner, for God's sake!"

To this kind of thinking, which is becoming more and more prevalent, Thomas Hemstage wisely advices:

" . . . during the time the West has been trying to come to terms with Japanese haiku, it has seldom been considered at all, and if at all, then not considered enough."

Hail, Herbs, and Turnips
Modern Haiku, Vol. 35:1, Winter Spring 2004
Translated from the German language by David Cobb

Bright sun
The sheen of tall grass
When it bends

Jim Kacian
Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan
©2008 Shambala Publications

Says Donegan:

"Within the Japanese Shinto tradition, all of nature is sacred and imbued with a spirit called a kami. Every rock, tree, and blade of grass has a spirit. This exists in most so-called ancient, indigenous, spiritual traditions world-wide [including Native Americans] worldwide. However, this tradition goes even further, that this spirit is inherent not just in animate things, but also in inanimate things."

She goes on to say that this belief "is 'a sacred outlook': to be able to see the sacredness or spirit with everything in our world without discrimination."

The use of personification is allowable in English language haiku just as it is in Japanese haiku. A haiku is a haiku is a haiku.

The use of anthropomorphism should, however, as Dr. Gabi Greve wisely states, be used sparingly.

Personification: Why the taboo? Why is it wrong for another in the West to use this tool and/or to have animistic beliefs?

Is western haiku a follow-the-herd poetic dictum and not as free spirited or as liberated as many claim?

Writes Shirane,

"Nature exists as something concrete and living before the viewer's eyes, as immediate, and is respected as such. At the same time, however, nature can implicitly have a semi-metaphorical effect, particularly as a projection of the poet's inner or outer state or as that of the addressee."

Traces of Dreams, Stanford University Press ©1998

Most important to haiku written in any language is as Cor van den Heuvel says so eloquently:

"The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one's unity with all of existence."

Discussions like this, especially in the West, upset some people. Why, I'm not sure.  Perhaps it threatens another to see something in the mirror they don't want to face. Some are close-minded, convinced they are privy to the Way, and believe that any other thought patterning is heresy.

What I've written is my view. It is not doctrine but the studied illusions I have regarding haiku and the use of personification in this Japanese genre of poetry.

The mind is our canvas; our thoughts, the brush strokes painting the canvas, and like all art, no one painting is the same. And let us never forget, art is subjective. What one person likes, another may hate.

I'll end this paper with something the American Buddhist Amy Gross said recently in an interview for Tricycle, an online Buddhist journal:

"At certain stages maps can be useful; they point out the way. But at other stages they can be a big hindrance, because we often get caught up in interpretation and judgment: 'How far along am I?' 'Am I there?' These thoughts simply strengthen the sense of self, while the whole path is about dissolving it. And particularly in our western culture, which is so competitive and judgmental, instead of adding more fuel to the fire of self-judgment – 'Oh, where am I? I'm not good enough' -- we could see our entire spiritual journey as this wonderful flowering of understanding. We just keep going; we just keep watering the Bodhi tree of wisdom."

Amy Gross
Tricycle Journal

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Kala Ramesh

Here's mine:

do darting birds
tickle it?

World Haiku Review, May 2008

Don Baird

I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


I wonder if this is personification, or a direct observation?

white sails ...
a wind has also shaped
the tree

Alan Summers
Publications credits: Azami #21 (Japan, 1994)

tension headache         
different bees work
the lavender bush

Alan Summers
Publications credits: Simply Haiku vol. 1 no. 3 (2003); Six Years of Simply Haiku: Retrospective Selections 2003-2008, (Eleven Themes) Selected by Richard Gilbert  (vol.7 no.1 2009).

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


The pathetic fallacy—a kind of metaphor or personification in which human actions, thoughts, or emotions are attributed to other than human beings—appears occasionally in humorous haiku, especially those written before Basho.

For example, from the old haikai-no-renga master Sokan:

te o tsuite                                   hands to floor
uta moshiaguru                           offering up a song
kawazu kana                               the frog . ..

Frogs traditionally "sing" in Japanese poetry, but here the "hands together" and "offering up" suggest an even closer parallel to human activity and motivation.

The Art of Haiku pages 125-6
The Haiku Handbook

extracts from:  
Literary Devices in English Haiku by Megan Arkenberg

Other literary devices, such as metaphor and personification, have a rich history in English-language poetry but are neglected—even discouraged—in modern English haiku. But to ignore these and other unusual haiku devices, such as allusion and visual poetry, is to ignore much of the form's history and literary potential.

Metaphor and personification have been most frequently argued against on the grounds that haiku are meant to be an objective record of things experienced, rather than an opportunity for the poet to display his or her technique. What this fails to take into account is that we do not all experience reality with perfect objectivity—everyone, haiku writers included, perceives certain experiences in illogical and improbable ways. This is particularly true for first impressions.

    in the buttercup
        blue sky

    ~Carl Patrick, The Haiku Anthology

    another red tongue
    on mine

    ~Jane Reichhold, Writing and Enjoying Haiku

ersonification, the assigning of human traits to nonhuman things, seems less prevalent than metaphor in haiku. The most likely reason for this is personification's inherent lack of subtlety—it is difficult for the haiku's author to "vanish" when he or she has intentionally distorted the reader's vision. Well-done personification in haiku allows the poem to speak for itself; it comes from an instantaneous connection in the poet's mind, rather than deliberate ingenuity. 

    song birds
    at the train yard's edge
    two cars coupling

    ~Jeffrey Winke, Thirds

In combining the traits of human and nonhuman things, personification can emphasize the "oneness" of the world and promote a sense of compassion:

    don't swat the fly!
    see how he wrings his hands,
    wrings his feet!


A step up from personification in forging a deliberate bond between writer and reader is the technique of allusion. Japanese poetry uses a device called honkadori, in which a modern poem references and builds on an older one through quotes or the names of famous places and characters. In modern English haiku, allusion can be as simple as mentioning the title or author of a famous work in order to build a similar atmosphere:

        A page of Shelley
    brightens and dims
          with passing clouds

    ~Rod Willmot, The Haiku Anthology

    reading Basho,
    the mournful strains
    of Coltrane's horn

    ~Charles Rossiter, Thirds

    lighting the path
    to Walden Pond--
      my bedside lamp

    ~Ebba Story, The Haiku Anthology

In this last example, the allusion also functions as a riddle; the last line shows that the speaker is not physically near Walden Pond, but reading Thoreau's work.

- e n d -
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


A quote from In the moonlight a worm
Copyright © 1999 - 2013  CIS/Waning Moon Press

We try to avoid projecting human viewpoints into natural things. So as not to humanise (and so patronise) 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. But only the ultra-purist would have difficulty with the level of anthropomorphism expressed in

Sweeping into the pan
the narrow line of dust
that defies its edge.

James W. Hackett

In Conclusion...

Many writers of haiku respect the Japanese artistic dictum, "Learn the rules and then throw away the rule book". Beginners have often found it beneficial to gain some mastery of 'strict' form before venturing into 'free' or 'organic' form.

The Basho scholar Makoto Ueda predicts the future development of haiku and senryu: "As more and more western poets write haiku or haiku-like poems in their languages, Basho's influence on them through the haiku form will become diluted, often to the extent that it will disappear from the poetry. That is what is expected; in fact, that is precisely what Basho wished for. He always encouraged his students to cultivate their individual talents rather than to follow him with blind faith."

Waning Moon Press thanks the British Haiku Society for permission to publish this paper on the web.

Copyright © 1999 - 2013  CIS/Waning Moon Press
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


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."

A quote from Haiku & Western Poetry By Peggy Willis Lyles:

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


    I am cold, mother—
    an acetylene torch on the ground
    cries in the wind

    Fujio Akimoto [1]

Without a doubt, the last poem would be singled out by many American editors as a poor haiku. "Torches don't cry," the poet would be told. "You are personifying the torch." Despite numerous personifications in the poetry of Japanese master Issa, one of the rules of American haiku is that personification is not allowed. However, it is but a short step from a transformation of the self to the personification of the other. I don't see how only one can be allowed.

Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyōkai, eds.), The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century. Tokyo, Japan: Modern Haiku Association, 2008,  p. 51.

Haiku's American Frontier 
by Paul Miller

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Sweeping into the pan
the narrow line of dust
that defies its edge.

James W. Hackett

This is a lovely haiku, but to be honest, the word "that" makes it less anthropomorphic and more descriptive.


Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Haiku & Western Poetry By Peggy Willis Lyles

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.

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*: "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."

*Modern Haiku, Vol. XXXII, No 2, page 89.

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page



Yuku haru ya tori naki uo no me wa namida
going spring: birds cry fish GEN(itive) eyes TOPIC tears

''Departing spring: birds cry and, in the eyes of fish, tears''

Hiroaki Sato's translation (Matsuo 1996 [1694]: 43 43) is more faithful to the Japanese text.

Spring is passing
as birds cry, the eyes of fish
fill with tears

rough trans. Alan Summers

tori naki (birds cry), could either be a literal expression or a metaphorical one (personification of birds). What is characteristic of this phrase is that the possibility of multiple interpretations is reinforced by the choice of a particular Chinese ideogram for naki (cry), 啼, instead of the ones more commonly used, 泣, and 鳴. Among the ideograms of more common use, the former,泣, means that humans shed tears, and the latter, 鳴, means that birds, animals, and insects cry aloud.

The meaning of these two ideograms is univocal as the radicals of each ideogram, particularly the left-hand radical of ''water'' for the former and the right-hand radical of ''bird'' for the latter, contribute to specifying, rather than broadening, the meaning. By contrast, Basho's choice of the Chinese ideogram,啼, for this poem seems to suggest that he deliberately used the etymological implication and the equivocal nature of this ideogram.

The ideogram, 啼, consists of two radicals. The left-hand radical, 口, etymologically means ''a mouth as a metonymy for voice,'' while the right-hand radical, 帝, means ''to wring something (usually wet).''

Thus, the ideogram itself can be seen as a blend of two inputs, corresponding to the two radicals. This blend produces a meaning of the ideogram as ''crying in a wrung voice (voice produced by wringing the throat).''

Furthermore, because the left-hand radical of ''a mouth'' is ambiguous, implying both human and nonhuman agents, the ideogram can be seen as a blend of two lexical meanings: (1) for humans to shed tears and cry aloud in a ''wrung'' voice; to wail with pain; and (2) for birds, animals, and insects to cry aloud, to wail.

Hence, the blend ''birds cry'' displays a double image: birds crying aloud and humans shedding tears, in a ''wrung'' voice.

uo no me wa namida (there are tears in the eyes of fish) which is a novel extension of the conventional metaphor. Although the personification of fish appears frequently in folk tales and children's stories such as Urashima Taro, in which fish speak to human beings, play musical instruments, dance, and so on, we seem to have few linguistic manifestations of this metaphor in everyday idioms; for example, kono sakana wa indo-yoo made tabi ni deru (this fish takes a trip to the Indian Ocean). What fish do in the conventional metaphor is prototypically a physical action of some sort rather than a mental reaction.

uo no me wa namida is novel in that it extends the metaphor to emotions, namely the fish are crying in grief, shedding tears of sadness. It is a very vivid and creative image mapping of tears in the human eyes onto the eyes of the fish.

An analysis similar to the metaphor may apply here, too. Fish are depicted in general with no specification of number, size, shape, color, or name. As birds are a symbol for the sky, fish are a symbol for water in myth and folk belief.

Hence, uo no me wa namida could imply metonymically that the water world shows sadness.

Extract (except rough translation by Alan Summers) from Hiraga Masako (1999)


Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

Gabi Greve

trying the newest in Japanese research for Basho

yuku haru ya tori naki uo no me wa namida

spring is leaving ..
birds sing
tears in the eyes of (my friend called) Fish

for Sugiyama Sanpu 杉山杉風

Sanpu was an official fish merchant of the Bakufu government in Edo.
He was also an ardent haikai poet and supported Matsuo Basho in many ways, helping him to establish his Basho school of haikai.
He was one of the Basho jittetsu 芭蕉十哲 10 most important followers .
Sanpu provided the Basho-An in Fukagawa for Basho to live in.

When starting out to the long and dangerous trip of "Oku no Hosomichi",
Basho wrote this famous haiku in his honor :

yuku haru ya tori naki uo no me wa namida

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