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ABSTRACT: Ever since Bashō found inspiration by his froggy old pond, haiku poets have turned to water as subject matter. Haiku turns out to be an excellent resource for both capturing via attentive description the “soundscapes” of water (from rainfall to stream and river to sea) and cultivating the art of clear hearing, or what R. Murray Schafer in his classic book The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World calls “clairaudience.” Haiku focused on water also anticipate new directions in acoustic ecology, focusing on the sound of water in ecological context, giving us the sound not just of water in isolation but water interacting with rock and plants, or mingling with birdsong.


by Ian Marshall


If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.

     — Loren Eisely, “The Flow of the River”


Meditation and water are wedded forever.

     — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


If there is one haiku that is most commonly pointed to as the most influential of all time, it is undoubtedly this one by Bashō:

old pond
    a frog jumps into
        the sound of water (qtd. in Reichhold 59)

As the story goes, this haiku was central to the art of haiku — and to Bashō’s own poetic development — because it was the one where he realized that haiku could and should be about ordinary things in nature described in simple, unostentatious language. But it is also one where the focus on the present moment carries a bit of freight from literary tradition, in this case the many poems in the renga tradition about the sound of frogs, mainly in reference to their croaking or singing (depending on the listener’s level of appreciation for the frogs’ vocalization). Readers have found much to admire about the poem in the more than three centuries that have passed since Bashō wrote this poem. For example, in the translation by Jane Reichhold that I’ve cited here, there is the interesting ambiguity of that second line. Does it go with line three, so the frog is jumping into the sound of water? (Which of course raises other interesting ambiguities, like the question of how a frog or anything else can jump into a sound.)  Or does it go with line one, so that the reference, via inverted syntax, is to an old pond [that] a frog jumps into — followed, then, by the sound of water?

For the purpose of inquiry into the soundscapes of haiku, Bashō’s “sound of water” haiku offers some new points of interest. It’s a poem about the geophony — not sounds made by people, which would be the anthropophony; or sounds made by other living things, the biophony; but sounds made by the nonliving part of the world, like winds, waters, avalanches, thunder — the way the geography of the world itself makes sound.1 But that sound of water owes something of course to the frog as well as the water. It’s the sound of interaction — and this is pretty typical of haiku. It’s also typical of haiku in the way the anthropophony is left out of the soundscape. While there are notable exceptions, in general haiku seems to attempt an erasure of the anthropophony, trying to hear the rest of the world on its own terms and in its own voice. When the anthropophony is present, it is often critiqued, as in this famous example by Robert Spiess:

The chainsaw stops;
deeper in the winter woods
a chickadee calls (qtd. in van den Heuvel 202)

It is only when the anthropophony quiets (temporarily) that we can hear the chickadee — and in that hearing is something “deeper” than we are usually able to hear.

Curious about the soundscapes of haiku, especially haiku focused on the natural world, I conducted a bit of an experiment, scanning the pages of a recent anthology of nature-oriented haiku, Allan Burns’s Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku, published in 2013. Burns’s focus is on what George Swede had called “type one” haiku with no explicit reference to people or their artifacts, though Burns is careful to point out that even type one haiku “do not exclude humanity” since of course in every haiku there is still a human observer offering a human perspective on the natural world (10-11). (Swede’s second “content category” is haiku that explicitly reference both the human realm and the natural world, and “type three” haiku are “human-oriented” with “no [explicit] reference to the natural world.”)2 Tabulating the results of my inquiry, I found poems about the biophony, mostly birds (78), but also insects (9), mammals (6), frogs (3), and a falling leaf (1). For sounds of the geophony, there were poems about wind (3), rain (9), thunder (7), echoes (2), an earthquake (1), and one “sound of the sun” (1; more on this one later) — and a lot about the sound of water. In addition to the references to the sounds of rain and thunder, there were streams, rivers, and brooks (7), waves and surf (6), water over a dam (1), waterfalls and cascades (2), the sounds of animals splashing in water (2), the sound of water lapping at the edge of a pond (2), and the sound of dew falling off pines (1). If you are keeping score at home, that’s a total of nine water haiku devoted to the biophony and forty-four for the geophony. Not surprisingly, there are also quite a few haiku about hearing the sounds of silence (20) and about being extraordinarily attentive to small sounds (2).

What are we to conclude from all this? The obvious point is that haiku poets are pretty good listeners, and that haiku is a good way to cultivate good listening habits. These traits in fact constitute the takeaway message of the book that initiated the whole field of soundscape studies, which itself gave birth to the field of sound studies and acoustic ecology, R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Schafer calls for us to turn an ear (and our attention) to “the relationship between man and the sounds of his environment,” and to wonder “what happens when those sounds change” or when we no longer “listen carefully” (3-4). Haiku poets, it would seem, have sought out the sound spaces where the anthropophony has not drowned out what the rest of the world has to say. Haiku poets have listened to the voices of the planet itself and the living things we share that planet with. That is completely in keeping with the long-held sense that haiku relies on imagery, on concrete diction (language that represents what we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell), and on attention to small, often unnoticed things.

As I say, none of that is all that surprising. But what makes the soundscapes of haiku especially rich — and I suggest inherently ecological — is the way in which individual sounds of biophony and geophony are seen, or heard, almost always, in terms of relationship with something else. The sounds do not exist in isolation, but in conjunction with something else. This is in large part an effect of haiku’s frequent structural use of cutting and juxtaposition, placing images in resonance with one another. In this sense, haiku serve to illustrate not only the sonic principles espoused by Schafer but the direction that acoustic ecology has gone in just the last decade, where the aural focus has shifted from individual sound to the assemblage of sounds in an ecosystem. Bernie Krause refers to the biophonic soundscape of an ecosystem as “the great animal orchestra,” with each creature vocalizing in its own sound register, occupying its own acoustic niche. Together the effect (in an intact ecosystem, at least) is symphonic, with different creatures vocalizing high, low, and midrange notes; as the Bill Staines song has it, “all God’s critters got a place in the choir; / Some sing low and some sing higher.” So haiku that feature sound often give us juxtapositions of sounds, with different elements of the geophony placed in strategic resonance with one another or with the sounds of living things. But at times the soundscape of haiku can achieve effects that cannot be captured in a sonograph. The sounds featured in haiku exist in interrelationship not only with other sounds, in a kind of dialogic effect, but also in context of a visual scene, or in a way that suggests the presence of a perceiver as well as thing perceived.

Given my list above, you can see that there are far too many examples to draw from, so by way of illustration let me focus, in the spirit of Bashō, on contemporary haiku dealing with the sound of water. After all, as Schafer says, water “is the fundamental of the original soundscape” — because life began in the ocean and our individual lives began in the “watery womb of our mothers” — and it is “the sound which above all others gives us the most delight in its myriad transfigurations” (15-16).

I’ll begin at the source — the ocean, specifically the sounds of waves and surf. Just as in Bashō’s “the sound of water” haiku, some haiku blend the sounds of water with the acoustic presence of the creatures that live by water and depend on it, as in these haiku by O. Mabson Southard:

One breaker crashes . . .
        As the next draws up, a lull
            and sandpiper cries
                — O. Mabson Southard (82)3

Over the tide pool
        another wave’s high flung spray —
            and a tattler’s cry
                — Southard (84)

In the first, the sandpiper’s piping fills the silent space between waves, while in the second the tattler’s call (the tattler is a wading bird) seems to accompany the crash of the wave. Either way, we get a sense of the littoral zone (where water meets land) as habitat, where geophony meets biophony. Schafer says the sounds of water arriving on land seem inherently “biological” to us, as “the waves rhyme with the patterns of heart and lung and the tides with night and day” (16). The chaos and disorder of the open sea is replaced by the “rhythmic order” of the waves. At the same time the littoral zone is also an area of “tension” between the “brute power” of the sea and the “safety and comfort” associated with land — a tension “made audible in the crashing of the breakers” (170-71). Both these poems evoke that dramatic tension in the shared energy of the birds’ cries and the crashing waves.
There is also the implied presence of life interacting with “the sound of water” in this one by Ruth Yarrow:

tropical night surf
each crash and hiss
    — Yarrow (177)

There is contrast of course in the light of the phosphorescent waves with the dark night, and notice that there is synesthesia in the way the light of the phosphorescent waves seems to make visual the sound of the waves — an effect reinforced by the alliterative “s” sounds throughout the poem (in “surf,” “hiss,” “phosporescent”). But also implied by the light is another life form: the bioluminescent plankton making the light, in a chemical reaction triggered by a disturbance in the water, in this case the waves. As we see in many haiku, in the close observation there is a great deal of reliable biology, as bioluminescent plankton are in fact typically found in tropical waters. More generally, the haiku expresses a sense of wonder at the marvelous and ongoing variety of life (Wow, life that lights up — what a world!) that we might be especially conscious of in the rich biodiversity of tropical environments.

It is this focus on the interaction of the sound of water with the living things that are associated with the sounds’ liquid source that makes me think that the soundscapes of haiku are especially helpful in highlighting the ecological dimension of many (or most?) haiku. For haiku that are full of the sound of water are also full of life. Here are several that focus on botanical life associated with the sound of water in rivers and streams:

lost at last
        among old growth cedars
        the sound of the river
            — Christopher Herold (254)

a brook
growing louder
wild violets
    — paul m. (295)

where you first hear
the river    
    — Burnell Lippy (349)

The biology may seem a bit off in these, since cedars, violets, and honeysuckle are not particularly water-loving plants, nor are they necessarily partial to the sort of shade you might find by a stream. But notice that all three poems speak about the moment when you might begin to hear the sound of river or brook —it’s not right at streamside, but farther up the ridge or out in the woods, perhaps, in the drier and potentially more sunlit soils. In a couple of these, the juxtapositions of sensory experience hint at synaesthesia, as we may associate the louder sounds of the brook with the loud colors of the violets in Paul M’s haiku, or the aural perception of the river might be accompanied by the scent of honeysuckle in Burnell Lippy’s haiku. It is these sorts of juxtapositions in haiku that remind us that nothing in nature is found in isolation — species appear in a geographical context, and the sounds and scents and sights of life and geography are frequently intermingled.

In haiku the sounds of water are more often described in interaction not with plants but with the animals as dependent on water as the plants are. As in Bashō’s famous “old pond” haiku, often the sound of water is actually created by the interaction of water and creature.

October aspen
in the golden pond
splash of a trout    
    — Elizabeth Searle Lamb (154)

The tree, the pond, the leap of a trout, the turn of the seasons — this is a golden moment by the “golden pond.”

In a modern reworking of Bashō’s “old pond,” Marlene Mountain draws several contrasts — including the sound Bashō refers to falling into silence — as a way of commenting on environmental degradation:

old pond a frog rises belly up    (161)

Where Bashō heard sound, now there is an absence of sound; and where there was life, now there is death. Mountain almost seems to anticipate the concern about amphibian die-offs that has accelerated in recent years, the result of a bacterial chytrid fungus that has spread through the introduction of non-native species to new environments (Kolbert 4-22).

The sound that haijin appear to be most fascinated by (judging by its prevalence in Burns’s nature haiku anthology) is birdsong, and it is not surprising that very often it appears as part of a duet with the sound of water. As in this one by Ruth Yarrow:

cliff cataract
braiding water, breeze and sun
winter wren’s song (177)

The wren’s song here seems more than simply accompaniment for the sound of the waterfall; rather, it seems analogous to it, itself a means of weaving together all the elements of the scene — a connection reinforced by the alliterative “w” and “r” sounds in “water” and “winter wren.” A similar reinforcement by sound appears in the internal rhyme of “song” and “pond” in this one by Lorin Ford:

clear water—
a magpie’s song drops
into the pond (368)

This is a much quieter scene than that of Yarrow’s “cliff cataract,” as the magpie’s song seems almost like a single raindrop plunking into the pond to resonate in audible (if not visible) ripples.

The use of poetic sound devices to link sounds of water and birds is also readily apparent in this one by Ferris Gilli:

at the path’s end
murmur of moorhens (327)

There is assonance in the “a” sounds of “lapping” and “path,” consonance in “murmur” and “moor,” and a subtle rhyme in “end” and “hens.” And of course what we typically expect to see lapping at the bank of a pond is water, not moorhens — but here the water and the bird seem to speak the same language.

At times the affiliation of water and bird sound stresses not the bird’s call but its other ways of making sound in the course of its interactions with water. What Bashō did with his jumping frog, Jack Barry does with diving bird:

before I can turn
far from its splash (319)

Note that Barry attributes the splash to the efforts of the kingfisher whereas Bashō speaks only of the “sound of water.” But perhaps that is because when Bashō looks to the pond, there is no frog to be seen — only one implied by the remaining sound. For Barry too the sound is what calls his attention to the water, but from a creature so fast that by the time the human observer turns to see, the bird has already lifted itself from water to the fluidity of air, perhaps with prey in beak.

All these water/creature interactions involving the sound of water reinforce the idea that no creature exists in isolation. Each is part of an ecosystem, and a place, and of course in any ecosystem water is going to be an essential element for any living thing. Often the sound of water functions as what R. Murray Schafer calls a “keynote” sound, “the anchor or fundamental tone” of a soundscape that is typically “created by its geography and climate.” Schafer lists water as one of the sources of keynote sounds, and he points out that such sounds “may not always be heard consciously” even though they are “ubiquitously there” and influencing us (9). That process of trying to hear something which is always there but which may not enter our consciousness is the subject of this well-known haiku by Wally Swist:

walking into and out of
        the sound
of the brook (206)

Swist is calling our attention to the act of perception, and in doing so he notes the way water sounds can shift from background noise that we don’t notice to what Schafer (borrowing from the psychological terms referring to visual perception) calls a “signal,” or a foregrounded sound that we listen to consciously (10). A signal, then, is “figure,” the subject of conscious listening, and background sound, as is often the case with a keynote sound, is “ground.” What Swist’s poem suggests is that water, as a keynote sound, is capable of shifting from figure to ground. It is also worth pointing out that his is the only “sound of water” poem in the Burns anthology that mentions a human presence — the person who walks into and out of the sound of the brook. (By the way it is also possible that the poem is not so much about the act of perception, of hearing and not hearing what there is to be heard, but about following a trail that swings away from and then back close to the brook.) Perhaps this conscious erasure of human presence in most of these poems is a way of suggesting that it is only when we leave the human community and its hubbub behind that we are able to attend to the sounds of water.

There are of course plenty of geophonic haiku that do not necessarily suggest the interactions of living things with water. These often speak to the power and energy of water, as in Marlene Mountain’s “water falls all over itself over the falls” (161). While the poem does not overtly invoke sound, the one-line form suggests the rush and gush of threads of water merging in a cascade — or separating out again into thin lines of falling water. Ron Moss captures the sound of fast-moving water with a bit of synaesthesia:

wild river
over and over
the sound of white (363)

The repeated “over” might take on double meaning there, suggesting not just that the sound is relentless but that it is the result of water rushing over itself — as well as “over the sound of white,” just as Bashō’s frog jumps into the sound of water. The sound is powerful, but describing it as a “white” sound (because of course it is the whitewater of a rapid) might also remind us of the association of the color white with purity. Schafer notes that streams, rivers, and waterfalls (as well as the sea) “all share a rich symbolism. They speak of cleansing, of purification, of refreshment and renewal” (170). There is something elemental, and powerful, and pure, in the sound of that “wild river.”

Several of the water haiku in the Burns anthology focus on the power of water to shape even rock, like this one by Burns himself:

tones of the gorge
the river cutting
deeper into time (376)

This is the geological sublime, evoking our awe not just at the power of water to carve canyons out of rock but also at the vast expanse of time required for that to happen. Time is also evoked by the slower moving water in this one by Anita Virgil:

over the dam—
summer’s end (130)

Here the time frame is measured not in eons but by the turn of the seasons. But what’s notable in all of these is the fact that, just as in the haiku that associated living things with streams and ocean, the water is never seen in isolation. It is always in context. If not placed in conjunction with a living thing, then it is placed in the context of rock and the changes water undergoes — or enacts — over time.

Burnell Lippy offers us a quieter contemplation of the interactions of rock and water:

late-rising moon
each rock in the stream
has its own sound (347)

Lippy’s haiku echoes Schafer’s observation that “a mountain stream is a chord of many notes” (18). The presence of the moon might provide another sort of echo, a visual echo, perhaps, with its roundness suggesting that “each rock in the stream” has also been rounded off by the force of the water’s flow.

We started with the ocean, then moved to streams and rivers that run to the sea — now let’s shift to the source of the waters of both: rainfall. This haiku by Elizabeth Searle Lamb perhaps reminds us of the connection between the two in the effective repetition that speaks to the association of rain and sea:

the sound
of rain on the sound
of waves    (152)

Lamb calls attention to the way the sounds of rain and waves can be discerned separately, and that’s part of the magic of water — the same element making such different sounds in a different context and given different elements (water, shore) to interact with. Schafer too speaks of the variety in the sound of water, pointing out that raindrops tinkle at different pitches and that “the rhythms of the sea are many . . . for the water changes pitch and timbre faster than the ear’s resolving power to catch its changes” (16).

As we have seen with the sounds of both sea and rivers, haiku invoking the sound of rain similarly at times juxtapose water music with birdsong:

linnet song the sound of rain on sand
    — Martin Lucas (284)

Lean-to of tin;
        a pintail on the river
            in the pelting rain     
                — Robert Spiess (107)

In that last one you also have the sound of the rain on a tin roof accompanying the sight of a pintail duck, which of course must be delighting in all the water water everywhere, with the sound of the rain accentuated by the internal rhymes of “in” (tin, pintail, in, pelting, rain) and the alliteration of “p” and “r” sounds.

In this one by O. Mabson Southard, the sound of rain seems to resonate via a visual echo:

A patter of rain . . .
        The lily pad undulates
            on widening rings (83)

It’s almost like those widening ripples are sound waves emanating out from the plunk of each raindrop on the pond. Again, in these sorts of poems we see water not in isolation but in the context of the living things dependent on it.

In this one Christopher Herold calls our attention to the effect rainfall has on sight — implying the impact on vision of the clouds from which the rain comes: “Orion disappears in the sound of rain” (249). It’s dark, so he can’t really see the clouds — their presence is only inferred from the way they blot out the stars and the hiss of light rain.

Interestingly, several rain haiku stress not the sound of the rain but its surprising silence, reminding us that rainfall is not always loud and pounding, or insistently pattering, but can be light and quiet.

evening rain
almost soundless—on the river,
on the reeds     
    — Martin Lucas (282)

no sound to this
spring rain—
but the rocks darken
    — Anita Virgil (132)

the night rain
has become quiet
has become snow
    — Anita Virgil (134)

That last one, of course, as rain turns to snow, accentuates a key difference in sonic properties between different forms of precipitation. Snow is quieter, and the quiet seems to call forth the most intent listening.

At the other end of the sound spectrum are haiku about one of the loudest sounds in nature: thunder. In The Tuning of the World Schafer speaks several times about the sheer power of thunder, suggesting that its “great intensity and extreme frequency range” evokes fear and is associated with the gods. A storm, he says, is “a drama between the gods” (25). In the Christian tradition, in the beginning was the word, and that word seems to have been spoken in the voice of thunder: “God’s presence was first announced as a mighty vibration of cosmic sound” (27). And as it was in the beginning, so it may be in the end, as Schafer points out that in many faiths prophets contend that “the end of the world was to be signaled by a mighty din” (28) — which sure sounds like thunder. Schafer says the power associated with thunder is why armies historically have tried to intimidate with loud noises like bagpipes and bugles, “the clashing of shields and the beating of drums” and the dropping of bombs. These are “attempts to reproduce the apocalyptic noise” (28).

The association of thunder with some sort of frightening power is suggested in this haiku by Jim Kacian:

no way out
of these mountains
        rolling thunder  (261)

There is a neat ambiguity in this haiku. On the one hand, to the extent that we think of the mountains as a potentially dangerous place, the high ground where lightning tends to strike, this suggests a person trapped in a place where you don’t want to be in a thunderstorm. On the other hand, if it is not a person who has no way out of the mountains but the thunder itself, its echoes rolling between the mountains, then it is almost as if the thunder has been corralled by the mountains — which essentially contains and tames the power of thunder. That reading seems compatible with the treatment of thunder in most haiku, which tend not to stress the fearful power of thunder that Schafer describes, but to render it in quieter, more appreciative terms. This of course seems entirely compatible with haiku’s tendency to avoid the grandiose elements of nature in favor of the quieter, more commonplace wonders of the natural world.Here are some other examples of haiku’s apparent taming of thunder:

Muttering thunder . . .
        the bottom of the river
            scattered with clams        
                — Robert Spiess (107)

touching the fossil—
        low rumblings
            of thunder     
                — Ruth Yarrow (174)

flash on the rim—
side canyon prolonging
    — Ruth Yarrow (175)

distant thunder . . .
a yellow leaf slowly spins
to the grass    
    — Bruce Ross (243)

the plover lower
on her eggs    
    — Peter Yovu (271)

the dawn comes
bluegrey and quiet
after the thunder    
    — Martin Lucas (281)

an avalanche roars
down Thunder Mountain
first crocus    
    — Billie Wilson (358)

In these the thunder is described as “muttering” and “distant,” offering not apocalyptic noise but a “low rumbling.” It is heard as an echo prolonged by canyon walls, or the emphasis is on what comes after the thunder — not an unleashed storm but the “first crocus,” the “bluegrey and quiet” dawn. Astonishingly, even amid the threatening power of one of the most apocalyptic sounds in nature, the story of water told by haiku remains one of life going on: the fossil embedded in rock, the clams at the bottom of the river, the plover hunching down to cover her eggs, the first crocus appearing after the avalanche has come crashing down “Thunder Mountain.” Even here, amid the most dramatic noise the natural world can offer, the sounds associated with water are not offered in isolation but in concert with the elements of life nurtured by the water.

I have been tracing the sound of water as it appears in a haiku hydrologic cycle, from rain to stream to ocean, but there is one more step to round off the cycle: the presence of moisture in the air, evaporating from plants (via the process of “transpiration”) and from surface water exposed to heat. That moisture is held in the air as water vapor until it re-condenses into precipitation or dew. And because haiku pays close attention to natural processes, the air-borne part of the cycle is the subject of at least one haiku, this one by James Hackett:

The sound of the sun
        catching this towering pine
            is bright falling dew.    (78)

The process that Hackett is recording here is the condensation of water vapor out of the air, usually after a chilly night since cool air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air. It is for this reason that in the Japanese haiku tradition “dew” is a kigo (or season word) for autumn. What Hackett is describing is the next step — after the dew has condensed onto the needles of the pine, the warming sun causes the dew to drop. And of course it is the sun’s effects that make evaporation possible in the first place, moving water from sea and plant leaf to air in the form of water vapor. What I find particularly telling here is the way the process is described as the “sound of the sun.” Just as Bashō’s sound of water does not take place in isolation but only through the cooperative agency of frog, so too the sound of water is a product of interaction of water and sun — it is just as much the sound of sun as it is the sound of water, as Bashō’s haiku is sound of frog as well as water. The point, again, is that haiku that focus on the sound of water are almost always inherently ecological — the soundscape of nature is orchestral, an ecological symphony with all the instruments playing together, not a series of solo set-pieces.

In The Soundscape Schafer draws from literature a great deal of evidence regarding how people in different cultures respond to sound, and he suggests that literature can be not just a means of revealing what kind of soundscape we live in, but also a way of helping us sharpen our listening skills in order to achieve the ideal of what he calls “clairaudience” — the ability to hear clearly and to listen well to sounds that deserve our aural attention (11). Haiku writers have sought out what Schafer calls “hi-fi” soundscapes in nature, places where “discrete sounds can be heard clearly” — as opposed to “lo-fi” soundscapes where anthropophonic sounds dominate and where “individual acoustic signals are obscured in an overdense population of sounds” (43). The keynote of many of haiku’s hi-fi soundscapes has been the sound of water. Perhaps haiku poets’ particular fascination with the sound of water owes something to the central place in the genre of Bashō’s “sound of water” haiku. But I am reminded that one of Bashō’s core aesthetic principles was fueki ryūko, the creative tension, inherent in the natural world, between the “unchanging” and the “ever-changing.”  That sounds a lot like what Schafer identifies as the source of the general fascination water holds for us. It is a symbol of both “eternity” in its “ceaseless presence” and “of change: the tides, the ebb and flow of the waves” (170) — and to that we might add the flow of water in a stream or river, or within the whole hydrologic cycle, always moving on but at the same time still there. If haiku still aims, in our time as in Bashō’s, to capture the drama of the natural world in its creative tension between the unchanging and the ever-changing, perhaps it is only natural to be drawn to water as a subject.
But beyond giving us examples of how to listen to the world, haiku poets who have been drawn to the sound of water have also anticipated the new direction of sound studies by putting sounds in ecological context. For years after Schafer’s groundbreaking book, sound studies that turned an ear (or sonograph) to the natural world focused on sounds of nature in isolation, employing what Bernie Krause in The Great Animal Orchestra calls the “sound-fragment model.” But that model, says Krause, “distorts a sense of what is wild by giving us an incomplete perspective of the living landscape” (34).  In the soundscapes of haiku, I contend, because of its central technique in which images are presented in juxtaposition, we have a model in literature of a way of hearing that attends to natural soundscapes in a way that intentionally places the sounds of living things — and the sounds of geographical forces like water — in ecological relationship. In the sound of water we hear as well the sound of frog, bird, fish, rock, and sun. We hear the planet coming to life.

Works Cited

Burns, Allan, ed. Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English-Language Haiku. Ormskirk, UK: Snapshot Press, 2013.

Eiseley, Loren. “The Flow of the River.” The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature. New York: Random House, 1957.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Picador, 2014.

Krause, Bernie. “Anatomy of the Soundscape: Evolving Perspectives.” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 56.1-2 (2008): 73-80.

—. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York: Back Bay, 2012.

Marshall, Ian. Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail. Danvers, MA: Hiraeth, 1970.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. 1851. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Reichhold, Jane, ed. Bashō: The Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2008.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. 1977. Rochester, VT: Destiny, 1994.

Staines, Bill. “A Place in the Choir.” Whistle of the Jay. Folk Legacy, 1979.

Swede, George. “Elite Haiku: Hybrids of Nature and Human Content.” Modern Haiku 23.1 (1992): 65-72.

van den Heuvel, Cor, ed. The Haiku Anthology. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1999.


  1. The terms “biophony,” “geophony,” and “anthropophony” to describe the sources of sounds in a soundscape come from Bernie Krause’s “Anatomy of the Soundscape.” Krause also makes extensive use of these concepts in his excellent book The Great Animal Orchestra.
  2. My claim about haiku’s tendency to erase anthopophonic sound applies to the haiku collected in Burns’s anthology, but keep in mind that Burns is explicitly anthologizing “nature-oriented” haiku, so the erasure of the anthropophony is not surprising. Since my interest is in haiku writers’ attempts to listen to the natural world, Burns’s nature-oriented collection lends itself well to my purposes. In haiku that are specifically about the interrelationship of people with the natural world — the second of Swede’s breakdown of the three “content categories” for haiku — it is possible that we may see something different. But I would guess, based on the Spiess haiku discussed in my second paragraph, that even when the anthropophony is heard in haiku that include the human realm, it is heard as interference with the biophony and geophony. That is clearly a ripe subject for further inquiry. Swede points out that haiku blending the human and the natural realms, and highlighting human interaction with nature, account for about sixty percent of all haiku, while those focusing on the exclusively human or natural realms account for about twenty percent each. Burns updates those figures based on a recent survey to suggest that, in a sign of the times, the prevalence of human-oriented haiku in the most prestigious haiku journals has risen to thirty percent while nature-oriented haiku are down to thirteen percent. While drawing on that thirteen percent necessarily limits the sample size, you can see that there is no dearth of examples of haiku about the sound of water, and it is perhaps most useful to see (or hear) what the haiku poets who focus most intently on the natural world as their subject have to say about the sound of water.
  3. Unless otherwise noted, quoted haiku are from Burns’s anthology Where the River Goes.
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