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by Patricia Donegan


These women haiku poets touched me deeply:

  • Chiyo-ni (1703 – 1775)
  • Teijo Nakamura (1900 – 1988)
  • Elizabeth Searle Lamb (1917 – 2004)
  • Edith Shiffert (1916 – 2017)

I choose these four women haiku poets especially because they all had one important thing in common: they were/are an example of “living the Way of Haiku” in their everyday life — which is what, for me, sets haiku apart from other genres of literature — whether I’ve studied, taught or written haiku, I always approached & advocated it as an awareness practice for daily life.

Chiyo-ni (Kaga no Chiyo)

In the Edo era (1603 – 1867) when women barely had any rights, she embraced haiku as her path, studying with two of Bashō’s disciples, & becoming a famous haiku master, artist and Buddhist nun, following what Bashō called haikai no michi (the way of haiku). In fact, the haiku poet Shōin, who wrote the preface to her collection Chiyo-ni Kushu (1764), said of her way of life:

“Chiyo-ni’s style is pure like white jade, without ornament, without carving, natural. Both her life and her writing style are clear & pure. She lives simply as if with a stone for a pillow, and spring water to brush her teeth. She is like a small pine, embodying a female style that is subtle, fresh, and beautiful. Chiyo-ni knows the Way, is in harmony with Nature. One can better know the universe through each thing in phenomena, as in Chiyo-ni’s haiku, than through books.”

While there were and still are very few Japanese women haiku poets translated into English, it was Chiyo-ni’s life that so inspired me, to co-translate with Yoshie Ishibashi, the first book in English on a woman haiku master’s life and haiku, Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master (Tuttle, 1990). And it was also rare for a woman of her time to publish two collections of her own poetry in her lifetime: Chiyo-ni Kushu (Chiyo-ni’s Haiku Collection, 1764) and Haikai Matsu no Koe (Haiku: Sound of the Pine, 1771).

And when visiting her museum & temple in her hometown of Matto city of Japan on several occasions, I felt as if enveloped in her living haiku spirit & lineage. As the years passed while doing further co-translations of her haiku, I gained an awakening insight into the depth & potential of haiku in general: the absolute kitchen-sink ordinariness of it, yet at the same time its luminous extraordinariness, co-emerging naturally when we are immersed in the present moment.

(All haiku translated by Patricia Donegan & Yoshie Ishibashi (5-7-5 syllable count in the original Japanese; open-ended in translation)).

mikazuki ni hishihishi to mono no shizumarinu

at the crescent moon
the silence
enters the heart

nuimono ni hari no koboruru uzura kana

at her sewing
the needle drops —
the quail’s cry

beni saita kuchi mo wasururu shimizu kana

rouged lips
forgotten —
clear spring water

wakakusa ya kirema kirema ni mizu no iro

green grass —
between, between the blades
the color of the water

ha mo chiri mo hitotsu utena ya yuki no hana

green leaves or fallen leaves
become one —
in the flowering snow

oi no kokoro miru hi no nagaki botan kana

this old heart
looks all day long
at the peonies

Teijo Nakamura

Teijo was one of the greatest of the modern women haiku masters in Japan, known as one of the four ’T’’s (along with Takako Hashimoto, Tatsuko Hoshino and Takajo Mitsuhashi). She not only studied with Takahama Kyoshi (the main disciple of the ‘father of modern haiku’ Masaoka Shiki), and was a member of his Hototogisu (Cuckoo) group, but she later created her own movement of women’s haiku, having her own group Kazahana (Snow Flowers in Wind) and magazine; her main collections include Teijo Haiku Collection (Teijo Kushu, 1944) and Flower Shadow Collection (Hana Kage: Nakamura Teijo Kushu, 1948). Her life was totally devoted in every aspect to haiku. At the same time, she had to deal with sexism in the Japanese haiku world where women haiku poets were often regarded as second class, and their haiku often dismissed as mere “kitchen haiku” and therefore of less value; however, her lifelong writing, teaching and advocacy, helped change this misperception. Her haiku style was not of the avant garde, as some other women poets, but rather expressive of a quieter inner life.

I was very fortunate to meet and interview her at her house in Tokyo in 1985, and even though it was only once, her presence and words resonated in my bones. When I asked her, “What is the highest principle of haiku?” she answered (through a translator) simply, “Be honest to yourself and write what is there.” At first I thought that this was a mistranslation, that it was too simple, or that I was perhaps being seen as dishonest . . . I pondered her words for many years, and finally one day realized the truth & depth of her statement, and how terribly difficult it is to be totally open to whatever is (in both your mind & the environment) on the spot, and record that naked moment. The only way to do this, is to be totally aware of each breath, each moment, and appreciate that. Her parting words, “Remember, today’s flower is today’s flower, today’s wind is today’s wind.”

(All haiku translated by Patricia Donegan & Yoshie Ishibashi (5-7-5 syllable count in the original Japanese; open-ended in translation)).

natsu no cho ya ware wa kyo machi kyo sarase

summer butterfly —
I wait for the moment
& then let it go . . .

ware ni kaeri minaosu sumini kangiku akashi

ah, in the corner
look again —
winter chrysanthemum, red

to nimo deyo fururu bakari ni haru no tsuki

come on out —
this spring moon
almost touchable . . .

kaji akari mata kagayakite ikki sugu

firelight bright1
again, brighter still
a bomber passing . . .

bara chiruya onoga kuzureshi oto no naka

rose petals scattering —
the sound of my heart
breaking into pieces

koke no hana fumumajiku hito koi itari

stepping around
the moss blossoms —
yearning for someone

Elizabeth Searle Lamb

Some like myself consider Elizabeth to be the “Mother of America haiku”, not only because of her immersion in and dedication to the continuing creation and promotion of the American haiku world, but also because she imbued the haiku spirit. Just meeting her, as I was fortunate to do on several occasions in the 1990’s in her New Mexican old adobe house, I could feel that haiku was not just a hobby or a literary pursuit, but an integral part of her being, of her everyday life — she seemed to breathe it. And — her face seemed to radiate an inner peace, as if haiku had become almost a spiritual path. And perhaps having lived & traveled widely abroad in many countries, with her husband Bruce in her early years, had expanded her already depth of heart.

Her haiku world contributions as haiku collector, historian and editor include these highlights: in the early years being a founding member (along with Harold Henderson) of the Haiku Society of America in 1968 and also its President and editor of its magazine Frogpond; and in later years, being the first honorary curator in 1996 of the American Haiku Archives (in California) to which she bequeathed her personal papers & vast haiku library.

Her legacy is a living treasure, as one of America’s greatest haiku poets, although she was also known for her longer imagist poems & haiku series. Winner of many haiku awards, over the years, her haiku appeared in innumerable haiku anthologies and magazines — and her collected lifetime of poetry, Across the Windharp, is an archive of the human spirit, that spirit which carries us across time, and across the luminous moments of our lives: the year turns — / on the harp’s gold leaf / summer’s dust.

half-way up the stair—
white chrysanthemums

even bricked up
the window still
reflecting light

just at sundown
the shrilling of the cicada
above street noise

on the winter balcony—
first star

wind in the sagebrush —
the same dusty color
the smell of it

too early awake
but this mockingbird
this moon

Edith Shiffert

Edith is one of the greatest, yet fairly unknown & unrecognized of American haiku poets, perhaps because she lived most of her adult life in Japan as an expatriate. And for some, she is more known for her longer imagist poetry which the poet Kenneth Rexroth praised, “Her poetry possesses . . . a reverence for life and gratitude for being, her being and all being.”

One of the most important Japanese aesthetics is mono no aware (beauty of the transient, or sad beauty); another essential Japanese aesthetic is makoto (sincerity or truth): this is the heart-essence of her poetry. I know no other poet whose poetry, without being sentimental, brings tears to the eyes — a poetry that captures the poignancy of this life of impermanence, and a poetry above all that reflects a deep gratitude towards Nature & our small place in it. Perhaps it is because her poetry is a direct reflection of her life. When asked about her religion, she’d always say to me that it was closest to Buddhism or Taoism, like being a hermit-monk living simply & contentedly in the mountains.

I first met her in 1985 and then visited her on & off over a period of about twenty years while she lived in Kyoto. Her face & presence seemed to have a kind of purity, not mystical, but rather detached, yet with a compassionate view towards all things. Her small apartment house was simple & sparse except for her Japanese husband Minoru and her cat — and of course except for piles of letters, poetry books & papers scrawled with poems. She would often read some of her recent poems over tea, and then in her earlier years, we’d go for a walk in the Kyoto hills to a nearby temple or hermitage of a haiku great like Buson.

In some sense she lived her life as a pilgrim: born in Canada, and then lived in Hawaii and Alaska, before settling down in Japan. Besides numerous books of poetry, among them: The Light Comes Slowly, In the Ninth Decade, and Clean Water Haiku (with Minoru Sawano), she was also editor & co-translator of Haiku Master Buson (with Yuki Sawa), and An Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry (with Yuki Sawa); she also received numerous haiku awards. However, she never, to my knowledge, wrote any essays or books about poetics or haiku principles — she rather lived them everyday whether she wrote them down or not — she always brought an attitude of keen awareness and reverence to the moment — and a reflection on life’s deepest mysteries.

no flower can stay
yet humans grieve at dying —
the red peony

can I feel the bliss
of the scarlet leaves & sky
and myself quiet?

for this small beetle
a lifetime on one tree trunk
everything is there

that old ginkgo tree,
the longer I look at it
the more I am it

journey almost done
we sit relaxed side by side
with an old white cat

seen for eighty years
but still I feel awed & glad —
white water lilies

  1. This haiku was referring to the B-29 Tokyo bombings during WWII in which at least 100,000 civilians were killed, more than in Hiroshima.
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