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Viral 6.5

Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.

Viral 6.5

From Here On Earth

BY Judith Christian


                                                        that star
                                                        seems close enough
                                                        to swim to

                                                                   —Diane Gillen Lynch

We are, always have been, and always will be, among the stars. It was natural enough, pleasant enough, to choose this haiku by Diane Gillen Lynch. I first heard the rhythms of language in songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and I am dazzled by the images sent by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is also easy for me to travel off into intellectual musings about our relationship to stars. Why do we travel among them? Why do we want to touch them?

Ancient Buddhist cosmology asserted the existence of multiple, if not infinite, world systems. Then, as now, the light that travels from stars is what defines, what gives us the knowledge of those worlds. Epicurus, about 23 centuries ago, wrote, “There will be nothing to hinder an infinity of worlds.” Is it that the light of our minds knows that the stars will never end, and so to be among them means that we, too, have no beginning and no end? Modern astrophysics edges closer and closer to the ancients’ belief in the coming into being and passing away of an infinite number of universes, the system itself having no beginning and no end.

But wait . . . Basho is shaking his head and warning me away from such musings. Look at the first line of this well-tempered haiku. That star . . . of course. One star, the particular (Venus?), shining in the night sky, and from its light, the coming into existence of the observer. From our position on the Earth, with the naked eye we can look at only one star at a time. We can see many, but to really look, to discern the color and brightness with the naked eye, it’s one at a time. It is that particular star, and this particular poem, we are to look at, with the same intense gaze that is required to look at the night sky.

Where is the star and where is the observer? I see the star on or near the horizon, and between that star and the observer is a lake, or more likely, an ocean; but even if there is no intervening body of water, the night sky has its own horizons, and its own endless black pool. And, yes, the star seems close enough, but to swim to? There is a longing set up by the word seems, and the wistful desire to rejoin our eternal star selves is mediated by that word. We are firmly on terra firma, we are, alas, stuck here on Earth, which is exactly where a haiku should be. There is a beautiful hesitation, a gap between the second and last line, a place of expectation. I’m hooked. I’m there gazing into the distance for a moment, until the wave comes in and wakes me: to swim to. There is a dark danger in the last line. Overcome by longing for the eternal, desperate, or just impulsive—there could be many reasons for a night swim to a star; but like a hand grabbing one’s elbow, “seems” keeps us safe. There will be no swim. There is only the wonder, the inscape, the lapping water, and the lasting light of this poet and this poem.

As featured poet, Diane Gillen Lynch will select a poem and provide commentary on it for Viral 6.6.

Viral 6.1 (Metz ➝ Robinson)
Viral 6.2 (Robinson ➝ McClintock)
Viral 6.3 (McClintock ➝ LeBlanc)
Viral 6.4 (LeBlanc ➝ Christian)

This Post Has 187 Comments

  1. Allan and Michael…I am so glad for your posts…maybe that’s why I feel so uncomfortable when an editor selects my people haiku (haiku with either myself, others or implied people) over my nature haiku. In the nature haiku I find the image and the words fall away, with the people, there seems to be some disturbing element in the haiku…and I often wonder if that’s why the editor selects them…

    I am so glad for THF…finding some of the answers that I could never find on my own. Many thanks.

  2. Thanks to Lorin and Michael for their responses to the two “haiku” I found and posted. I’m not very up with the avant-garde writers and so appreciate the thoughts of others to help me understand a little more.

    And, Michael, your definition of “wordlessness” has helped clear a few strands of wool.

    To excuse myself I will say that my knowledge of the theory of haiku, certainly to the esoteric level of detail as often discussed on THF, is pretty basic – I enjoy writing haiku, it’s a pleasure … sometimes even fun!

    Do I need to know what a monk/nun said about “hokku” in the 15th century to enhance that pleasure? No, not really, although I do enjoy the fact that there is a huge repository of knowledge rattling round out there. It just doesn’t have to be in my head :)

  3. Lorin, so many go through their lives and never find themselves at all. I suppose my bathroom would be as good a place as any for that to happen. Just wait until I tidy up a bit.

  4. “I refuse to call a sparrowhawk an “American kestrel” -lampfish

    …and I refuse to call a tap a faucet : yet were I to find myself in your bathroom, I’d have no trouble filling the bath. :-)

  5. By the way, Alan, you will, I hope, excuse me for taking some amusement from the fact that you support your incorrect and anachronistic use of “haiku” by offering the analogy of the old term “Duck Hawk” for what is now termed the Peregrine Falcon.

    Paradoxically, however, the bird was originally known as the Peregrine Falcon since very early times (even in Latin and in Old French) and the use of “Duck Hawk” in early 19th-century America is due to an error by the Scots-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson and perpetuated in his book American Ornithology.

    Wilson, while recognizing the identity of the American bird with the species that had “long been known in Europe” (i.e. the Peregrine Falcon), nonetheless made a serious error: He refused the term “peregrine” because, he wrote, “The epithet “peregrine” is certainly not applicable to our hawk, which is not migratory, as far as our most diligent inquiries can ascertain….”

    Of course today we know Wilson was quite wrong about that. It is in fact a migratory bird, which is why the name has been CORRECTED AND RESTORED TO ITS OLD FORM of “Peregrine Falcon”

    That provides an apt analogy to why we in the 21st century, knowing the true facts about the history and proper use of the term “hokku,” should similarly and equally responsibly correct erroneous, relatively recent pop-haiku misrepresentations and misuse by employing the historically correct and precisely accurate term “hokku” for the pre-Shiki verse form and for modern hokku as distinct from haiku.

    In other words, your argument actually makes just the opposite case from what you intended.

  6. Alan wrote:

    “The best poems of Bashō, Chiyo-ni, Buson, et al. are, obviously, great regardless of whether we call them “haiku” or “hokku”. The fact is that “hokku” is reserved now for the starting verse of a renku, and “haiku” is understood to indicate standalone verses, including those from before the 20th c. Blyth titled his four-volume study of mostly pre-20th c. work Haiku. When the HSA Definitions Committee approached the Japanese scholar Kametaro Yagi, he told them in no uncertain terms: “‘Hokku’ as a synonym of ‘haiku’ is now completely obsolete” (Haiku Path, p. 75).”

    That is simply the propaganda of modern pop-haiku books, as I have already demonstrated. It sounds like a quote from Wikipedia, not anything remotely reflective of scholarship.

    If one is teaching a class in breadmaking, it is important to call what one is teaching students to make “bread” and not “pie.” There is a reason why it is important for words to have meaning. Otherwise we are left in a Looking-Glass world where meaning dissolves into personal whim and nonsense:

    “There’s a glory for you!’
    `I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
    `But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'”

    That was the attitude of the revisionist pundits of modern haiku in the 20th century, a tiny group of people such as William J. Higginson who were so intent on promoting their own notion of what haiku in English should be (in contrast to what hokku was in the roughly two centuries from Bashō to the end of the 19th century) that they were not beyond ignoring history:

    “`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.'”

    Japanese popular usage in Blyth’s time has nothing whatsoever to do with correct historical usage outside of Japan. When the hokku first came West, it was correctly termed the hokku, not “haiku.” And even in Russia the term “hokku” is still in common use and is the preferred term. There is no reason why English usage should be less accurate.

    Just because George Bush was so ill-educated as to pronounce “nuclear” “noo-kyoo-ler” does not mean that educated and sensible people must adopt that common and obvious mistake. The same applies to “haiku” which is well known among scholars to be anachronistic and historically incorrect when applied to all writers prior to Shiki’s revisionist creation of the “haiku” near the end of the 19th century.

    For those who practice hokku, however, terminology is of critical importance. As already mentioned, what is one to do with students who, whenever hokku is mentioned, mentally replace it with the characteristics of modern haiku? Such people, as I quickly found in years of teaching, have a great deal of difficulty in learning hokku because they constantly confuse its more extensive and demanding aesthetics and practice with the multitude of contradictory things they read about how to write “haiku.” It is the same problem a baking teacher would face, as already mentioned, if whenever the teacher said “bread,” the students mentally translated it as “pie” and worked accordingly.

    There is not the slightest reason to maintain a usage that was inaccurate from its late inception in English.

    One cannot, as Humpty-Dumpty asserted, simply assume that a word means what one chooses it to mean. Language is a system of conveying meaning, and not to use it as such is to take a step through the Looking-Glass.

  7. The best poems of Bashō, Chiyo-ni, Buson, et al. are, obviously, great regardless of whether we call them “haiku” or “hokku”. The fact is that “hokku” is reserved now for the starting verse of a renku, and “haiku” is understood to indicate standalone verses, including those from before the 20th c. Blyth titled his four-volume study of mostly pre-20th c. work Haiku. When the HSA Definitions Committee approached the Japanese scholar Kametaro Yagi, he told them in no uncertain terms: “‘Hokku’ as a synonym of ‘haiku’ is now completely obsolete” (Haiku Path, p. 75).

    It’s rather like insisting that we call an American Dipper a Water Ouzel and a Gray Jay a Whiskey Jack and a Peregrine Falcon a Duck Hawk, simply because those were the names those birds had in Thoreau’s time. “What’s in a name?” Names often change, and as you should know change is the world’s nature.

    Also, “modern haiku”, in my view, is extraordinarily diverse and quite fascinating in both its continuities and discontinuities with the past. If you observe contemporary haiku carefully enough, you should be able to find much to admire, even with highly conservative predilections. Also, do you really imagine you would have liked everything going on in haiku in earlier times? There’s no point in idealizing the past. Most haiku of earlier eras were trivial, ephemeral, derivative, formulaic, uninspired. I feel certain there is more quality work being done now in haiku than ever before–and that there has never been a more exciting time to be involved with haiku than now, during its global expansion.

    All artforms are progressive and dynamic. In twenty-first century America we don’t write our haiku in seventeenth-century Japanese. Vital art is never simply an imitation of old art, however much it may find inspiration there. I believe in taking a sympathetic interest in the work and aims of my contemporaries–not bashing them for failing to conform to a static, Platonic ideal of what haiku “should be.” I also believe in restless experimentation to find what really works as haiku in English. Those are ways of living in the now.

    There are some overlaps in our view of the relationship between haiku, Buddhism, and nature, and I respect your erudition but not the inflexible and dismissive polemics in whose service you tend to place that erudition. I’m sure you’ll come back with more of the same semantic politics, but you’ll have to forgive me if this is my last word on this particular subject, about which there is nothing new to be said: “haiku” vs. “hokku”. Everyone knows the historical facts, and life’s too short for endlessly repeating the obvious. So I’m more than happy to agree to disagree with you.

  8. While it is true that the Buddha’s teachings on dukkha, anicca, and anatta charaterize all conditioned phenomena, the Buddha taught that phenomena are not, or are without a Self.
    This was meant to apply to the conglomerates that composed human being as well as to phenomenal existence, from the microcosm to the macrocosm.
    From the nikayas:

    “Wherefore, monks, whatever is material shape, past, future or present, internal…thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling…whatever is perception…whatever are the habitual tendencies…whatever is consciousness, past, future or present, internal…thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Seeing it thus, monks, the instructed disciple of the pure one turns away from material shape, he turns away from feeling, turns away from perception, turns away from the habitual tendencies, turns away from consciousness; turning away he is detached; by his detachment he is freed; in freedom there is the knowledge that he is freed and he comprehends: Destroyed is birth, brought to a close the Brahma-faring, done is what was to be done, there is no more being such or so.”

  9. Jack wrote:

    “Nothing I do
    can separate me from you-
    green hill”

    A student of hokku would say, however, that implicit in that is the “I”-“you” dichotomy of separation.

  10. I’ve been reading this thread with interest. Wish I had more time to contribute. A couple of observations:

    I think it’s notable that more than a few people here are, or have been, practising buddhists.

    While neither hokku or haiku or modern haiku (if you want to call it that) lead directly to enlightenment (big, small, great, minor, medium, can these distinctions be meaningful descriptors for enlightenment?) they have lead some to an interest in the thought and even practice of buddhism.

  11. Regarding the last posting by Alan, I agree with much (but not all) that he says. What is interesting to me is the degree to which the viewpoint of modern haiku can divorce man from Nature, whereas in Buddhism, whether spoken of or not, Nature is implicit in all that is said. The three “sigils” of Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta inherently apply not to man as separate from Nature, but to man as a part of Nature, to which whole all these characteristics apply.

    In teaching hokku this is simply a part of it from the very beginning. In modern haiku it is a conscious choice to either “reconnect” with Nature or not. But of course it is a false choice, because man is inherently inseparable from Nature — it is only through delusion that one can imagine humans as separate. To put it in deistic terms, “Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit” — “Called or not called, the god will be there.” That is something that much of modern haiku with its dismissal of Nature or delusional reinterpretation of Nature as “all things whether human artifacts or not”
    fails to recognize.

    And that is also why there is the present distinction between haiku as “poetry” and hokku (and conservative haiku) as an expression of the unity of man and Nature. Modern haiku is all too often a manifestation of the psychological alienation of modern humans that Carl Jung so deplored, an alienation reflected in much modern art and literature. It is quite the opposite of what we find in old Chinese landscape painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and in hokku — as well as in New England Transcendentalism.

    As for “not attaching much importance” to terminology — whether one uses the historically incorrect and anachronistic term “haiku” to describe what was really hokku or not — the matter is of vital importance because of what modern haiku has become and the great extent to which it is completely different from the old hokku in aesthetics, technique, and underlying principles. I would not place such great emphasis upon it if I had not discovered through experience how deleterious this misuse of terminology is to the learning of hokku.

    That is just one more instance of how very different the whole approach of hokku is from that of modern haiku in general.


    Alan said it rather well when he wrote:

    “Later Buddhist-inspired nature poetry, I feel, builds from such “foundations” as well as from key concepts such as impermanence, selflessness, mindfulness, and so on, all of which have applications to nature in a broad sense. Mindfulness, in particular, leads to the kind of “wordless” expression Michael describes quite well: “words…become so transparent and invisible that you go directly to the image or experience, and see or feel that as directly as possible.”

    In hokku we put that a slightly different way, but the meaning is essentially the same. We say that the write of hokku gets himself out of the way so that Nature may speak. It is this “self” that obscures the unity of man and Nature. And it is also this “self” that causes the dichotomy in writing between verses in which the writer is a clear mirror reflecting Nature (a mirror that thus becomes invisible, removing the distinction between subject and object) and verses that are written with “thinking,” that is, with abstraction, commentary — intellection in general.

  12. Torrential discourse!

    I just want to mention, Jack, that I used the term “renku” because Ueda does. He also uses “haiku” to describe Bashō’s standalone verses. I don’t attach a lot of importance to this subject.

    Also: Yes, I’ve been a practicing Theravada Buddhist for some time and studied vipassanā meditation in Thailand. I agree with your general point that “Nature was not the Buddha’s subject”–but there is, in fact, quite a bit of nature imagery within the Pāli canon. In the verses of The Dhammapada, for instance, there are haunting images such as:

    “The mindful apply themselves; they cling to no abode. Like swans flying from a lake, they leave their home” (7.91).

    “As a felled tree grows back as long as its roots remain, so suffering will return again and again until craving is rooted out” (24.338).

    These are metaphorical images, of course, but they connect human nature with nature. And there are many more like them, all attributed to Gotama. It’s not really that hard to see how they could develop into something like haiku, especially with the implicit understanding that “you are that”.

    There are also a number of passages that advise one to seek contact with nature:

    “Sitting alone, resting alone, walking alone, unwearied, taming oneself, one finds delight in the forest” (21.305).

    So, participating as part of nature is within the tradition from the start.

    (Btw, these are my own versions of the verses, based on nine translations I consulted of The Dhammapada.)

    Later Buddhist-inspired nature poetry, I feel, builds from such “foundations” as well as from key concepts such as impermanence, selflessness, mindfulness, and so on, all of which have applications to nature in a broad sense. Mindfulness, in particular, leads to the kind of “wordless” expression Michael describes quite well: “words…become so transparent and invisible that you go directly to the image or experience, and see or feel that as directly as possible.”

    Interesting discussions…

    Allan (with 2 ls)

  13. Sandra, you quoted these two poems from Ginya and offered them as “wordless” poems:

    Haiku 1:


    Haiku 2:

    FFFFF –

    Actually, I’d say that they couldn’t be more wordful, as opposed to wordless. They don’t have to be actual words for this to be the case. The point here is that the poems are pointing at LANGUAGE rather than at experience. A wordless poem points at image or experience.

    Of course, you did caveat your mention of these poems by saying that they are perhaps a “too literal” example of wordlessness, but of course only when thinking of these poems as not using actual words. But that isn’t what is meant by “wordlessness” in Watts or Amann.

    Also, John Cage’s 4’33” isn’t really equivalent to the wordlessness I’m talking about, no more than other composition of his might be. He uses silence in that piece, but silence is not equal to wordlessness. Wordlessness is when the words (you still need to use words!!!) become so transparent and invisible that you go directly to the image or experience, and see or feel that as directly as possible.


  14. I thank you, Alan, for the reference to Basho’s renga in Ueda. I might have a look at it when I have time. Unfortunately, I once owned the book, read it too many years ago to remember much of it. And, that goes for almost all of my books, including almost all on the subject of haiku. I was under the belief that it would be best, after reading so much, to put books away and experience directly (although I’m afraid it didn’t work out as planned, probably because in my opinion all things are mediated and there’s no way to avoid that-except perhaps Buddhism, but I didn’t find that to “clear” my mind either.).
    I also thank you for your other reference to DT Suzuki on nature and Buddhism.
    I would point out that if you’ve read what’s called the Theravadan sutras, you will never find the Buddha discussing nature per se. Nature was not the Buddha’s subject. In fact, while we are naturally a part of nature, a part of the whole flow,as you say, the practice of emancipation from suffering may lead to an initital sense of the one-ness of self and non-self,but enlightenment beyond that is something else.
    But, I personally could use a bit more groundedness and it might not be a bad idea to participate again as part of nature,instead of being so incredibly occupied with the contents of my mind.

  15. Well said, David. And, in the spirit of Buddhism, well intentioned.
    Nice talking with you.

  16. Jack writes:

    “Personally, I will stick to my own version of haiku, which is the exploration of the internal landscape through the outer landscape, a psychological synthesis and process, shared by some other haiku poets.”

    Everyone has the right to follow his or her own path, and I wish you well. The difference between yours and hokku as I teach it is that in hokku there is no difference between inner and outer. The stone in the stream “out there” is the stone in the stream “in here.”

  17. Jack writes:

    “The Great Enlightenment does not distinguish or does not not distinguish the One. It is beyond thought and words, because thoughts and expressions of oneness imply a lingering sense of identity and the no-self, whether in humans or in other transient beings, has no identity (identity is intrinsic nature, which one would say is oneness). ”

    We must be careful in discussing these things that we separate our own experience from second-hand knowledge, from “herding other’s cattle,” as it is traditionally termed.

    What we can say is that the “little enlightenment” of hokku takes us to Shen Hsiu’s notion of the the mind as a bright mirror in which all things are reflected. In hokku we say that the mind of the writer must be like a bright mirror without dust, or like the surface of a windless pond.

    What you are talking about — even if it is “book knowledge,” is the next level that transcends hokku — the level of Hui-neng in which “originally not one ‘thing’ exists, so how could there be dust to cling?”

    All of this is no doubt getting beyond some of the other readers here, so it is best to keep it on a very basic level by saying that the “Zen” of hokku is to transmit a sensory experience by removing the separation between self and other. That this is not the highest experience of Buddhism but only a secondary analog to the level of Shen Hsiu is readily admitted. Nonetheless it is an analog.

    No one, however, should confuse it with the higher enlightenment or assume that one will be “enlightened” in the higher sense by reading or writing hokku. It is just that like the other contemplative arts, which all have the same taste, hokku is rooted in the aesthetics of Daoist-influenced Mahayana, and remarkably is able because of this to present the reader with such a “little enlightenment,” whether it is recognized as such or not.

    The more we talk about it, however, the farther we get from the spirit. That does not make it less true — it just takes us away from the experience and into intellection — the old notion of looking at the finger instead of the moon to which it points.

  18. Your point is well taken, David.
    Personally, I will stick to my own version of haiku, which is the exploration of the internal landscape through the outer landscape, a pscyhological sythesis and process, shared by some other haiku poets.
    I’m rather intrigued by this process and it has its equivalence in hokku, though you are quite right to say that it is not the same. But, if you’ve ever studied, read, and practiced psychotherapy, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, you would be surprised at some of the similarities that exist between them and Zen Buddhism.
    Anyway, thank you for your clarity and explanation.

  19. Jack wrote:

    “The fact that the verses that follow the initial hokku must adhere to strictly observed rules,the fact that fancy and the imagination played an important part in their composition, that time and place were altered throughout, all this suggested to me that you wouldn’t have an introductory verse-hokku-that attempted to lead the reader to small enlightenment, but rather that hokku were introductory and placed the whole renga in a context by a seasonal word and laid the foundation for what followed by a kireji (to imply the initial subject).”

    This statement reflects a complete misperception of what is meant by saying that a good hokku is the perception and transmission of a “small enlightenment.” And clearing up this misunderstanding is so important to understanding the meaning of “Zen” in hokku that it must be explained:

    The misperception lies in assuming that the writer of hokku either intended to compose a verse according to accepted conventions OR ELSE he intended to convey a “small enlightenment” to the reader. The fact is that if one were to ask the writer if he intended the latter, he would probably deny it wholeheartedly. As already written, Blyth clarifies this matter by stating that

    “The Japanese have always felt, rightly enough, that poetry must not be philosophical or religious.”

    That immediately obviates the notion of anyone trying to transmit Zen “enlightenment” in the higher sense through hokku. After all, Zen is traditionally a transmission outside the scriptures and beyond words.

    It even makes the notion of consciously transmitting a secondary “little enlightenment highly unlikely. But nonetheless, that transmission is precisely what good hokku does, in spite of the conscious attitude of the writer of old hokku.

    And why? Again Blyth explains the matter by saying, ” But they [the Japanese] have never realized that they were unconsciously resting on the paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism.”

    That is why “Zen”-influenced hokku were written by writers who were not even Zen Buddhists. It is because the writers of hokku stumbled upon a kind of verse quite different from Western poetry, a verse in which the sensory (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling) replaces the intellectual and abstract, and it happens that this verse has the remarkable ability to express and transmit a “little enlightenment.” To some writers, such as Bashō, who had some background in Zen, this was not entirely unconscious; to others it probably never entered their conscious minds at all. So to ask such a writer about the “Zen” in his hokku would be like asking a caterpillar which leg it moves first.

    It cannot be emphasized enough that the hokku is not a Zen koan used to stimulate satori in the traditional Buddhist sense. Nonetheless and remarkably, it functions as a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, in which the distinction between subject and object disappear, though momentarily and fleetingly.

    In the old days such things were seldom talked about in hokku because they were a part of the unconscious context. It would be like a fish asking about water. Today we recognize them for what they are and speak of such things much more openly. In fact we must speak of them to transmit the traditional aesthetic of hokku, because Western culture does not have the “unconscious, paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism.” And because that is not a part of Western culture (and now even seldom a part of modern Japanese culture) it must be taught plainly and openly.

    So to repeat: It is a false distinction to assume that a writer of old hokku had to choose between creation in an accepted verse convention or the effort to transmit a “small enlightenment.” Actually the former was conscious, and the latter took place unconsciously for the most part because of the cultural aesthetic context in which hokku was written, which was that of Mahayana Buddhism.

    Further, when one asks a typical Japanese today about a connection between “Zen” and haiku, he will likely just give a blank look or deny any connection. He knows no more about it than the average American knows about the influence of the Upanishads on the writings of 19th-century New England.

  20. After having a cursory look at Higginson’s site on renku (a modern term and variant of renga), I see that it is possible that renga were more in keeping with the joining, Zen-like purpose of the opening hokku. At least, this is true if I can believe the description of the form as like the unfolding of a mandala in the sense that it represents a cosmic state of diversity and unity. The authors, Higginson and Kondo, go on to say that diversity is the nature of evolution, and unity comes from universal love. The nature of the human mind is analogous to that of the universe.
    So, assuming Basho’s promulgated rules about shifts and links in renga were meant to serve such an end, then I would conclude that hokku and renga had a definite Zen-like atmosphere and purpose to them.

  21. A slight correction:

    This should have read,

    “Further, we can distinguish Shiki’s conservative haiku not only from the radical HAIKU of his student Hekigodō — who gradually abandoned both season and the traditional hokku and conservative haiku form — but also from much of later Western haiku.”

  22. Thank you, Paul.
    It was my point earlier that because of the highly stylized construction of renga, I suspected that the hokku, as the first verse of such a complex longer poem, were not meant as modes or pointers to small enlightenment, but were poetic in nature first-and-foremost and that they were used in ways suggested by Sato and Shirane.
    That’s been the main thrust of all of my earlier postings. Whatever else we may say about hokku, it is poetry and exists in a poetic field (the renga) in a particular way with a particular purpose.
    Naturally, I agree that it has Zen elements to it and is perhaps even imbued with a Zen spirit. But, it is a stanza (an English coinage) and there is much evidence that Basho practiced writing it as an art (as you mention, and as I also mentioned, he revised and revised until he got it right, as any good poet would.).
    The fact that the verses that follow the initial hokku must adhere to strictly observed rules,the fact that fancy and the imagination played an important part in their composition, that time and place were altered throughout, all this suggested to me that you wouldn’t have an introductory verse-hokku-that attempted to lead the reader to small enlightenment, but rather that hokku were introductory and placed the whole renga in a context by a seasonal word and laid the foundation for what followed by a kireji (to imply the initial subject).
    It, the writing of renga, as well as hokku, was a shared cultural experience and while this may have included, probably included the Japanese experience of Buddhism, that this was not the central purpose of the hokku.

  23. Paul writes:

    “When you (or David) refer to a hokku, I take it as the first verse of renku.”

    That would be a mistaken perception disproved by the presence of large numbers of hokku that appeared independently and early, including the many hokku of Bashō set in the context of his travel journals and not in the wider context of renga. In reality a hokku may appear as the first verse of renga, or it may appear independently or in a prose context.

    Paul further writes:

    “The other (non-hokku) stanzas are not haiku.”
    Another misperception. Actually the hokku was as already described, and following stanzas in renga follow the pre-Shiki definition of a haiku, which is a verse of haikai no renga — a hai(kai) ku (verse). Shiki redefined the haiku, trying to make it a synonym of the hokku while discarding all the other, more properly-termed “haiku” verses of the renga. This older and less common use of the term haiku has been virtually forgotten today because of Shiki’s revisionism. Shiki did not invent the term “haiku,” which was much older. He just gave it a new and different definition, which caused the older usage to lapse into obscurity.

    Paul also wrote:

    “David is able to divine a difference from hokku to conservative haiku to modern haiku. The definition of all terms are his own and are circular.”

    The first sentence is true to the extent that I legitimately recognize the difference between hokku, conservative haiku, and modern haiku. But what follows is quite mistaken in assuming that I somehow “divine” this and that such definition is in any way circular.

    Bashō called what he wrote hokku, within the wider context of haikai. So did all the writers after him up to the revisionism of Shiki. That is simply historical fact which anyone can verify. One needs no divination, just accurate, scholarly texts — not the “pop haiku” books of the latter half of the 20th century. That Bashō wrote hokku, not haiku, is admitted by virtually all scholars of the matter, including even those who, for whatever reason (generally for sales figures, I suspect) also use the term “haiku.”

    A typical example is David Landis Barnhill, who writes in his book (paradoxically titled Bashō’s Haiku, page 4), “So the individual poems that Bashō created are, properly speaking, ‘hokku.’ ‘Haiku,’ on the other hand, is a modern word. It was popularized by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902).”

    Further it is immediately obvious from the writings of Shiki that he intended a distinction between his new “haiku” and the old hokku. That distinction was both in terminology and to some extent in aesthetics, though many of Shiki’s “haiku” still technically qualify as hokku presented under a different name and without the possibility of a linked-verse context. Shiki discarded linked verse (renga) because he felt it was not “literature.”

    So obviously we can historically and factually distinguish hokku from Shiki’s haiku. Further, we can distinguish Shiki’s conservative haiku not only from the radical hokku of his student Hekigodō, who gradually abandoned both season and the traditional hokku form, and from much of later Western haiku (including English-language hokku), which often abandons not only the Nature focus of both the hokku and of Shiki’s conservative haiku, but also the seasonal context maintained both by the old hokku and by Shiki’s conservative haiku. That is why many of Shiki’s haiku still qualify technically as hokku, while much of (Western) modern haiku qualifies neither as hokku nor as what Shiki intended by the term “haiku.”

    It should be obvious that there is nothing circular in this, nor are these definitions simply pulled out the air. There is a sound factual and historical basis for each one of them. All are scholarly and all can be tested and proved and personally verified by anyone willing to devote a minimum of time to research in scholarly books rather than simply reading books put out for popular consumption (and additionally at times for propaganda) by modern haiku enthusiasts of the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.

    Do not forget that it was William Higginson and other founding members of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the publishers of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the historically-correct term “hokku” “obsolete,” thus attempting a re-writing of history to suit, apparently, their own purposes in the revisionistic and propagandistic remaking of the haiku.

    That is why it is both historically correct and factually important to distinguish among hokku, conservative haiku, and modern haiku. The latter category could be further subdivided, but for the sake of simplicity it serves if made clear that it is a generalization, an umbrella term for many different kinds of brief modern verse.

  24. Ueda devotes a lengthy chapter (pgs. 69-111) with many exs. to Bashō’s renku in his study of the poet (Twayne, 1970; reprinted by Kodansha International).

    Also, D.T. Suzuki has a substantial essay devoted to “The Role of Nature in Zen Buddhism” (Zen Buddhism, pgs. 229-58).

    Nature has always been a central focus of Buddhist-influenced poetry, whether we are talking about Wang Wei, Saigyō, Bashō, Chiyo-ni, Hackett, or Herold; you could say the reason, to put it very simply, is humanity is seen within the natural order, without separation, as part of the flow.

  25. David:
    I agree with you completely that hokku do not lead to Great Enlightnment, nor could they, as they are still bound in the world of words, which are based on differences, and in the world of phenomena per se.
    You lose me though when you venture to discuss the story of Hui Neng. I am acquainted with the story of the poetry contest and how he won the robe as Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an by his recognition that body and mind, man and nature, never were separate.
    Perhaps, I did not convey what I meant well when I said that Ch’an and Zen have nothing to do with nature. Of course, the outcome of the practice of Buddhism is to firstly realize that the small ‘I’ and the great ‘I’ are not different (and the great I is the universe). But even to suggest this is still in the realm of conflict and suffering, of opposites and binary opposition, as no-self is not realized, but there still exists a sense of self and nature.
    The Great Enlightenment does not distinguish or does not not distinguish the One. It is beyond thought and words, because thoughts and expressions of oneness imply a lingering sense of identity and the no-self, whether in humans or in other transient beings, has no identity (identity is intrinsic nature, which one would say is oneness). But the ana-Atman is what Buddha realized.
    A stage of enlightenment is pointed at in hokku in the ways you suggest: say a rock around which water swirls without a viewer separate from the phenomenon. But, actually what Ch’an teaches is that there is no rock or subject and conversely that the substance of the universe of which we are one with is the same as its absence. All form is emptiness: emptiness is precisely form (The Heart Sutra).
    I never meant to suggest that man was separate from nature; what I meant was that nature is no more a manifestation of the Buddha than anything else (I agree with Higginson here). And, I’m familiar with Dogen’s beautiful remarks about the Buddha’s body being the mountains, etc.
    Let me quote from Rev. Sheng-yen on great enlightenment, if it may help. He discusses the sense of the small self disappearing and the awareness arising that this small self is actually the entire universe, the great self; but,then, this is not great emancipation or enlightenment because there is no self, not even a great self.
    Let me see if Sheng-yen’s quote about great enlightenment helps.

    One who has entered Chan does not see basic substance and phenomena as two things standing in opposition to each other. They cannot even be illustrated as being the back and palm of a hand. This is because phenomena themselves are basic substance, and apart from phenomena there is no basic substance to be found. The reality of basic substance exists right in the unreality of phenomena, which change ceaselessly and have no constant form. This is the Truth. When you experience that phenomena are unreal, you will then be free from the concept of self and other, right and wrong, and free from the vexations of greed, hatred, worry and pride. You will not need to search for peace and purity, and you will not need to detest evil vexations and impurity. Although you live in the world of phenomenal reality, to you, any environment is a Buddha’s Pure Land. To an unenlightened person, you are but an ordinary person. To you, all ordinary people are identical with Buddha. You will feel that your own self-nature is the same as that of all Buddhas, and the self-nature of Buddhas is universal throughout time and space. You will spontaneously apply your wisdom and wealth, giving to all sentient beings everywhere, throughout all time and space.

  26. Jack and others,

    A few points, perhaps each as short as I, in my wordy way, can do.

    Both Shiki and Buson wrote haikai no renga a/k/a in today’s phrase: renku (in modern Japan and widely accepted in ELH world).

    In the era of Basho arose this shift to haiku more commonly, and to haikai no renga in the context of this note as communal linked verse. Before that, back to the Heian, it was Court writing, the waka of course and the origins and codification of renga. See Soji for examples to 50 and 100 verse renga. A reading of the “novel” Genji will show many, many waka with subtle nature reference. And, too, a whole lot of “wet sleeves” i.e. tears of unrequited love. These types are in the Imperial collections as well.

    Probably just before your entry here, Jack, David appeared and he and many of us explored his long–held, and serious contentions that three-line verses known in Japan and in ELH are called “hokku.” If you’ve read at his website, you are exposed to this. David is able to devine a difference from hokku to conservative haiku to modern haiku. The definition of all terms are his own and are circular. I’m sure you may go back in the files of those THF Blogs a few months ago and more and find these detailed discussions.

    When you (or David) refer to a hokku, I take it as the first verse of renku. I’ve just finished participating in two serious instances of renku… and indeed our first verses were each a free-standing, internally divided, seasonally pronounced haiku. It is, in this employ: the hokku. Renku, from haiku no renga, and from renga before them are very complicated forms of linked, communal verse poetry. Comments on its philsophy do require some study. The other (non-hokku) stanzas are not haiku. And, indeed fiction is allowed and expected in many places. This is in no way a form familiar to any other poetic tradition. The late Bill Higginson’s website on renku is still up and current. Google his name and renku.

    By the way, both Sato and Shirane, and I’ve met both, heard both lecture, and read their books as many or most of us have, are Japanese scholars. Both may teach in the USA, but are natives of Japan, by birth and education.

    I own and have studied Blyth, too, the six volumes at least… But I know of no renku (haikai no renga) in which _he_ participated, and precious few haiku (his term) that _he_ wrote. He was a teacher, translator, commentator, dedicated Buddhist, and once even tutor to the Emperor (Prince, then?) of Japan. A renouned scholar. Not a poet himself of any renounai

    Again, Basho participated in many “haiku no renga,” a number have survived. There are none, even from his earliest years, of the content and philosophy of “renga.” Basho made his living, for cash and lodging leading and teaching haikai no renga. He also collected and had published, as became the fashion in his era… collections of actual or possible first verses for haikai no renga. These might be termed, gasp, haiku! No linked-verse collaborative poem attached. And lo! collections of single poems were born (or became more common).

    And that, was “The Birth of the Blues.”

    – Paul (MacNeil)

  27. Thank you Lorin for the citations. I’ll see if I can find them in my library. I’ll call some bookstores, but NYC has changed. Second Avenue was once comprised of almost all old second-hand bookstores. The tendency towards comglomerates, Barnes and Nobles, especially, destroyed them all. Barnes and Nobles would never have the book.

  28. Jack wrote:

    “Hiroaki Sato said ‘Hokku and haiku have been written to congratulate, to praise, to describe, to express gratitude, wit, cleverness, disappointment, resentment, or what have you, but rarely enlightment.'”

    What Sato omits is that the best hokku were written to convey a sensory experience of Nature and of humans as a part of Nature, in a seasonal context. Aside from that glaring omission, I agree entirely that hokku were rarely employed to express enlightenment in the sense in which the term is generally understood in Zen Buddhism. But as Blyth never tires of telling us, hokku are in themselves a kind of “little enlightenment,” a momentary (and transitory) awakening to the Oneness of things. One cannot, however, confuse this little and momentary enlightenment with the “great” enlightenment of Buddhist meditation.

    As I always tell my students, no one to my knowledge ever became enlightened in the latter sense by reading or writing hokku. For Bashō haikai actually became a distraction and obsession that, it is said, he regretted at the end of his life.

    Jack asks,
    “…what on earth does NATURE have to do with Ch’an to Zen Buddhism (the mind to mind school)?

    This is the essence of the matter, and to understand it, we have to go back to one of the major influences on Zen, which is the Daodejing of Laozi. It tells us essentially that first there is the One, then out of the one comes two (the contrary yet harmonious forces of Yin and Yang), and from the two arise the “ten thousand things,” meaning all that is in the universe.

    Essentially, the “Zen” of hokku is reversing this: the writer (the subject) becomes one with that which is written about, and subject and object disappear — there is only the One, meaning that when a hokku writer speaks of a rock around which water swirls in a stream, there is no longer a writer, there is only the rock, there is only the swirling water. This takes us back to the two levels of Zen as spoken of in the tale of the Sixth Patriarch and the poetry contest between the humble kitchen worker Hui-neng and the favored monk Shen Hsiu:

    Shen Hsiu wrote a gatha saying essentially that the body is the Bodhi tree and the mind a bright mirror; one must constantly wipe it and keep it free of dust. This is the level of hokku, in which the ego of the writer disappears, allowing Nature to speak through him. The writer of hokku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature.

    But of course Hui-neng responded with a gatha that took the whole matter to a higher level, saying that there never was a Bodhi tree nor a bright mirror, that fundamentally not one “thing” exists, so where is the clinging dust? That goes to a region which hokku cannot reach. That is why reading and writing hokku do not bring the “greater” enlightenment, only a secondary and lesser analog.

    As you noted, Jack, earlier Ch’an and Daoist verse was often written in the context of Nature, without which humans do not exist, being a part of Nature. And of course hokku was based in part upon the earlier foundation of such verse, particularly the 300 Tang Poems that comprised the “college anthology” equivalent of that time.

    To say that Ch’an (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) have nothing to do with Nature is simply to deny the reality that anything having to do with man unavoidably has to do also with Nature. That is what hokku teaches us, and it is precisely why Nature was always the focus of hokku. It is only modern haiku that attempts, unrealistically, to separate the two. It was sent off on this erratic and unrealistic course by those who, like William J. Higginson, took the position that “everything” is Nature, including high speed elevators, jets, and computers.

    But Higginson (with whom Harold J. Henderson was highly annoyed for propagating that un-haiku-like and un-hokku-like position) forgot what even a child can tell — that there is an obvious difference between a grassy, sunlit meadow and a stainless steel cubicle filled with electronic equipment. Ask any child which is “Nature,” and he will know and reply instantly without the need for sophistry and mental acrobatics.

    You mentioned Dōgen, the leading figure of the “just sitting” branch of organizational Zen in Japan. Yet it was Dōgen who said that the color of the mountains is the body of the Buddha; the sound of the waters is his voice. There could hardly be a closer connection made with Nature.

    But one must not think it is only Japanese Zen through Dōgen that makes this connection. One can go back to the “Forest of Zen Sayings” (Zenrinkushu) and its often hokku-like excerpts to see a constant use of Nature in the earlier Chinese writings it anthologizes:

    “Meeting, the two friends laugh aloud;
    In the grove fallen leaves are many.”

    “The cries of monkeys echo in the deep forest;
    Wild geese are mirrored in the deep, clear water”

    And of course,

    “Mountains and rivers — the entire earth —
    All manifest the essence of Being.”

    One would be hard put to discuss the history of Ch’an apart from its manifestation in Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.

    Modern haiku, of course, is a completely different thing. It has often abandoned Nature, abandoned the seasons, abandoned objectivity for intellection. That is why it is generally so very different from the old hokku that was rooted in “Zen.” What does that mean? Blyth tells us clearly and correctly:

    The Japanese have always felt, rightly enough, that poetry must not be philosophical or religious, but they have never realized that they were unconsciously resting on the paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism. The influence of the West was toward the weakening of this basis, formally and spiritually.” (A History of Haiku, vol. 2, pg. 102)

    Thus the rise of modern haiku, often divorced from Nature, divorced from the seasons, divorced from “Zen.”

  29. Jack… just a couple of books re EL translations of ‘Monkey’s Raincoat’ haikai no renga, which Basho was involved in and was preserved:

    # Matsuo, Bashō, et al. (1973). Monkey’s Raincoat. trans. Maeda Cana. New York: Grossman Publishers. SBN 670-48651-5.

    # Matsuo, Bashō et al. (1981). The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Basho School. trans. Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691064604.

    I only have the first…lucky enough to find it in a 2nd hand bookshop here. I’m sure these books would be more easily available in the USA, in libraries if nowhere else.

  30. Okay, David. Thank you for clearing some things up.
    I’m afraid, I no longer own Blyth’s books on haiku, so I am unable to access any examples of renga he contributed to: I’ve searched the internet to no avail; for the writers on line, and generally in print, it is only hokku and haiku that are ever available. It leaves me without good evidence that hokku was other than what Japanese scholars claim they were:
    Hiroaki Sato said “Hokku and haiku have been written to congratulate, to praise, to describe, to express gratitude, wit, cleverness, disappointment, resentment, or what have you, but rarely enlightment.”
    Haruo Shirane said “I’m not saying that the (haiku moment) is not haiku, but it’s only one part of it. 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 been imported and was then being reimposed on Japan. To me, that was unbearable.”
    Then, while I can’t give you the quotes, I can tell you from my personal friendship with Ban’ya Natsuishi that he as unequivocally denied that haiku was ever Zen or Zen influenced (on this you agree, and I can’t be certain he was also discussing hokku, although I believe he was; I could be wrong).
    As to the poems of the Heian Period, and even in earlier Japanese poetry, before the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, I sense a heavy Chinese poetic influence, with its roots in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism).
    But, I have to ask you what does nature have to do with Buddhism? Assuming you’re right that the Japanese waka’s use of seasonal reference is more than a poetic conceit (though I’m not certain of this), what on earth does NATURE have to do with Ch’an to Zen Buddhism (the mind to mind school).
    I’ve practiced Buddhism and read Buddhist texts, have sat and listened to the Reverand Sheng-yen and the Dalai Lama, to various abbots of various Buddhist temples, and for the life of me I don’t recall a single word ever spoken about NATURE as exemplifying Buddhist teaching-anymore than anything is representative of the Dharma.
    There was a long poetic conceit of the wandering poet monk hidden away in mountains in Chinese poetry that might have leant some influence to the Japanese. Yet, you are right to say that even before the arrival of Chinese influence, say in the Manyoshu, there is already a pronounced nature symbolism and awareness in the poetry.
    But Ch’an Buddhism and its Zen variant has nothing whatever to do with nature. If memory serves me, Dogen and the Japanese Zen school generally relies almost entirely on sitting, just sitting meditation as preparation to allowing enlightment to occur. Dogen said sitting was enlightment; Master Sheng-yen disagreed.

  31. I said nothing about “Zen” being pervasive in the “earliest writings of Japanese waka,” Jack. Zen as a sect was not even introduced to Japan until about 1191 C.E.

    I just mentioned that such characteristics of hokku as transience, poverty and simplicity are found in waka and Kanshi, by which I meant primarily Japanese literature from the late Heian Period onward. So is seasonal reference, and it is an inherent part of the verse for the most part, not just a “poetic conceit.” The Japanese were remarkably aware of and attuned to the seasons, even long before the rise of haikai.

    As for Blyth deploring the separation of the hokku from the wider context of haikai, here is a bit of what he had to say:

    “Another and more subtle way in which Shiki helped in the decadence of haiku was by his dropping of renga, which had continued for seven eight hundred years. This perhaps is the chief reason for the decline of haiku since 1900….”


    “Renga were the continuum, of which haiku were the isolated phrases and themes. When the actual or implied nexus of renga was gone, haiku found themselves beating their ineffectual wings in the void. This is, in my opinion, their present lamentable condition, and until haiku are once more linked up again with visible and invisible ties, they will continue to be thin, rootless, unechoing, immemorable, just little gasps of what should be a steady and unbroken breathing.” (History of Haiku, vol. 2, pg. 103)

    I am not familiar with your own haiku so I cannot say whether you write it “as Shiki wrote it,” but I can say that few in modern haiku do so. A good part of modern haiku has abandoned seasonal context entirely, as well as Nature as the primary focus. You will know to what extent that might or might not be true of your own verse, aside from how well your personal aesthetics might match those of Shiki.

    As for Bashō’s participation in renga, you will find an example on page 131 of Blyth’s volume I, Eastern Culture.

  32. Thank you for engaging my question, David.
    I am dubious, though, of your remarks regarding the pervasiveness of Zen aesthetics in the earliest writings of Japanese waka. I do agree that early compilations of court poetry contained a prevalent reference to season, but I think this was more of a poetic conceit than a Zen-like awareness of nature.
    I’ve read the Manyoshu and Kokinoshu and they are sensual displays of amorous love often with seasonal references used to compare the feelings of the lover/poet to the feelings associated with individual seasons. I’m afraid I don’t see much Zen in Japan’s earliest poetry.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you that it was with the rise of the middle-class in Japan that the hokku and renga took on the shape that we ordinarily associate it with and that this was the time of the emergence of Basho (with his mixture of high and low diction and subject matter). I’ve always thought that Basho, like the early novelists of England, was the conduit through which the middle-class, arising in power, was introduced to its high literary heritage in a palatable form.
    There are exceptions to what I said above about early Japanese waka-those written my Japanese monks, Ryokan, Saigyo, come to mind-that did exhibit the Zen-mind in their writings, as you say.
    Whether the hokku and what you call its essential Zen-mind characteristic was continued in the proceeding stanzas still remains an open question to me (and if not, then I don’t know that the hokku was more exemplary of Prof. Shirane claimed it was: a form of greeting to the host and congregated renga party); the renga were so bounded by rules (it must refer to flowers-cherry blossoms-twice, must refer to the moon three times, must follow strict rules as to when a new subject could be introduced and under what circumstances, suggests to me that renga were poetic forms firstly and perhaps secondly imbued with a Zen quality. As I said, I’m not familiar enough with renga to answer this question, but I think its answer presses if one is to claim that hokku were Zen-mind poems (don’t you agree).
    If, as you say, Blyth deplored the separation of hokku from renga, why didn’t he write about it and show how his conclusions about hokku were supported by readings of entire rengas?
    Perhaps, you have access to some of the renga that Basho partook in writing. I have not seen any. To have such documetns would be helpful to me.
    I do appreciate your reading of the history of hokku and haiku and do value your opinions.
    As a writer, though, Shiki was the beginning of the art I sometimes practice, and I do not practice it the way he wrote it. I’m afraid I am too much impressed by the history of later Japanese poets of haiku to want to turn back.

  33. Jack remarked:

    “…it would be nice if my initial question was examined and that referred to what place hokku played in renga and whether hokku, as such, as initial verses of a longer linked verse, defined its real purpose, aesthetics, and place as poetry first and foremost.”

    What you are asking is essentially “Is the hokku what it is because of its rôle in linked verse?” And the answer is yes and no. For example, the hokku set the season, but season was already an important part of Japanese verse, and had been for centuries.

    The hokku as we know it today was born in the time of a rising “middle class,” when verse-making was no longer restricted to the upper classes. That of course fits perfectly with Bashō’s mixture of the high elements of the waka with low, previously “unpoetic” elements in his approach to the hokku. In this mixture lay the real genius of the the hokku.

    What we can say, then, was that the time and place gave birth to hokku, and that the context of hokku — the wider “haikai” context of linked verse, was similarly formed by time and place and the “Zen” aesthetics predominating in the arts of the time.

    The aesthetics of Zen already existed. That they became the aesthetics of the hokku is due to the fact that Japanese culture was permeated with Buddhist influence. Characteristics of hokku such as transience, poverty, and simplicity existed before the hokku, and are found also in waka and “Kanshi,” Japanese verse written in Chinese characters. But in the hokku they were, remarkably, reduced to their essence. That is why the hokku could function as the impetus for the rest of the linked-verse sequence. Being so aesthetically concentrated, that is why it could also appear outside of linked verse without really losing its power.

    What it did lose by its excision from a wider haikai context by Shiki was its sense of a wider web of connections (which loss Blyth deplored), and, quite rapidly, its aesthetics, which happened very rapidly once Shiki had opened the door for the writer to change the verse at will, thus the rise of modern haiku and the accompanying loss of the “Zen” aesthetic that characterized and still characterizes the hokku.

    Jack mentioned that I tend to speak rather slightingly of the Western modern haiku movement. That is quite true when modern haiku is seen in relation to hokku aesthetics, by which modern haiku can only be viewed as a degeneration. One cannot judge modern haiku by the aesthetics of hokku without deploring it.

    But that means simply that modern haiku must be approached on its own terms and seen for what it is. It is not a continuation of hokku under another name. It is not even a continuation of Shiki’s form of “haiku” under another name. Instead it is a new, hybrid verse form that uses the inspiration of the brevity of the hokku combined with Western concepts of poetry and what it means to be a “poet.”

    It always strikes me as paradoxical that anyone in modern Western haiku feels the need to refer at all to Shiki and everything that preceded him, because modern haiku is so aesthetically different from the hokku in general that often little is owed to it beyond brevity of form.

    That is why I quite agree when people say it is misleading to speak of a “Zen” connection in modern haiku.

    I should add there are a few writers of haiku today who still practice a conservative form more like that of Shiki, and who do maintain some connection to the old aesthetic, if only perhaps in intent. But on the whole, modern haiku and “Zen” have nothing at all to do with one another. But that cannot be said of the old hokku that preceded Shiki, and it cannot even be said entirely of Shiki’s conservative approach to verse, in spite of his agnosticism.

  34. “Buddhism is bigger than Buddhism.”

    It has to be, Allan :-) Thanks for that. After all, Buddha was not a Buddhist, Christ not a Christian etc.

    If haiku/ hokku is poetry, then it cannot ‘belong’ to any particular religion or sect, though of course haiku has it’s roots in Japanese culture, including ‘Zen’.

    David and Jack, I know I need to understand more about the aesthetics of hokku/ haiku. I’m interested in renku or haikai no renga, as well, as a very enjoyable and imo promising form of collaborative poetry.

    Michael’s explanation of how ‘wordless poem’ is used was good…it’s just that I get irritated with the ‘wordless poem’ sort of terminology when dealing with poetry, and I believe that haiku is poetry. Yes, metaphorically speaking, the poem (any sort of poem, if it’s successful, not only haiku) conveys or constellates perception or experience beyond the words on the page (or spoken) … ideally, ‘teases us out of thought’ (Keats), but confusing the poem with where it takes us or what it reveals ‘between the lines’ doesn’t really help people coming to haiku and wanting to learn about it. (Blyth’s struggle to show this sort of thing in his, “In poetry, parallel with it, living a life of its own apart from that of the so-called poetry, is an unnameable spirit that moves and has its being.” …is a tad mystical and woolly, but at least he tries to show that it isn’t the poem itself that is ‘wordless’)

  35. Hey, Jack–

    I’ve taken no offense at your remarks at all. You’ve done a good job, among other things, of reminding us of the earthiness, the contradictoriness, and the complexity of these all-too-human poets. I think the greatest strength of haiku is when it combines a cosmic vision with the commonplace, reminding us that everything is fleeting, fantastical, and not to be taken for granted.

    Also–I was really responding as much to things posted by Lorin Ford, David Coomler, and others as to your statements. (I admit it tickled me to be in agreement with Mr. Coomler for once.)

    I think that in English-language circles there was too much emphasis on Zen initially and then too much of a reaction against that. It’s time for a more balanced synthesis to emerge, I believe–and I also think Ueda achieved a version of it a while back.

    It’s a good point about the present tense. As another ex., in his famous “crow” haiku Bashō wrote “tomarikeri”, which signifies the static completion of an action, equivalent to our past perfect tense: “has settled”. That seems to be frequently overlooked.

    Finally, I’ll mention that my friend Jack Barry–in my book one of the finest haiku poets on the planet–said to me not long ago, “Buddhism is bigger than Buddhism.” I think he meant that the life of compassion and mindfulness and the search for “enlightenment” are much more universal than any specific institution, rituals, etc.

  36. One last thing before I sign off:
    I wasn’t aware that Buson was a Pure Land Priest.
    This is odd, because he was a notorious habitue of brothels in Japan. I don’t know exactly how much Buddhism influenced his behavior.
    Anyway, you’re right, Alan, in many respects.
    I certainly hope that I have not said anything to offend; I no longer practice Buddhism, but I do take seriously the tenet to do no harm in speech or action or thought.
    If you’ve been reading any of the earlier postings, perhaps Robert Bly’s shadow has been inserting itself in my statements. For me that is good, since I usually am so timid and yielding that I find myself quite vulnerable and frightened in the world (hardly go out, in fact).
    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the exchanges.
    Best to you all.

  37. I’d like to point out some things that Haruo Shirane discussed in Beyond the Haiku Moment. He firstly pointed out the fact that contrary to the notion that haiku (hokku) were poems of the present moment, hokku poets wrote of imaginery worlds, invented new worlds from old in the exchanges that took place in the writing of renga. The ELH seems to stigmatize (or did) poems that are not in the present moment and here and now (and this based upon a notion of what Buddhism teaches).
    The hokku, or opening verse, marked the time and place of the gathering (of the renga session), but it had no restrictions as to the use of the imagination. Buson, he said, was very much a desk poet, and often wrote of other worlds, particularly 10th and 11th century Heian culture.
    Basho, according to Shirane, rewrote his hokku often as to gender, the place and time, the situation. The only thing that mattered was the effectiveness of the poetry, not its faithfulness to “reality,” or “suchness.”
    According to Shirane, Basho traveled to have direct experiences of the world, but also to enter into the past, meet spirits of the dead of celebrated locales, to experience what his spiritual and artistic predecessors had, to deepen his hokku.
    In short, Basho and Buson both relied on their past cultural heritage to enrich their poems and did not necessarily always keep to the present, to the moment, to what was before them (they were artists and things served or didn’t serve their art).
    So, of course, Buddhism played its role in the views of hokku poets, but I think the evidence equally points to the fact that they were poets first and foremost and regardless of some memorable quotes about concentration on the present and writing without a hair’s breadth separating you from what you are writing about, they took great artistic pains to revise, imagine, choose the correct word, and were primarily engaged in writing poetry
    Basho was Zen trained, but as he himself said, “but neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another.”
    I suppose, I have to admit more openly that Basho and other hokku poets were influenced by Buddhist tenets.
    But, it needs to be understood that they practiced the Way of Beauty, that is, the “art” of poetry, not the spontaneity of so-called sudden enlightenment.
    This was an idea of D.T. Suzuki and very attractive to the Beats and their ancestors.
    But, as any real Ch’an Buddhist knows, instant enlightenment is prepared for and only comes after a great deal of work: there is nothing sudden about it.
    Perhaps, you have misunderstood me: of course, Blyth did not simply fabricate the Buddhist influence in hokku. However, his books often read to me like commentaries running alongside poems that don’t necessarily coincide with his interpretations. I simply think he over-emphasized the relationship and missed the poetry of the hokku. I even recall him saying that hokku were not poetry, as we understand it, that they bore no resemblance to the things embodied (which he said was what Western poetry did), but were Zen expressions. This, I don’t agree with.

  38. Well, Jack, my intention was to enter the conversation with my own perspective and information. Whether you feel that what I offered answers your question or not is another matter. I don’t seek to deny the origin of haiku in renku or to dismiss what you call Bashō’s apprenticeship; what I offered concerned, if you will, the philosophy of haiku, as stated by Bashō–which informs his mature and most influential work.

    Some quick responses to some of your points:

    Here’s one thing Ueda says about Bashō and Zen:

    “Conveniently for Bashō, there was a Zen monk living in his new neighborhood. Butchō (1642–1716), head of a Zen temple in Hitachi Province (Ibaraki Prefecture), was temporarily staying in Fukagawa because of a lawsuit involving his parish. Bashō practiced Zen meditation under the monk’s guidance, although no record surviving today specifies when and where he did so. His commitment to Zen was a serious one, for he was later to recall ‘at one time I thought of confining myself within the doors of a monastery.’ Allusions to Zen are scattered through his poetry and other writings, even though it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they refer directly to Zen or are simply reflections of Japanese culture, which had assimilated Zen by Bashō’s time” (Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, p. 68).

    I think this shows that Bashō definitely had more than a “passing acquaintance” with Zen Buddhism.

    Buson was a Pure Land lay priest (see Haiku Master Buson, p. 15).

    He once wrote: “Haikai values a verse that detaches itself from the mundane while using a language that is mundane. Making use of the mundane while being detached from it–such an art of detachment is very difficult to put into practice. ‘Listen to the sound of one hand clapping,’ said a certain Zen monk. In those words lies the Zen of haikai as well as the art of detachment from the mundane” (Ueda, The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson, p. 66).

    Like Bashō, the way Buson talked about haiku indicates a strong Buddhist influence on his art.

    The Tang poets represented many traditions: Buddhism (Wang Wei), Taoism (Li Po), and Confucianism (Tu Fu).

    Ginsberg did say “first thought, best thought” (many times)–just not first. Thanks for reminding us that he picked up the phrase from S. Suzuki.

    The idea of an aesthetic rooted in Buddhism is widely acknowledged. For instance, the other Suzuki, D.T., writes: “Japanese artists more or less influenced by the way of Zen tend to use the fewest words or strokes of brush to express their feelings” (Zen Buddhism, p. 278)–just one ex.

    As for Chiyo-ni, the “ni” in her name means “nun.” Here are some quotations from Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi

    “Like Bashō, who espoused haiku as a Way, or a life’s path (haikai no michi), and who also wrote his best haiku in his later years after meditating in a Zen temple…Chiyo-ni’s best haiku were written in her later years after becoming a nun and devoting her life to Buddhism and haiku” (41).

    “Jodo-Shinshu’s emphasis on boundless compassion surely influenced Chiyo-ni’s haiku” (44).

    “The basic tenet of Buddhism, that of mujō, or impermanence, is naturally reflected in most haiku, Chiyo-ni’s as well. This follows Bashō’s edict on the importance of becoming one with nature and capturing its fleeting quality” (47).

    Here’s a haiku by Chiyo-ni:

    Buddhist service–
    the butterfly too

    I’m pasting in quotations both because I don’t have a lot of time and so you don’t have to take my word for things. Having considered the evidence, I would say that Buddhism did exert a decisive influence on the development of haiku. It’s not something that Blyth and Amann simply invented.

    Anyway, I’m not really arguing with you, Jack, even if our opinions seem to differ. I’m adding something of my own, based on the general topic being discussed by a number of people. Maybe someone will find something interesting in it, or not.

  39. I was sitting on my porch, relaxing for a bit, when I recalled something that Basho once said and was the one thing he said that I kept it in my writing of haiku.
    He said to constantly repeat the sounds of the poem, over and over and over again, before finding it finished.
    You might say this is similar to recitation Buddhism, mantras, but I don’t think so. I think it is a poet’s best advice and it pertains to the sounds and the inter-relationships of sounds in the poem, an essential for all poets (and a practice in Western poetry, as well). It’s Basho the poet speaking.
    This spoke to me, because I hold it as the most important practice a poet can perform. Speaking aloud the haiku over and over will let you know whether it works properly as a work of art, or if there isn’t something, some word or words, that are jarring the rhythms.
    I might add, that I read David Coomler’s web-site he includes in his post. It is a manifesto of its kind and it disparages the retroactive use of the word haiku to what was hokku and is rather degrading of the American haiku movement (which I take no stand on here).
    But, I suggest you read his essay.

  40. I see in my haste, and tiredness, the third paragraph is unclear in reference to a subject. I was talking about Basho.

  41. I don’t think you answer my question, Alan. In fact, you do not even take up the subject.
    By not discussing hokku as the first verse in renga, and discussing standalone hokku alone, is it possible to draw a conclusion as to what hokku was and in what context it should be understood?
    This is not to say that Buddhist views do not enter into his poetry, but to simply dismiss his apprenticeship (really more than an apprenticeship) in renga is to void a good deal of his writing and it concentrates the discussion in a partial way.
    Perhaps, I shouldn’t have used the word game, since that implies something that is not serious. I meant rule-bound game as all forms and institutions in society and rule-bound behavior.
    And, as to citing Chiyo-ni, well, she was a nun wasn’t she? And, as far as I know, she became a nun because at that time in Japan, it was one of the few professions a woman could assume that would give her independence in a male dominated society. I have not read any of her works on the subject of Buddhism or to what extent she was a practicing Buddhist nun.
    But, I think you missed my point and missed my acknowledgement that Buddhism certainly influenced Japanese culture and that would include its poetry.
    And, it wasn’t Allen Ginsberg who said “first thought, best thought.” It was Shunryu Suzuki.
    But, as to Basho’s knowledge of Buddhism, from all I have read on the subject (Uedo and others), Basho had a bare, passing acquaintance with the practice and study, as he admitted himself (sorry I’m unable to present quotes for you).
    And, isn’t it true that the Way Basho advocated and practiced was what he himself called the Way of Beauty (not Buddhism); this suggests to me that he was primarily interested in the craft of poetry and not poetry as a means to express Buddhist views, but to express beauty (the way of words).
    Indeed, having lost his position at an early age as friend of a wealthy companion, Basho chose writing as a profession and sought patronage from wealthy and middle-class men who he wrote the early hokku for in renga sessions.
    And while your quotes from Basho are illustrative of a Buddhist trait to his poetry, Basho’s poems were often filled with allusions to Japanse history, to Chuang-Tze, to animistic, Shinto, beliefs that, I believe, were far more influential in Japan than were Buddhist views.
    As to Buson, he was a painter firstly and then a poet. He was influenced by Chinese verse and Tang poetry (more Taoist than Buddhist). His influences were essentialy Confucian thought, as I understand. It is true that while he was traveling the road that Basho had earlier taken in his wanderings, Buson stayed at some Buddhist monasteries and for a while gave thought to becoming a monk; but, as I understand it his interest in the subject faded. It strikes me from Buson’s poetry that he was an artist above all else and his work does not seem imbued at all with Buddhist principles. Besides, I don’t know if he practiced renga.
    We all know the tragic life of Issa. He was a lay Buddhist priest, and this does come across in his empathy for all sentient beings, although his own peronsal and deep suffering might account for this more than his Buddhism.
    Frankly, Buddhism is foremost the practice of not holding onto the view of a self anywhere or in anything and the deliberate craft of writing poems is a form of capturing, holding, desire, and transferring that over to another (the reader, the other guests at a renga session). I believe they are incompatible practices and I know from read (again, I’m afraid I can’t present proof for you) that some modern haiku poets felt the contradiction and were guilty about continuing to write). I can only recall Lama Surya Das recounting a one month Buddhist retreat where Allen Ginsberg was in attendance and Allen brought pen and paper to write haiku (since he claimed that miraculous haiku occurred from sitting meditation) and the monk in charge had to explain to Ginsberg that it was inherently contradictory to hold on (the cause of suffering in Buddhism) to images and poems and had Ginsberg give them up for the month’s meditation.
    Santoka-bless him-was a very ill man and an alcoholic (one of the forbidden practices in the basic vows of being a Buddhist).
    I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood, again, as claiming that Basho and other hokku poets were influenced by Buddhism.
    But, I can relate to you what Sheng-yen, a famous Ch’an Buddhist monk, who passed away a few years ago said about a feeling of one-ness with the object/world after or during meditation; he said, this sense of one-ness, this awareness of one-ness retains a self and is not enlightenment; in enlightenment there is no sense of one-ness or no sense of no-self.
    And Basho also said to never let go of the fiery sadness called desire (hardly Buddhist).
    There is no collapsing of subject and object as subject and object did not exist in the first place and writing about the true nature of the object is not possible (as it has no inherent, essential nature-that is Buddhism).
    All that said, I am familiar with the “influence” of Buddhism in hokku, have acquainted myself for a long time with the religion, but I’m not as certain as you that there is a Buddhist aesthetic (it is not an art form) or that the depth found in good hokku or haiku require or ever had to require a Buddhist world-view.
    Anyway, it would be nice if my initial question was examined and that referred to what place hokku played in renga and whether hokku, as such, as initial verses of a longer linked verse, defined its real purpose, aesthetics, and place as poetry first and foremost.
    I think Shirane has much to say on this subject and I am more prone to accept his version than I am Blyth’s or Hackett’s (who was a Buddhist monk).

  42. I think David Coomler’s comment states the case fairly.

    To see the connection between haiku (by which I mean standalone poems not part of a renku) and Buddhist thought, all you need to do is study the words and lives of poets such as Bashō and Chiyo-ni and others. Haiku was not simply a rule-bound game for them; it was a way (or Way) of conveying a vision of life.

    In the relatively few remarks by Bashō about haiku that have come down to us, he consistently describes poetry in Buddhist terms. A few exs.:

    “The basis of art is change in the universe.” (This aligns directly with the Buddhist concept of impermanence; Bashō is placing this concept at the center of all art.)

    “The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.” (Buddhism is known as “the middle path,” and “vacuity” alludes to the concept of emptiness.)

    “Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately.” (“Concentration” is a basic aspect of Buddhist mental culture, the eighth part of the Eightfold Path. We also see here the idea of collapsing subject and object, of becoming “one” with what one observes. And immediacy connects to the Zen concepts of spontaneity and satori, or instant enlightenment.)

    Bashō develops these points further:

    “When you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate for a moment.” (Allen Ginsberg restated that as “First thought, best thought.”)

    Also: “Composition must occur in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree, or a swordsman leaping at this enemy.”

    Bashō also said: “One needs to work to achieve enlightenment and then return to the common world.”

    I think in order to downplay the historical connection between haiku and Buddhism, you have to ignore what Bashō said, as well as the fact that he seriously practiced Zen under the monk Butchō. At times Bashō seemed to perceive some tension between haiku and the pursuit of enlightenment; at others, he seemed to see haiku more as an expression of enlightened perception. A fruitful paradox, perhaps.

    Many more examples can also be produced from the lives and work of key figures such as Chiyo-ni, Buson, and Issa (and others), all of whom were Buddhists and all of whose work was informed by their practice (although all three were Pure Land rather than Zen Buddhists, which is why unlike some commentators I talk more of Buddhism than of Zen, specifically, in relation to haiku).

    It’s also worth noting that some notable modern haiku in both the Japanese and English-language traditions (e.g., the work of Sōseki, Santōka, Hackett, Spiess, tripi, Herold, Martone, Wangchuk, Forrester, Lippy, Moss, etc.) has perpetuated the vital connection between Buddhism and haiku.

    None of that’s to say that haiku have to be written from a Buddhist point of view; but to ignore how Buddhism (and to a lesser extent Taoism and other traditions) have helped shape haiku aesthetics and also have imbued these short verses with the kind of philosophical depth that has made them into important world literature–not just a rule-bound game–is to miss quite a bit.

  43. Just a word or two more.
    when writing the hokku, it was normally the tradition for an honored guest at the poetry writing session to do it and he was expected to offer praise to his host, or deprecate himself whiles superficially referring to current surroundings and season. The following verse fell to the host who would reciprocate.
    This understanding of the form is that belonging to the Japanese literary critic Haruo Shirane in his book Traces of Dreams.
    Is he wrong in your opinion? And how does this interpretation of hokku square with yours and Blyth’s?

  44. David:
    I wonder what you make of the fact that hokku, though they were sometimes compiled and printed separately, were merely the opening stanzas of the renga? Blyth, who introduced the hokku to the West, and who placed its aesthetics squarely in the Zen tradition of Japan (though he also discussed its associations to Shintoism, Taoism, etc.), did not analyze the independent hokku as openings of renga.
    And, I think this makes a difference.
    I am certainly no expert on the history of renga. Rather, I am a novice. However, as I understand it, renga in its early stages was a highly formalized form on linked verse that required a certain diction, required very specific rules regarding changes of subject (and when they could be introduced), required standard numbers of sound units, etc.,and was by and large a poetic endeavor and not a religious (Zen,etal) practice.
    In fact, from what I understand, it was a court practice, an elitist game whose rules were required knowledge for the members of high society.
    Eventually, from what I read, the renga rules were somewhat relaxed and its practice became somewhat commonplace amongst the ordinary citizens of Japan (middle-class) and gave way to uses of wit and humor.
    Again, as I read it, renga during this time came to be known as haikai no renga (comical linked verse) and here is when Basho appeared as the master of haikai.
    Assuming that hokku was generally understood as the opening verse of the haikai no renga, I always understood its aesthetic requirements were to set the tone and season for what would follow. As part of a greater whole, I would not imagine that the hokku had a aesthetic different from the whole. Yet, the whole, was from the beginning an incredibly rule bound poetic form and that its origins were poetic for the most part.
    I do not disagree with you that Japanese culture early on was deeply influenced by its importation of Ch’an Buddhism from China.
    But, given that Blyth analyzed hokku separately from their part of a greater whole (the renga), perhaps his emphasis on the Zen aspect of the composition was misplaced. I do not know.
    I do know from having read Blyth many years ago and many times, that he makes a case for hokku as a way of life, an ancillary art of Zen, as you describe it.
    However, I question whether “selflessness,” a “meditative aesthetic,” “poverty,” “transience,” etc. were essential qualities of hokku, as you claim in your essay. It seems to me that in Narrow Roads, Basho and his friend attired themselves as Buddhist monks in a somewhat mock gesture.
    Given the poetic rule-bound nature of the form, I question whether hokku (not to mention haiku) was the non-distinction between the subject and object. However, as one who practiced Ch’an for many years, and as one who has undergone psychotherpy and psychiatry for many years, it is simply a scientific truth that we do observe ourselves in what we see and it really cannot be otherwise.
    Perhaps, you might take the time to respond to what I have suggested in light of the fact that hokku was initially just a part of renga and I have rarely seen any discussions of the spiritual aspect of hokku discussed with bearing this in mind.
    As to being a modernist practitioner of haiku, I can only give you a dream I had in the early days of my writing haiku:
    Leslie Fielder, the famous American literary critic, who was a mentor and friend of mine for years, appeared in my dream and said to me in his off-handedly humorous way, that the Japanese sure liked to include a “weather report” in everything they wrote. I woke up from the dream and never felt the same way about kigo in haiku.

  45. I have no problem with those who say there is little or no “Zen” in modern haiku. I agree with them. But it is a mistake to overlook the “Zen” roots and aesthetics of the hokku that preceded both the conservative haiku of Shiki and modern haiku that has little connection with either hokku or Shiki’s conservative verse.

    The problem is generally that people misunderstand what it means to speak of “Zen” in hokku. It means simply that hokku was influenced by the same aesthetic that is found in the other contemplative arts in Japan — Nō, Tea, flower arranging, landscape gardening. That aesthetic was essentially a mixture of the influence of Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and a dash of animism (via Shintō) and Confucianism.

    That is simply historical fact. It does not mean every writer of hokku was a Zen Buddhist (some were); it does not mean every hokku exhibits Zen aesthetics. And it certainly does not mean the bulk of modern haiku has a “Zen” connection.

    I invite those who wish to learn more to read my posting on “Ending the Confusion about Hokku, Haiku, and Zen” at:

  46. …and I think this is relevant:

    “For three years (1981-83) I ran haiku workshops at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto and found that the majority of newcomers to haiku possessed an already established interest in Zen. They expected to heighten their Zen-ness by writing haiku. In addition to having read some Hackett, many came to the first class imbued with Eric Amann’s ([1969] 1978) The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku, essentially an essay self-published as a booklet. On page thirty-eight, Amann summarizes the view that these students found compelling:

    ‘The main point of this essay has been to show that haiku is not to be regarded primarily as a ‘form’ of poetry, as is commonly assumed in the West, but as an expression of Zen in poetry, a living ‘Way’, similar to the ‘Way of the Brush’ and other manifestations of Zen in the arts and in literature.’

    Their dismay was palpable when I told them that the workshop was going to focus on haiku as poetry, not Zen. But it was nothing compared to the news that Eric Amann had by this time publicly (at Haiku Canada meetings) divorced himself from the idea of haiku as Zen and was embarrassed by the attention his old views still garnered. In spite of this double-whammy, practically all students stayed with the workshops and became quite proficient at writing haiku as poetry (Swede 1981).

  47. um…whether it’s a haiku or not, despite the 5-7-5, is another question.

  48. Hi Sandra, John Cage’s experiments with music also come to mind as analogy with ‘wordless poem’. He had a ‘message’, and it was a Chan/ Zen one, and a very valid one.

    But if we call a haiku a ‘wordless poem’ or John Cage’s pieces ‘soundless music’ are we not mistaking the finger for what it’s pointing to?

    ps… I’m not good at code , so I don’t have a clue what the first ku you cite is about, but an immediate translation of the 2nd sprang to mind and it’s hilarious ;-)


  49. Oh yeah, just realised that Haiku 2 presents as 5-7-5 in terms of the letters in each line. :)

  50. Well, now, perhaps these are too-literal examples of a “wordless” poem, but for the life of me I can’t think how else to describe them. If any of the rather erudite writers who post here can help me see a way through, I’d be grateful. Are they so far in front of everything else that to all practical purposes they are in Martian or do they have no clothes on?

    I’m quoting the translations from Japanese, but the katakana look just as odd.

    Haiku 1:


    Haiku 2:

    FFFFF –

    Both haiku are by Kika Hotta and come from a sequence entitled “Pro Patria”, published in Ginyu No. 46 (April 2010). I admit to not knowing this poet and whether this may be typical work.


  51. Michael, thank you. Gradually, things are becoming a bit clearer to me and all of what you wrote in your post helps, especially your pointing out that the opposing terms, ‘word-based’ and ‘image-based’ originated with Lee Gurga perhaps looking at a specific case and, as we do, using what words we can to make distinctions.

    “A “word-based” poem tends to point to the author, I’d say, whereas an “image-based” poem tends to point to the image or experience, with the words becoming as transparent (or “wordless”) as possible.”

    Like a wayside shrine
    to itself, this sideswiped stag
    of the seven tines.

    I find this ku (if I may use that to mean verse, as in a verse in the body of a renku) magnificently done. There is no doubt that it’s great example of how images can work, since by L3 that stag has transformed into a shrine or perhaps even a cathedral, such is the power in the image conveyed by ‘of the seven tines’. The ‘sideswiped stag’ is no longer ‘like a wayside shrine’ by L3, imo, it *is* , has become, the shrine, the thing it began to be compared with. The simile has ‘vanished’. Nothing is like anything anymore. Only the road-killed stag which is the shrine of the ‘stag of the seven tines’ , the shrine to itself, remains. Returning to the beginning, ‘Like’ seems a trick with simile, and can be dispensed with. It seems that Muldoon has avoided direct metaphor (the stag is a shrine unto itself’ and chosen simile to take us to where neither simile nor metaphor operate, far from ‘my love is like a red, red rose’.

    It is superbly crafted. Yet, the author’s thumb is on the scales. We are skillfully guided to arrive at the experience of ‘what is’, the magnificent stag that is a shrine to itself. Is that what it is, I wonder, which would disqualify it from being ‘haiku of the first order’?

    I’ve been looking around a bit on the www, and believe I’ve found a source of the ‘wordless poem’ idea in R.H. Blyth’s translation of and commentary on ‘The Hsinhsinming’ -(by Seng T’san, Third Chan Patriarch)

    “1. No dependence on words and letters.

    To apply this to poetry, whose medium is words and phrases, may
    seem absurd. It is like pictures without paint and music without
    sound. But words are a peculiar medium, in being the vehicle for
    all communication, whether poetical or otherwise. In poetry,
    parallel with it, living a life of its own apart from that of
    the so-called poetry, is an unnameable spirit that moves and has
    its being. It is the darkness and silence of things, of which the
    ordinary poetical meaning is the light and sound.

    2. A special transmission outside the Scriptures.

    There is a transmission from poet to poet of the spirit of poetry
    deeply similar to that of Zen from monk to monk. A poet knows
    another poet by indubitable yet invisible signs; the same is true
    of the artist and the musician. But the poet especially (in the
    wide and profound sense of the word) feels and transmits
    unwittingly that attitude towards life that is the real poetry of
    the world.

    Two came here,
    Two flew off, —
    Butterflies. ~ Chora (1720-1781)

    In this verse, the ordinary poetical meaning is discarded; what
    remains is that dark flame of life that burns in all things. It
    is seen with the belly, not with the eye; with “bowels of

    3. Direct pointing to the soul of man.

    How can there be such a thing as pointing without a finger? How
    can art subsist without a medium? What is this silence that
    speaks so loudly?

    Beat the fulling block for me,
    In my loneliness;
    Now again let it cease. ~ Buson (1715-1783)

    A fishing village;
    Dancing under the moon,
    To the smell of raw fish. ~ Shiki (1866-1902)

    The flame too is motionless,
    A rounded sphere
    Of winter seclusion. ~ Yaha (1662-1740)

    4. Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood. ”

    It’s pretty esoteric if one’s not a learned Buddhist!

  52. Mark, I was just continuing the play of referencing Dylan poems. Of course, I knew what you meant.

  53. I’m afraid you must think that one came out of the labyrinth, and will think I sound now like B. Zimmerman saying he was just trying to make it rhyme, but really, Jack, I only intended to say what I said.

    Best wishes…

  54. Don’t think twice about it Jack. I’m not an expert on any of these subjects, just having a little fun off topic.

  55. Yes, I see it was Bob Neuwirth. My mistake. Sorry Mark.
    And, I guess I never was on that street. It looked so much like a street in what is now Soho in NYC.

  56. Lorin: Regarding “word-based” vs. “image-based,” I believe Lee Gurga was trying create a category different from most of the haiku we’re used to reading (and presumably prefer) as a way to justify or defend what Muldoon was doing. And yes, not all of them are wordplay, but they are focused more on verbal cleverness more than presenting a clear image while also employing some of the other strategies we might more commonly employ, such as objective sensory imagery, juxtaposition, and seasonal reference.

    As for the “wordless poem” idea, it helps to read Alan Watts and Eric Amann. I take to mean that the words become as invisible as possible, the way you read page after page of a good novel and never notice the style—you’re totally into the story. Ted Kooser, in Poetry Home Repair Manual, refers to poems as being like looking at fish and coral through the bottom of a glass-bottomed boat. He says that a good poem will drop nothing on the glass, so the reader can focus totally on what is there to be viewed. But an inferior poem (unless it’s deliberately trying to make you aware of that glass) will drop things onto the glass, often through clumsy syntax, overt verbal cleverness, or any number of other ways. In a haiku, do the words point to the image, or to the author? A “word-based” poem tends to point to the author, I’d say, whereas an “image-based” poem tends to point to the image or experience, with the words becoming as transparent (or “wordless”) as possible.

    Jack: Yes, not all of Muldoon’s haiku, such as the one you cited, are mere wordplay. But I DO believe they are word- or idea-focused rather than image-focused. What I’m talking about, too, has nothing at all to do with how finely crafted or “densely profound” any of the poems may be. I just think he takes selfish liberties with the haiku genre. I’ve read all of Muldoon’s Hay, Moy Sand and Gravel, and Hopewell haiku (or “haiku” as the case may be), and they are certainly worth knowing, not just for the serious student of haiku, but because they are interesting poems (whether haiku or not). But they are still very word-focused, nearly all of them. And they pay little or no attention to the standard practices of haiku, in Japanese and English. You might say that we “need” haiku that “push the boundaries.” These are hardly “naïve” poems, but they do seem to naïve in relationship to a deeper understanding of haiku. These are not like pseudo-haiku (Haikus for Jews, Honku, etc.), naturally, but I believe many of them are just as far away from haiku as pseudo-haiku, albeit for different reasons. And yes, Muldoon’s haiku (or “haiku”) are indeed “rich in allusion, knowledge, and craft,” but again, that’s beside the point, because how he gets there is at the expense of haiku aesthetics, not by using them.

    Jack, you say “I think if you read some of Mr. Muldoon’s haiku contained in the two other books I mentioned, you would find a poet fluent and familiar with the art of haiku.” I’ll overlook your presumption that I haven’t read these books (I’ve had them for years, and have met Muldoon several times and talked with him about haiku). But what I find there is not at all someone “fluent and familiar with the art of haiku,” but someone who is “fluent and familiar with the art of POETRY.” Are they good or entertaining poems? Absolutely. But I don’t let that confuse me into thinking they are good haiku.

    And also an aside: Jack, you say “the noun/image is preferred because it eliminates the writer from the picture.” I would be quick to point out that a persona in the poem should not necessarily be confused with the writer of the poem. Some people believe that although haiku is a poetry of the “I” (that is, about personal experience), they shouldn’t refer to the self. I think that’s a misguided idea. There is nothing at all wrong with referring to the self in haiku (one of those fallacies of haiku)—I think of Buson feeling a chill when he steps on his dead wife’s comb.


  57. As reported by Michael Grieg at Dylan’s 1965 San Francisco press conference at KQED:

    Asked to define his philosophy, he said: “I don’t think anything planned ever turns out the way you want it–not that this means anything.”

    Dylan went on to say that he was dealing rather cavalierly with the questions because he felt that real communication was practically impossibe, that people saw different houses “when they say…uh…house.”

  58. The following from wikipedia:

    The cue cards were written by Donovan, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth and Dylan himself.[3] While staring at the camera, he flips the cards as the song plays. There are intentional misspellings and puns throughout the clip: for instance, when the song’s lyrics say “eleven dollar bills” the poster says “20 dollar bills”. The clip was shot in an alley behind the Savoy Hotel in London where Ginsberg and Neuwirth make a cameo in the background.

    But wikipedia isn’t always right.

  59. Mark:
    Thanks for trying, but I don’t think that’s right. The man was writer (beside I looked at ealier images of him and there was no match). It’s a mystery.

  60. Jack, Lorin, all

    I think that’s singer/songwriter Bob Neuwirth. Could be wrong.

  61. Yes, Lorin. It is Ginsberg. I know the street; have been on it many times. But I recognize the other fellow and I can’t place him.

  62. I think the bearded bloke is Allan Ginsberg, Jack, but haven’t a clue who the other one might be.

  63. waitingwhowasthebeardedblokewastalkingtohelooksfamiliarI(in japanese)

  64. sound bites take fright
    haiku to visual art
    everyone’s sounding smart
    a hard day’s night’s back
    watcha doin’ later Jack?

    Look out kid
    It’s somethin’ you did
    God knows when
    But you’re doin’ it again

    I’m in the punchbowl
    hiding from the weathermen

    (that bearded bloke in the background looks familiar)

  65. “Lorin’s in the punchbowl…”
    Johnny’s in the basement, Mixing up the medicine
    I’m on the pavement, Thinking about the government
    The man in the trench coat
    Badge out, laid off
    Says he’s got a bad cough…look out kid…

    I think part of the difficulty comes with the nature of blogs and the electronic media in general– with reading (and writing) on and for a screen. After so much exposure to television and now computers, one is trained to see things a certain way. It’s not an insurmountable problem, just takes a lot of care, the kind of care one takes with poetry, perhaps.

    Even the fairly narrow columns on this blog are conducive, I feel, of a less spacious kind of reading than one might experience in a book or magazine. Helps to increase the font by a few degrees, or print out some of the longer posts. Also, to write them separately, then import or transcribe. Also helps to let something breathe for a while before sending it into the crowded world. I should take my own counsel.

    It’s difficult to trust something that does not have a body. Easy to get lost in the rorschach, and wonder if someone is directing their comments at *me*. I wonder this morning how some took my earlier statement: “I’m reluctant to talk about (an article I wrote years ago) on this forum– it would likely end up being a private conversation between (Jack) and me….” Some might have thought I was saying that he and I are the only ones here able to address certain things. I meant that though it might be of interest to Jack at the moment, the article is not the focus of this forum. Or more accurately, I don’t want it to be.

    I think that some of the pitfalls of electronic engagement probably keep some people from taking part on Troutswirl. I come close, often, to joining them.

    However, I try to remind myself that we are engaging in conversation, one made more challenging by trying to hold it here, in Electronica. But that’s our country more and more, and conversation is an art. Yes?

  66. Lorin’s in the punchbowl, and that’s me in the corner by the sofa, not sure if I should stay or go, but unable to move towards the door, dazzled as I am by the conversation. :)

  67. Also, in reference to some other items in your posts…the artist always has to embrace the strangeness of what he is creating. No matter how realistic or abstract that subject may be. Even when you create a painting that fools the eye, the artist feels a certain strangeness in the fact that he understands that what is on the canvas is not what is before him, it’s not even what he had in mind…he just knows enough when to stop to make it discernable to others.

    As far as shadow/strangeness…that sounds like a western concept to me…the idea of the shadow….with all it’s implications. I must admit though that sometimes when western concepts converge with eastern concepts you can get some pretty interesting results.

    Thanks again for your great posts. I’ll probably find other things that I’ll be puzzling about and I hope as I set down my ideas on those points it won’t be taken in any other way than an exploration into what makes sense. In gratitude.

  68. Hi, Jack, Thanks for your kind comments…. There’s one other thing that I hope I can shed a little light on (as to my meaning)…when I use the word “fragment”…to me it does not have to be connected to anything…other than reality…or I should say the mystery of reality. It’s somewhat like “white space” in paintings of the far east. That’s a hard concept for westerners to get a grip on… If you live alone as I do, and are able to walk into the silence as much as I do, you become aware of this reality all around us. I had to leave high school art because the teacher could not grasp this concept. It’s not “nothingness” exactly, except it does seem to be “nothingness” to the western mind which is constantly filling itself up with things/events/control issues and such.
    You bring up a lot of interesting points and I was not aware that people thought a fragment had to be connected to some phrase or something. It’s great to have someone to talk with about these things.

  69. Jack, that you understood the connection between my art and poetry is, well, very special to me. Minimalism, less-is-more with complexity — (odd but not to haiku writers perhaps) is certainly my personal aesthetic. I am moved. Thank you.

  70. Jack, I’m glad you found that essay/review engaging. I’m reluctant to talk about it on this forum– it would likely end up being a private conversation between you and me. I will give your thoughts a careful reading though– they’ll help me (as did Robert Epstein’s more critical thoughts in a recent MH) to see where I am at present with some of this stuff, and maybe there’ll be a way to incorporate some new observations into a larger context. I’ll only say that my thoughts about the shadow/strangeness were, and continue to be, exploratory, and in no way definitive. I think there may well be poets who have a deeper grasp of all this than I do, and I wait to hear from them. I deeply appreciate your engagement.

  71. Very glad to hear from you Merrill. LIke you, I continue to write haiku (though not as much as I used to) and generally keep them for myself, as you do. I erase those that at one moment I thought were great and on later reading I realize just miss the mark.
    Frankly, I stopped sending my haiku to haiku journals almost entirely. Occassionally, someone asks me for my haiku for a journal and I’m more than happy to oblige. But this is the rarity.
    What’s more, the funny thing is that poems that were once rejected, found themselves later included in anthologies, chosen by those who had originally rejected them. It didn’t feel redemptive, just kind of funny, if you know what I mean.
    Most of all, I am deeply grateful for your understanding and generosity, a quality that should arise in one practicing haiku.
    And, I really like the vincent tripi poem (I’d like to see your drawing of it). I’ve seen some of your drawings on line and you’re really quite a good artist.
    And, most importantly, thank you for agreeing that whether one capitalizes first words of the first line or all the lines or doesn’t capitalize any of the lines is no big deal! You’re right, the haiku knows its mark.
    I’ve only gone on and one about it because I’m earnestly against having an eleventh commandment on the subject.
    Thanks again, Merrill. We’ll communicate somemore in the future.

  72. Jack, I think there are more experimental haiku written today than will ever see the light. I write tons of the stuff. But when I submit haiku I try to fit the haiku I’m writing with the tone and outlook of the journal I’m sending it to. Believe me, I fail a great deal of the time. But I’ve also found that a haiku that did not fit an editor’s needs at one place or time, fit perfectly in another’s.

    I realize that when new-comers come to haiku they try very hard to understand how to do it…running here and there to follow this voice or another…never realizing that they have their own voice. But to publish these takes a lot of other people willing to put their lives on the line of provide journals of this slant or another slant. I know that I too have a certain essence I aim for in my haiku…a certain atmosphere that called me to notice it – to take the time to write it down to work it out. But if no one else appreciates any particular haiku I write, there seems to me to be so much to look forward to – so much experience hitting me in the face, that I can only consign the ones that don’t connect to my haiku lists on my computer or in my little notebook.

    And when there’s a haiku that I just can not forget about – but I feel really needs to be saved for some reason or another, that’s one of the motives I’ve had in starting my snowbird press.
    There are haiku that have endless depths to them…that I just can’t read and forget…they keep talking to me. I try to capture the image in a drawing…a drawing that will capture something of what is being missed. And being a single haiku on one note it is not in competition with other louder haiku. When I look back at them I treasure each one.

    Just for an example here’s one by vincent:
    (drawing of a thrush turning aside)…
    “For me too
    the song of the thrush
    that landed somewhere else”

    I might add, that vincent always starts his haiku with a capital and ends with no period…so even though I write differently, it doesn’t matter too much to me…the haiku still knows its mark.

  73. And, must we embrace another commonly held conviction of the haiku tradition that nouns are the meat of haiku and though verbs may be used a preponderence of nouns is preferred because they convey our experiences without interpretation. And that the noun/image is preferred because it eliminates the writer from the picture. I tend to think that haiku is a lyrical poetry and that without an “I” there is no “not-I.”
    I was pleasantly pleased to see in Dr. Gabi Greeve’s haiku site said that in Japan all students are taught that haiku is the poetry of I.

  74. Michael:
    I can see your point regarding some of Paul Muldoon’s haiku in his book Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore. Some of them are mere plays of language. However, I think the poem I cited does not belong in that category, nor do the many finely crafted and densely profound haiku found in his book Hay, which contains the Hopewell Haiku sequence (quite a different mind at work there).
    Lee Gurga and you are essentially comparing Muldoon’s work in Sixty Instant Messages to the youthful work of Basho and some of his predecessors, who we generally understand as having written haiku as word-play, using puns, not treating the art as a possible vehicle for the sublime and serious.
    But, I suggest you have a look at Hay and the Hopewell Haiku sequence; there Muldoon is at his best and his haiku are rich in allusion, knowledge, and craft.
    And, you might find some beautiful and touching haiku in Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel.
    I think if you read some of Mr. Muldoon’s haiku contained in the two other books I mentioned, you would find a poet fluent and familiar with the art of haiku and, at that, a master of the craft of poetry, who does not use poetical devices merely for the sake of self-exhibition, but for the sake of each poem.
    I also have to admit that I take issue with the common notion in haiku circles that haiku is about “suchness,” that it is distinguishable from poetry in general inasmuch as it presents things as they are, not as they are like (and so the use of simile, metaphor, etc are looked down upon).
    I am well familiar with the haiku tradition and all its well-known tomes and rules; however, words are not things- this is common knowledge amongst linguists and philosphers of language-and to insist that haiku must be produced by “placing two or three images side by side without interpretation” is simply one of many ways to write haiku.
    And this need for variety and not rule bound behavior is, I think, also true of how we use lineation, whether lines begin in capital letters or small-case, whether or not a verb is used or whether to simply place nouns and phrases on a page and create a space between them for the reader to be engaged in the creation and completion of the haiku.
    I don’t think there is a war being staged for the soul of haiku; the only people who go to war are those who want to possess a territory; others are willing to co-exist.

  75. Nicole:
    I’ve been looking at some of your paintings and I think they are magnificent. I admire the way you compose the paintings, the way you use space in them. As someone said, your paintings do bridge the abstract and representational in art and they are Turneresque.
    I also like your use of color: sometimes muted landscapes, sometimes brightly offset blues and whites (in the elemental landscapes series). There is something huge about your work; perhaps its way you divide the canvas with minimalized versions of the earth and always that overarching sky.
    I especially admire the small views you create in such works as Marsh and Fog, Cranberry Bog, and Haze.
    There is a magical quality in your work that at once joins the external and internal worlds.
    I’m afraid I don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss your work any better, but I can see why based upon your way of composing, into vectors, asymmetrical quadrants, and miniscule distant views, you might be drawn to haiku.

  76. Lorin:
    I have to admit that I’m feeling overly intoxicated myself. Need to rest and recoup.

  77. All right, Peter, I’m back. I’m impatient to go on. And, I have to admit that I was and still am somewhat perplexed and unclear about your interpretation of the quality of “strangeness” in haiku and your correlation of this with Robert Bly’s statement that “American haiku poets don’t grasp the idea that the shadow has to have risen up and invaded the haiku poem, otherwise it is not a haiku” and your further correlating this with Basho’s pronouncement that “unless a poem contains feelings that have come from the object, the object and the poet’s self will be separate things,” and your equating this with Bruce Ross’s notion that haiku is a “movement from a special attention towards a non-human nature to some kind of union with that nature.” (Sorry for the incredible unwieldiness of this sentence).
    And, let me digress for a moment, because here I think Viktor Shklovsky is important. He said that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (from Art as Technique).
    As I understand it, the suspension of our typical, rationalized interpretations of the world and its things, tends to release the strangeness of objects to our view and feelings. Once we get past the conventions of words and their creation of a world-the creation of discrete entities and meanings-we are thrust face to face with the strange and unfamiliar nature of what is actually there. We are no longer experiencing categories and abstractions (words), but are experiencing the unknown.
    I think you rightly interpret this experience when you say that “the same door that we open to the experience of the outer world is the same door through which the inner, including the shadow material, may emerge, sometimes forcibly.” And, I further agree the shadow that Bly referred to as having to arise in haiku is more than just the dark materials of ourselves-the unresolved issues around sexuality and power. I once read (forty years ago) the collected works of Jung (who you refer to) (and I do not say this in a self-congratulatory way, as I’ve forgotten most of what I read) and I think it is fair to call it, as you do, the “unconscious,” if you will, or the hidden things in ourselves that we avoid and feel uncomfortable about exposing
    and I think you are quite insightful when you suggest that this can be found, and perhaps should be found, in our expressions/poems in their tones, feelings evoked, and even in things like joy, grief, or tenderness.
    So far I’m with you.
    But, as I understand Bly and Jung and even Basho, once we penetrate to this strange, unknown world, it is not objects that are speaking their language to us or that we are communing and thereby becoming privy to the secret language of things, but rather our own unconscious is arosed and participating and speaking to us. And as it speaks we enter the enormous Self, which contains the small self and all things in the world.
    Perhaps, this is what you are saying in your article and I am just missing it.
    But this is where I like Shklovsky: the process of perception rather than knowing perpetuates the unfamiliar quality of things and this an aesthetic end in itself (what you call all the impulses lurking in our sensations); the object does not matter (in fact, does not exist in itself).
    Anyway, enough of this. I suppose what I believe to be the aim of haiku is an art that is creative of an awarenes of the unknown nature of what we previously that was known and its new expression in a poem. Nothing new, really, in this view. I just don’t think that the object in itself can ever be known.

  78. Thanks for trying and the excerpt, Mark.

    I feel like I’m at a cocktail party, here, but drowning in the punchbowl.

  79. Peter, as your essay in Modern Haiku, Volume 39.1, on the Red Moon Anthology of 2006 is so replete with ideas, I’m going to respond in pieces. But, I must say that overall I find the essay immensely important, insightful, and invaluable to haiku poets.
    Let me begin with your identification of a formula that you find in many, if not most, haiku written; that is, the tendency to begin the first line with an adjective followed by a noun, which you call a cinematic approach that gives context to the reader, but which you believe initiates a process that leads to domestication of the poem, as the following line tends to follow from the tepid or secure borders created by the first line.
    I think you are right that generally speaking, once we are placed in a secure, expected, comfortable locale by a poet, we tend to expect, and are rarely disappointed, that we are then gently led to a safe haven, to a sensation/experience of further familiarity, and we are rarely brought to a space of unknowing, of existential fright, of a face to face contact with what is strange or as the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization.” (perhaps some of that latter).
    I think you rightly put your finger on the problem: that somehow the common approach to construction of a haiku tends to overshadow the impulse that originated the poem and its initial image. Somehow, the imitativeness, the sameness of the construction, deadens the poet’s approach, makes it feel too controlled, and that the technique itself, as you say “determined the perception and not the other way around.”
    I also think you have suggest an admirable way around this: that instead of the form dictating the content, if the poet pursued the interior impulse behind the choice of subject/object, this might lead to a poem that was “alive,” that did not shy away or reject what may be uncomfortable within him or herself.
    You do expertly give examples of how using this “cinematic” technique can be used to create poems that are dynamic, that irrupt traditional thought (this is what Victor Shklovsky was talking about in his theory of “defamiliarization.”).
    On a personal note, I have to admit that my introduction to writing haiku was through an essay by a Japanese writer/painter (whose name I’m afraid is no longer available to me) who said that the haiku should have a beginning, middle, and end; that the subject introduced in the beginning was then shown in a new light and by this interaction the reader in the final line found quietus or repose or a new understand or resonance.
    This construction is in keeping, I think, with what critics like Haruo Shirane still espose, though they use formalist and modern linguistic categories, such as diachronic and synchronic, to describe this method. Haiku is “about” the “eternal,” that is, the seasons or subjects of the seasons, which is the diachronic vertical axis of linguistics, and the verbal change regarding something newly transpiring to the “eternal” in the second line of the haiku is the synchronic, or horizontal axis in linguistics. This schema of diachronic and synchronic was proposed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and, I believe, utilized by Jakobson and other formalists in theories and analyses of poetry.
    So, I think you are right to suggest that exploration ends where habits begin, but also that the somewhat formulaic feature you find in many haiku can be used “differently,” that it need not lead to an end game of repetition and sameness. It is true, in my opinion, that much of what is written in the haiku community is imitative of itself, that as you say ” that what many value most about the ‘best’ haiku, a quality of being mysteriously and unmistakenly alive, is being pressured to fit into pre-determined and familiar forms, into the idea of what a haiku is.”
    Since you then introduce the subjects of strangeness and shadow in your essay, I will temporarily end here and again reread this portion of your essay, as you thread these two terms together.

  80. I don’t know if I can throw you a line, Lorin, but here’s an excerpt from a book I’m currently reading, originally an essay written for a series published by Stanford University. The author Barbara Ungar focused on 3 authors, Amy Lowell, Jack Kerouac, and Michael McClintock.

    “He [McClintock] takes a generally New Critical stance toward poetry, seeing each work as a microcosm which is bound to none but its own inner laws. Form cannot be dictated, except by the subject matter of each poem. Haiku works through a combination of statement and suggestion, which leads the reader from a precise literal level to a metaphysical and transcendent one. His mystical world-view leads him to believe that only a non-rational, experiential form such as haiku can express the true nature of reality…McClintock believes that the essence of haiku is simply the art of significant perception in which the perceiver confronts the meaning of things in themselves. He takes the “haiku aesthetic” and applies it to other kinds of poems: longer poems, series, or poems with narrators expressing perceptions other than the traditional “haiku moment” through means other than pure imagery. He is constantly experimenting with language and new ways of utilizing it, increasing its texture and force and potential.”

    Barbara Ungar, “Haiku in English,” Stanford Honors Essay in Humanities, XXI, 1978

  81. Lorin, I’m a tad confused about the “image” vs “word” business too.

    Michael, thank you for that link. I’m going to read it later and ponder.

    Jack, thank you for your kind words. I truly appreciate them.

  82. LOL! Peter, thank you for the morning chuckle. I love a good sensayuma. Also, I’ve been reading a couple of your essays and must thank you for your insights. Your viewpoints resonate with me…ever needful of haiku mulligans.

  83. “. . .Lee referred to Muldoon’s haiku as being “word-based” haiku, as opposed to the “image-based” haiku predominant in English-language haiku.” Michael

    Is it only me who has trouble trying to understand what people mean by ‘word-based’ and ‘image-based’ haiku? Since all haiku are written in words, any image is conveyed (successfully or not) by and through words. How can any haiku or poem not be word-based? What can be an ‘image-based’ haiku, since any images in haiku must be conveyed by words ?

    …or, referring back to the ‘finger pointing mystery’,
    “How can there be such a thing as pointing without a finger?” (or a stick, radish, light sword …something!)

    There has to be something to point with. There have to be words, the inadequacy of which we sometimes wrestle with, but words are the medium for haiku. I can understand the ‘jeweled finger’ metaphor: the means (words) are the medium/ vehicle for the expression of images and experiences and therefore should serve that end, rather than be ‘decorative’ foci in themselves, but isn’t clarity an ideal for most kinds of writing? (With the blinding exceptions of oration, political news releases, advertising copy and other forms of ‘spin’) Even ‘Language poetry’ , in which the medium is turned back upon itself and examined for its tendency to shape perception (focuses on ‘the finger’) aims for clarity in its purposes.

    I also have trouble comprehending ‘the wordless poem’ idea, though I can see its relation to the Zen koan exercises. No poem has ever been communicated to me by any other means but words.

    I realise I’m swimming out of my depth here, but I’d be grateful if anyone would throw me a line.

  84. Jack, the Bly / van den Heuvel correspondence appears in Tundra #2 (2001). It dated to the mid 1970s, when Cor was working on the first edition of his haiku anthology. I’ve talked and written with Bly since then and he says haiku is improved (see the references to some of this more recent discussion in the introduction and afterword to this correspondence in Tundra #2), but I think it’s still safe to say that Robert Bly still feels that English-language haiku hasn’t arrived yet. I disagree, naturally, and suspect that Bly’s perspective is based on an incomplete or possibly limited picture of English-language haiku. For what it’s worth, after Tundra #2 appeared (containing many haiku, along with other short poems), Bly promoted the journal at several readings (Jeanne Emrich alerted me to this when he touted Tundra’s virtues at a reading in Minneapolis — I now have a recording of this particular reading). I mention this anecdote only to indicate that Bly liked the journal enough — including the haiku, as he told me himself later — to sing its praises. As some of you may know from hearing Bly give readings, he often talks about new poets or books or journals that he takes a liking to.

    Of course, we aren’t doing our thing with haiku to please Bly, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were a greater sympathy for and understanding of haiku by some of the leading haiku poets out there. Higginson (at HNA 2005) made a case that haiku IS mainstream, but as true as that is, there is still a tremendous backwash of misunderstanding and oversimplification.

    You can read more about Tundra #1 and #2 at


  85. Jack, I don’t see haiku as moribund, not in the slightest — except maybe for some individual poets. The level of discussion here is evidence that haiku is not moribund. Moreover, haiku won’t be moribund if WE don’t let it be so.

    As for the Paul Muldoon poem you quote, Jack, it’s worth noting how Lee Gurga writes about Muldoon’s haiku (or “haiku,” in quotation marks) in the book of haiku by Muldoon that Modern Haiku Press published (*Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore*, 2005 — see In his afterword, Lee referred to Muldoon’s haiku as being “word-based” haiku, as opposed to the “image-based” haiku predominant in English-language haiku. Lee says that “There is a battle raging for the soul of American haiku.” He defines the battle (or kerfuffle, as I see it) as being between word-based haiku and image-based haiku. Lee’s stance might have been a way to be polite to the poet and his particular use of haiku, a voice that deserves to be heard, but I suspect that the majority of the poems in the book would have never seen the light of day in any of our leading English-language haiku journals or presses if they didn’t have Muldoon’s name attached to them. Does that mean they’re not good poems? Not at all. Does that mean that haiku is too narrow (and maybe moribund?) to accept this particular type of “haiku”? Personally, I don’t think so. Does that mean that they’re not good haiku? Well, that will depend on your personal perspective, but I would never use them as examples of what haiku should be in English. More likely, I would use them as examples of haiku can be distorted and even misunderstood — either that or the poet chooses to ignore his understanding of haiku to do what he likes. If haiku is moribund, which I don’t think is true, allowing distortions and misunderstandings of haiku will certainly not combat its moribundity.

    As Samuel Green, the poet 2008-2009 poet laureate of Washington State, once said to me, he (Sam) has used haiku “selfishly,” doing with it whatever serves his own purpose, regardless of its history and traditions. I would suggest that Muldoon does the same thing. “Word-based haiku,” Gurga says in his afterword, “is less lofty in . . . intent” (than image-based haiku) and exhibits greater fun and creativity with words. It’s excellent, witty, and entertaining poetry, to be sure, but I think it ignores too much of the haiku tradition (in Japan, not even counting English) to qualify as being exemplary haiku.

    If it’s of any interest, I discuss the above passage about Muldoon in a review of *The Unswept Path* at This review talks about the various influences on different haiku writers, and I believe the variety shown in this book (and the additional varieties I mention near the beginning) demonstrate haiku to be far from moribund.


  86. Merrill, and haiku poets everywhere, if you want to turn off the setting in Microsoft Word that automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new paragraph, here’s how you turn it off in Word 2007 for PCs (the location and how you get there is a little different in earlier versions of Word or Word for the Mac):

    1. In Word 2007, click the Office button in the top-left corner.
    2. Near the bottom-right of the menu that appears, click Word Options.
    3. On the left side, click Proofing.
    4. In the AutoCorrect options section (at the top), click the AutoCorrect Options button.
    5. The AutoCorrect window should appear, showing the AutoCorrect tab. On that tab, click to remove the check mark next to “Capitalize first letter of sentences.”
    6. Click OK to close that window.
    7. Click OK to close the Word Options window.

    That should do it! If you use a different version of Word, open the Help system and search for keywords such as “autocorrect” to find out how to change this setting.


    P.S. I teach a workshop called “Microsoft Word for Poets and Novelists,” which has been very popular at writing conferences. The above tip alone is one that poets in particular have said was worth the price of admission. (And if some of you didn’t know, I work at Microsoft as a technical writer, where I’ve also done a lot of technical editing in the past.)

  87. I will have to reread your essay Peter and return to you tomorrow. Had I read it before posting my remarks, I may have found that you had already said ( more eloquently) what I was aiming to say.
    Nicole, I see that you are an artist. I’ll get back to you tomorrow to attempt to do justice to your exquisite paintings.
    Right now I’m very tired. Goodnight.

  88. Thank you Peter (as always I know I can count on a sensitive, intelligent, sincere response from you. You are one of the few people I know who really knows how to hear, listen, respond, in short, communicate-rare these days.
    And, thank you so much Nicole for your kind and genuine response. Let me know where I can find your work.

  89. I’m more haiku duffer than scholar, so take this as you will…but I’m buying a ticket for the Galmitz train. What you write feels genuine and intriguing — it has depth and music.

    After reading hundreds of haiku that all sound and look the same, I am heartened by your passionate views on the future of haiku.

  90. Thank you for your response Peter. It heartens me. And yes, you can market the bumper sticker. Could you tell me where I could find online either your essay (or, if you’ve saved it, could you email it to me) on the Bly -Vandeheval discussion or the exchange itself? Perhaps, I blundered in using the term “modernizing” in reference to Bly. All I know about what he said was that haiku was generally too saccharine (which I wholly agree with) and that a darker element should be there.

  91. Jack, as is his wont, leaves a good deal of meat on the bones he offers. I feel I would embark on an essay were I to address everything in his last 3 posts, so I’ll hang out a bit just in his 3rd, and look for what others have say in the meantime.

    “I have to admit that I’m no Shiki. I’m not attempting to take on the inherited haiku culture and shake its foundations to create a new viable form for the form. I’m not equipped to do that, particularly as I write each haiku from scratch, lacking any preconceived idea of what a haiku is or should be”.

    I’m more shaky than Shiki myself. Seems to me, though, that foundations need a good shaking now and then. What is strong and true will stand. A number of people writing today, I would hope, are not writing in order to destroy the foundations, but maybe to test them, to find out what remains.

    Is there any other way to write but from scratch? The question is rhetorical.

    “I’m concerned that the hegemony of the inherited culture purblinds readers in their evaluations of works they read”.

    I think writers who are serious about what haiku offers and who wish to incorporate that in their poetry, whether they call their poems haiku, haiku inspired, or something else, will see through all that. And Jack, forgive me, but do you mind if I market a bumper stick that declares: Down with the purblinding hegemony!”

    My parents are gone/_I walk the streets/_and sing old songs

    I hadn’t seen this, but yes the ambivalence, the shadow, gives it weight and gives it lift.

    I’m not at all sure that Bly has any interest in modernizing American haiku. I have found his remarks challenging and helpful and have written about that at length. MDW published the correspondence between Bly and CvdH in Tundra 2 I believe, and Bly’s sharp but brief criticisms can be found in several places.

    “But, after a few people read it and didn’t even mention it when evaluating all the work I sent them, I had the feeling that it went completely unnoticed”.

    For what it’s worth, the evaluations I usually get can be summed up as either “yep” or “nope”.

    “I wondered whether this was caused by the poem or by the fact that we read haiku looking for something in particular to be found in it and when it is not there the poem evaporates for us”.

    I think serious readers will not do this. What I look for is a sense of life, the force that through the green words drive the poem.

    There is a great deal, I think, to be explored in what Jack says, and in the jewels that have been dripping from a number a fingers here. Can’t you guys wait for the Sailings that are meant to prompt these things? Guess not.

  92. I have to admit that I’m no Shiki. I’m not attempting to take on the inherited haiku culture and shake its foundations to create a new viable form for the form. I’m not equipped to do that, particularly as I write each haiku from scratch, lacking any preconceived idea of what a haiku is or should be. It’s difficult writing like that and I have to admit that I fail more times than I succeed. But, I’m concerned that the hegemony of the inherited culture purblinds readers in their evaluations of works they read.
    Let me give you an example, a poem of mine I wrote not too long ago that while I can’t judge or swear to its merits, I believe has been read by people, and some of them friends in the haiku community, without appreciation (that is, without awareness of the ambivalence inherent in it) and so sort of dismissed. I give it to you openly and if it fails to do what I think it does, feel free to let me know without fear of injury to my feelings.

    My parents are gone
    I walk the streets
    and sing old songs

    The purpose of the poem was two-fold: to firstly show how a person comforts themselves with the loss of parents by a regression to times when they were alive (old songs) and secondly, to show an ambivalence in the loss and relationship (after all the “I” is “singing,” which is a sign, usually, of happiness).
    So, two, quite contrary impulses are being enacted as a result of the subject of the poem. I wanted to bring in some of the darker side of things by Robert Bly suggested might be valuable in modernizing American haiku. I was also thinking of a poem (I’m afraid I don’t have it for you) written by a modern Japanese poet who spoke of a beautiful young woman and then realized it was his daughter (the incestuousness of the poem was the darker side of the more obvious, literal misunderstanding addressed in the poem).
    Perhaps, my poem didn’t work. I can’t say that for sure or for myself, because I’m prejudiced. But, after a few people read it and didn’t even mention it when evaluating all the work I sent them, I had the feeling that it went completely unnoticed. And, I wondered whether this was caused by the poem or by the fact that we read haiku looking for something in particular to be found in it and when it is not there the poem evaporates for us.

  93. What I’m wondering is just how long is it going to be before American haiku frees itself from being moribund; just how long it will be till it is no longer a consensus agreed upon and repeated for forty years; just how how long it will take for creativity and originality to inspire the making of good poems that don’t concern themselves with correctness and conformity to rules laid down for its composition (Basho never wrote any rules; it was his students who tried to codify rules).
    How long is it going to be before we invite innovation and accept that the art, as practiced in Japan, underwent many of the challenges and changes that modern poetry in English underwent in the twenty-first century?

  94. On the subject and off the subject, I offer the following haiku by renowned poet Paul Muldoon as an example of how pointing or not pointing to the moon with the words we choose in a poem (can words be wordless and should they be?) as a “rule” for “real” haiku to qualify as such seems besides the point and a subject fit for fixating American haiku in the narrowest of dark lanes that has led to the continued kidnapping of the form for decades.

    Like a wayside shrine
    to itself, this sideswiped stag
    of the seven tines.

    Seems to break the rule of intentional simile (bad!).
    Seems to choose words qua words for their optimum affect as evocative and to enhance and capture the image(bad!).
    Starts with a capital letter (bad!).
    Doesn’t concern itself with dashes or dots or ellipsis (bad!)
    How indifferent it is to a notion that a haiku to be a haiku must be a fragment joined or disjoined to a phrase (bad!)
    How momentary it is and yet lingering in memory without resorting to lower case (to exemplify that things exist before and after the moment of the haiku) (bad!).

    But what a poem.

    It is drawn from an essay by no less a haiku analyst as William Higginson in Modern Haiku, Vol. 35.2, Summer 2004.
    Mr. Higginson actually said his intention in reviewing this poet’s take on haiku writing was meant to undermine the increasingly fixed and limited notion of haiku that currently pervades much of our English-language haiku community.

    He also said of Mr. Muldoon’s haiku that the image will live in his memory a long time.

    Just look at that language, how “bejeweled” some might say; and, yet, how incredibly sad and powerful the image it evokes.
    How unified and sad it is by the sibilance of all those “s” sounds.
    How miraculously it draws within ( a shrine to itself) and draws from without (this sideswiped stag) and how it completes, complements and explains itself (by the magnificence the words “seven tines” brings).
    How truly unlike the tendency to still equate haiku and zen-like moments this haiku is and yet manages with masterful craftsmanship to be “religious.”

    And, if I might be allowed to point to another poet, this time a modern Japanese haiku poet who won the first Ginyu Prize, Koji Yasui, I think you might find his poems brilliant and evocative and yet do not conform, in English, anyway, to the rules being laid down as to how they should appear as to lower or upper case, two, three or whatever number of lines, etc. (at least the translator did not feel it necessary to follow these rules, and the consequence on the poetry does not seem compromised in any way).
    You can find 20 translations of Mr. Yasui’s poems in the current issue of Roadrunner Haiku Journal.

  95. The “pointing finger” mystery (I love this stuff!). As Michael surmised earlier, Blyth’s comment wasn’t specifically addressed to haiku; but rather to an explanation of haiku. Here is what is in Blyth’s preface to Haiku, Volume 1 [p. vii]: “Every haiku, then, in so far as it is representative of a way of life, manner of living daily, is unwittingly didactic, teaches us above our will. The great danger is mistaking the explanation for the poetry, the pointing finger for the moon, the sermon for reality. The aim of the explanation, like that of the pointing finger and the scriptures, is to make itself unnecessary. Once more we come to a fact through a paradox, that the indispensable must be got rid of in order that the truth may emerge.” I’ll keep digging and hope to find more. And I welcome all further insight others might have.

  96. ““Remember Blyth’s admonition that haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see that to which it points. . . .”

    Do you think it’s likely that Blyth mentioned the ‘finger pointing at …’ and Hackett embellished this for prospective haiku-in-English writers by pointing out the rest, with the ‘bejeweled’, as a extension?…and a very practical, logical and humorous extension it is for writers, imo.

    This would be one explanation of why there isn’t a mention of Blyth in the revised editions. The syntax allows for the part before the comma to be attributed to Blyth and the rest to be an enlargement/ embellishment for teaching purposes by Hackett, but perhaps he realised the potential for misaccreditation, so changed it ?

    Here is an instance of Blyth mentioning ‘finger pointing’, though it may not be the only one:

    “3. Direct pointing to the soul of man.
    How can there be such a thing as pointing without a finger?”

    The Hsinhsinming
    (by Seng T’san, Third Chan Patriarch)
    The following is an excerpt from:
    ZEN AND ZEN CLASSICS Volume One by R. H. Blyth

  97. Point #17 is “Remember that haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejewelled, we no longer see that to which it points.” Hackett

    Billie, thanks for your research. So, what you found in “Haiku Poetry” was that Blyth said it first and Hackett was repeating what Blyth said. Even though Hackett did add it to his Eighteen Points, he was not the first to use that illustration and only gave credit to Blyth part of the time. Now it’s easier to understand why people have differing views about who said it.

    Who can find the exact reference to Blyth’s use of the word “bejeweled” in his books? Or was it in a letter to Hackett? I’d also like to know if Blyth use “hand is bejeweled” or “bejeweled finger”?

    Of course, someone could just go ahead and
    solve this by directly asking Hackett if he
    found the phrase in a book or in one of Blyth’s letters of correspondence.

  98. oops – I shouldn’t have assumed everyone would know that “Haiku Poetry” was written by James Hackett [Henderson was referring to a 1964 edition of the Hackett book; the copies I have say “First Printing June 1968.” Anyone have some history on the publication dates?]

  99. What a fun discussion!

    Regarding that “bejeweled finger” – here is how it was written in Haiku Poetry, Volumes 1, 2, and 4 [which was quoted in Henderson’s Haiku in English – and there were 20 suggestions]: “Remember Blyth’s admonition that haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see that to which it points. . . .”

    In Volume 3, the reference to Blyth was omitted and the suggestions honed to 17, but Volume 4 had the same 20 suggestions [and the reference to Blyth].

    Hope this helps – but it probably will just make everyone dizzy again.


  100. Sandra, I was mistaken in the Haiku World article where I attributed the bejeweled statement to Basho. That was simply a memory lapse, in an article written pretty much off the cuff. Definitely should have said Hackett. I’ve wanted to make a correction for many years.

    In fact, my error there, when it was gently pointed out to me, made me search for antecedents to Hackett’s statement. There are plenty (Gabi has provided an example) that talk about the finger not being the same as the moon, but I’ve not been able to find anything about a bejeweled finger, so I’m pretty sure that Hackett originated that variation of the statement. Again, it provides a useful way to appreciate haiku aesthetics, or at least one part of them.


  101. Sandra, I do know for certain that Hackett has written what I quoted about haiku being like a finger pointing to the moon, avoiding jewels on the finger, and so forth. The comment appears as #17 in his suggestions for writing haiku in English (see, reprinted from his four volumes of haiku published in the 1960s, and published as one volume as *The Way of Haiku*). I believe Hackett’s statement is indeed derived from earlier sources, but I don’t think they were strictly talking about haiku. If anyone knows otherwise, clarification would be welcome. I believe the original source says simply that a pointing finger should not be mistaken for the moon, but Hackett seemingly borrowed that to add the “bejeweled” part for the sake of haiku. It’s a very useful admonition for anyone writing haiku.


  102. It will be interesting to have a confirmation on the truth about who first used the phrase “if the hand is bejeweled . . . ” Below is the original statement as
    it was written in J. W. Hackett’s Eighteen Points on how to write haiku in Zen Haiku and Other Poems:

    Point #17 is “Remember that haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, and if the hand is bejewelled, we no longer see that to which it points.”

    Was part of that phrase Basho’s or was he repeating what Nun Wu Jincang said? In turn, did Hackett paraphrase what Basho said? I’ll do some research offline. Thanks to Michael, Sandra and Gabi for their input.

  103. “James Hackett has written that haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon, and if the finger is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon.” Michael Dylan Welch

    Sandra, it definitely was Hackett who wrote about “the bejewelled finger pointing at the moon” in his book, Zen Haiku and Other Poems.

    No one would have worn jeweled rings in Basho’s
    day. It is not the custom of Japanese to wear rings with kimono even now. When I wore a kimono several times in Japan, I had to be reminded to take my rings and earrings off. Since Japan was opened
    to the West, 150 years ago, the idea of having a wedding ring or other rings slowly became accepted.

    Hackett was inspired by Zen thought when he wrote about “the . . . finger pointing at the moon” but most
    likely he added “bejeweled” as a way to explain the concept to Westerners.

  104. Michael, I do understand your point about stylistic devices, whether old or new (eg caps to begin, ‘concrete’ shapes and all caps, no caps at all) can at first draw attention away from the poem towards the author’s ‘uniqueness’, yet since I’m coming from the pov that haiku is a particular genre of poetry, rather than a form, I think the genre is wide enough to include these quirks of individuality… or they may be norms from various periods. (I do not mean we should *strive* for clever effect)

    In my own practice, I tend not to capitalize anything but some proper nouns (not all), but as an editor I accept haiku/ senryu on the basis of whether the poem works. (Of course, my judgment about ‘what works’ is limited to my own capacities)

    Sometimes, syntactical inversions do the trick, though I’m aware that some won’t even entertain them in haiku, regarding them as somehow ‘2nd class’. But they are, after all, a normal part of the English language as we speak it…an alternative. Sometimes they are even the best way, in a particular piece, to ‘let us see’.

    So, as a general rule, I agree with you, but wouldn’t want to set it in stone, made into a ‘rule’. eg whilst most of the time ‘end-rhyme’ will turn a haiku into a jingle, more subtle use of rhyme is part of the ‘tool bag’.

    I’m curious as to what you class as ‘odd spelling’. Do you mean something like ‘thru’ for ‘through’, shorthand spelling? Being Australian, I often come across spelling in haiku (and other literature) that is ‘odd’ to me, but I do consider the varieties of English and whether a particular way of spelling might be regional.

  105. The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas i do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

    The patriach responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps i will be able to explain the meaning.”
    Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

    “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location.
    owever, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

  106. I was under the impression that the author of “the bejewelled finger pointing at the moon” lesson was Basho, not James Hackett. I have also seen it attributed to RH Blyth, but as Basho was around before either of them he probably wins the attribution.

    However, it may be an idea that is rooted in Zen philosophy, so isn’t original to Basho either. Others, I’m sure, will know more.

    As to capitals. I choose not to use a capital at the start of a haiku, partly as a nod to “humble” nature of the form, but also to indicate that time is an ever-moving stream and here is simply a record of one moment among an infinite number (which also explains why I don’t use a full stop at the end).

  107. Getting back to the issue of capitalization, whenever I see all three lines of a haiku start with capitals, I find it VERY distracting. It reminds me of Victorian poetry. Jack, you say it’s part of our Western tradition. But maybe haiku should differentiate itself from Western tradition! However, whether starting each line with a capital letter is Victorian or not is really not the main issue. The main aesthetic reason for starting each line with lowercase letters is to suggest that the haiku moment or image is taken out of something larger (the before and after). And to emphasize the fragmentary nature of the writing itself.

    Anyone can have whatever style they prefer for their haiku. Garry Gay always starts the first line of his haiku (only the first line) with a capital (but never has a period at the end). For many years (perhaps still), Alexis Rotella started with a cap and ended with a period. Other poets make ALL letters lowercase, including proper nouns and even “i” as a personal pronoun (which I find really distracting). James Hackett has written that haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon, and if the finger is bejeweled, we no longer see the moon. His point is that our haiku should not have oddities or cleverness that distract the reader, because they point to the author rather than the subject of the poem. For me, starting each line with a capital letter is jewel on the finger, and diminishes my enjoyment of the moon that I hope the poem is pointing to. Likewise, odd spellings, line breaks, excessive visual tricks, rhyme, titles, odd syntactical inversions, and other issues also function as jewels on the finger. The point of haiku is to let us SEE and thus feel something, and not (generally) to let us see who is pointing at that something, or what he or she thinks about it. Consequently, making the tricks and distractions disappear and become essentially invisible is, for me, what Alan Watts and Eric Amann meant by calling haiku a “wordless” poem — where we no longer see any of the words, and go straight to an image and the emotion it produces. For me, starting each line with a capital letter screams “look at my words” and takes me out of image.

    And yes, gerunds are nouns. But not all “ing” words are gerunds, and do still function as verbs. There’s a useful overview of the topic at And again, plenty of haiku have verbs. And plenty of haiku without verbs are perfectly fine.


  108. ;-) and another old wise person is cited by E.M. Forster as saying, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

    “Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide–that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her niece of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. ‘Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!’ she exclaimed. ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passé; she was really more up-to-date than they were.”

    E. M. Forster — Aspects of the Novel (1927)

  109. I liked and enjoyed Lorin’s reading of Buson’s poem “evading…etc.” It was interesting and insightful.
    However, and I promise I am not known to beat dead horses-I do not think that grammatically the present participle forms in the poem would constitute verbs in English. They are partial verbs or incomplete verbs and they create sentence fragments.
    I do not wish to suggest that I do not use verbals myself in my haiku or that I am trying to create a standard that requires verbs proper in haiku.
    Buson’s poem is brilliant as translated and interpreted by Lorin. But, an incomplete verb is an incomplete verb and while we often in haiku fill in missing pieces (Lorin’s suggestion of an implied verb), it sometimes will be difficult to “spot” as Merrill has said if we cannot recognize.

  110. Thanks for the English lessons…I too am dizzy from it all…but find it so valuable a discussion I think I’ll come back to it again and again. Naming the parts is interesting…but I know I’ll be tripping over them again and again. In ballet if you “spot” something you can keep from getting dizzy. I’ll try to spot the concept of verb. By spotting verb, I hope to be able to sort out the side paths. Thanks, Merrill

  111. Jack– a dizziness of riches. It is very heartening to me that a number, as yet fairly small, of contributors are taking the time to present thoughtful and challenging material on this blog. For me, I probably said it before, I like to find out what I am thinking by writing. I may assert, but I am not always certain.

  112. well, I wrote the above before I realised there were more pages of comments! Apologies…

    Yes, ‘writing’ in both of these sentences is a gerund (looks like a verb participle; can be identified as performing the function of a noun in context)

    ““Writing is my passion” “Writing a passionate haiku is my goal”

    Here’s my old favourite, containing a noun, a verb participle and a gerund, and you can see why the venerable Fowler Bros. advised against mixing too many gerunds and verb participles in the one sentence. ;-)

    “This morning she was singing whilst hanging the washing on the line.”

  113. “Evading the fishnet,/ and evading the fishing ropes,/ the moon on the water”

    It might possibly not be important to many, but to avoid confusion it might be good if the ‘missing verb’ idea were to be cleared up here.

    ‘Evading’ is a verb participle. I think it’s normal practice to read verb participles with the ‘missing’ verb ‘understood’, ie. when we read ‘evading the fishnet’ we understand that there is an implied subject of the verb ‘to be’. In present tense this verb is ‘is’. The ‘ing’ suffix of the participle is the indication that the verb is in continuous tense. subject, noun:(something) understood or implied verb: (is) verb participle: evading

    There is no gerund to be found in this haiku.

    There is a gerund in this sentence: ‘In Summer time the living is easy.’

    I’d say this haiku has an ‘understood’ verb and that it can be legitimately read as a normal, ‘inverted’ sentence, yet it it not a normal prose sentence nor is it simply a prose sentence chopped randomly into lines. The form ‘flows’ in the translation, in keeping with the ‘watery’ subjects (fishnet, fishing ropes) and would, I imagine in the original even were there a kireji/ caesura mark of some kind after ‘fishing ropes’.

    What is juxtaposed, imo, is two orders of reality, the ‘moon on the water’ being a thing of light and water, visible, but without substance compared to the fishnet and ropes, visible and tangible, substantial. Yet by means of the vb. participle, ‘evading’, the ‘moon on the water’ is conjured into the three dimensional world, given substance, in the poem. This can lead to an interesting state of mind in which the substantial and the insubstantial are poised within the one sense of reality.

    Perhaps the term, ‘internal juxtaposition’, when meant only as juxtaposition between two parts of a two-part haiku structure, is a little misleading, since I see no reason why ‘internal’ or ‘implied’ juxtaposition cannot be said to apply to haiku such as this one, or for that matter, extended to apply to prose as well.

  114. Well, Peter, given that you get a penny a post (sorry for keeping this on Viral and not Sailing for your sake), perhaps it can be on Sailing (once this lengthy discussion has ended.
    Sorry for dizzifying (really, I had hoped to be out of further discussion, but felt dragged in by today’s comments directed to me).
    I will add this: I glanced at Gebi’s site and according to her gendai poets in Japan believe that kire exists as a matter of fact at the beginning and ending of their haiku without having to add a traditional kire. I’ll have to ask her to elaborate.
    She did mention that haiku need not have kire and that one object haiku were a familar form as were poems without kire.
    I’ll have to read on and consult with her on any perplexing points.
    AS to American haiku-yes, I would that that’s the imperative, if any imperative exists. I also intend to do somemore research on kire, as I’m sure we in the West have simply adopted “ya”-the so-called line break and have no knowledge of the other available kire.
    I also think what you said in an earlier post has great value in this regard-that the shifts of meaning from word to word, line to line, already contain an animation, rhythm, and juxtapostion to them (just more subtley).
    I like the way you write and think.
    Sorry to be a dizzifier.

  115. Gotta say I’m a bit dizzy with all the directions this discussion is taking. Maybe at some point this blog will have available to it some kind of index and the capacity to draw together, from wherever they occur, discussions which relate to each other, so readers interested in any given subject don’t have to go on laborious expeditions. A possibility?

    Jack, you’re among the chief dizzifiers (a good thing) of late. What you present here, (I’ve modified it slightly)–
    I am wondering if we are merely aping … Japanese constructions without knowing why and the full extent of this. I’m also extremely interested in views of sentence, line, phrase in haiku, based upon [Gabi’s… (or others’)] knowledge of the Japanese and American traditions of poetry, as [their] opinion could shed valuable light.

    is of great interest, certainly for me. To carry this out a ways, one could ask how far ELH has gone in the direction of being truly *English language* haiku– I believe Tom D’Evelyn , many posts ago, asked a question in this vein. I think he said something about the genius of the English sentence, that it has not been explored and seized, or certainly could be to the benefit of ELH… I asked him if he would talk about that some more, and I ask again, if he is tuned in here.

    For me, something like this (developing a true *EL*H) is possible when one has studied the (changing) genius of Japanese haiku and aesthetics, and absorbed it to the point of no longer needing to refer to it, like watching and practicing someone’s tennis moves until you’ve got them in your body, you don’t need to think about it, it’s something you can use when needed, as part of your larger repertoire.

    But it is certainly important to unveil any of the unconscious tics, habits or unexamined usages one may cling to, which may ripple through one’s writing.

    At some point it may be possible to devote a Sailing to this. I’d just need to figure out a way that feels welcoming and helpful and not overly scholarly or esoteric.

    So under what subject heading would this be indexed?

  116. Peter:
    I’m no grammarian, but rereading your example: “writing a passionate haiku is my goal,” I think “writing is part of the verb and requires “is writing” to understand its function. I had to rewrite the sentence since it separates the auxiliary verb “writing” from “is.” So, “My goal is writing…” clear things up (I think). “Writing is the present progressive,” right, but is an auxiliary verb and without “is” could not stand on its own as a verb. that is really what I find most pronounced in ELH.

  117. Peter:
    Sorry. I like and respect you too much to give you short shrift.
    We agree on tripi.
    Hotham’s “moving” is not a verb; it is an adjective modifying the subject of the first line. “Moving” is a verbal, but based upon its function in the sentence (poem) it is a modifier.
    As to the second poem, that is difficult because of the ambiguity of the poem; I take it again as an adjectival modifier of child, certainly not a verb.

  118. Gabi:
    Thank you so much for your site. I will read it carefully tomorrow, as I’m tired right now.

  119. Peter:
    Forgive me, but your in your sentence “writing a passionate haiku,” the word “writing” is actually the subject of the sentence and the verb is “is.” “a passionate haiku” is actually adjectival.
    I’m afraid I’m too tired to reread the other three poems, but verbs ending in “ing” are not verbs.

  120. Dear Jack,
    thanks for trying to understand the difference of writing Japanese haiku and ELH, based on the language as such.
    And the many misunderstandings resulting from translation attempts (including my own).
    Also remember to make a time slip when reading Basho or Issa, back to the Edo period of Japan, not “gendai” at all …

    Most of the problems you cite are covered here in my basic haiku theory notes.

    But remember, my mother tongue is German.
    But sometimes in my dreams, my utterly German father appears talking to me in Japanese … which wakes me up in wonder …

  121. Regarding verbs: just to be clear, not every word which looks like a verb because it ends in “ing” is a gerund. Some, in fact, *are* verbs. A gerund looks like a verb by dint of that construction but is actually a noun. So, if I say: “Writing is my passion”– “writing” is a noun, a gerund. If I say “Writing a passionate haiku is my goal”, “writing” in this usage is a verb.

    vincent tripi’s poem does not use a verb, true.
    Martin Shea’s uses “crying”– as a verb.
    Gary Hotham’s uses “moving”– as a verb.

    However, it is very common, as is commonly known, for haiku to begin without a verb, to create an atmosphere, presence, or perspective and to follow it with some detail and action. Shea’s does this. tripi’s might if he used a third line as “leaning in the corner”, but he wisely avoids this, and emphsizes the feeling of loneliness by the indication of something not happening.

  122. Paul:
    I was not addressing you personally when I mentioned that one of the editors at heron’s nest told me by poems did not pass the editor’s check-list for what elements are desired/required in a haiku (although I promise you it is true). I remember who it was, but there is no reason to mention names.
    Whether it was competitiveness of submissions, or simply editorial choice that rejected my poems is of little moment now, as it was years ago that this occurred.
    However, I write haiku (less than I used to) to satisfy myself and I aim towards originality and imaginativeness much less than adhering to some of the assumed criteria that have been under discussion in this Viral 6.5 issue and trust my instincts that even if there is no documented check-list for inclusion in heron’s nest, the objective,informed opinion of the editorial staff relies on embedded views that I probably don’t share and would not subject my work to further review by them (my personal choice).
    I asked Gabi for her valued opinion on the subjects we have been discussing, because she is in an unusual position, knowing both Japanese and English and knowing the poetical traditions of both. I am wondering if we are merely aping (dishonorable in the Confucian tradition-a tradition shared at points in time with the Japanese and Chinese) Japanese constructions without knowing why and the full extent of this. I’m also extremely interested in her view of sentence, line, phrase in haiku, based upon her knowledge of the Japanese and American traditions of poetry, as her opinion could shed valuable light.
    I’m wondering if it was early translation from the Romaji that led and continues to lead America haiku poets to write in lower-case, without punctuation generally. I’m also extremely interested in her take on kire,since I believe that of its many forms we have fastened onto one-the “ya”,the line break indicator, to the ommission of all others.

  123. I do not write this poet or here at THF in any sense of spokesman for the Nest, just one haiku poet. However, I have never heard of a “checklist” associated with our Journal. I do not believe it was with me that you corresponded. We have 5 Editors with 4 that do intake… deal with poets. We are joined by the Managing Editor for final choices, John Stevenson, as it was with the founder Christopher Herold before his retirement. Christopher wrote the section at the web site: About, Philosophy. No statements of form are on this page. It is true that most of the 6,000 haiku we have published and archived (free access to all) are not in all lower case, have end periods, or all line caps. We do have some, for example we publish vince tripi who uses no capitals. He’s been at it longer than I have and deference is due.

    Now Jack, acceptance for any one issue? This is a complicated bit of subjectivity from 5 folks who attempt objective, informed opinion. We see from perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 haiku for each issue. Last week we completed selection for June Quarterly on-line (the paper Nest is annual and was released 2 weeks ago). We took 119, I think was the final count (it varies from issue to issue). It is very competitive. It is always each Journal’s prerogative as to content. We have no slot reserved for any particular poet. Neither are any folks blackballed. It is also the haiku writer’s choice of where his name and work is to be shown and just how it will be shown.

    As to punctuation in the Japanese language… Gabi or some other translators can speak to it. I have been informed that the language of the Masters, two types of writing, kanji & hiragana have none in the sense of colon and comma. And, no capitalization. As you said, these are Western constructs. Some modernization must have happened in Romaji, itself capitalized as I would (in a haiku) for the word “Latin.” Romaji in translation seems to not use punctuation or line caps. But, in non-poetic writing? I don’t know.

  124. No Gabi, please don’t stop. I suspected that Japanese did not include a category for capitalization and I thought that had a great impact on Americans writing haiku. I was completely unaware that there was no space between words.
    Since you are fluent in both languages, I am curious as to your view of the discussion on whether haiku should be written in what we call lower-case in English. I would also love to know your position on how English haiku uses kire. I suspect that we only use one of its many forms and maybe not in the way the Japanese do.
    Also, could you tell me whether haiku is meant to be two fragments joined with a dash or some such punctuation or whether the question of line or sentence is relevant, based upon your knowledge of Japanese haiku.
    Please offer your opinions and knowledge to these subjects. I would be very grateful.

  125. ”I would be interested, if anyone knows, whether capitalization exists in the Japanese language.”

    Traditional Japanese uses Chinese characters and two alphabet-like systems, hiragana and katakana. They do not have a way to indicate capitals at the start of a sentence.


    that is the furu-ike ya by Basho …

    Not only the writing system is completely different, so is the way to think and construct a sentence, that is why learning the vocabulary is NOT enough to translate the language … but I better stop here.

  126. By the way, Paul, I think you will find in the three haiku cited in 10th Sailing just the lack of verbs in haiku I was alluding to earlier. I’m not thinking of the individual poems’ merits now, just pointing to a fact: three poems, not one with a verb.

  127. Chris:
    For what it’s worth, I capitalize the first word of each line in my haiku,for the sake of consistency. I’ve seen it done otherwise, where only the opening line begins with a capital letter. No big deal to me.
    I would be interested, if anyone knows, whether capitalization exists in the Japanese language.

  128. By the way Paul, I just looked at some of your work and credentials online and saw that you are an associate editor at the heron’s nest. It’s funny, because a couple of times I submitted some poems and the first thing I was asked was whether I was willing to have my lines in lower case (before they were considered). I agreed. Then, I was told my poems didn’t meet the check-list of the magazine. I’m telling you I was dumbfounded,and said so, because the poems were really gems (please don’t read this as merely self-serving opinion).
    I decided to simply never submit anymore of my work to the journal. I felt its view of haiku was narrowed by a checklist.
    I mean, really,Basho, in his lifetime, never created a schema for haiku writing.

  129. PS: there is one sticking point for me with initial caps and that’s the practical matter of consistency– whether one would cap only the opening line or both parts. In Lee’s poem above all three lines would need to be capped. Lower case eliminates that problem.

  130. The use of initial caps isn’t an issue for me (so maybe I shouldn’t be writing about it). It’s what people are most used to and it draws the eye to the starting point (the graphic designer in me) which I find more helpful than harmful. So I think there is something to be said for using them, and I do, for general audiences. When submitting to haiku journals it feels a bit unseemly to use them (when in Rome) so I don’t.

    I find Michael’s dynamic and static moments a useful way of categorizing something we do in our writing intuitively.

  131. Paul:
    I don’t agree with you the capitalization of the first word of lines in haiku is distracting. In fact, I think it is just the opposite. It is an American poetic tradition (not an Edwardian or Elizabethan tradition) to capitalize first words of lines. Nearly all contemporary and modern American poets do it. It is our tradition. And, since we are writing American haiku, I think the tradition is fine.
    In fact, beginning lines in lower-case draws attention to itself because it is untraditional and amplifies the fact that a statement of some kind is implicit in such a choice. In English, for the line to disappear, capitalization would be the chosen method.
    I understand what you and Michael agree to; I just don’t find that announcing to the read-here comes a clause: don’t confuse it with a sentence) is necessary and so I don’t practice it.
    I also don’t feel any more of a debt to Japanese poets than I do to American poets. Of course,the Japanese created the haiku form, but just as Shakespeare modified the Italian sonnet, so we,too, have modified the Japanese haiku (in many ways we are not even aware of). (See my list of kire above-it is from Wikipedia, so there are examples of each given; you will see that we hardly understand the use of kire as practiced in Japan; we really use just one of many of their kire.
    I don’t usually end my haiku with periods;perhaps, it is because they are such brief poems,or, as you say, I like the poem to circle back on itself, to be read again, or, possibly it is an unintended use of one of the Japanese kire that is used to leave a sense of wonder after the poem.
    As to what I perceive to be a lack of verbs in American haiku, I’m afraid I don’t have examples handy,but it is such a prevalent thing in our haiku that all you need do is open any of your books and you’ll find plenty of examples. You’ll find many verbals-gerunds mostly. I believe the reason for this is the belief that we are meant to offer clauses, phrases, fragments,if you will, and as these grammatical entities don’t or are not permitted verbs, verbs are missing.
    Without addressing its merit, the poem you site, for instance, has not a verb in it (and I happen to like the poem and agree with the good use of punctuation in it, although I do find it consternating that each line begins in lower case).
    Many American haiku are two fragments with a dash or implied dash between them and both are sentence fragments.
    I’m of the opinion that at least one of the “halves” of a haiku needs to be a “sentence,” in the sense of having a verb. Otherwise, there always feels something is left out, not finished about the end product. Perhaps, those who write like this think they’ve created some sort of space (ma) of silence where “real” haiku exists. I find it otherwise; I find the poems are simply unfinished and lacking in movement.
    Let’s agree to disagree. I am not writing this to convince anyone of anything. I will continue to write as I do and I am only satisfied when I have written a good poem (which isn’t that frequent as I would like). If anyone thinks that it is not a haiku because it doesn’t include or omit what they believe to be needed ingredients of haiku, so be it.

  132. I agree with what Michael has commented. Several things, Jack, — You or I can write any punctuation and capitalization, as wished. But, do role play how your reader will be affected.
    My opinion, line capitals are a distracting effect of Western poetics, and so too would be rhyming couplets (for a while done by some poets and translators). Definitely draws attention to the poet. I often teach that [all] haiku are short poems; not all short poems are haiku. We use our language, employing it as well as possible, but not to conventions of Elizabethan or other traditions in our language. While I may try to at least pay some homage to a philosophy of Japanese haiku, I do not owe anything to Longfellow, Wordsworth, or even Shakespeare except to appreciate how well they wrote in my language.

    For me, the presence or not of a period at the end is a matter of philosophy, not just form or craft. I wish to communicate with the reader/listener. I wish them to read my haiku again — for it to reverberate. It should not be seen, immediately, to end. Obviously, there are exceptions. I have seen end punctuation such as the interrogative or exclamatory marks used to good effect. Even the period. Lee Gurga’s

    his side of it.
    her side of it.
    winter silence

    could not be as effective without his two periods. I do note there is none after line #3 (and no caps).

    I don’t mind when long-time poets use a cap for the first word. It is their habit. I think it weakens the whole, but it is not disqualifying if I am judging or editing. Likewise, some haiku poets never use any capitalization. I point out that this too is distraction from best English in our ELH.

    As to verbs, again I agree with Michael. A haiku may have a verb, or verbs, or an implied verb, or no verb at all.

  133. Jack, I agree with you that haiku don’t “require” kireji – or our equivalent to them in English-language haiku. Like anything else in haiku, it’s a choice, a target you can choose to hit or not hit. Rather, the issue is whether haiku are better off if they do have an equivalent to a kireji, and I would say that in most cases they are. Robert Spiess, in his decades of editing Modern Haiku, would typically insist on haiku having a two-part structure. The vast bulk of successful literary haiku in English do have this structure. My understanding is that a kireji is typically required in Japanese haiku, and I do think, most of the time, it’s a good choice in English-language haiku also. Of course, it’s not the only technique that haiku uses, and it can make up for a lack of kireji (and the internal comparison and other benefits that go with it) by hitting other targets.

    It’s no “quaint practice” at all that haiku start with lowercase letters. Again, it’s a choice, and you can print your haiku in ALL CAPS if you wish to do so. But there’s a good reason for not starting with a capital, as I mentioned. That’s because starting with a capital announces to the reader “you’re about to read a sentence” (which ends up being reinforced if the poem also ends with a period). But if it starts with a lowercase letter (unless a proper noun), it suggests that the poem is a fragment – and haiku are indeed typically fragmentary. So why give readers mixed messages if the poem is indeed deliberately fragmentary?

    You also say, Jack, that you find it odd that “so many haiku lack verbs.” I don’t really think that’s true, by a long shot. Where do you get that idea? Have you done an analysis, say, of Cor van den Heuvel’s anthology to see what percentage of the poems do or don’t have verbs? Either way, I think it’s a choice, and it will always depend on the poem. I see nothing wrong with a particular haiku having a verb, or not having a verb. It depends on the poem. Are there poems (shucks, maybe even poems of mine?) without a verb that you think could be improved by verbing them? Could you share an example or two? While I use plenty of verbs in my haiku, sometimes a haiku calls for no verb because it’s the state of being, rather than any action, that happens to matter in that particular poem. Elsewhere I’ve given presentations on “How Long Is a Moment,” in which I’ve identified what I call static and dynamic “moments” in haiku, and have also explored the lengths of those “moments” and where they exist (sometimes verbally in the poem, as a dynamic moment that starts and stops; sometimes as a state of being, as a static moment, where the moment is to some degree the observer’s moment of noticing something that isn’t changing in the poem). The haiku moment, if such a thing is real, exists in experience first, then in the poem, and then, hopefully, in the reader. If a haiku lacks a verb, it may well be relying on the idea (even if unaware of it) of a “static” or unchanging moment, which is really that instant when the observer or poet noticed the subject of inspiration. More power to such haiku! They are significant threads in the fabric of haiku. And then, of course, there are moments with verbs, with some sort of event, however ephemeral, that starts and stops. More power to these haiku, too. But to decry haiku merely because they lack verbs seems to be a denial of one of the ways in which spots of time can be captured in haiku. In their case, they are a particular *kind*of spot-of-time.
    I agree with Creeley that the line is vital to haiku in English, but compare it to haiku in Japanese, where the three parts of 5, 7, and 5 are all in one single line, and thus function differently than they do in lineated (three-line) English-language haiku. Line breaks matter in haiku. But again, line breaks do not create or destroy the fact of whether the poem (or parts of it) are a sentence or not. Complete grammatical sentences can and do appear in haiku, often effectively, but the larger point is whether they are effectively paired with some sort of juxtaposition. If not, do they succeed because of some other reason (as in the manner of the “one image” haiku).

    Jack, you say that you believe that “the school of haiku that requires strict rules of kigo, kireji, lower-case first words in lines etc., is also a school that insists on ‘objective’ representation of objects and shuns anything remotely ‘subjective.’” Perhaps that’s true, but I personally wouldn’t correlate the two. I think of the sometimes brilliantly subjective poems of John Stevenson. Sorry I can’t whip out an example right now, but over and over again in his poems (not always, of course), you’ll see a subjective element artfully entwined with objective description. He’s not alone in this realm – Fay Aoyagi immediately comes to mind. And you will see their poems with lots of kigo kireji, and lowercase first letters. No correlation to shunning the subjective at all! Indeed, I think that one of the arts of haiku is not eliminating subjectivity, but controlling it. Even Shiki said there were limits to shasei


  134. Jack, Thank you for your thoughts. I guess the reason I write poetry is to open out from my own consciousness…from the moment of awareness – to open it up to the experiences of others. It’s like I’m only one little drop in the river…my own consciousness is but an inch on the elephant.

    I don’t have any problems with other people writing in any way they feel expresses what they are trying to express, and I realize that many poets in the past feel that they can wrap things up in their poem…to have one little spot of perfection in an imperfect world. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It can be exceptionally beautiful and fulfilling. But I always sense something more…before, and after my telling…there is always so very much more than my words out there…and I love exploring the various places I end up each time I come back to some of these open haiku.

  135. I agree with you, and did earlier, that there is a juxtaposition of sorts between “that star” and “seems,etc.”

  136. Merrill:
    I think the composition of a haiku or any poem aims towards completion, the unification of its assembled components into a whole ,and in that sense I do not agree that it is a fragment or should be fragmentary. Of course, each haiku or poem does not include everything-it omits-but each strives for a resounding wholeness.I think Wordsworth had something to say about what you are addressing: an instantaneous experience of something that moves us to want to “reproduce” it for readers. But, as he said:

    “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”

    It is only after recollecting (a conscious effort at composition of what and how we were initially moved to powerful feelings that initially overwhelmed our ability to express them) in tranquility that we can write haiku/poetry.

    That’s why I begin each line of my haiku with capitalization and use other punctuation marks within them, to stress that I am conscious that I am “writing,” that what I am presenting, enacting, is a poem, nothing else.

  137. To me the haiku is a fragment…an instantaneous awareness of a fleeting thing…The reason I do not use a capital nor do I use a period is to emphasize that point. In the Lynch poem I find the juxtaposition between the actual star and the dreamy “seems”… the break where reality leaves off into something else entirely.

    I’ve just posted a puzzle on 10th Sailing regarding a poem by vincent…if anyone would like to entertain that?

  138. Part 2.

    So, roughly speaking, if one’s approach centers around “what is haiku?” (or to be more direct, “is this a haiku?) it might lead one to think of it in terms of what one already takes to be haiku, or can learn from some reliable source. So in Jack’s example, the apparent lack of juxtaposition and the sentence structure may lead some readers to conclude it is not a haiku, or not a very good one. And whether or not it is a poem may not enter into things at all. (As you’ll see, I’m going in a certain direction here—not the only one).

    If the question is “what is poetry”, or “what makes this given arrangement of words a poem”, is working through you, then the approach may be somewhat broader, one may look for different things, accept different things–, dismiss others. A haiku may not, to certain views, be a poem at all. But this question may lead one to say that sometimes a poem is a haiku, or even that a haiku is always a poem.

    “What is language?” (and its many variants) could go different ways. Where the first question, and even the second, might take one in a direction of looking at how experience may be expressed (related and shared), this question may handle the notion that words are something to be experienced on their own and in relationship to each other and to what we make of them. (Which needn’t exclude the two questions above, but could add another layer to one’s approach and appreciation). This way of looking will probably find things like line breaks, punctuation, and the arrangement of words on the page as interesting and useful, as well as what the words make your mouth do, the rhythms make your body do, and how associations satisfy or challenge your hunger for connection. (Donald Hall has written a lot about this). This view does not require that the haiku or poem relate to experience, esp. to outer experience. A number of gendai haiku could illustrate this better than “evading the fishnet”. The language view, nonetheless, could prompt a discussion of juxtaposition not available otherwise: that in Jack’s example, “evading the fishnet” is one thing which occurs on the page and in/as consciousness; “the moon on the water” is another. One may put them together or not.

    The last question, “what is consciousness?” is trickier to talk about. To my way of thinking it need not exclude any of the above questions. Or really, in relation to haiku/poetry, it cannot. This question may well lead one to look at all experience (outer, inner, words, silence) as “material” for haiku; and it will likely lead one to ask all the questions above, and more. Consciousness, I’ll venture, is what happens (or is) all at once every now. And this: for me, a poem is something which has a body; the body of a poem, words, language, sounds… are no more separate from consciousness than your body is, or mine.

    So all this may be an approach to looking at different, co-existing “models” for haiku. A lot seems to be happening in, and under, this little world. There’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on.

  139. This is part 1 of a somewhat lengthy post which is in response to several posts here, under Sailing 10, and elsewhere. Part 2 will be right over this.

    In this discussion, including echoes from posts elsewhere on the blog, I feel we are in rich waters; I’m not sure where to enter… Maybe here.

    Underlying everything we stand on here (or sail on; or fly over) there are something like tectonic plates—they are massive but don’t exactly stay put, and when they move, we become aware of them; foundations may shake. Let’s say these “plates” are questions. Like: What is haiku? What is poetry? What is language? What is consciousness? The plates, the questions, bump into each other all the time, their edges crumble and merge… they are not always distinct, become one another, break into myriad other questions.

    I’m going to guess that for many people these questions have varying degrees of relevance and value. For some people they may have no importance at all, or if they once did, were sufficiently “answered” and never revisited. Questions, after all, can leave us unsettled, unsure where we stand.

    I would say that we create poetry out of a sense of not knowing where we stand. And if a poem, if a haiku, is a “temporary stay against confusion”, or against not knowing, we tremble a bit over the word “temporary”, resisting it because it is unavoidable. If a poem, if a haiku, is “about” something, or even if it settles into a fixed “meaning”, we may be sure it has failed. Or that we have failed it.

    (“Speak for yourself!” I hear somebody shout. Well, all right, I am. For me and my cat. We agree on so much. Not everything).

    Evading the fishnet,/ and evading the fishing ropes,/ the moon on the water

    If one of the questions I have put forth is in the foreground for you, even if somewhere just under your radar, it seems likely that it will direct how you read the poem Jack has brought back—or any haiku for that matter. I’m not going to hold to this with a tight grip—it’s just an exploration, and a way to talk about some things that have emerged lately.

  140. P.S.
    My comments were not meant solely for Michael. Anyone should feel free to join in the discussion. I welcome your responses.

  141. ka: emphasis; when at end of a phrase, it indicates a question
    kana: emphasis; usually can be found at a poem’s end, indicates wonder
    -keri: exclamatory verbal suffix, past perfect tense
    -ramu or – ran: verbal suffix indicating probability
    -shi: adjectival suffix; usually used to end a clause
    -tsu: verbal suffix; present perfect tense
    ya: emphasises the preceding word or words. Cutting a poem into two parts, it implies an equation, while inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship

    Above are a list of traditional kireji in Japanese. Needless to say, we do not have kireji in English. Besides, kireji was a component of traditional hokku and haiku and not necessarily of gendai haiku.
    It might be intereting to examine what we use in place of kireji, dashes, commas, ellipsis, semi-colons, colons,etc., and see what purpose they serve, if any, and how they differ from traditional kireji. This would be a real undertaking,and I’m certainly not up to it myself,so help would be needed and appreciated.

  142. Let’s take a look at a poem offered by Alan Burns in an earlier entry in this discussion:
    (“Evading the fishnet,/ and evading the fishing ropes,/ the moon on the water”; trans. Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert)
    What makes this haiku exemplay of the category of juxtaposition expected in haiku?
    The only reason it is not a “sentence” is because it lacks a verb and relies on gerunds instead. Nonetheless, it is not true juxtaposition; its more like a suspended sentence, in which the subject comes at the end of the poem.
    It is a single subject haiku and, I believe,its strength relies on the suspended sentence form and not on anything else. Its mystery is withheld, but it does not juxtapose.

  143. Since, I’ve stepped forth, I think our difference is one that is traceable to the many art movements of the twentieth century that questioned what a painting, or a sculpture, or any object should be: I’m reminded,for instance,of some of those strange chairs that the pop artists made in the 1960s. Wasn’t the point to question what a “chair” was; did it have to be made of a particular substance and need it be in a particular shape to qualify? It was a matter of the questioning of Platonism, you might say: do things have an intrinsic essence or nature?
    Of course, there are many examples of this questioning of art throughout the century, some more striking than the one I’ve offered.
    Must art convey an object in its “real” shape, or was art not already a medium that made this impossible and maybe undesireable?
    I bring this up because I believe the school of haiku that requires strict rules of kigo, kireji, lower-case first words in lines etc., is also a school that insists on “objective” representation of objects and shuns anything remotely “subjective,” as if there were a real separation between the two. All we need do is go back to the expressionists and impressionists to see the remarkable results in art that followed from experimenting with subjective/objective.
    Since, I’ve gone this far, I might as well say that I do not believe in the definition of haiku to be found as the declaration in many of the “prestigious” haiku journals.
    The question remains, then,what is haiku, or, better, what is haiku now? I don’t know that i can answer that satisfactorily. I think that is a work in progress. But, surely, we need not be limited to the knowledge of the world that Shiki had when he created the form; he was a man of the turn of the century and sketches from life was, at the time, a predominant model for the arts.

  144. I would also add that I find it a quaint practice that many haiku poets begin their lines in lower-case; I remember reading many years ago the admonition to do this because haiku was “consciousness,” not sentences or lines. At first, I followed, as is natural for a beginner. Then, I stopped the practice because it seemed wrong to me: a poetic line is a poetic line; it need not begin with a capital letter (although I do begin mine that way), but it is surely a sentence/line not “consciousness,” as something separate from its manifest form.
    I also find it odd that so many haiku lack verbs; they seem like lifeless things to me without them. And I think the lack of verbs is caused by just this insistence that we are not writing poems composed of lines/sentences, but are writing “consciousness,” wordless poems, or alternatively that a haiku is the thing itself, rather than a conglomerate of lines/sentences.
    As you well know, Marlene Mountain long ago wrote convincingly about one image haiku. Haiku need not be composed of two distinct juxtaposed images.

  145. Michael:
    Rather than offer a rejoinder or alternative analysis,let me be honest with you: I don’t think haiku requires keriji. The two (at least) part structure of what you call “sentenceness” always contains some form of tension/resolvement and to me this satisfies what I feel is what is essential in haiku. On either side of a predicate are two parts engaged.

  146. could Lynch’s poem then be seen concretely? the ku itself being “that star” and the white page itself functioning as a second part?

  147. Jack, in response to you statement that Lynch’s poem is “broken into lines and is not a sentence,” I don’t believe that’s true. Of course it’s broken into lines, but that doesn’t remove its sentenceness. A fundamental characteristic of haiku is the two-part juxtapositional structure (this juxtaposition is both grammatical and imagistic). The original poem definitely lacks grammatical juxtaposition. And that’s because it is indeed still a single grammatical sentence. Creeley’s comment about lines isn’t entirely applicable to haiku, because haiku as a structure (in two parts, traditionally) that Creeley wasn’t addressing.

    Some people ask why haiku poets often start with a lowercase letter (unless a proper noun) and omit a concluding period. Others may have their reasons, but one reason for me is because starting with a capital letter announces “I am a sentence,” and concluding with a period reinforces such a notion. By starting with a lowercase letter, the poem immediately tells the reader “I am not a sentence.” And that’s a good thing with haiku, because they are deliberately fragmentary, in both or at least one of the two parts. And yes, there should be two parts, in most cases. Lynch’s poem has just ONE part, regardless of the lineation.

    Remember that poems with two parts DO still have lineation in the one of those two parts that is spread over two lines. Just as that line break doesn’t make that single part suddenly be two parts, so too a single-sentence poem (like Lynch’s) doesn’t suddenly have three parts just because it is lineated into three lines. I believe that’s a misunderstanding of what it means for a haiku to have two parts — a structure that I believe is independent of (has nothing to do with) how many lines a haiku has. In other words, a haiku may or may not have two parts regardless of whether it’s a one-liner, a two-liner, a three-liner, etc., or even if it’s concrete/visual — even Cor van den Heuvel’s famous “tundra” poem has TWO parts, in my opinion, with the white page itself functioning as one of the parts, since the poem is inescapably visual and not simply textual.

    Again, to clarify, a caesura or pause isn’t necessarily the same thing as a true *juxtapositional* structure. Many (usually slight) caesuras prompt natural line breaks, which is at it should be, but those are not the same as the juxtapositional shift sought after in haiku as an equivalent to the kireji. Not all haiku require such a structure (and maybe Lynch’s poem doesn’t), but to my mind this poem (Lynch’s) does not have it. Fortunately, it succeeds in other ways, the same way that Jack Cain’s famous “the empty elevator / opens / closes” succeeds in spades despite nary a season word, but I do think it would be better off adding an additional line and more deeply exploring a two-part juxtapositional structure.


    P.S. I still think “seems” is vital to Lynch’s poem. It adds a subjective element that allows doubt to enter the poem, and in that tension of uncertainty, the reassurance that *maybe* one could swim to the stars becomes even more enticing. The word “seems” puts the rest of the poem into the context of something, even if we don’t know what that context is. If “seems” is missing, then one HAS swum to the stars, and there’s no tension, no doubt, no grounding in the real world (or at least not enough), even if no reasons for doubt are part of the original poem. (But again, if the poem introduced a juxtaposition, it could suggest a context for the doubt of “seems,” which I think could greatly strengthen the poem.)

  148. I’m reminded of what Robert Creeley once said about sentences in poetry: he said that a sentence is a duration of time spent in prison and has nothing to do with poetry. He said only lines pertain to poetry.
    We are talking about poetry and poems, so Lynch’s poem is broken into lines and is not a sentence.
    While we often find it difficult in English to accept a pause,a caesura separating a subject from its adjective (as in this haiku), still there is definitely a leap (what kireji is for) between star and seems close enough.
    I have always found it disconcerting to demand or expect “strict” or conventional means in English haiku to create juxtaposition.
    I agree with Peter. This poem contains caesura, albeit a subtle one.

  149. Regarding juxtaposition or internal comparison as Henderson called this inclusion of two ideas:

    I see it here. The star, existing in time, we know not how many years, nor how many years it will be in the sky before it burns itself out; the years, light years, it has taken that star to be visible to the poet; the distance to where it is in space and the impossibility to reach it(at least in our lifetime); as compared to to poet who has lived so few years in comparison; the ability of the poet to close the space from place to place on earth by plane, bus, car, etc.; the immense vastness and endlessness of the heavens as compared to the circular area of the earth.

    I didn’t think of these things at first. It was the quiet image that attracted me, but more thoughts came with subsequent readings. As far as the word seems, I think it anchors the poet to this earth. She is taken by the beauty and mystery of what she sees and feels at that moment, but is still aware of reality.


  150. A few thoughts following Michael’s: for what it’s worth, I’ll say that in offering a different version of Lynch’s poem, ideas about juxtaposition were not in the fore. I wanted to test out how it might feel without the word “seem”. I still hold to my earlier comments: “seems” removes, for me, some of the vividness the poem might otherwise have. It will be implied, anyway, for the reader who requires it.

    More to the point is the matter of line-breaks, something which deserves greater exploration, I feel. I appreciate Michael’s attention to juxtaposition, which may be considered as the overlap of perceptions/impressions, one replacing (but not necessarily annihilating) another, the overlap creating a third space to be filled or vacated by the reader. We know many ways this can be and has been done, and Richard Gilbert, for one, has written about it extensively.

    If one is going to write a haiku (or poem inspired by haiku) using 3 (or 2 or 4) lines, there must be some reason for, or value in doing so. No? (Many poems seem arbitrarily lineated, but I’ll leave that aside for now). If one honors the line breaks, and you know whether you do or don’t by how you read the poem out loud, then each line offers its own perception, to be replaced, altered, and juxtaposed with the next. Different readers will do so differently.

    In the version I offered, which I only use because it is close to hand, I read “a star” as its own unit of perception—I pause after reading it. I don’t know initially if it is going to shine there alone in its sky (or mind or body/ of water); I don’t know if it is going to connect to a memory, or to imagination, or what. It would not be distracting to add a dash here. Might help. The second line—“close enough”– acts as a perception of not knowing, or anticipation, and the final line “to swim to”, brings home the surprise, brings home the realization that a star is, well, maybe not what we think. All this is present in Lynch’s poem, and one could argue whether it needs something more or different, which in different ways, Michael and I have spoken to.

    So lineation, honoring line breaks, can be a subtle way of juxtaposing when skillfully employed. Says I. Seems like a good subject for a “Sailing”, especially if we include the exploration of one liners. Wudja think?

  151. that star
    seems close enough
    to swim to

    —Diane Gillen Lynch

    In response to Diane’s poem, Peter Yovu offered a suggested revision:

    a star
    close enough
    to swim to

    Perhaps Peter’s impulse to do this stems from the fact that the original poem, as lovely as it is, reads as a single sentence, and thus lacks the pause or kireji that we customarily expect in traditional haiku. Yet Peter’s version still reads as a single phrase, so that seemingly wasn’t his motivation.

    Whether to say “that” star and whether to say “seems” or not strikes me as the poet’s choice — and would be intertwined with his or her voice and perspective. I’m okay with saying both — and feel, actually, that “that” is essential, because it emphasizes a personal connection to a particular star, which I think is part of the poem’s point. On the other hand, I can also see the virtue of a slightly tighter/briefer presentation, which Peter was getting at.

    But neither version gets at the two-part juxtaposition that is so often effective in haiku. Does every haiku need that structure? Not necessarily, and maybe this poem is one that doesn’t. But I must confess that my first reaction on reading the poem was to be aware that it was a single sentence with no cut or juxtaposition, and thus that it might have missed an opportunity to go further. Off the top of my head, what about this:

    divorce final–
    that star seems close enough
    to swim to

    Obviously, this is a very different poem, and other first lines (or possibly last lines) might be explored. My point with this suggestion is to ask whether the poem could go further, even though I already like the distance it already takes us. Indeed, a good juxtapositional structure can take us deeper than haiku without it. By employing an effective juxtaposition, employing images or contexts at right-angles to what’s right in front of us, haiku adds, quite literally, another dimension to the poem.

  152. I came for a swim tonight, to watch the star dust poets twinkling in my darkness…you are all so far but I swim to each of you on your words…the patterns of light across the night … This haiku is wonderful in that it brings out so many facets of our thinking…so many planes on this diamond in the sky.

  153. Very interesting reading all the comments (and the poem itself, of course), what varied lives we all have led and are leading.

    I’m literally in the water with his one, floating on my my back in the Arabian Gulf (think bath water) and looking at the night sky – because there’s so little light pollution (and maybe it’s the time of year and tilt of the planet), the stars seem large and close, close enough to swim to.

    Leaving a family wedding last Sunday, we turned our heads upwards – far enough out of the city for the “milky” part of the way to be clear.

    The stars enchant us and humble us at the same time and in about equal measure. The child-like “close enough to swim to” is beautifully realised.

    The Owl looked up to the stars above, And sang to a small guitar; Then the traveller in the dark, thanks you for your tiny spark; (and, of course), And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by …

    Wonder is what makes life so very interesting.

  154. A night swim in the country under heaven’s stream is what I experience when I read this poem. The darkness filters out the usual implicit perspective within which we place ourselves and our relative distances to other objects in our visual range. The stars can seem so much closer as we ourselves float separately unattached in the darkness. I like the poet’s choice of “that” instead of using the specific article “the” in order to bring about a narrower focus and pointing to a particular star.

    I’m grateful to Ms. Lynch for her poem that helped me re-connect with some night swims of my own I had years ago in upstate New York. Those memories seem closer now
    like her star.


    Bill C

  155. Thanks Lorin!

    My excuse tonight is that I was at a reading by former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, courtesy of Bath Spa University, followed by catching up with New York Quarterly poet and former assistant editor Yu Yan Chen. Ah, these fine American poets keeping me indoors!

    Here’s a Mars haiku, I call them SFku:

    mars landing-
    a tendril of red dust
    shifts from a footfall

    Alan Summers

    Practical Haiku: How Haiku Can Change Your Life
    Dylan Tweney (published March 2010)

    Tinywords (29th November 2007)

  156. Mars was particularly red and bright, viewed from here, last night, Alan.

    ….coincidentally, just as it goes from ‘retrograde’ to ‘direct’, ‘in’ the Leo constellation :-)

  157. Buson:

    Ami o more tsuna o more-tsutsu mizu no tsuki

    (wonderful sounds!)

    (“Evading the fishnet,/ and evading the fishing ropes,/ the moon on the water”; trans. Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert)

    Agreed that “that star” could be interpreted in the reflection trad, although it certainly doesn’t have to be–and what I’m seeing, myself, is a bright star, low to the horizon and just-now visible, against a background as yet uncluttered by dimmer stars, over the water.

    And, Merrill, yes, of course–we are all stardust. That’s how elements heavier than iron are synthesized in our universe, in supernovae explosions. Our solar system, with its small star, is not of the first generation; we and our Earth and our whole solar system are made from the dust and gas of long-dead stars. Amazing when one stops to think of it.

    The stars keep us company on clear nights, true, but at the same time the closest, besides the Sun, is approx. 24 trillion miles away. And that seems to me what this haiku is all about!–the gap between what seems and is; “here” yet unfathomably remote.

    Lastly, it’s not crucial–but, folks, the difference between a star and a planet is at least as obvious as that between, say, a bird and a bat, a trumpet and a trombone. When a poet says “star”, I trust she means *star*–likewise, “bird” not bat, usw. “Evening star” as in Wally Swist’s

    far into twilight
    milkweed seeds cross the meadow–
    the evening star

    yes, means Venus. But no “evening”? I see twinkling, a literal point of light. Whereas the brighter planets show actual mass (esp. through binoculars or a telescope whereas stars don’t) and twinkle almost never, only when the atmosphere is quite turbulent. The planets–literally, “wanderers”–also move against the fixed background of stars and so stand out for being bright objects in the “wrong” spots. A practiced eye sees the difference instantly. Feel free to disagree, but, personally, I think haiku poets, of all people, should care about such things. End diatribe!

  158. Correction … I misnamed the poet in the apocryphal story of drowning while trying to kiss the moon’s reflection. The tale was about Li Po, not his Chinese contemporary (Tang Dynasty) Tu Fu. Ah well . . .

    Night fishing? I’ve fished a lot Lorin, but never after dark. In the US States it is illegal, but the ocean is probably fair. I love the invitation!

  159. Hi Paul,
    That star *could* be a star’s reflection, in fact that’s what I first considered, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether one’s swimming or on a beach or pier (perhaps) looking out to sea or even out at sea, in a boat at night, the division between dark sea and dark sky isn’t easily made out, as it is by day. I’ve seen stars that seemed close enough to swim to (and the dark sea and sky can have that dreamy effect on me), and they seemed to be floating on the water, not reflections.

    That’s something I liked about this haiku: it isn’t necessarily another haiku about reflection, though the possibility is there.

    well, perhaps one night we’ll go fishing together, and we can test this one out. ;-)

  160. Allan, I really appreciate all the info on stars. Thanks. I tend to feel that seems does weaken the haiku somewhat – as the very fact of taking in the sight of the star is an act not unlike swimming…being immersed in the object of the experience. And yet it seems to add a quality not unlike swimming…fluid…
    But it is not true that stars are so very remote that they are not part of us…heavens, I venture to guess we are all star dust… and the contact with stars that we have enlarges our concepts of being.

  161. I see things as you do, Adelaide, but that the star is a reflection in the water, ocean or lake. Was it the poet in ancient times, Tu Fu (?) that while drunk tried to kiss/embrace the moon in reflection and drowned? In this case the giveaway is in the swimming. The reflection of the star “seems” withing swimming range, literally. It is the focus, as was Tu Fu’s moon, of the poet’s attention. The star above, the reflection, and the body of water are in the here and now. The thinking about perhaps swimming is not. This is derivative of, yet a bit different from previous haiku in ELH of drinking the stars, stars in cupped hands, stars/moon in buckets, puddles, etc.

  162. Whether or not “that star” is a true star or a planet isn’t the important point for me. How often have we thought that a particularly bright star, the moon or clouds seemed close enough to touch? There is a perception of nearness, a trick of light or the imagination.

    For the poet, one star seems close, but not close enough to touch. It is, however, close enough to reach somehow. That she chose swimming as the way to reach the star makes me think she was by a body of water, the sea or a large lake. If she were by a meadow she might have chosen walking or running.

    This haiku has the child-like quality of imagination and spontaneity. For a brief moment the reasoning adult is set aside and the poet gives in to her imagination.


  163. Peter’s revision strikes me as interesting and instructive, in that it reveals much about different possible approaches to haiku. By incorporating a recognition of possibility into the original poem, its author made an aesthetic choice that colors the haiku a certain way. Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily equate that choice with “loss of nerve”, but it does have certain consequences. Peter’s “raw, direct, irrational” “version” becomes more an illusionistic poem, in an august tradition of such.

    picking bugs
    off the moon
    (Nick Virgilio, AH 1.2, 1963)

    It’s possible to read haiku principally as a form of symbolic poetry; but that’s not how I read, understand, or practice it. I feel the most important figurative aspect of haiku is synecdoche.

  164. that star
    seems close enough
    to swim to

    —Diane Gillen Lynch

    Responding to Peter Yovu’s suggestion

    a star
    close enough
    to swim to

    While I agree with you that the word “seems” projects some of the poet onto the reader, there may well be redeeming aspects of it and it’s not clear that such a projection is bad or loses the “nerve”.

    Starting first with the idea of rawness and perception, Mizuhara Shûôshi wrote about this and haiku:

    /// “Truth in Nature, Truth in Literature” ///

    “Nature’s truth” is an ore for good haiku. In contrast, for the writer to remain in a passive position—to describe what he saw as he saw it—is, strictly speaking, an attitude that can be named Natural Imitationism. A true artist takes a more positive attitude. He tries to add forging to the ore, to add creativity to it, and to produce something delicate and profound.

    /// Mizuhara Shûôshi, trans by Hiroaki Sato ///

    More to the point, I’m a little troubled with the idea that a “poet’s perception” is somehow not a part of the “first hand perception” of the object, that it’s somehow secondhand and therefore second rate. That it’s not truth because it’s not Nature’s truth.

    There just isn’t perception without subject and object. The idea that traces of the author and the author’s reaction to stimuli, whether conceptual, intellectual, visceral, or otherwise, should be eliminated from haiku to give all space to the reader, well, I don’t actually think it’s possible. Even the author’s decision to attempt to remove these things is a telling decision and it often leads to sterile haiku.

    Besides, as a rule, wouldn’t removing elements of the author’s reaction, or “second hand perception” as you call it, eliminate allusion? Allusion exists between the reader and author rather than the author and inspiration. There’s no rawness there. And never mind allusion, even direct references fall if elements of the poet’s (internal) perception are disallowed as they seldom involve raw external stimuli. A sidewalk is real and raw, New York City is a concept and abstraction brought by an author that hopes the reader shares the reference in some ways.

    Take for example Bashô’s

    “Early spring in the mountains of Iga Province”

    in the mountain village
    Manzai dancers are late–
    plum blossoms

    (tr. Ueda, Bashô and His Interpreters)

    Since the dancers are not there, are we left with

    mountain village
    quiet and still
    plum blossoms


    By the way, there’s a fascintating overlooked work on references in Bashô by Earl Miner: Naming Properties: Nominal Reference in Travel Writings by Bashô and Sora, Johnson and Boswell. Miner compares the factual diary of Sora to the fictionalized account of Bashô. Of course, when we start changing names we’re getting much further away from raw experience and much deeper north into crafting poetry.

    Now, one could say that Bashô didn’t say “seems late”. True enough. However, I absolutely agree with Judith Christian that “that star” is crucial and then, when you add “that” back to the original haiku and leave out “seems”, the haiku doesn’t read as well…it seems to need “seems” “is” or something there. At least when read aloud.

    And that was my initial reaction and now my final thought….the haiku as written reads as if you’re wading into the lake and a friend points and lets you know about *that* star. So, could the “first hand perception, structured as a poem”, perhaps be the poet hearing

    “that star
    seems close enough
    to swim to”

    and then the poet looked, at the finger first of course, and then at that star?

    If so, isn’t the “rawness of its origin” captured by Diane Gillen Lynch?

    Pardon my ramble…


  165. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, there are references to what is called the ship of Ra (the most quoted reference being “there is no rest on the ship of Ra.”); the ship has generally been understood to represent the earth and those on it. Closer to home, we have the Pequod, Melville’s representation of the world floating in the cosmic sea populated by the people’s of the world.
    I have experienced many times-as I’m sure many others have also-a sense that the night is a great expanse of sea.
    So, Lynch’s experience of being able to swim to a star she sees is visceral and true (as the imagination is true).
    I have to agree that I think she weakens her own sense of truth by adding the word “seem.” Perhaps, the conflict between the imagination and reason as sources of truth adds dimension to the poem. This would be another way of looking at it (the star?).
    I once wrote a similar poem,which I’m afraid I will have to paraphrase, since I no longer have it available.
    That mountain
    one day I’ll climb it
    and leave my light there
    Which leads me to say that it doesn’t really matter what mountain it is (it represents the height, the end, death, what has been always sought after).
    And, I don’t think it matters what star Lynch saw that night. The star is also something long cherished, sought for, and end to separation of self and other, self and world.
    And, the way to achieve this is the truth of the imagination, which recognizes that the night is an ocean and reservations about this keeps her from touching that star.

  166. For me, the charm of this poem lies in the proximity of *star* and *swim*, of fire and water (vivid elemental presences) and all the immersions they present. I have a different take on the word *seem*, however. For me (to repeat myself) it drains the poem of its energy, puts it into a mental space that tells me where the poet went with her perception, but leads me away from the rawness of its origin. The perception becomes second hand.

    My guess is that the first hand perception, structured as a poem, could go something like this:

    a star
    close enough
    to swim to

    but we may not always trust such raw, direct, irrational perception. A haiku, it seems to me, does well to have a nerve running through it; I don’t exclude my own work when I say: nerve is something which is frequently lost in poetry.

    Some readers here may feel uneasy about posts like this, and this is the second poem recently which I have “criticized”. But it felt wrong to say nothing, and not because I feel I am “right” in my observations and have to offer a corrective. What feels right is simply offering my perspective. I’m interested in what others have to say.

  167. “I don’t think ‘which star’ matters.”

    We can’t know absolutely, of course, but I do think the haiku invites educated guesses–and the fact that a number of commentators here have offered those (starting with Judith Christian herself) seems significant. This business also raises some interesting issues about both specificity in haiku and how we read haiku.

    My point, really, is that if we interpret “seems close” to indicate an outstandingly bright star in the night sky (and that is how I interpret it), then the possibilities, in a given hemisphere, at a particular time of year, will be pretty limited.

    I’m glad, Lorin, that you agree with my “summer” interpretation. If it is the northern hemisphere, then the poet-speaker is probably looking to the east–at least if it’s a true star and not a planet.

    Does that distinction matter? I think it does. Stars look different. They twinkle. So that’s part of my experience of the poem. They’re also, of course, many orders of magnitude both larger and farther away than planets are. My sense of the “longing” (to embrace the infinite or unbounded) that Judith Christian mentions is enhanced by the idea that it’s a star.

    I say east, then, because there are no outstandingly bright stars in the summer evening in the west in the northern hemisphere. The faint ones that are there remain obscured by the light of dusk for some time after sunset.

    If you look at the entire night sky in the summer (in the northern hemisphere), the first star that will become visible is Arcturus, because it is the brightest. Next will be Vega, the second brightest–and both in the east. Those two really dominate the summer sky (here)–but also prominent are the two other stars forming the Summer Triangle (along with Vega), Altair and Deneb. Beyond that, the choices would be pretty limited.

    And stars have definite “personalities”–specific brightnesses, colors (Arcturus is orange whereas Vega is white), times of appearance in the year and in the evening, cultural/mythical associations, and so on. In these ways, “which star” might matter as much as, say, “which bird” or “which tree” and so on in other haiku contexts.

    Which does bring it back to how one reads haiku. For me haiku is a poetry of reality, so that these specificities, and speculating upon them, do matter and affect how I interpret and “enter” the poem. Even if a haiku leaves the door open to a few possibilities, I can find it pleasurable to consider each in turn. I certainly realize, though, that other readers might feel differently and might be focused on different aspects of composition/interpretation.

  168. Whichever star it might be would depend not only on which hemisphere one was seeing it from, but which direction one was looking towards. If it was early evening and one was looking West, yes, it could be ‘the evening star’, Venus. At some times, it could be Jupiter, which can be quite bright. Or it could be many of the ‘real’ stars, if we want to make that distinction. I don’t think ‘which star’ matters.

    ‘swim’ does seem to conjure up a summer night… my own reading (due to my own experience, of course, since we bring to haiku our own experience) sets this haiku by the sea/ ocean. At night there is no visible horizon when looking out over the ocean, no marking line between dark sea and dark sky. The eye can’t assess distance well, either. We ‘know’ that the stars are in the sky, but it can seem as if some of them are on the sea.

    The star seems close, within reach of a capable swimmer. Ah, the sense of closeness is there, but the knowing reminds us of the distance between ‘seems’ and ‘is’, whilst the ‘not knowing’ lets us experience, momentarily, that all things are possible.

    ‘beginner’s mind’?


  169. If a true star and not a planet such as Venus, one candidate would surely be Sirius, the Dog Star, of Canis Major, the brightest star–besides the Sun, of course!–from the perspective of the Earth. Then again, Sirius is visible in the evening in the northern hemisphere only during the winter (look for its brilliance below and just to the east of Orion).

    Whereas “swim” conjures a summer setting–so, if this is a haiku of the northern hemisphere, my notion of the star in question will be Arcturus, our brightest star of the summer evening. But 37 light years is still a long way to swim! Thus, “seems”–which, yes, “keeps us safe”.

    Polaris, by contrast, is actually the most famous of the dimmer stars–ranking only 48th in apparent magnitude. Its importance as the North Star can obscure the fact that it’s actually fainter than, say, Adara, Gacrux, Miaplacidus, Alioth, Mirfak, Wezen, Sargas, and quite a number of others that are hardly household names.

  170. Tiny quibble: Venus, of course, is a planet rather than a star–and yet we call it the morning or the evening star, so I guess you’re safe with that one! And it certainly seems closer (is indeed closer) than most stars.

    A lovely analysis of a lovely poem. Both are fascinating–mostly because I don’t EVER think of stars as something I could swim to. Their beauty, their mystery stems from their untouchability. I guess “seems” says it all. Thanks……….

  171. Or maybe Polaris? The North Star or Polestar.

    My favourite multiple stars haiku has to be:

    standing up
    for a closer look
    at the stars

    Maurice Tasnier
    From the Ninth Star on the Left
    • Publisher: Snapshot Press (2000)
    • ISBN-10: 0952677369
    • ISBN-13: 978-0952677369

  172. I love this haiku. As an artist I understand how seeing draws us to …perhaps into…the object we are observing. The light enters our eyes and becomes us…

    Another reason I’m glad for this haiku is that so many times I’ve been admonished for statement haiku… where the insight is revealed in one statement without a juxtaposition. But “that star” sets a season. “That star” IS a juxtaposition to the observer. Often these subtleties are not obvious.

    Thanks for this one. There is much to think about here.

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