Saturday, January 5, 2013

Breathing the spirit of poetry - In-spiration, or "The Bush Warbler"

Bush Warbler -
behind the willow,
in front of the grove

uguisu ya / yanagi no ushiro / yabu no mae

Basho wrote a number of Springtime haiku involving a bird called the Japanese Bush Warbler, or uguisu.

Taking my own advice, I have done some research on the bird, to better appreciate the significance of this particular word in Basho's haiku.

According to Wikipedia, the Japanese Bush Warbler is drab-coloured and secretive. The bird is olive brown above and tending toward dusky colours below. It has pale eyebrows. It has a beak that curves up making it look like it is smiling. The bird is typically 15.5 centimetres (6.1 in) in length. It is normally only seen in spring before there is foliage in the trees. It tends to remain deep in the shadow of foliage during the day.

Apparently therefore, few people have actually ever seen this bird though many people have heard it. Yet it has a very distinctive call that has become a symbol for the Japanese spring and summer. (To really enrich your appreciation of the Basho haiku, you might like to check the Wikipedia page, which has brief audio recordings of the singing of a Japanese Bush Warbler, or this page which has a longer recording - almost 3 minutes worth, which definitely provides a poetic (and relaxing) interlude.

Returning to our poem above, we might begin to appreciate that what Basho has captured is the invisibility of the bird, as it flits unseen through the foliage. Now it is here, now it is there - or are there really two birds in the poem? Basho does not know. Such is the mystery of the bird, which to the Japanese embodies Spring - it is a force of Nature. It is as if Basho is saying: "Where is Spring? Here, there - wherever you look". And where do you look? Wherever the singing bird calls to you from. This poem seems, then, not only to reproduce for each reader Basho's actual physical experience of hearing the Warbler from the foliage, and looking for it; it also captures the wonder of Springtime. And without saying anything, Basho seems to be teaching us to let Nature guide our eyes and our inner spirits, and then it can fill our poetry. All in 17 syllables!

Contrary to many modern haiku exponents, I personally prefer to write haiku in 17 syllables across 3 lines. I understand this is not a "true" equivalence for the Japanese versions, and certainly is not the definitive version of haiku in English. But for me, the discipline of trying to find phrases to fit that arrangement actually challenges me to find a better form of words than my initial "poetic inspiration" might have. It teaches me not to be satisfied with just any choice of words, but to ensure the words I use are both poetic and metrically balanced. This is not obligatory - and I break my own rule occasionally. But at this stage in my apprenticeship, I think the lesson is more valuable for developing my linguistic range, than the need for total poetic "freedom".

So, here is my own translation of Basho's poem above:

Secret bird of Spring -
now, behind the willow, now
in front of the grove.

If you want to further explore the Japanese fascination and love for this bird, you might also like to download and construct this papercraft model, to have one near your poetry writing desk. According to the "trivia" notes from the site:
"Uguisu (Japanese bush warblers) often appear in gardens and trees in towns and villages during winter and spring. Ume (plum blossom) trees blossom in very early spring before many other plants begin to have flowers. Therefore, Japanese bush warblers and plum blossoms are popularly featured in haiku (Japanese traditional poem) composition as seasonal words representing spring."
Indeed the combination of these two motifs representing spring has been "a favorite theme for Japanese poets and painters since the Nara period in the 8th century."

Here are some images from woodblock printings:

Early Spring - Wild Plum and Japanese Bush Warbler

This last picture shows the warbler in a cage. Apparently the Bush Warbler is so highly prized for its song that it has historically been kept in cages. To encourage the bird's singing, the cages were often covered with paper with only a small opening to allow a small amount of light. Presumably this better simulated the bird's natural environment, and encouraged it to sing, calling to any nearby birds. Basho, by contrast, has captured the bird, contained it within 17 syllables, yet it is not caged! It Is flitting around the trees still.

I know at least five poems by Basho featuring this delightful creature.

But my favourite is this one:

With a warbler for
a soul, it sleeps peacefully,
this mountain willow 
(Trans. Sam Hamill)

Before I set about writing this post, this particular poem was remembered by me more in spirit than detail. A few weeks ago I had paused somewhere and heard a bird singing from a tree. I responded with what I thought was a memory, a memory of a poem in which the bird's voice became the voice of the tree, that the bird actually was the soul of that tree. I was filled with wonderment that Basho had worked a miracle, giving a soul and a voice to all trees now whenever birdsong utters forth. Certainly it was to me an enchanting thought and inspired my own haiku.

Old poet as priest:
Miraculous - this tree too
Has begun to sing.

But to my amazement when I reread the poem in another translation, I find that was not quite how Basho had written it at all! The voice of the bird is a spirit enchanting the willow to sleep. Yet the realization only further increases my appreciation for the miracle which the priest of haiku has wrought: he has in-spired me - literally, breathed his spirit into me, so I have been granted to have my own visions of spirit in nature in poetry.

Surely here is the best reason for continuing to read and study haiku masters: they sometimes will grant to their eager apprentice to receive a share of their spirit - that is, their vision.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. You are surely breathing spirit into me!!

    I am amazed at the depth of reading that you go through to appreciate a haiku by the masters, and envious too! I am an absolute newbie and have noticed your extensive observations on the haiku displayed at Tinywords every day. It has made me wonder who this Haiku Apprentice is. And yesterday I took some extra effort to land here and read through your blog posts.

    This particular one is a fabulous post. And your haiku is as beautiful as Sam Hill's translated version. I totally agree that one must take time to understand a haiku; and that is one quality that I am lacking. Like many out there, I am learning to understand and write haiku on my own. But with so many being shared and written on the internet, I seem to be in a hurry to catch up with as many as I can, not knowing what the hurry is all about; and missing the important aspect that the actual poetry is in the silence and understanding of what actually lies in the verse. And so many books to read and online journals to read that one is not sure where to start.

    But, some articles/posts do make me pause and enjoy and this is one such post. I really appreciate your post and hope you do find time to explain some more of the poems by the Masters in future posts. It helps me appreciate them in a way I am able to understand.

    Wishing you the best.

    Many thanks,

    1. Dear Jayashree

      Thank you for visiting and for your thoughtful contribution to my blog (as well as the kind words about my post).

      You call yourself a "newbie" but I see from your own blogsite that you have been writing for several years. I believe that sort of humility makes for great poetry, and that fact is reflected in the honesty of your own writing. I have read through a number of your NaHaiWriMo poems for the month of June, and think they are far from the work of a beginner! You really do have a deep sense of how to capture an essence, a mood, a moment.

      I know what you mean about hurrying, rushing from poem to poem. I find that the biggest problem with haiku anthologies - modern or classic. It is also why Tinywords is a wonderful site for me. On any single page there is only 1 featured poem - so it forces you to remain focused on a single work. It lets me savour it as well as learn how other readers are interpreting the work. My own poetry writing has improved immeasurably since I commenced commenting on Tinywords.

      Another writer you might be interested in is Polona Oblak. Her site is CrowsNDaisies ( Not only is her poetry in my opinion consistently the best haiku being written in English today, you can follow her writing in "real time". She posts one poem a day - usually in response to NaHaiWriMo - and I oftentimes comment there as well. She usually responds to all comments. She has even kindly allowed me to email her in the past, and she has shared some insights into how she writes haiku, as well as reviewed poems of mine for which she gently suggested possible lines of improvement.

      My own blog posting has gone into something of a hiatus at present. I have had major workplace projects over several months now, and haven't had the leisure to spend the several hours I usually take on a new post. But I have actually relcently ordered a new book of the translations of the poetry of Buson - the second of the Japanese haiku "Big 4". So that will definitely be the subject of more posts! So please, continue to drop by. And I hope also to read you commenting on Tinywords. As I said in my own comment today:

      This was how the Japanese masters used to engage in their "poetry parties", each giving a poem then everyone at the table comparing interpretations. Everyone gains, everyone wins! By sharing and engaging in this way, we all deepen our levels of appreciation of a particular work, deepen our emotional intelligence and repertoire, and deepen our understanding of the art of haiku, all while maintaining an engaged and respectful sense of community.

      Best wishes and thanks again to you,


  2. Apologies for the late reply!!

    I will most certainly keep dropping in by your blog. Any little insight is welcome. And thank you for the link to Polona Oblak's blog. I am sure there is more I can learn from her too. And am pleasantly surprised that you did peep into my blog :-). Many thanks for the visit and appreciating! That is where I keep all my scribbles and experiments that I have fallen in love with; sometimes a little too attached for my own good. My actual journey into exploring haiku started only in late 2011. So very much a fresher when compared to some of the others I have met online who have been writing for 20+ years and still passionate about it. I hope I can retain my enthusiasm and continue to learn and be inspired by all.


  3. Good Evening.
    Oh how wonderful to read this.
    When I was in a small village outside of Nara, Japan, in summer of 2010, I would wake very early in the morning and hear this marvelous bird sound. Never seeing the bird, nor knowing that one rarely saw the bird whose sound was so attractive and beautiful . Trying to imitate the sound of the birds to locals in the village, they laughed and knew what birds I was carried by!>>> And so it is this one> I am happy to see this collection of poetry, this collection of musings from CAlifornia to that little morning in Japan.

    Deep bow!!


Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!