Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to Read and Judge Haiku

Blythely Misjudging Haiku

"The reader… may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes"
 (R.H. Blyth in Preface to Vol 1, History of Haiku)

R.H. Blyth - No joke! His commentary on haiku is totally biased

This comment contains a piece of good advice for the haiku apprentice, but it also hides what I consider to be a false philosophy in approaching haiku. Because Blyth is analyzing haiku from a mindset and from the position that there have only very few successful haiku poems in the history of the art. And for him, they were all written in the distant past by the four greats - Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. He completely dismisses "the decadence of all later writers". I find this extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous. Haiku is an art form, and as such it manifests the emotional experience of individual writers in response to certain situations or stimuli or ideas. For Blyth, it seems, only certain types of emotional experiences were allowed to count as haiku. Because for Blyth, apparently, haiku is a religion. And a fundamentalist one at that! He laments the legacy of Basho:

"His way of Haiku can hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it. As a Way, it was in many respects better than that of Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and so on. Its desuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings."

Basho's "Old Pond" - surely there can be more to haiku than this?

I already dealt at some length in my previous post, on the "zenification" of haiku, and of Basho in particular. So I do not intend to repeat my arguments against this approach to haiku.

The Poet is Simply Sincere

But it is a reminder of why as haiku apprentices we should remain wary of writers and self-appointed experts, and learn to ignore those who would criticize poems on the basis of such a false concept of haiku. Every poet, if sincere, has insights which are valid and deserving of a fair hearing. From any poet, at any time, it is possible to discover poems that are profound, meaningful or affecting, if we are prepared to give them a sympathetic hearing.

The Poet is Not a Saint

Haiku is not a religion. There is no dogma and no canon of sacred scripture. There are no priests with a divine and infallible message concerning how haiku must be! No, not even Basho. For it is an art - and an evolving one at that! Shiki began his revolutionary re-reading and reordering of the place of Basho and Buson in the haiku pantheon at the start of the 20th century. And there have been continuing twists and turns since that time. When we read the life of Basho, we come to know something of the schools of poetry practiced in his own time - Danrin, Teimon, and of course Shofu. But since the time of Shiki, and especially with more frequent and greater contact and exchange of ideas between Japanese and Western writers, there have been further evolutions and branchings of haiku, with new schools and writers taking fresh approaches, or reinterpreting and reinvigorating the traditional form and styles. There are Japanese poets writing and publishing haiku in a conventional style - including 5-7-5 syllable structure, season word and cutting word; and there are Japanese haiku poets who consider such traditional practices completely optional. In the West, we who have embraced the "haiku" as a poetic form have no right to dogmatically assert what is or is not "haiku", let alone to consign all poets since Shiki to the category of "degenerates."

In my opinion Blyth, therefore, is completely wrong, and his analysis leaves poetry he purports to love, both blinded and lamed.   His is a poetry for the dead, not the living.

Learning to Judge Haiku

Having said all this, however, I do agree with Blyth at least on one point: that some haiku are better than others. But the process by which I make these judgments is less dogmatic, more analytical, and more personal - which I think is essential. For as said already, haiku is poetry - a literary art, and so open to literary analysis. It is also, of course, an intrinsically personal encounter, and personal preference is to be embraced, not suppressed.

What is Art?

I would define all art as an attempt by a person (sometimes, though not necessarily, called an "artist") to authentically capture a personal "immanent experience" - that is to say, a moment of re-visioning reality, of unexpected connectedness, a striking awareness of some timeless truth, or perhaps a non-physical, non-sensory "spiritual" perception of some aspect of human life - in isolation, or in relation to society, or even in the cosmos. But rather than try to explain the experience, to describe the insight, an artist is someone who tries to re-create the experience, in the mind and emotions of the reader/viewer/listener, through an artistic arrangement of words, of sounds, of shapes and movements.

Steps to Analyzing Haiku

From this, we can see that my criteria for judging a haiku, or indeed any art, will be based on whether the poem is successful in meeting any or all of these artistic ends: is it authentic? does it present an immanent encounter? does it re-create or re-present the experience for the reader?  

After considering these essential points, further judgment on the quality of a haiku can be made considering the literary and aesthetic features of the work: does it conform to an expected haiku structure? does the writer use a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and if not, why not? is there a division of thought in the poem? a tension and resolution? does the writer use sounds or rhythms in a way that enhances or detracts from the images created? does the poem refer outside itself, to other works of literature or art? 

Finally, personal reactions to the poem, and how the poem compares to other works touching similar experiences. For haiku, being deliberately brief, requires the reader to "fill in the details" with their own sensory experience, memories, and imagination. In some haiku as readers we are literally co-creators of the poetry, which gives the poem a much greater personal impact. And a poem by a "famous" poet may not affect us as much as a work by lesser known poets, or indeed, by amateurs.

It is a process of approaching and questioning a poem in this way that can allow a haiku apprentice to make an assessment and a judgment regarding the quality of a haiku poem, and even to grade it compared to other works. Of course not everyone will agree with our judgment, but that is of no concern. Our response, like the original poem itself, should be authentic.

When I first encounter a new haiku, here are some questions I try to ask myself when reading the poem, to begin this process of engaging and appreciating the work:

  • When is it happening? What season?  What time?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Who is present?
  • Is there any precedent implied?
  • What mood is captured?
  • How is this achieved?

To illustrate, I would like to quote some poems by a non-professional writer which I consider outstanding. All are by Mark E. Brager, and published in haiku journal, Simply Haiku (AutumnWinter 2011), and so-called "senryu" journal, Prune Juice (Issue 9 : Summer 2012).

Stop Talking About...

Before I begin, though, let me make an important point: I consider all these poems "haiku". I do not believe the Japanese distinction between haiku and senryu carries into English, but believe that any English poem written with a form approximating haiku, and the intent of being a "haiku", is haiku. When I went researching to find support for my position on this matter, I found an article by Basho expert and translator Jane Reichhold, in which she gives an excellent discussion of the Japanese context of haiku compared to senryu; and I agree with her conclusion, that we should stop using that term, and refer to all haiku-like poems in English as "haiku". According to Reichhold:

Jane Reichhold - "stop talking about senryu; it's all haiku!"

"R.H. Blyth is responsible for this false splitting of haiku into two divisions. For haiku, accepted by Japanese literary history as haiku, which Blyth did not like or understand, he constantly exploits the term senryu to degrade them. Adopting Blyth's attitude, certain experts and editors have set themselves up as judges to determine what is "real haiku" and referring, as he did, to all else as senryu. I strongly believe if a writer calls his/her work haiku, it IS haiku. If someone else does not like it, or it does not fit their standards, this does not give anyone the right to call it by the deprecatory name of erotic doggerel.
In any case, the term senryu should be discontinued because that is not what we are writing. Personally I have never read anything yet in English as degrading as a real Japanese senryu are. None of us would accept or publish such work. Why should we remind ourselves of this questionable practice by the Japanese by using the term?"

Analyzing Real Poems

Part I - A Walk in the Sand

So let’s begin with a poem by Brager:

sand dollar
the curve of the shore
behind me

A Sand Dollar on a beach
Brager, like many English-haiku writers, does not restrict himself to a particular syllable count, but clearly has structured the poem in a brief 3-line form recognizable as an English haiku.

The poem is immediately sensory, taking the reader onto a beach, calling up our own visions and memories of walking and playing on the sand. The sand dollar is not a creature to be found where I live, but I know from books and TV documentaries what they are, and in my mind I can replace it by encounters with starfish or other crustaceans I have personally met at the water's edge. But the identification of such an animal places us precisely at the water's edge. Waves play around our feet, and the sand dollar is revealed perhaps by the retreating wave. Such is the immediacy of the picture, and for me the experience conjured by the first reading. Although there is no season word or phrase, the season seems implied to be summer, since that is when people mostly play at the beach, and by mentioning the "curve of the shore", one senses he is recreating a walk along the shore, rather than a time when he was actively playing in the surf. Again, for me this connects to either an afternoon or a morning activity perhaps - walking in the cool of the day.

A Sand Dollar revealed by retreating waves

Next I am struck by the juxtaposition of the two elements in these first two lines: the creature with such an unusual name: "sand dollar", and "the curve of the shore". What comes to my mind is the curving shape of a dollar sign $. A clever connection, perfected by his concluding remark: "behind me". Of course, the curving shore is behind him as he walks along the beach, but does he also mean to imply that the pursuit of dollars is behind him? Is this a holiday? Is this a retirement? Has he been reappraising his personal priorities and deciding that money is less important than health?  I consider this an excellent haiku in form and execution. When considering it in terms of literary aesthetics, it also meets my criteria of conveying an authentic experience through the re-creating of the sensations and cognitive processes of the poet; yet it also leaves me with enough mystery, enough that is left unstated to allow my own interpretation, to question, to wonder, and of course to apply to my own life. It is the sort of poem that will spring back to mind next time I walk along a beach and encounter a sea-creature.

Analyzing Real Poems Part II - Fear and Trembling

This next poem by Brager is of a religious nature, and it is also powerfully effective for me. Partly this is because I have my own experiences of the same religious practices earlier in my life, and he captures the scene, the mood, and the spiritual emotions perfectly.

deep breath –
the pressure inside
the confessional

"Confession" is a Catholic practice where believers must confess their sins - specifically - and indicate their repentance before a priest, who in the name of Jesus forgives and absolves them. Traditionally it is done in a "confessional", a small dark chamber in an alcove of a church with at least two "booths". The priest sits in one "booth" beside a small window - often curtained - and on the other side, in the privacy (but also solitude) of the second booth, the penitent kneels awaiting their turn to confess. It is intensely challenging - personally and emotionally - to speak one's sins to the priest. Preparing for confession is like preparing to own up to a mistake to a parent, or a spouse. One feels a mix of guilt and sorrow and dread - like a child feels saying sorry to its parent, admitting that fault with deep breaths bordering on sobs. In confession there is a ritual set of words to help you go through with it, indeed even just to get going, and as they tumble out of your mouth, it is with a tight sense of pressure in the chest - around the heart.

A Catholic Confessional

Brager's poem captures all this, and invokes with it a lifetime of belief and rituals - all in 3 brief lines. He does not describe it, as I have just attempted to do - he re-lives it, and in doing so, speaks straight to the heart of those of us who have also experienced the dread, the fear, but also the catharsis of the confessional.

Is there a season in this poem? Again, not specifically, but it can be inferred. Confession is required at least annually by Catholics, and before Easter is the traditional time of reconciliation. But more than a season of changing weather, it evokes for Catholics the "holy season" of solemn rituals: the dim light of a church, and the scent of generations of candles, of incense, of wooden pews and polish.

Again, this poem captures and recalls a totally authentic experience, and Brager invites the reader to share the authenticity: to examine their own conscience, and challenges them to reconcile with their god. I suspect, even though it is clearly a Catholic religious encounter, that even Blyth would have approved of this poem, because of this highly spiritual impulse. But the wonder of it is that it is spirituality manifest in physical sensations: the deep breath - the "in-spiration" - and the "pressure inside", which is physically a tightness in the chest, around the pounding heart, also manifests the pressure inside the soul, yearning for release from the burden of sin. One reads the poem, and answers it: Amen.

Analyzing Real Poems Part III - Wabi Sabi

playing catch at dusk,
I dimly remember
being the son

This poem speaks to the father in me, but at the same time, has a sweet melancholy of nostalgia from my own childhood. A suburban backyard perhaps, or a park - these are the images drawn from my own memories of playing "catch". Brager is an American writer and believe baseball is the usual type of "catch" fathers play with sons there. So this would imply baseball season - summer. In Australia, cricket is our summer ball game, but often we play catch with tennis balls, which are also used for backyard cricket matches. In summer, of course, dusk comes very late - late enough for dads to spent time with sons after work and after dinner, throwing balls to each other, rehearsing for a weekend game perhaps, but also rehearsing lines: about life, about growing up.

All this can come just from the first line. Then we read on, and a wonderful play on words follows in line 2: the fading light and the fading memory. The inference of "dim" memory is a distant past - suggesting this is not Brager himself playing ball with his own son, but perhaps observing a game of catch in a local park, watching some other man and his child. Now the conclusion, and Brager finishes with a powerful evocation - of when he was the child, playing with his own father, in that distant past. Ah! There is so much powerful and beautiful imagery tied up in this concluding line. The son that he was, and the fading sun of dusk. Twilight of a life.

Again, complete authenticity of experience is coupled with complete success in re-creating a scene and provoking a shared experience of complex emotions, while at the same time raising unanswered, unresolved questions of the reader.

Of these three excellent poems by Brager, this last one in particular evokes what Basho is praised for in Japanese - sabi. There is loneliness, a twinge of regretfulness in the scene, that catches this reader at least with sweet melancholy, and makes me reappraise my own priorities, and want to spend more time with my own fast-growing children. For me, this poem has the power to change a life.

Poetry is What Speaks to the Heart

In fact, even though as a haiku apprentice I feel a need to avow my loyalty to Basho and the other acknowledged greats of haiku, these 3 poems by Brager speak to me more powerfully than anything I have yet read from any of the Japanese poets. Brager lives in "my" world, a world of capitalism, confessionals, and suburban childhood rituals; and he captures and re-presents masterfully some of those experiences and his own immanent interpretation of them.

Shiki at the end of the 19th century scandalized the Japanese literary establishment by preferring the mostly forgotten Buson to the "saint of haiku" Basho. And he justified his preference with the language of literature, through his analyses of the poetry.

Shiki - Haiku Poet and theorist - refused to worship Basho

The Pleasure of Poetic Analysis

So too, if we are serious in acknowledging haiku as a literary art, rather than as a spiritual "Way", then of course it is natural that if we read haiku poems as emotional re-creations, as attempts to capture authentic experiences of significance for the writer, we will prefer the work of writers whose artistic experiences and explorations resonate with our own cultural and sensory imagery. When we approach haiku poems with a system like the one I outlined above - a set of questions or a poetic reading process - we will find that, far from reducing our enjoyment of the work, the process of slowing down and looking closely and deliberately at the construction of the poem, the choice of words, the subtle connotations of season and time, place and person, will result in the discovery of even richer pleasures as we uncover layers of emotional resonance.

I believe this last point accounts for the difference for Japanese readers reading Basho, and English readers reading translations. There is a lifetime of cultural resonance and subtle nuance impossible to convey in translation.

A Less Successful Poem (at least that's my opinion)

I opened this post with a quote from Blyth, in which he states we "may actually learn more about the nature of haiku by considering the failures and near-hits rather than the successes." I would therefore like to examine a poem which for me is less successful, and identifying the reason why might help me improve my own writing.

Opening their hearts
ice and water become
friends again

(Addiss, Stephen; Yamamoto, Fumiko; Yamamoto, Akira (2011-07-05). Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems (Shambhala Library) (Kindle Locations 195-198). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.)

Teishitsu is a name not familiar to most beginning haiku readers. But the internet is very much the friend of haiku apprentices, and allows us to research and broaden our experience of any poem and any poet we encounter. So from the World KigoDatabase website (a very interesting site), I found a page devoted to  Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-73) who evidently is a near contemporary of Basho, and was one of the "Teimon Students Group" or Teimon School. In my earlier post on Basho's poetic apprenticeship, I discussed the Teimon School, which according to translator Davis Landis Branhill was established by Matsunana Teitoku (1571-1653) and "drew on the imagery, diction, and elegant beauty of the court tradition while relying on verbal wit to amuse the reader"

There is certainly an elegant beauty in this verse, and in fact I very much like the poem. The sentiment is striking and naturally appealing - friendship, separation then reconciliation; or even the union of the dissimilar. It tells a tale - indeed it tells every tale of human interest - in just 5-7-5 syllables. A wonderful achievement and a fine poem. But nevertheless I consider it less good than the poems by Brager. And the reason is I find it lacking in certain elements that I think make a great haiku. Indeed, the comparison with the three poems by Brager can help highlight these differences, as well as heighten my own awareness and appreciation of what true haiku masters achieve and how differently they construct their poetry.

For one thing, unlike the poems discussed above, there is an absence of clear setting in this poem. One might assume the blending of ice and water is most readily encountered in a river, perhaps high in the mountains at the end of winter. Is the poet perhaps a hermit or monk, in a mountain temple? That would make sense of the religious moral sentiment of the poem, which indeed seems lofty. But then we also know that the Teimon School wrote deliberately elegant poems from classical tradition, not from experience. It is an authentic sentiment, but inauthentic in content. For it seems almost certain Teishitsu did not write the poem from life. And this would explain why there is an absence of sensory experience, sensory connectedness - a fact which is strikingly different from the haiku of Brager. The mention of the "hearts" of ice and water is a "poetic sounding" abstraction, but it lacks any natural visual reference. Indeed it lacks any sensory power to bring the poem vividly to life in our minds, as a sharing with the poet of an actual physical encounter with Nature.

Instead therefore it forces me to ponder it as a philosophical metaphor, which is not a bad thing for haiku, except in this case the interpretation of the poem is further weakened because water and ice do not become "friends" in the sense of separate individuals who share something in common. Ice and water are in fact identical - they share the same nature - but their forms are incompatible. Ice will melt in the water as it warms, and no ice will remain; alternatively, as winter deepens, the water is pressed into ice and is gone until the next spring.

Perhaps an alternative final line that would convey the sentiment, but more sensually and thus more like the haiku examined earlier, would be something like: "dance together again", so capturing the swirling movement, the playful friendliness, into a sensory image that resonates with experiences familiar to most readers.

Here then is my own attempt at a haiku with a similar theme, inspired by Teishitsu, but drawn from my own memories of a spring visit to the mountains:

High mountain sunshine
Ice and water touch hands, dance
again together
                - Strider

Thank You, and Congratulations Lisette

This entire post today was actually inspired by Lisette, a visitor to my blog, who identifies herself as a haiku beginner, and shared with me this poem:

fair Andromeda
destined to dance with
heaven's river

She self-deprecates that it may be a "poor" poem, but I actually think this is a lovely haiku. As was the case with Mark Brager, Lisette shares certain cultural experiences and visual images, which mean I can relate to her poem very readily. In this case it is a shared love of astronomy and theoretical physics, and a familiarity with Hubble telescope-images of galaxies.

Heavens River - The Milky Way

As a good haiku apprentice herself, Lisette knows that "heaven's river" is none other than our own Milky Way. Her haiku invokes the mythological princess, Andromeda, while referring to the magnificent neighbouring galaxy of the same name, and she cleverly links the image of a dancing princess with the future cosmic event predicted by astronomers (not for some 4 billion years): that these galaxies will be pulled together by their gravitational attraction in a stunning ballroom display - literally a swirling river of stars. Andromeda was a princess of destiny in Greek myth, who was tied to a rock as a sacrifice to appease a sea monster. But the wonder, the excitement even, that Lisette conveys in her haiku, suggests the collision of these galaxies will not be tragic - to be swallowed by a dragon - but a beautiful and wonderful cosmic dance of destiny - almost a bridal waltz of Andromeda and her Perseus
A galactic collision - looks more like a dance to me! This one is rather prosaically known as UGC 1810 and UGC 1813

When I first read this haiku, I immediately recalled the poem by Teishitsu we discussed above. Re-reading them both and analyzing them, I think hers is definitely a better poem. It is an authentic expression of an immanent experience. It also has the sensory authenticity and note of personal conviction that can only come from someone who has actually "seen" this awesome event. Hubble images of colliding galaxies and computer simulations have taken Lisette into the far distant future, and like the prophetess Cassandra, she has indeed "seen" a vision of the unfolding of the heavens.

Andromeda and Perseus, by Edward Burne-Jones. Interestingly, the dragon has a spiral shape - like a galaxy!
When I read it, I share her spiritual exultation at this grand, truly awesome cosmic event. It also triggers a sense of humility, at our smallness, though mixed with a different kind of awe: that this can actually be known by humans through their powers of science and reason.

Lisette's Andromeda is also a more "sensory" poem. Visually, of course, there are photos and computer images of Andromeda, galaxies, from which to form a clear picture of such future collisions. But the River of Heaven - the Milky Way - is a sensory experience known not only visually from our own eyes, (at least by those of us lucky enough to have dark skies, and in the Southern Hemisphere we are particularly blessed). It also evokes the physical sensations of chilly nights, lying on grass, looking up in wonder at the stars.

Teishitsu belonged to Teimon School, and strove to incorporate cultural references in his poetry, but in his poem the metaphor was strained and imperfect. Lisette by contrast has incorporated Western cultural and mythological antecedents in this work, and much more effectively. I find they convey deeply satisfying cultural resonances as well as the raising of questions and mysteries. Wonderful poetry. Congratulations Lisette.


I still do not think it is quite as perfect as the Brager works. Why?

In each of Brager's haiku, the poet, and hence the reader, is personally engaged in the scene, which makes the poem more emotionally engaging. I think what could have made Lisette's poem even better would be a similar personal and human connection to the drama unfolding. Something that would speak of the poet (and the reader) as more than mere bystanders in the actions of gods, (or of galaxies). Perhaps the second line might have been crafted something like: "we are destined to dance" to convey such a personal connection.

Thank you, again, Lisette, for sharing your poem. Definitely not "poor", and I think you really do not need to worry whether or not your poetry group finds your works "acceptable."

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Daily Diet of Poetry

A poem by Basho, from his first travel journal, Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton:

imo arau onna / Saigyo nara ba / uta yoman
                potato-washing women:
                were Saigyo here,
                he'd compose a waka
                (Trans. David Landis Branhill)
                (# 200 - JR; #125 - DLB)

This poem raises the very interesting topic of the poet,“Saigyo”, and provides an opportunity to discuss another important lesson for haiku apprentices - the process of "conversing" with poets of the past, in their poetry. For none of us as haiku poets stands in isolation. We all take our place in a living tradition, even while we make our own unique contributions. Basho, as we shall see, was continually providing himself with a diet of poetry by those he considered his masters. 
12th Century poet and hermit, Saigyo, travelled extensively through Japan and wrote nature lyrics
In his travel journals (particularly with a good commentary) we haiku apprentices can gain some insight into the scope of Basho's poetic inspirations and his deep engagement with poets of the past - Classical Chinese as well as Japanese poets. 


The Journeys of Basho - Poetic Pilgrimages

For instance, the setting for the poem above, Basho was already on his first poetic pilgrimage - a journey he states was commenced in a "state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon", following the example of "the ancient priest". According to Yuasa in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other travel Sketches" (from whom the translation comes) this is a reference to a poem by Chinese priest and poet, Komon (1127-1179). Shortly after he styles his mode of travel on the description in a poem called Morning Departure by another Chinese poet, Toboku (803-52). He arrives at a valley where the famed travelling poet Saigyo had built a hermitage (1118-1190) and wrote the poem first quoted. Later her visits Mt Yoshino, a site famed for its cherry blossoms and another location where Saigyo resided and wrote poetry. 

A "stunning view" from Mt Yoshino

Saigyo's hut (or perhaps a reproduction!)
"The remains of Saigyo's thatched hut are off to the right side of the inner temple, reached by continuing a few hundred paces on a woodcutter's path. The hut faces a steep valley with a stunning view. The "clear trickling water" is unchanged from old times, and still, even now, the drops drip down.
                dew drips drips
                wanting to rinse away
                this dust of the world"
                                (Trans. Reichhold, #206 - JR)

Mt Yoshino, near Nara - Saigyo's favourite retreat

Here again Basho is in a poetic conversation, this time with a work by Saigyo himself:
                trickling down
                pure spring water falls
                over mossy rocks
                not enough to draw up
                for this hermit's life"
                                (Trans. Reichhold)

Likewise in the other travel sketches, and especially in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." Many of his poems not only mention by name such inspiring poets as Saigyo, but he frequently alludes to their works in his haibun commentary and his own poems. 

Conversing With Basho

And poets following Basho have likewise continued the conversation. For instance, Basho's classic "Frog" poem, as we discussed in the previous post, may have been influenced by a work by his exemplar, Saigyo.

                A familiar old pond
                Suddenly a frog jumps in
                The sound of wetness
                                (Trans. Strider)

And in turn, Basho's own poem was the "jumping off point" for innumerable others, such as these, by Sengai Gibon (1750-1837):

                old pond-
                something has PLOP!
                jumped in
                old pond-
                Basho jumps in
                the sound of water
                if there were a pond
                I'd jump in
                for Basho to hear!
                                (Trans. Stephen Addiss from "The Art of Haiku" p174)
Note though, that for all their humour, these verses were written by an acknowledged Zen master, and according to Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki they were not parodies but Zen-inspired teaching commentaries. It seems they were intended as precisely the sort of Zen-koan I mentioned in my previous post.

It is precisely though continual study, and deeper our engagement with haiku poems, that we begin to carry the "haiku mind" with us through life. Ponds no longer are "just" ponds. Bird song is no longer "just" a bird singing. We are charged with a repertoire of inspirational associations that make our life richer, and in turn frequently inspire our own poetic responses.  Margaret McGee in "Haiku The Sacred Art" writes of this poetic "conversation":

"When you carry their words out into your world, the “old poets” have the chance to share their experiences with you in the context of your own life. Writing your haiku response, you join your experiences with theirs, walking and talking in the company of a sympathetic and understanding friend."
                (Margaret D. McGee (2011-01-05). Haiku—the sacred art (Kindle Locations 1721-1723). Jewish Lights Publishing. Kindle Edition. )

Here is just such a personal response to a pond, which joins my conversation with Basho:

                Watching this old pond
                Only see clouds reflected;
                The sound of raindrops

A Well Balanced Diet!

Basho teaches us very strongly, through his own example, that a haiku apprentice needs a daily diet of good poetry to nourish our soul, to inspire our creativity, to broaden our awareness of subjects for poems, and to deepen our own observations of the world through entering into and sharing the encounters and emotional responses of other great poets. We also pick up - without perhaps realizing it - a sense of their poetry's rhythm and style.

I recall in senior high school, studying the works of the English Romantic poet, John Keats. His mellifluous language, with its iambic pentameter, and rhymes soaked into my  brain, and I found myself spontaneously writing my own verses in that elevated style. Here is a fragment I composed and have never forgotten:

                Perchance I heard a rumour of a wreck
                Which one day a friend exploring found
                So I intrigued set upon a trek
                To find this relic of the Barren Ground

Recently I have been watching Kenneth Branagh's production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and again I find myself falling under the spell of Shakespeare's language, and the measure and rhythms of his blank verse.

It is a natural human response - we become better at any art, any skill, through exposure to those better at it than ourselves. We will become better poets through continual exposure to great poets. And in the haiku tradition, we have no lesser authority than Basho himself, commending to us what was his own practice. According to Jane Reichhold:

"He constantly strove to remain in an emotional and intellectual position where the poems would come to him. This meant immersing himself in the study of other writers ... Basho reportedly said that any day he did not read the old masters of the waka form, thistles formed in his mouth"
                (Reichhold "Basho" p12)

What a delightful turn of phrase. So accurate, so pointed. And so true. My own daily haiku discipline suffers whenever I go more than a few days without perusing some quality poetry. It is not necessary to always read haiku, of course. Basho evidently refers to waka by Saigyo as one type of poem he studied daily. But he also evidently continued to read and study the classic poems of the Chinese tradition, as is shown through the number of allusions and references found by commentators and translators of his work. The books by David Landis Barnhill and Yuasa I find  particularly illuminating in this regard. Interestingly, Basho - the great innovator of haiku (stand-alone hokku) - did not just read hokku , but was deeply familiar with the classics of waka and Chinese poems.


Saigyo - A Poet's Poet

Now who was this Saigyo, so much admired by the great Basho?
Saigyo was a poet from the 12th century, an aristocrat who in his early 20's left the Imperial Court at Kyoto to become Buddhist monk and hermit, and who thereafter lived in isolation to meditate and write poetry. He also travelled extensively to locations of classical literary fame, and left a body of poetry of lyrical natural beauty.

There is much about Saigyo that Basho would have resonated with. Saigyo was - like Basho - born into a noble family of Samurai, and he too abandoned his aristocratic prospects - though Saigyo did actually become a monk. His original name was Satō Norikiyo, but he later took the pen name Saigyo which means "western journey" - a reference to the teachings about Buddhist paradise.

He withdrew to the mountains and made himself a hut for a hermitage where he undertook meditation as well as poetry. According to Wikipedia this was an era an era of civil war and strife, as well as loss of faith in Buddhism as a means of salvation. As a result many of his poems convey a sense of melancholy, or sabi. His dates (1118 - 1190) and his aristocratic heritage put his writing in the era of Classical Waka (Japanese poetry). His verses are written in what we today would identify as tanka style with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. He appears to have been a poet not only well acquainted with the classics, but dissatisfied with the literary and aesthetic experience that comes from merely reading these classic works; and likewise he was not satisfied with merely viewing paintings of famous subjects and landscapes - he wanted to truly know the subjects of those poems. So as well as becoming a Buddhist Monk, Saigyo became a traveller and made his own poetic pilgrimage around Japan, composing his own verses at the actual sites of ancient cultural import.

We know from Basho's own comments that Saigyo he was a favourite of Basho. He certainly makes a number of references to Saigyo, not just in the verse quoted at the start of this post, but also in letters and other writings. And in the introductory passage of another travel journal - The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel - he lists Saigyo as the one exemplar who achieved real excellence in the art of "traditional poetry" (waka).

Basho also appears to have modeled aspects of his own life on that of Saigyo. In an article on Saigyo, David Landis Branhill suggests Basho may even have made his longest journey, later published as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as a pilgrimage to mark the 500th anniversary since Saigyo's death.
Contemplating Mt Fuji. This could be Saigyo - or Basho!


Poems by Saigyo

Sadly, there is not a great deal of Saigyo's poetry in English translation. I intend to purchase "Awesome Nightfall. The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo" by William LaFleur, but I have also found a few sources for poems on the internet, quoted below.  Unfortunately the translators for most of these are not acknowledged.

Saigyo is renowned in Japan for his great devotion to cherry blossoms and according to some writers.
                "When one hears the name Saigyo, cherry blossoms come to mind.
                Indeed, Saigyo composed an unusual number of poems
                about these spring flowers during the course of his life."

Apparently Saigyo wrote some 230 verses in praise or admiration for cherry blossoms, and the following lyrics capture some of that beauty and melancholy.
kozo no shiori no
michi kaete
mada minukata no
hana o tazunen

Shinto Torii at Mt Yoshino
The pathway I walked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino—
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen

                (Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Trans. Steven D. Carter. Stanford, CA: University Press, 1991. p160.)
(Is this the woodcutter's path Basho mentions in his haibun and poem?Another conversation?)
Mizu no oto wa
sabishiki io no
tomo nare ya
mine no arahshi no
taema taema ni

Mt Yoshino - spectacularly beautiful!

The sound of the water
is my companion
in this lonely hut
in lulls between
the storms on the peak

Hana chirade
tsuki wa kumoran
yo nariseba
mono o omowan
waga mi naramashi

My Yoshino temple in bloom

Were the world without
falling blossoms
or the clouded moon,
I could no longer live
in sad longing.

nagamu tote
hana ni mo itaku
chiru wakere koso

Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Mount Yoshino, Nara, Japan

Gazing at them, immersed,
I become so intimate
with the blossoms;
and with the falling away
and scattering comes sorrow.

Reading such verses, one gets a sense of the resonance between his mood and that we often encounter in Basho.

Saigyo's death also is poetic. Recalling the meaning of the name he chose - Western Journey - it is striking that just as many Christians traditionally viewed the direction East as symbolic of the resurrection of Christ, and built churches facing that way. Many Buddhists of the Amida tradition view the direction West as the symbolic route to paradise and many wrote their final wish was to die facing west. Saigyo, however, was not so doctinaire. He wrote a poem and achieved his own death wish, to die lying under a cherry tree.

Negawaku wa
hana no shita nite
haru shinan
sono kisaragi no
mochidzuki no koro

Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees,
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month

According to a Japanese blogger:
The time of full moon of Kisaragi month (February) meant the anniversary of the death of Buddha, ‘February 15th in the lunar calendar’. ‘February 15th’ was March 30th (2010), March 11th (2009), and March 22nd (2008) in a new calendar. Sometimes it would be the beginning of March or April. Thus it isn’t so easy to see cherry trees in full bloom on ‘February 15th‘. He wished to die around the same time as the Buddha’s anniversary under the petals fluttering down. Did he get his desire? He passed away on ‘February 16th‘ (just perfect!) in1190.


Even Poetic Geniuses Learn From Others

As haiku apprentices I think it is very helpful for us to remember even the greatest masters had favourite poets and learned from the poetry of others.

My translation of Basho's Road to the Deep North by Yauada, contains extensive notes to the text. It is invaluable, and extremely illuminating, how many classical poems are referenced and alluded to by Basho throughout his great work. He was far from being an individualistic genius poet in the sense that English-speakers have come to expect of great poets ever since age of the Keats, Byron, Shelley and the Romantic poets in England. Certainly he was a genius, and certainly he was individualistic, but far from rejecting  the poetry that went before, Basho lived and thrived on it. It provided the background for his genius to work with.


The Joy of Haiku - Reading Aloud

Another aspect of Basho's advice to us - to read continually the works of exemplary poets of the past - is that we should at least sometimes read them aloud.
Basho and his contemporaries all recited their haiku. After all, these were poems to share, and haiku arose from the practice of haikai no renga, an activity conducted by groups of poets in which recitation and inventing new verses was done aloud. Recall that Basho modestly claimed that it was in such linking verse activity that his own poetic talent lay.

If possible, as well as reading aloud English versions by different translators, it might be good for an enthusiastic haiku apprentice to learn to speak aloud the Japanese of the originals. Many anthologies, and websites, have the romanized versions of poems by Basho, Buson, and Issa. It is a simple task to learn to pronounce them, even without learning to speak Japanese. The benefit will be to gain insight into the rhythm and sound of our haiku masters. Basho, we know, was rarely satisfied with his "first effort" but continually revised his works - even over years. He and the other great haiku masters took great pains in constructing their poems, and the sound and syllables are often part of the effect they sought to achieve.

I have read works on haiku which assert rhyme and assonance - mainstays of traditional poetry in English - have no place in haiku. These writers clearly belong to the minimalist "dribble of prose" school of English haiku. But this is patently false, and reading aloud the Japanese poems of masters gives me a fuller sensual experience of their aesthetic creation (not to mention their humour).

For instance the prolific contemporary of Basho, Ihara Saikaku, who wrote tens of thousands of poems, and was renowned for astounding output in "poetry marathons."

kokoro koko ni
naki ka nakanu ka

Rakusan Tsuchiya (Japanese, 1896-1976), Cuckoo and Bracken (Early Summer), 1930

was I paying no attention
or did it not yet sing?
the cuckoo
                (Trans. Addiss)

Addiss suggests the birdsong-like repetition of sounds which make up the riddle-half opening of the poem, are answered not only by the "answer", but audibly by the fact that the singing stops there. A truly brilliant poetic effect; the aesthetic construction of the words and sounds echoing the meaning  - but completely lost in English translation.

And this one by Basho:

horohoro to
yamabuki chiru ka
taki no oto
Yamabuki - Yellow Mountain Roses

yellow mountain roses,
are you falling in rhythm?
the sound of the waterfall

                (Trans. Addiss)

The onomatopoeic "horohoto" is the sound of falling petals, but when rendered aloud it seems to match the sound of a waterfall.
Horohoto - melodiously dropping petals


Poems from our hearts, and our mouths

Lest thistles grow in our mouths, let us fill them instead with poems of our predecessors. Let us sound out and feel their rhythms and rhymes.
And then lets see how easily our own poems spring forth, in all the moments of our lives.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice