Friday, February 21, 2014

Loving Haiku

Oh Dear! It seems we have come to the end of another cycle of Tinywords, which means it will be several weeks at least before my next fix! It may leave me feeling like this...

"Noh" Tinywords Mask
However I should definitely be able to survive because I have just this week purchased a Kindle version of a marvellous haiku book by David G. Lanoue called "Pure Land Haiku The Art of Priest Issa", and which I have just linked to my Amazon store.

For less than the price of a coffee I have already received more enjoyment than any cup of coffee has ever brought me - and I am only a quarter way through!

David Lanoue obviously loves his subject (after all, he has translated all 10,000 Issa poems and has published over a thousand of these in his other book, "Issa's Best", as well as sharing one each day on his Issa website - also linked in my sidebar). He brings a genuine understanding of Issa and sympathy for all the aspects of his life, and an enthusiasm for his poetic output that it is positively contagious.

Reading this book has really rekindled my love of haiku. It has revived my own efforts at writing haiku: reading someone like Issa in translations such as those of Lanoue sets my brain into a sort of "haiku mode" all day, and I find myself naturally thinking and breathing in haiku throughout, and spontaneously finding those haiku moments that for so many months had been missed by me.

I'm left feeling more like this:

And Lanoue provides an excellent examplar for a haiku commentator to follow. Here is a brief exerpt, following a discussion of a series of haiku involving sparrows, of his commentary on the following:

"flying in and out
of the prison ...
baby sparrows

The prisoners are unseen, but we feel their presence - and feel for them. Issa brilliantly juxtaposes bondage and freedom, guilt and innocence, stasis and movement, sorrow and joy, society and Nature. The baby sparrows flit easily over walls and through barred windows, but the human beings inside them know no such freedom. With deft understatement Issa intimates pathos in the scene. He says nothing overt about emotion yet gently tugs at the reader's heartstrings.
They aren't Japanese, but these sparrows are free
Lanoue refers to earlier commentators of Japanese into English, including Blyth, Henderson and English-language haiku advocates such as Higginson, and while respectful of them, is quite prepared to disagree with them on the basis of his own deeper and more extensive experience of Issa's opus. For instance Lanoue has a keen sensitivity to ninjo in the poetry of Issa. This Japanese term means "human emotion or compassion". According to Lanoue,
"Depending on context, English equivalents of ninjo include sympathy, kindness, humanity, and human nature ... the ability to feel sincerely for others [that] is believed to be an essential ingredient of one's humanity"

"Though Higginson claims that Issa "had a rather pessimistic view of human nature", he wrote many haiku in which human beings freely exhibit the ninjo that confirms their humanity. A quintessential example is the following

tabi-bito ya no sashite yuku nagare nae (405.18)
the traveler fixes 
the farmer's floating 
rice stalks
In summer rice is transplanted, stalk by stalk, from the seedling beds to flooded paddies. A traveler, walking along, notices some stalks floating loose and, in an act of spontaneous kindness, stops to stick them back into the mud so that they can grow. He receives no extrinsic reward for his impromptu field work: he will not be around when the rice is harvested, nor will the farmer even stroke his ego with a thank-you. The human feeling embodied in his simple action is utterly selfless: he replants the rice for the sake of a stranger and, just as importantly, for the sake of the rice plants themselves - a life-loving gesture that recalls the Buddhist ideal of compassion for sentient beings and, more anciently, the Taoist concept of "superior virtue."  
Now actually, my own reading of the poem and others like it in Lanoue's book leaves me wondering whether "the traveler" in the haiku is Issa himself, who at various stages set out to be a traveler like Basho, and elsewhere calls himself a "Cloud Wanderer". But of course that is part of the charm of haiku - the reader is free to "complete" the work in their own mind.

In any case, I find this sort of commentary invigorating. It opens worlds. It's power arises from the mixture of enthusiasm and humanity in the commentator - Lanoue - who through personal study and wide reading has developed an evident love of literature, and a deep enjoyment of the works in themselves, always looking for and finding the best in his subject.

For me, not only a haiku apprentice but a haiku-commentary-apprentice, this is a model to aspire after!

Copyright © 2014 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. These two Issa poems are lovely. I've read a bit of Basho; I'll have to add Issa to my reading list. I also love the phrase "Cloud Wanderer." I spend a lot of my time staring at clouds, trying to bend them into haiku, and it's nice to feel a connection across the ages to these old haiku masters. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, "Joules", for visiting! Yes, I find haiku is an art form that never loses its relevance, and one of the few arts in which a work of an old master and a modern master can be on the same page and impact us equally powerfully. I enjoyed learning about your adventures in scifaiku, which is a fabulous new approach to the form encompassing our modern takes on life.


    2. Hi, Strider,

      Been reading your comments on tinywords. Hats off - you always have something nice to say about how you react to each poem.
      Enjoy reading your thoughts!
      Kala Ramesh

  2. I re-discovered Issa thanks to David G. Lanoue's work. Thanks for this lovely post.

    1. Thanks for "hopping" by! I regret not having the opportunity to post more often - here or even on Tinywords. Rereading my post has inspired me to make the time;-)

      my words
      keep coming back
      to poke me

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. __Too opinionated in regards to the differences between haiku and senryu, thus I deleted my previous comment. Due to your question at Tinywords, I believe your opinion and mine are parallel. _m

  4. Hi Magyar and thanks for coming by again and for sharing your thoughts. Definitely no need to apologize for the time and space, you are very welcome here.

    It is also so nice to see a reference to Howard Roark - a character from one of my own favourite books!

    I certainly appreciate that opinions can legitimately differ - and that is why I asked the Tinywords commenter to explain why he called the verse by Michael Dylan Welsh a "senryu". I genuinely would like to know. Because having an explanation like the one you gave is certainly better than simply applying (in my opinion, "misapplying") a label which is regularly used to disparage a verse and imply it is a "failed haiku".

    You have probably seen previous remarks I have made at times on Tinywords, objecting to labelling poems with that term - and you will certainly find longer explanations of my position in some of my blogs on this page.

    In short, I believe "senryu" is not a universally accepted technical label in English-speaking haiku, and although some experienced short-verse enthusiasts (such as yourself) find it useful to distinguish on a technical reading of the work ("true" haiku having seasonal references like the Japanese form, "senryu" not having one), I believe that is not a helpful distinction in English-speaking forms of haiku. After all in English haiku are almost never written in 17 "on" arranged in a 5-7-5 format and including one of the traditional season words and a cutting word (that spoken pause, which doesn't exist in English anyway) between the two internal "parts" of the verse.

    My blog post "Ignore Misguided Labels and Just Read the Haiku" gives a little more historical explanation of the introduction of the term by commentator, W H Blyth, precisely to denegrate poetry he didn't approve of. He is welcome to disapprove or dislike poems and he certainly states his own reasoning, which is fine. But the point is that the labelling is unnecessary, and I believe detrimental. I believe (and the experience on Tinywords seems to confirm) that when a poem is labelled "senryu" a disproportionate number of comments will refer to having experienced a humourous response to it. That suggests to me that some readers (especially less experienced readers)when they see that term, look at a verse more superficially, rather than hunting out deeper meanings.

    As I have said before, I believe given there is no universally accepted definition of "senryu" in English poetry, that unless the author has chosen to label their work a senryu (perhaps precisely for the reasons you have articulated) then good manners means we should assume they consider it a haiku, and we should restrict our comments to our response to the actual verse as written, rather than responding to a label.

    Sorry Magyar, my own response has used up a lot of time and space!

    Thanks for dropping by again. I look forward to seeing you again on Tinywords.



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!