Dissecting Haiku


A lot of hidden meaning and wordplay get lost in translation from Japanese to other languages. In this post, I want to explore the subtleties that Japanese haiku have to offer. It is my hope that any insight gleaned will help you understand the nature of haiku and help you write better ones.

Let’s begin with an early poem of Matsuo Bashō, in the school of Teimon.

“Foam on the wave’s crest-
blossoms of snow?
the water’s out-of-season flower?”

The elaborate wordplay is typical. Literally, Nami no hana to yuki mo ya mizu no kaeribana. The Japanese idiom for a cresting wave is nami no hana, which means “blossom of the wave.” In the last phrase of the poem, mizu no kaeribana, “water’s out-of-season flower”, kaeribana means “unseasonal flower”, but kaeri means “returning,” and so the incoming wave is also evoked. The punning makes many haiku, this one included, impossible to translate, and it was the style of writing, “a parlor game,” poet Sam Hamill calls it, popular in Bashō’s youth (and he was very good at it).

Another of Matsuo’s

“Smell of sake
off the waves-
the wine cup moon”

Tsuki, “moon,” can also mean “wine cup.” A literal translation: “Blue sea’s wave / sake smell / today’s moon (wine cup).” More wordplay, but even early there were these accuracies of perception, the rice-wine smell of the sea, the wave blue because the moon is full.

More Bashō

“This road-
no one goes down it,
autumn evening.”

The word for road is michi, and Bashō wrote it in kanji, using the Chinese character, tao, rather than the Japanese phonetic signs for the two syllables. The poem may first of all be an evocation of the loneliness of this particular road, but Bashō’s use of the ideogram suggests, as Rōshi Robert Aitken has observed, that he also had in mind this other meaning. The Japanese also speak of haiku no michi, the way of the haiku poet, which suggests at least one other level of meaning.

So, as we can see, wordplay and dual meanings are essential to haiku. The Japanese, though, have one more advantage at this than English haikaishi (haiku poets), and that is their system of writing and it’s interchangeability with Chinese characters. As Chinese poetry was important to the learned in ancient Japan, this particular type of wordplay was very witty. In English, though, we can use culturally accepted and known foreign words, perhaps, for a similar effect (Zeitgeist, as one possibilty). It may never have quite the same effect, but may play an important role of advancing English-language haiku and making it even more similar to the original style and sensibilities. As a haiku ‘purist’, this is my aim. Not for prestige or anything like that, simply for my love of the art.

I hope you have enjoyed this read and I hoped it helped. Thank you for your time.

Wabi-sabi ~ the color of the poem


Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, the other two being suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West. “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

After centuries of incorporating artistic and Buddhist influences from China, wabi-sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal. Over time, the meanings of wabi and sabi shifted to become more lighthearted and hopeful. Around 700 years ago, particularly among the Japanese nobility, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as tantamount to the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.” In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty.”

Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Mahayana philosophy itself, however, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach. Author Simon Brown notes that wabi-sabi describes a means whereby students can learn to live life through the senses and better engage in life as it happens, rather than be caught up in unnecessary thoughts. In this sense wabi-sabi is the material representation of Zen Buddhism. The idea is that being surrounded by natural, changing, unique objects helps us connect to our real world and escape potentially stressful distractions.

In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time. The wabi and sabi concepts are religious in origin, but actual usage of the words in Japanese is often quite casual. The syncretic nature of Japanese belief systems should be noted.

Some haiku in English adapt the wabi-sabi aesthetic, with spare, minimalist poems that evoke loneliness and transience such as Nick Virgilio’s haiku:

“Autumn twilight:
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind.”

This brings us to how we, as Haikaishi (writers of haiku), can enhance our poetic aesthetics, especially those of us who seek to write ‘pure haiku’. Matsuo Bashō once said that “Sabi (and, by extension, wabi-sabi) is the color of the poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed up in festive clothes, and this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that.” Bashō also goes on to say “If you describe a green willow in the spring rain, it will be excellent as a renga verse. Haikai (Haiku, for our purposes), however, needs more homely images, such as a crow picking mud snails in a rice paddy.” “Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter.” “Eat vegetable soup rather than duck stew.”

I believe this has been quite a bit of food for thought. Think of wabi-sabi as the broth for a haiku stew before you add your own ingredients. Thank you for reading. I hope this was helpful for both your writing purposes and personal knowledge of Japanese culture.

Senryū, what is one and would anyone like Zappai?


I know I’ve mentioned the term Senryū in some earlier posts, so now I’ll explain what one is and how it differs from a Haiku. To start off, pretty much any English haiku that doesn’t follow the traditional formula of “5-7-5”, kigo, and kireji is either a Senryū or a Zappai. I’ll explain why:

Senryū (literally ‘river willow’) is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer total morae (or “on“, often translated as syllables in English). Senryū tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryū are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryū do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo (season word).

Senryū is named after Edo period haikai poet Senryū Karai (1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru launched the genre into the public consciousness. A typical example from the collection:

泥棒を dorobō wo
捕えてみれば toraete mireba
我が子なり wagako nari
“The robber,
when I catch,
my own son”

This senryū, which can also be translated “Catching him / you see the robber / is your son,” is not so much a personal experience of the author as an example of a type of situation (provided by a short comment called a maeku or fore-verse, which usually prefaces a number of examples) and/or a brief or witty rendition of an incident from history or the arts (plays, songs, tales, poetry, etc.). In this case, there was a historical incident of legendary proportion.

Some senryū skirt the line between haiku and senryū. The following senryū by Shūji Terayama copies the haiku structure faithfully, down to a blatantly obvious kigo, but on closer inspection is absurd in its content:

かくれんぼ kakurenbo
三つ数えて mittsu kazoete
冬になる fuyu ni naru
“Hide and seek
Count to three
Winter comes”
Terayama, who wrote about playing hide-and-seek in the graveyard as a child, thought of himself as the odd one out, the one who was always “it” in hide-and-seek. Indeed, the original haiku included the theme “oni” (the “it” in Japanese is a demon, though in some parts a very young child forced to play “it” was called a “sea slug” [namako]). To him, seeing a game of hide-and-seek, or recalling it as it grew cold would be a chilling experience. Terayama might also have recalled opening his eyes and finding himself all alone, feeling the cold more intensely than he did a minute before among other children. Either way, any genuinely personal experience would be haiku and not senryū in the classic sense. If you think Terayama’s poem uses a child’s game to express in hyperbolic metaphor how, in retrospect, life is short, and nothing more, then this would indeed work as a senryū. Otherwise, it is a bona-fide haiku. There is also the possibility that it is a joke about playing hide and seek, only to realize (winter having arrived during the months spent hiding) that no one wants to find you.
Related to senryū is Zappai. Zappai is a form of Japanese poetry rooted in haikai. It is related to, but separate from, haiku and senryū. The Haiku Society of America refers to zappai as “miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse,” although a more accurate definition might be: a form of poetry that “includes all types of seventeen syllable poems that do not have the proper formal or technical characteristics of haiku.”
As you can see, writing pure Haiku can sometimes be confusing (especially in a language other than Japanese). I hope this helps, thank you for reading.

Kireji – Cutting Words


Kireji (“cutting word”) is the term for a special category of words used in certain types of Japanese traditional poetry. It is regarded as a requirement in traditional haiku, as well as in the hokku, or opening verse, of both classical renga and its derivative renku (haikai no renga). There is no exact equivalent of kireji in English, and its function can be difficult to define. It is said to supply structural support to the verse. When placed at the end of a verse, it provides a dignified ending, concluding the verse with a heightened sense of closure. Used in the middle of a verse, it briefly cuts the stream of thought, indicating that the verse consists of two thoughts half independent of each other. In such a position, it indicates a pause, both rhythmically and grammatically, and may lend an emotional flavor to the phrase preceding it. In Japanese haiku, the kireji usually appears after either the 5th of 12th onji, to create a pause between ideas.

There are 18 classical Kireji, though Matsuo Basho once told his students that all 48 mora of the Japanese alphabet can be used as kireji. Below I have listed the most common ones:

  • 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
  • ramu or –ran: verbal suffix indicating probability
  • shi: adjectival suffix; usually used to end a clause
  • tsu: verbal suffix; present perfect
  • ya: emphasises the preceding word or words. Cutting a poem into two parts, it implies an equation, simultaneously inviting the reader to explore their interrelationship.

While interesting and good to know just for the sake of knowledge, it doesn’t help us in writing English-language Haiku. Nevertheless, if we want to stick by the traditional rules, and be “Haiku Fundamentalists “, we still need to include a Kireji-like grammatical option. This is where punctuation comes in.

Kireji have no direct equivalent in English. Mid-verse kireji have been described as sounded rather than written punctuation. In English-language haiku and hokku, as well as in translations of such verses into this language, kireji may be represented by punctuation (typically by a dash or an ellipsis), an exclamatory particle (such as ‘how…’), or simply left unmarked.

So, to sum it up, English “kireji” are basically (if not left unmarked): “? . ! : ; – …” and so forth. Due to English haiku being foreign language haiku, there is no ultra-traditionalist authority in which to properly judge our “kireji grammar”. It might irk some people, but we get a pass on this one. Still, proper English grammar rules apply if you want to put it under a microscope. There’s also differentiating between Haiku and Senryū, but we’ll discuss that at a later date. Thank you for reading, I hope this was helpful.

Kigo – seasonal reference


Kigo (“season word”) (plural kigo) is a word or phrase associated with a particular season, used in Japanese poetry. Kigo are used in the collaborative linked-verse forms renga and renku, as well as in haiku, to indicate the season referred to in the stanza. They are valuable in providing economy of expression and represent emotions associated with them.

Although the term kigo was coined as late as 1908, representation of and reference to the seasons has long been important in Japanese culture and poetry. The writing of renga dates to the middle of the Heian period (roughly AD 1000) and developed through the medieval era. By the 13th century there were very set rules for the writing of renga, and its formal structure specified that about half of the stanzas should include a reference to a specific season, depending upon their place in the poem. According to these rules, the hokku must include a reference to the season in which the renga was written (either is the 1st or 3rd line, for English purposes).

The association of kigo with a particular season may be obvious, though sometimes it is more subtle. Pumpkins (kabocha) are a winter squash associated with the autumn harvest. It may be less obvious why the moon (tsuki) is an autumn kigo, since it is visible year round. In autumn the days become shorter and the nights longer, yet they are still warm enough to stay outside, so one is more likely to notice the moon. Often the night sky will be free of clouds in autumn, with the moon visible. So, if the season is not directly stated (Summer, Winter, etc), then words relating to the seasons are used (pumpkins=Autumn, etc).

In Japan, poets often use a book called a saijiki, which lists kigo with example poems. An entry in a saijiki usually includes a description of the kigo itself, together with a list of similar or related words, and some examples of haiku that include that kigo. The saijiki are divided into the four seasons (and modern saijiki usually include a section for the New Year and another for seasonless (muki) words).

Some examples of Japanese summer kigo) are:

  • The Season: midsummer, dog days, etc
  • The Sky and Heavens: drought, rainbow, etc
  • Animals: mosquito, cuckoo, etc
  • Plants: sunflower, etc

Saijiki are cultural and specific to the Japanese spirit. In America, for instance, a rainbow can occur in Spring, Summer or Fall, so it’s not specifically a cultural symbol related to Summer. For English-language haiku, we don’t have to worry about the saijiki-specific wording. Instead, we can use (besides plainly stating the season) words that allude to the season we’re referencing (scorching can mean summer, icicles mean winter, etc). These are known as kidai.

This is fine for the English-language poet who views Haiku as simply another form of poetry, but for those who seek to write ‘pure haiku’ (say, in the style of Matsuo Bashō), the kigo must be further analyzed, for it has more meaning than simply referencing a season.

Let’s use the example of rain. As Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Hass explained: “In Japanese, there are many different words concerning rain which express delicate shades of the seasons, such as harusame (spring rain), samidare (early summer rain), and shigure (the drizzling late autumn/early winter rain). The English word rain, on the other hand, gives you the impression that it rains haphazardly in all seasons of the year. At first glance, it seems impossible for those who are used to that sort of rain to appreciate the subtleties in haiku. But, as we know, English is equipped to describe different kinds of rain (pour, drizzle, sluice, etc). It’s not that Japanese language has a greater accuracy but a greater stylization. Harusame is automatically tender, yūdachi (summer shower) is automatically sudden and refreshing, and so on. It seems likely that this aesthetic bears the traces of an earlier animism, where harusame, kirishigure, and yūdachi were thought of as nature spirits, particular beings. To some extent, in any case, the suggestive power of these short poems depends on this stylization.”

Another good example would be blossoms.  A blossom is a kigo for spring, but the type of blossom indicates when in spring. Plum blossoms for early spring, cherry for mid spring, and peach for the mellow late spring, to name a few. The Bush Warbler (jap: Uguisu) is a bird associated with spring and a spring kigo, as well. What’s interesting about the uguisu is that it’s cry has it’s own special term, specific to it and no other bird: Tani-watari. It means “the song of a bush warbler flying from valley to valley.” These subtleties add unspoken flavor to haiku in Japanese but can be easily lost in translation and understanding when ported over to English.

To write ‘pure haiku’, as I have come to call it, and not just English poetry in the haiku style, takes a lot more thought than many of us had originally considered. This means, for us purists, that we must take great care to use language, specific to English, that mirrors the Japanese understanding for haiku and not simply mimic the wording and style. A simple kigo example for English would be New Years Day. It’s a winter reference, being January 1st, and more importantly a mid-winter reference (at least in northeastern America) where Dec-Jan-Feb are usually the coldest months.

With that, I shall end this post and I hope that I have given you much food for thought.