Read The Heart of Haiku Online

Authors: Jane Hirshfield

The Heart of Haiku






In this mortal frame of mine, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit, for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or less blindly.

Matsuo Bashō,
Journal of a Travel-Worn Satchel

(tr. Nobuyuki Yuasa)

Matsuo Bashō wrote these sentences in 1687. He was forty-three. By then, his restless “wind-swept spirit” had substantially remade the shape of Japanese literature, by taking a verse form of almost unfathomable brevity and transforming it into a near-weightless, durable instrument for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depths.

A few of the most well known glimpses:

old pond:

frog leaps in

the sound of water

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto


the cicada’s cry

soaks into stone

shizukasaya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe

spring leaving—

birds cry,

fishes’ eyes fill with tears

yukuharu ya tori naki uo no me wa namida


among the blossoms—

don’t eat it, friend sparrow

hanani asobu abu na kurai so tomosuzume

in the fishmarket

even the gums of the salted sea-bream

look cold

shiodai no haguki mo samushi uo no tana

summer grasses:

what’s left

of warriors’ dreams

natsugusa ya tsuwa mono domo ga yume no ato

In his poems and in his teaching of other poets, Bashō set forth a simple, deeply useful reminder: that if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you. “To learn about the pine tree,” he told his students, “go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo.” He found in every life and object an equal potential for insight and expansion. A good subject for haiku, he suggested, is a crow picking mud-snails from between a rice paddy’s plants. Seen truly, he taught, there is nothing that does not become a flower, a moon. “But unless things are seen with fresh eyes,” he added, “nothing’s worth writing down.”

A wanderer all his life both in body and spirit, Bashō concerned himself less with destination than with the quality of the traveller’s attention. A poem, he said, only exists while it’s on the writing desk; by the time its ink has dried, it should be recognized as just a scrap of paper. In poetry as in life, he saw each moment as gate-latch. Permeability mattered more in this process than product or will: “If we were to gain mastery over things, we would find their lives would vanish under us without a trace.”



The haiku form Bashō wrote in is now long familiar to Western readers:  an image-based poem of seventeen sound units, written in lines of five, seven, and again five units each. (The Japanese
corresponds only approximately to our English “syllable,” though that word is generally used to translate it; in a similar issue, Japanese poetic “lines” are heard, rather than written with visually separate line breaks on the page, yet most English haiku translations are set, as here, into three-line form.) One further detail is widely known in the West: the poem must evoke a particular season, by name or association.  Haiku is a welcoming form, taught often in elementary school classes. In a testament to both the limitlessness of any subject and the suppleness of haiku mind, over 19,000 haiku about Spam—“Spamku”—have to this date been posted online. Yet to write or read with only this understanding is to go back to what haiku was before Bashō transformed it: “playful verse” is the word’s literal meaning. Bashō asked more: to make of this brief, buoyant verse-tool the kinds of emotional, psychological and spiritual discoveries that he experienced in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.

Aging announced by the sensitivity of failing teeth; a street entertainer’s monkey; natural world phenomena; subtle examinations of mind and feelings—each is conveyed in Bashō’s haiku by what seems a single motion of the ink brush:

growing old:

eating seaweed,

teeth hitting sand

otoroiya ha ni kui ateshi nori no suna

first winter downpour:

the street monkey, too,

seems to look for his small straw raincoat

hatsushigure saru mo ko mino o hoshi ge nari

seas darkening,

the wild duck’s calls

grow faintly white

umikure te kamo no koe honoka ni shiroshi

the crescent moon:

it also resembles


nanigoto no mitate ni mo ni zu mika no tsuki

even in Kyoto,

hearing a cuckoo,

I long for Kyoto

kyōnite mo kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu                

Bashō’s haiku, taken as a whole, conduct an extended investigation into how much can be said and known by image. When the space between poet and object disappears, Bashō taught, the object itself can begin to be fully perceived. Through this transparent seeing, our own existence is made larger. “Plants, stones, utensils, each thing has its individual feelings, similar to those of men,” Bashō wrote. The statement foreshadows by three centuries T.S. Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative: that the description of particular objects will evoke in us corresponding emotions.

The imagist aesthetic introduced to Western poetry near the start of the 20th century by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Eliot is so deeply part of current poetics that few recognize its historical origins in Asia. Haiku in its strict form has continued to draw many American contemporary writers as well, from the poet Richard Wilbur to the novelist Richard Wright, who wrote thousands of haiku during his final years. One magnet is the paradox of haiku’s scale and speed. In the moment of haiku perception, something outer is seen, heard, tasted, felt, emplaced in a scene or context. That new perception then seeds an inner response beyond paraphrase, name, or any other form of containment.

Here is one such poem, seated in objective perception:

dusk: bells quiet,

fragrance rings

night-struck from flowers

kanekiete hana no ka wa tsuku yūbe kana  


This poem lives almost entirely in the ears and the nose, in perception both outward and accurate—the scent of certain blossoming trees does strengthen at nightfall, and orange trees (strongly night-scented) surround the temple at Ueno, where the haiku was written. The words show Bashō’s characteristic synaesthesia: bell-sound and twilight, flower-scent and time, are painted together into the mind, placed into a relationship that seems neither sequential nor causative. This haiku’s emotion cannot be defined except by repeating its own words; its center of gravity lies in the phenomenal world, outside the self. Yet it carries the scent and weight of strong feeling.

Haiku perception can travel the other direction as well. A thought, emotion, or circumstance already present in the mind can be chilled, heated, or soaked through by its placement into outer landscape, object, or sound. Here is a late poem whose headnote—written by Bashō—defines its image as unequivocably subjective:

“Describing what I feel”

this road

through autumn nightfall—

no one walks it

konomichi o yuku hito nashi ni aki no kure   


The haiku describes the poet’s inner state—yet without the explanatory headnote, its words appear no less external than those of the previous poem. How then should it be understood?

To read a haiku is to become its co-author, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the proteus-shapes of your own life. The resulting experience may well differ widely between readers: haiku’s image-based language invites an almost limitless freedom of interpretation. Written near the end of Bashō’s life, “this road” can be read as a poem painting the landscape of loneliness or as a poem looking toward an unnavigable death. It can also be read as direct and immediate self-portrait: the uninhabited autumn evening and empty road may themselves
the poet and what he feels. Understood in this last way, the haiku presents its author as a person outside any sense of the personal self. He has fallen into a world in which there is no walker, only path.

Paths mattered to Bashō, who could—like Wordsworth or John Muir—cover twenty or thirty miles a day by foot. In his youth, it seems he traveled only as circumstances required. In mid-life, he traveled by choice, following the example of earlier poet-wanderers he admired. By the end of his life, his journeying gives off the scent of an irrefusable restlessness, a simple incapacity to stay long at home. In the opening words of “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” a prose and haiku journal describing a trip of roughly 1500 miles undertaken by foot, boat, and horseback at the age of forty-five, Bashō wrote, “The moon and sun are travelers of a hundred generations. The years, coming and going, are wanderers too. Spending a lifetime adrift on boat decks, greeting old age while holding a horse by the mouth—for such a person, each day is a journey, and the journey itself becomes home.”




Bashō’s first home was Ueno, a castle town thirty miles southeast of Kyoto. Born there in 1644, and called Kinsaku as a boy, his samurai name was Matsuo Munefusa; he used at least two other pen names (Tōsei, “Green Peach,” was a good choice for a not-quite-ripened poet) before taking the name by which he’s now known. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon was a low-ranking samurai who earned his living by farming. He died in 1656, when Bashō was twelve.  

Accounts of Bashō’s life differ widely in their details. Probably a second son with four sisters, Bashō left home to work in the household of the local samurai lord, and grew close to the samurai’s son, Tōdō Yoshitada, two years his elder. When Bashō was twenty, both young men had work chosen for publication in an anthology of local poets. (Printing technology had recently arrived in Japan, and such collections were the first truly popular books.) Each also contributed to a published linked-verse renga—a form of poetry written by more than one person, which Bashō would practice throughout his life.

The traditional form of Japanese poetry for a thousand years had been the five-line tanka (also called
), written in the syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7.  The shorter haiku form emerged from two variations of that long-standing pattern.  In one, a person would write the 5-7-5 syllable opening for a tanka and another then would “cap” it by writing the closing lines. (This was both a literary game and an adaptation of the “capping verses” of Zen, written to express and demonstrate spiritual understanding.) The second, more widely practiced variation was the writing of renga. A renga consists of a series of three and two-line stanzas, continuing for 36, 50, or 100 verses, in which each stanza both completes and initiates a five-line tanka, when joined with the stanza that precedes or follows. Various themes and alterations of mood occur at specified points in the chain. Linked verse could be written by two people, but more often were composed over the course of several hours—during which a good amount of sake or rice wine might be consumed—by a larger group of three to seven poets.

The “master” poet in a renga gathering would often write the opening verse, known as the
or “presenting verse.” These
eventually evolved into the three-line haiku. Still, the distinctions between the forms and genres of Japanese poetry were fluid. Free-standing
had been written for two hundred years before Bashō’s time, and among what we think of as Bashō’s best known haiku, many began as the opening verses of renga, while others were sent in letters, written in literary travel-journals mixing poetry and prose, or set down within haibun, brief prose pieces ending in one or two poems.

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