Haiku: A Reader’s Guide

Many know haiku as a three-line poem, the first and last lines five syllables long, and the second line, seven. But there is much more to what defines haiku, elements more subtle than prescribed syllable counts or line breaks. In fact, Japanese haiku are typically written in a single column, and many haiku deviate from the syllable count familiar to so many of us. So, what then, makes a haiku a haiku? Demonstrated throughout the haiku tradition is a close relationship to nature, and thus seasonal references are usually present. However, haiku also maintains a certain openness to interpretation, and this is the aspect of haiku with which many writers new to the tradition struggle. There is so much complexity to the seemingly simple art of haiku and its history, and the books in this guide, by translators and editors with a deep respect for the art, enlighten readers to a rich cultural tradition, leaving a delightful appreciation for the unique poetic form.

Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings

by Matsuo Bashō, translated by Sam Hamill

A classic by influential haiku master, Matsuo Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior recounts the seventeenth-century writer’s travels through northern Japan, written in haibun, a form consisting of linked prose and haiku. Translator Sam Hamill offers, in his introduction, insight into Bashō’s life, travels, and influences, particularly his Zen training, as well as studies in Shintō, Taoism, and Confucianism. Also included in this collection are Bashō’s Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, The Knapsack Notebook, and Sarashina Travelogue. More than two hundred collected haiku are also featured, with the original Japanese provided, which Hamill advises readers not to ignore: “The Western reader, accustomed to being conscious of reading translation and having fallen into the unrewarding habit of reading poetry silently, often misses Bashō’s ear by neglecting the romaji or romanized Japanese printed with the poems. Onomatopoeia, rhyme, and slant rhyme are Bashō’s favorite tools, and he uses them like no one else in Japanese literature” (xxiii).

Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku

by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Sam Hamill, illustrated by Kaji Aso

Another of Japan’s most notable haiku masters, Kobayashi Issa, who lived about one hundred years after Bashō, believed in poetry as a path to enlightenment. Over his life, his dedicated spiritual poetry practice yielded more than twenty thousand haiku, in addition to other forms of poetry. His most well-known work, Spring of My Life is also written in the haibun form favored by Bashō in his travelogues, and recounts a year of Issa’s life, a life marked by loss, poverty, and illness. Hamill’s introduction provides this biographical context, as well as notes on reading and translating haiku. Also included are more than one hundred and fifty collected haiku, with original Japanese provided in romaji.

Art of Haiku

Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters

by Stephen Addiss

What many people do not know about the haiku tradition is its inclusion of visual art--often, creators of haiku create paintings or calligraphy, haiga, to accompany and enhance the verse. This book presents numerous full-color examples of these haiga, as it delves into the evolution and history of the haiku tradition, from the form’s foundational masters to contemporary times. Haiga do not simply illustrate what is expressed in the corresponding haiku, but contributes to its meaning, and vice-versa. Like its haiku counterpart, haiga possesses an aesthetic marked by simplicity, nature, and engagement with the viewer.

A White Tea Bowl

100 Haiku from 100 Years of Life

by Mitsu Suzuki

Illustrating a dedicated Zen practice, the loneliness of widowhood, and a deep gratitude for life, the one hundred haiku collected in A White Tea Bowl offer a tender glimpse into the life of Mitsu Suzuki, late widow of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. The collection’s title is inspired by one of Suzuki’s most poignant compositions reflecting on widowhood:

 

Bōfu mede shi hakuji jawan ni shincha kumu

I pour shincha
into the white porcelain
tea bowl he loved (50).

 

In addition to the haiku, a biographical introduction by Zen priest Norman Fischer and a collection of anecdotes from close friends and students of Suzuki reveal a warm and resilient woman whose wisdom made a lasting impression on those fortunate to have known her.

Haiku Mind

108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart

by Patricia Donegan

The magic of haiku is that it represents a moment of fully present awareness. Recognizing haiku’s ability to bring us into the present, Patricia Donegan presents 108 haiku from a diverse array of poets, adding commentary on the themes therein, to create a book of poetic meditations that help to cultivate what Donegan calls “haiku mind.” Recalling her first experience of haiku mind, Donegan writes “I stopped in mid-air as I saw the orange in afternoon sunlight by my plate. The light was golden and the orange perfectly round. All was perfect as it was, and I felt suddenly and totally at peace as I saw ‘the thing itself’ as it was in its nakedness without my overlay of thoughts or opinions, and tears rolled down my face” (xxii). While this collection focuses on the contemplative quality of haiku, Donegan provides brief biographical notes on the poets to provide some cultural and historical context.

Love Haiku

Japanese Poems of Yearning, Passion, and Remembrance

translated and edited by Patricia Donegan, with Yoshie Ishibashi

While haiku are traditionally focused on nature, the form allows for deep emotional expression as well, as demonstrated by this collection of haiku by classic and modern Japanese poets. One of the keys to the haiku aesthetic, heavily influenced by Zen, is impermanence, which is perhaps why these haiku prove so evocative--anyone who has experienced love can attest that it is as impermanent as a springtime blossom. In the haiku tradition this aesthetic recognition of the impermanent is referred to as mono no aware. The haiku presented here poignantly evoke the feelings of yearning, passion, and remembrance that arise from the impermanence of love.

The Pocket Haiku

translated by Sam Hamill

Perfect for on-the-go reading, The Pocket Haiku offers a selection of more than two hundred haiku, in addition to a brief introduction providing biographical and cultural context. Hamill notes that “too much haiku is merely haiku. Haiku written in American English and attempting to borrow traditional Japanese literary devices usually ends up smelling of the bric-a-brac shop, all fragmentary dust and mold or cheap glitter coating the ordinary, or--worse--the merely cute or contrived. Great haiku cuts both ways, sometimes witty or sarcastic, sometimes making Zenlike demands for that most extraordinary consciousness, no-mind or ordinary-mind” (xiii-xiv). Thus, most of the haiku in this collection are composed by the three great masters, Bashō, Buson, and Issa. Additional haiku by a variety of other Japanese poets are also included.

One Hundred Frogs

From Renga to Haiku to English

by Hiroaki Sato

One of the most interesting aspects of haiku is its origins in the collaborative renga, or linked-verse. To understand haiku, one must first understand renga. A sort of poetic game of wit, “a renga consists of two to a hundred alternating parts of 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllables, usually written by two or more persons, with the linking made in such a way that any two consecutive parts must make an intelligible whole, but three may not” (3). An in-depth book ideal for students of poetry and translation, One Hundred Frogs traces the history of renga and its evolution to haiku, and explores the art of translating these works. More than one hundred different English translations of a single haiku by Bashō illuminate just how many possibilities and approaches exist for translators. Also included are modern Japanese and Western haiku, as an illustration of the form’s versatility and continued evolution.

Whether reading or writing haiku, the experience can be profound. As Stephen Addiss explains in his introduction to The Art of Haiku, “the purpose of haiku was to use the mundane while exceeding the mundane, to discover a moment of oneness in the diverse or to discern multiplicity in the singular. Haiku can find an inner truth from an outward phenomenon, and ultimately use words to go beyond words” (3). This “moment of oneness” is the true charm of haiku, and likely the reason why the form and its tradition has persisted to this day.

by Lindsay Michko