Haiku Sketchbook

  WHCessay – Debra Woolard Bender


Haiku Sketchbook
Debra Woolard Bender

The Master Haiku:

dedemushi ya amagumo sasou tsuno no saki

Masaoka Shiki

a snail
luring rain clouds
with feeler tips

[translated by Kimiyo Tanaka]
The Studio Haiku:

anole lizard
daring the noon sun
with his dewlap


When WHC’s Shiki Masaoka Celebrations for the year 2001 were announced on WHChaikuforum, a challenge was issued to members to study Shiki, compose essays about the great man and also to write poetry after his style. How best, then, could a poet who does not understand Japanese language come to understand Shiki’s haiku and copy his fashion, at least by using English translations and references? It is one thing to use Shiki’s technique of shasei, “to sketch from life,” but quite another to write “after” Shiki’s own work to come to deeper knowledge understanding of his “style.”

The idea occurred to treat Shiki’s haiku in a similar fashion as an artist or art student would study and copy masterworks in a museum. A major difference, of course, would be that a poet could not simply copy an original haiku or translated version word for word. However, s/he could study a translated Japanese haiku in one or more versions, hopefully with along with the original in romaji. History and commentary, when available, would afford further information. Then a process of dissection could be implemented to discover elements, structure, essence and relationships; poetry, music and meanings. This would also entail appreciating the poem from a variety of angles: kansho. Once the form, style and content of a poem had been examined, an attempt could be made to write a “studio haiku” after the “master haiku,” drawing upon what has been understood through the study and kanso.

The Master Haiku:

yukuaki no ware ni kami nashi hotoke nashi

with advancing autumn
I am without gods
without Buddha

Masaoka Shiki
[translated by Kimiyo Tanka]

The Studio Haiku:

whispering leaves
of the autumn wind I ask
where God is hidden


So began a “sketchbook” with the poems of Shiki and the author’s student “copies.” Later, masterful and favorite haiku by others would be included. This process has proved a valuable tool toward the study and understanding of haiku construction, history and haiku poets. Hopefully it will lead toward a betterment of quality in the student’s haiku. It is toward the same ends that this exercise is recommended to haiku poets, novice or seasoned.

The Master Haiku:

The old cat sprawls out
in a ray of sun, then turns
into a kitten.

James W. Hackett1
The Studio Haiku:

The kitten stretches
across my chest, turning
me into her mother.


A kansho of a haiku by Suzuki Masajo with a studio haiku by the author:
The Master Haiku:

renjoh ni uchikachi-gataki hitoe kana

Masajo Suzuki
Ginza, Tokyo, JP

thin summer kimono –
ah, I cannot for the life of me resist:
this burning love for him

(Version by Susumu Takiguchi)2
The Studio Haiku:

evening swim –
even the ocean cannot resist
pulling us closer

The Kansho (appreciation)

Masajo is writing about a love affair. The kimono she is wearing, being thin, is suggestive of light silk clinging to her figure. Not only sensual, it also suggests coolness, or trying to stay cool by what one wears. It is summer, a time of burning heat. She compares the kigo, “summer kimono,” to the burning of her passionate love for “him”. Interpreted from a woman’s point of view: Even though she’s trying to remain cool and composed and not even think about her lover, she finds herself filled with desire.

From reading Fire, Beauty and Haiku: Life, Love and Poetry of Suzuki Masajo2 by Susumu Takiguchi, it appears that that Masajo may have written this haiku while she was married but fallen into an affair with the great love of her life. And so, perhaps she was trying to resist her feelings because she was married. Having a love affair may be fulfilling, but it is not really the acceptable or moral thing to do. She might have been feeling a conflict between desire for her lover and duty toward her husband.

What makes it work and appeal? (from the dissection/study)

1.) kigo: “summer kimono” is perfect to indicate the summer heat, her woman’s body/figure, and a need to stay cool. She is “dressed” but in the next two lines, she is revealed — she has opened up her inner self, as if naked, showing her hidden desire. The choice of  images combined with the kigo seem flawless and exquisite.

2.) the use of comparison: heat of summer (implied by her kimono) to burning love.

3.) “thin” – I don’t know if this word is a translation, or a description of a summer kimono’s fabric. On another level (layer), the implication could be drawn that her resistance to her lover is also thin. Her coolness and composure is even a “thin veil” over her true feelings. Anyone can “see right through” her.

4.) the strength of this phrase, at least as translated as English: “Ah, I cannot for the life of me resist”. In the same way as there is no escape from the summer heat, she cannot resist her burning love for him. She is saying “I’d rather die than be without him” – he’s become her life, or the focus of all she thinks and does.

About the Studio Verse:

The studio verse borrows the season and theme of love in the idea of attraction and resistance, apparent in the English version Masajo’s haiku. By “evening swim” the study verse indicates summer: hot weather – hot enough to take a swim at night. “Swim” is a Japanese summer kigo.

Here though, is a twist to an “opposite” from the master poem: Instead of a burning summer day, the studio haiku depicts a hot summer evening in ocean water’s coolness. The speaker would be swimming in the ocean with a partner. Although they are separated as they swim, the force of the ocean’s tide pulls them together. By using the word, “even,” there is an implication that there are other things which pull the lovers closer as well. This is meant to parallel, in effect, the strength of the Masajo version’s “for the life of me…”. A touch of humor underlies the scene: Even though the two are apart as they swim together, staying cool as can be, there is an underlying force, a tide that keeps drawing them closer. “Even the ocean cannot resist” uniting them, which becomes an internal metaphor: The lovers cannot resist the force of their feelings for each other.

When dissecting a haiku, look for structural elements which define the poem. Kenneth Yasuda, in “The Japanese Haiku,” defines three elements to determine the object [subject of the haiku] and its location in time and space: “where,” what” and “when,” – understanding that it is the relationship between these three which constitute the experience within a haiku, “necessary to make it meaningful and alive.”3

The Master Haiku:

Only the gate
of the abbey is left
on the winter moor.

Masaoka Shiki
[translator unknown]

Where? on the / moor
What? only the gate of the abbey
When? winter

The Studio Haiku:

A few fenceposts
remaining in the old field
summer drought

Honorable Mention, “World-wide Shiki Poems Contest”
World Haiku Review, Vol. 1, Issue 1, May 2001

Where? in the old field
What? A few fenceposts remaining
When? [during] summer drought

Ask yourself a variety of questions: Are any recognizable poetic techniques used (alliteration, refrain, riddle, contrast, comparison, allusion, reference, etc.)? Is there rhythm, cadence? Is it traditional or non-traditional? (You may need to have a romaji version, reference books and commentaries to determine such properties when working from a translation.)

The Master Haiku:

Massugu na michi de samishii


a) Since the road I’m taking is straight and has no turning, I feel lonely.

(Literal translation from Takashi Nonin)4

b) Since this is a straight road, I feel lonely

    (Version by Susumu Takiguchi)5

c) Only a straight road is in front of me, it makes me lonely

    (translator unknown)

The Studio Haiku:

Because of a thousand leaves, I feel lonely


When appreciating haiku (kansho), ask yourself what feelings, thoughts and images arise when reading the poem silently and aloud? What is the theme, ambience or mood of the haiku? Is there certain style particular to the master haijin? How do the words relate with each other to form meanings or layers of meanings? Are there hidden layers? Underlying metaphors? What is not written or what is implied or what is waiting to be disclosed? What do you discover or rediscover in the haiku? About the poet? About yourself? How do you relate to the poem? Where does it take you? What is the appeal which makes this haiku outstanding to you?

The Master Haiku:


umi ni dete kogarashi kaeru tokoro nashi

Yamaguchi Seishi

blowing itself over the sea,
there’s no place for winter wind
to go back

(version by Susumu Takiguchi)6

The Master Haiku:


A winter wasp
with nowhere to die
goes stumbling on

Murakami Kijo (1865~1938)
(translated by Koko Kato & David Burleigh)7


A winter wasp
stumbles along, finding
no place to die

(translator unknown)

The Studio Haiku:

out of nowhere
wind blows a dragonfly
onward to winter


Now — time for writing your own studio haiku. Take what you’ve understood from your study and appreciation, and bring something from your own experience to the table. Will your haiku allude to or reference the master haiku, or will it simply follow the style rather than content? For instance, the dragonfly in the studio verse was seen only days before reading Murakami Kijo’s “winter wasp” haiku, the latter of which brought to mind and seemed to allude to Yamaguchi Seishi’s famous “winter wind” haiku. Having participated in a recent WHC Kansho Column5 on that particular haiku, upon finding the second, then reading the two similar Japanese poems together inspired the becoming of a windblown autumn dragonfly as subject of studio haiku, alluding to both.

Similar to a visual artist working from an inspiring masterpiece, a “copy” may be a desk haiku or a memory haiku, but if opportune, it could also be written from fresh experience, a “sketch from life.” The studio haiku might be “linked” to the master haiku by an association. A different season, time or theme could be employed to put the studio haiku in contrast with the master haiku, or else remain in the same season, time or theme to be more comparative.

What properties in a master haiku have you discovered in your study which would you like use in your “copy”? And finally, what will you discover which will take you further in the understanding and enjoyment of haiku?

1. The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett, James W. Hackett, 1983, Japan Publications, Inc.

2 Fire, Beauty and Haiku: Life, Love and Poetry of Suzuki Masajo,
Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, August 2001.

3. The Japanese Haiku, Kenneth Yasuda, 1957, Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co.

4. Re: SANTOKA’S STUPA & THE TRANSLATION OF NO. 13 KU: a discussion thread on the Shiki Internet Salon, Sun, 14 Jan 1996 14:58:07 +0900 (JST)

5. The Twaddle of an Oxonian: Haiku Poems and Essays, Susumu Takiguchi, 2000, Ami-Net International Press, Oxfordshire, England.

6. Yamaguchi Seishi, Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, August 2001.

7. A Hidden Pond, Anthology of Modern Haiku, Edited by Koko Kato, Translated with commentary by Koko Kato & David Burleigh; 1997, Kadokawa Shoten, Japan.

This entry was posted in Haiku, Vol 5-2 January 2007 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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