Liveliness in Haiku

MARCH 2003

Liveliness in Japanese
and American Haiku

Dr. Bruce Ross
Orono, Maine

The World Haiku Festival 2002
Yuwa-town, Akita 20-22 September 

In the preface to the early anthology of Japanese poetry Kokinshu (905) we learn that sometime after the first attempts at tanka by the gods people began to compose their own poetry when they were moved by blossoms, birds, the haze, or evaporating dew. Such “flowers and birds” inspiration was received through kokoro, the heart or spirit, and expressed through kotoba, the poetic forms. The Kokinshu preface’s first paragraph puts it more succinctly: “If we hear the singing of a mountain thrush in the blossoms or the call of a frog in the water, we know that every living thing has a song.”1 This talk will consider the persistence of Japanese haiku’s fascination with the songs of “flowers and birds,” their liveliness so to speak, as such songs touch the heart. It will also explore the carry over of this fascination into American haiku.

In one section of Basho’s classic travel journal Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Road to the Interior”) the author finds himself staying for several days in some very basic lodgings. He expresses the situation this way:

nomi shirami
uma no shito suru
fleas, lice-
a horse urinating
next to my pillow!(2)

Hopefully those of us who have just followed in Basho’s footsteps along his famous journey hadn’t found ourselves anywhere near such accommodations. But wait. Is Basho only expressing his exasperation or even disgust over his situation? He doesn’t comment on his situation other than in this haiku. In fact, although Basho’s aesthetic of sabi, which was consolidated perhaps during this journey, encompasses an almost naturalistic view of nature, he was also very much responsive to the vitality of all natural things as a subject for his haiku. He is exasperated with his fellow nonhuman bedmates, but at the same time there is an obvious, almost Zen humor in his detached observation of the circumstances he finds himself in. In his haiku the fleas, lice, and horse are given their due as beings in their own right.

The humor to be found in domesticated or wild non-human beings, once our anthropocentrism is put in check, is a frequent subject of American haiku. Our pets have an amusing way of continually subverting our expectations of them. Arizona Zipper describes such a situation:

Right in the middle
… of the cat’s yawn-
……..a pink tongue(3)

Anyone who lives with or observes pet cats will recognize that vividly pink tongue emerging from between such sharp teeth as something equally silly, harmless, and endearing. There is surprisingly a childlike energetic spontaneity also in wild non-human creatures. I have seen this quality, a childlike inquisitiveness really, directed at me in the faces of young deer, bears, and foxes. Sometimes, however, such animals are as dismissive of us as we are of them. John Wills captures an instance of this with perfect humor:

unless you have fish
the pelican has no use
for you

What is it about these creatures that move us?  Here are three Japanese haiku spanning three centuries that highlight the liveliness of nature that is part of its attraction. The first, in the seventeenth century, is by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the creator of the haiku form:

suzume-go to
koe nakikawasu
nezumi no su
young sparrows cry
and responding with squeaks
mice in their nest

The young sparrows and mice are presented objectively. We hear them crying and squeaking in response to each other, and yet the liveliness of these creatures evokes tender sentiment from us, even humor, the same way all young animals in their silly behavior do. The onomatopoeic  “su,” “zu,” “m,” “o,” and “k” sound repetitions, like a child’s run through the hiragana and katakana tables, fill us with childlike simplicity and even delight.

The second, in the eighteenth century, is by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), perhaps the foremost exponent of haiku celebrating the liveliness of non-human life:

jihi sureba
fun wo suru nari
suzume no ko
be tender to them
and the young sparrows
will poop on you

This haiku will give us some insight into Basho’s “fleas, lice” poem. What is going on here? Are the young sparrows being fondled or are they being softly called to in their nest? It really doesn’t matter. Issa is being facetious. He is celebrating the liveliness of these young sparrows as expressed in their pooping. They can’t help it. It is their nature to do it just as it was the horse’s nature to urinate. Basho was only being more seemingly reserved about the matter than Issa. In effect Issa is suggesting that one can’t help but be tender toward such creatures and their charm.

The third, in the nineteenth century, is by Ishii Rogetsu (1873-1928), a prominent student of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the so-called father of modern Japanese haiku:

naku ya wakaba no
the tree frogs are crying
while a passing shower falls
on the young leaves

The poet’s exhilaration over the frogs’ cries is directly noted in the particle “ya”  (“oh!”). There is no indirection like Basho’s seeming objectivity over the mice and young sparrows or Issa’s rhetorical insistence on tenderness toward the young sparrows. Rogetsu presents the crying frogs and adds, so to speak, the word “incredible.” This interjection “ya” becomes a conjunction between the lively elements of nature in the haiku, the astounding crying frogs on one side and the passing shower falling on the young leaves on the other side. The young frogs are crying because the rain has stimulated them. The rain in turn is falling on the new summer leaves that surround them. A perfect portrait is thus presented here of the wonderful fecundity and seeming synchronicity of nature.

The appreciation of nature’s liveliness that these poets felt from the seventeenth to the beginning of the twentieth century might appear to be mere sentimentality to those fostered in the troubling currents of the twentieth century and our new twenty first century in what has been called the postmodern condition. This attention to liveliness in the postmodern world, at least in the West, can be said to skirt the distinction between sentiment, a positive value, and sentimentality, a negative one. How can we write haiku about the liveliness of nature, particularly in the West, without being accused of displaying sentimentality? In a time when most people live in urban environments and nature is thought of as an object to be manipulated rather than something of value in and of itself and when more human communication incorporates technological modes, such haiku on liveliness would appear to be simply a foolish expression of sentimentality or a misguided and anachronistic expression of romanticism. From such a perspective we are light years away from the aesthetic of “flowers and birds.” R. H. Blyth has defined haiku this way: “Haiku is a kind of satori, or enlightenment in which ‘we see into the life of things.'”(5) He later adds: “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of these things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Haiku.”(6) If we were to contrast  Blyth’s affirmation of “seeing into the life of things” with the obvious encroachment of the postmodern condition, particularly in the West, it would seem an act of futility. There is a metaphysical rift in human nature, as exemplified by the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Vietnam War and in an overwhelming drive toward depersonalization. There is also a rift from nature itself, as exemplified by philosophic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and global ecological catastrophes. But this situation is not just in the West. It is found all across the globe.

Hayao Miyazaki, the influential anime director, has addressed these issues in a succession of animated films that have received worldwide attention. His films address the loss of sacred wild space in Japan. In My Neighbor Totoro (1988) the young heroines discover a magical world in an idealized countryside when they move there, such as animated dust creatures, the pixy-like giant totoro, and a magic flying cat bus. In Princess Mononoke (1997) we are transported back to a fabled time in Japan’s past that is inhabited by animal gods, tree spirits, and Shishi Gama, the Great Spirit of the Forest. In his latest film, Spirited Away (2002), a young girl and her family find themselves trapped in a communal bath for demons in which the parents are turned into pigs and a god of a river is covered with trash and sludge This god of the river is of course Miyazaki’s critique of the postmodern devastation of nature, but the other creatures and magical occurrences are an evocation of an animated world of nature inhabited by gods or kami that has been lost sight of. Miyazaki is direct in his criticism of the postmodern world:

Today, the world has become ambiguous; but even though it is, the world is encroaching and trying to consume everything.(7)

He even half-seriously locates the murder of the Shishi Gami, the Great Spirit of the Forest, to the Muromachi era. After this period, he suggests,

…we stopped being in awe of the forests” and as we gradually lost the awareness of such holy things, humans somehow lost their respect for nature.(8)

Miyazaki’s word “ambiguous” is his way of describing the postmodern condition and its encompassing devaluation of nature. The magical creatures of his films are gestures to revaluate nature. If we are to escape the charge of sentimentality or even romanticism in writing haiku about the liveliness of nature, we might give some attention to Miyazaki’s critique of our relationship with nature. That critique is a metaphor of how we should and should not be touched by the things of nature as in the telling phrase from Japanese poetics, “mono no aware,” “to be touched by things,” or literally, “the pathos of things.” How can our feelings be truly connected to the heart in haiku if we are not truly connected to nature? How can we be truly connected to nature when, as the saying goes in the West, everything is surface and presentation? Blyth was right. We must truly look into the life of things in all their liveliness. Although Miyazaki is not sure what will come from the situation of ambiguity that surrounds us, it is certain that he considers this true connection with the life of things to be a valued, even necessary part of our human nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the great philosopher of American Transcendentalism, would have agreed with him.

Emerson in poems like “The Rhodora” and “Each and All” and in essays like “Nature” and “The Over-Soul,” expressed his idea that there is a “fundamental unity” between humanity and nature. In our encounters with nature, according to Emerson, we make contact with the “Over-Soul”, an ultimate spiritual force that unites all things. Nature is thus somehow a reflection of human spirituality. Emerson and American Transcendentalism legitimized the idea that our claims for exploring our true inner spirit were more important than the claims of an endless pursuit of the material thing. So we may begin to make a true connection with nature by simply engaging with nature. How do we start? We must simply quiet down our ordinary mind and pay attention to nature. We must also commune with our own inner nature to develop our capacity to pay attention to nature and to realize that we ourselves are a part of nature.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Emerson’s secretary, put Emerson’s philosophy to the test by spending two years and two months in a solitary cabin on Walden Pond. As he states in his classic journal of his stay, “Walden,”

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to font only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach . . .(9)

He also expresses his Taoist-like conception of the Emersonian “fundamental unity” like this:

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature itself.(10)

The various chapters of “Walden” clearly attest to the depth of sensitivity toward nature that Thoreau came to achieve. The reason we must, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, turn to nature as a mirror of our own spirituality is that the pursuit of the external material thing has suppressed that spirituality in its purist form. Two centuries earlier Basho spent almost two seasons in a rustic dwelling called “Unreal Hut” in the woods near Lake Biwa to rest and perfect his inner nature and connection to non-human nature.  A section of his short prose record describes his activities:

When the sun sets under the edge of the hill and night falls, I quietly sit and wait for the moon. With the moonrise I begin roaming about, casting my shadow on the ground. When the night deepens I return to the hut and meditate on right and wrong, gazing at the dim margin of a shadow in the lamplight.(11)

Basho is here testifying to the spiritual practice that underlies his “transpersonal” poetics of presence in haiku. He is sitting quietly and meditating while paying close attention to the inner life of things in nature: dusk, the moon, shadows.  His highly regarded haiku with their nature subjects reflect the sensibility founded on such inner cultivation. He had studied such cultivation with his Zen master Buccho but had taken the haiku path as his discipline rather than the monastic life. Such a mode of quiet cultivation is one means of subverting the postmodern condition. But Basho is also walking around in nature in a kind of moving meditation that perhaps characterizes his travel journals.

Some of us have just visited a number of the highlights of Basho’s most famous poetic journey, Oku no Hosomichi, (Narrow Path to the Interior). Like Thoreau in his travel journals, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), and The Maine Woods (1864), Basho immersed himself in the wonders of natural beauty in wilderness environments. He also visited sacred temples, areas of historical significance, and places associated with poetry. Along the way he recorded encounters with interesting people as well as moments of natural beauty such as this:

atsuki hi wo
umi ni iretari
the hot sun
pours into the sea-
Mogami River

There are many haiku on the reflections of the sun, moon, and clouds moving in a body of water, but here an almost alchemical interaction of fire and water deepens the imagery of nature’s cyclical flux that is centered on the wonderful image of the sun pouring into the sea. The aesthetic value of such moments is undeniable. Yet there is possibly an even richer justification for such moments and such journeys.

The religious pilgrimage is universal and quite ancient. Even Chaucer’s medieval Christian Canterbury Tales betrays, in its prologue, an even earlier fertility ritual to ensure new crops in early spring. Clearly Basho was following in the footsteps of wanderer-priests like Saigyo and returns in the Oku no Hosomichi journey to a location that Saigyo wrote a poem on. Certain places of astounding beauty occur as “power spots” in the long traditions of primal and archaic cultures. We understand what a visit to a well-known temple or spiritual relic represents. But what would a visit to a “power spot” mean beyond its natural beauty and its appeal to the “flowers and birds” aesthetic? In earlier, more animistic times the Emperor would make a circuit through such mountainous spots to propitiate the gods. Later esoteric spiritual cults like Shugendo Buddhism, with their yamabushi mountain priests, incorporated a Shinto worship of nature and the much earlier practices of mountain hermits and shaman. Shugendo founder En-no-Gyoja established a pilgramage route in the mountains of Omine-sankei that is used by devotees to this day. Those on our Basho Journey may even have seen these practitioners in the Dewa Sanzan Mountains. What can the spiritual relation to trees, waterfalls, and the like by these adherents tell us about a haiku poet’s relation to nature?

The word kami is literally translated as “God” or “god.” In the West it is thought of as a nature god that is part of Shinto worship. Apparently in Japanese thinking there is a distinction between the visible world (kenkai) and the invisible world (yukai), the latter a kind of shadow substance. According to Ueda Kenji in a collection of essays on the concept of kami Japanese and Western views of materiality differ:

The Japanese had no word to indicate sheer “matter” (busshitsu) in the Western sense. As intimated by the term mono no ke (“aura of a thing”), even the word, mono (“thing”), was thought to refer to a kind of spiritual being (reiteki na sonziu). Namely, all things were conceived of as spiritual existence, which existed in a relationship of mutual effect on human beings, and those which possessed particularly awesome agency were the tama (spirit) revered as kami.(12)

Professor Ueda Kenji is referring in the last sentence to an understanding of “kami” established in the eighteenth century in which kami were considered dramatic natural forms, a definition not unlike “power spots” and perhaps a reduction of an earlier understanding in which all of nature was animated as kami. It shouldn’t be too difficult then to see embedded within the poetics of “mono no aware” the phrase mono no ke. In effect, the liveliness of nature may bare the residue of the idea of spiritually animated things. In this line of thinking haiku that capture such particularized liveliness are evoking the auras of those particular beings and things. But again, in the postmodern condition, how can we experience such auras and express them convincingly?

The Southeast Asians, including the Japanese, conceive of their spiritual center as hara, that internal area a few fingers’ width beneath the navel, rather than in the area of the head as in the West. This center is the Chinese dan-tien and the Buddha belly of meditation. In martial arts, such as aikido or tai chi chuan, all movement naturally flows from here. It is a focal point for various kinds of internal energy as well as an intuitive center that connects us to the universe. In this latter capacity, unlike the mind, which merely collects and organizes sense experience, hara  connects our feelings to the deeper essence of things in their wondrous outpouring from nature, both natura naturata and natura naturans at the same time, to borrow from Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In the long history of Japanese poetry there has been a magnificent affective resonance that exhibits this union of metaphysical contexts for nature, natura naturata, and forthright depictions of nature in the particular in its various manifestations, natura naturans, as expressed in uniformly short lyric forms. Derived from Shinto animism and later Taoism and Buddhism, this union makes the simple haiku an extraordinary vehicle for adding allusive depth to feeling taken from nature subjects. There has been within these poetic forms tendencies that vacillate between an animated representation of nature as such and a more literarily stylized treatment. Without appearing to simplify the matter, one could refer to the tired distinction between romantic and classic, what has been called the raw and the cooked, to distinguish the two directions. Much of the affect of such poetry is in the associative nature of its images. With all such canons of feeling there is the danger of the given imagery to be used in a superficial or trite manner, disregarding Ezra Pound’s sage advice on poetry: Make it new. Or to borrow from Takamura Kyoshi (1874-1959): shin is shin or deep is new. More than a naturalist’s handbook the saijiki, like medieval Western bestiaries and emblem books, codify the canons of natural life and seasonal activities as they reflect a consensus of understood relations to such life and activities.

Yet it is the treatment of nature in an individual poem that determines its emotional affect. In the modern period such canons have come up against the challenges of the postmodern condition. Fruit blossoms, particularly sakura or cherry blossoms, are perhaps the singularly most common imagery for beauty in Japanese poetry.  But a kind of deconstruction of the classic idiom of traditional blossom viewing imagery has occurred in the modern period. Here are two haiku, the first by Shiina Fumiko (1908-) and the second by Hosomi Ayako (1907-) that suggest such a change:

kobai ya
eda eda wa sora
sitting down I take
the chair that is farthest from
the red plum blossoms
fudangi de
fudan no kokoro
momo no hana
in everyday clothes
thinking everyday thoughts-
peach blossoms

In these haiku the inherited sensibility toward the beauty of fruit blossoms is mediated by a quite modern word choice and tone that deconstructs a more classically traditional haiku on such a subject — here there is a modern, let us say intellectual, adjustment of consciousness, let us say its assertion, before obvious beauty to produce a well-crafted expression of aesthetic irony. The following tanka by Tawara Machi (1962-) carries such deconstruction further by perhaps questioning the very idea of beauty itself:

sakura sakura
sakiowari nani mo
nakatta yona koen
cherry blossoms
cherry blossoms cherry blossoms
begin blooming
end blooming then nothing
except for the park

Deliberately alluding to Basho’s haiku that exuberantly repeats the name Matsushima to express its beauty, Tawara Machi ironically adjusts the common Buddhist metaphysical idea of the ephemeral nature of life that appears as a presiding metaphor in Japanese poetry to the modern world. She contrasts the beauty of the cherry blossoms to the empty park not to provide a lesson in Buddhist wisdom but to take a clear-eyed look at what this phenomenon of beauty really is.

The trend in haiku after the high water marks of Basho’s “transpersonal poetics” and Yosa Buson’s (1716-1783) painterly aestheticism, which both relied on nature naturans reaches a turning point with Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Compare Basho’s sabi-drenched “autumn crow” haiku, Buson’s picture-perfect heron in the shallows haiku, and Shiki’s cockscomb haiku. Basho’s haiku accomplishes it deepness through its selection of stark images. Buson’s haiku evokes its beauty by the delicacy of its lilting phrasing. Shiki’s haiku takes its emotional coloring rather from the biographical fact of his illness. Otherwise we merely have him approximating the number of these striking plants. Shiki’s “sketch from nature” approach has a tendency to deconstruct the metaphysical tonalities of Basho and the aesthetic ordering of Buson. But especially it devalues the more direct animism that is evoked in a poet like Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). Later twentieth century Western influences enhanced the simple objectivity of Shiki through ideological, naturalistic, and expressionist haiku, notwithstanding a steady stream of nature haiku deriving from Shiki’s student Kyoshi. Aside from matters of culturally defined canons of beauty and its expressions and deconstructions in Japanese poetry up to the present day, we are still left with the issue of sentimentality.

In his 1960’s entry on Japanese poetry in the “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics” the scholar of Japanese literature Earl Miner offers some focus on the issue: “After Buson haikai once more deteriorated, as can be seen in the famous though largely sentimental poetry of Kobayashi Issa . . . and in the development of the parodic form of the hokku of haikai, senryu.”13 In art and literature sentiment is characterized by a desired expression of delicate and sensitive feeling. The word is derived from the Latin sentire, or “to feel.” In it we can find connections to “mono no aware” and other aesthetic values that characterize Japanese poetry. Sentimentality is thought of as a negative expression of excessive or affected sentiment. Are Issa’s haiku different in their manner of expression from those of Basho, Buson, and Shiki? Although the answer is obvious, we still must ask it.  Each of the latter three haijin approached their nature subjects through a different focus of sentiment: Basho from a Zen-minded engaging; Buson from an artistic ordering; and Shiki from an objective recording. Each of their approaches employs its unique kind of mental functioning: Basho’s as an empty and receptive mind; Busson’s as an imaginative restructuring mind; and Shiki’s as an empirically collecting mind. Issa isn’t using his mind as an approach to haiku in any of these ways. Nor does he seem to be using his mind as such to construct his haiku.

How is he constructing his haiku? And are we to value those haiku or denigrate them as mere sentimentality? If we return to the hara, that belly-centered function that connects us to nature, we find an approach to the first question. Hara might be contrasted with the mind that might be thought of as a processor of sense data. Those haiku poets who approach nature subjects through their feeling as mediated by some aspect of the mind, whether through an “ego-less” Zen emptiness, the artistic imagination, or simple receptivity, are writing a kind of haiku that represents the central direction of the form in its literary manifestations. More recent haiku in the manner of social commentary or expressionism are more blatantly using the mind. Opposed to this is a haiku that is guided by pure intuition emanating from the hara. Here there would be no mediation by the mind as such in an exchange with nature. There would be rather an unsophisticated naturalness to such an exchange. In other words, sentimentality when it is expressed as haiku. This “subversive” and “romantic” approach best describes in a positive way what Issa is doing in his haiku. The postmodern condition, literary modernism, and literary postmodernism clearly undermine this approach. Yet as we have seen in Basho’s  “young sparrows” haiku and Rogetsu’s “tree frogs” haiku this approach spans the time from the beginnings of haiku in the seventeenth century with Basho to the beginnings of modern haiku in the late nineteenth century with Shiki’s student Rogestsu.

What value is there in such so-called sentimentality? Perhaps hiding beneath the natural liveliness of such haiku, like one of the little appearing and disappearing tree spirits in Princess Mononoke, is a hint of the kami, the spirits inhabiting nature. Are such intuitive gleanings to be thought of as simply excessive or affected sentiment? From the perspective of the postmodern condition, the answer would be yes. From the perspective of the literary world, the answer would be yes. From the perspective of an intuitive feeling for non-human nature and humanity, the answer would be the opposite. Do such intuitive haiku have a valuable aesthetic? From the perspective of the literary world, the answer would be no. But they nonetheless have their own aesthetic, one that boldly hints at anthropomorphism in its visceral engagement with the natural world and humanity. This aesthetic is accordingly quite far from the classical court poetry, mainstream haiku, or the verses of renga.

Here are some modern American haiku that with more or less success follow that aesthetic. The first two are by the extraordinary nature haiku poet John Wills:

touch of dawn
the snail withdraws
its horns(14)

dusk….from rock to rock….a water thrush(15)
Notice how the lives of these two creatures are brought vividly to life in their activities during that magical time between day and night.

See how the mysterious essence of birds are concretized in their calls in these two haiku by Charles Dickson and Carol Field:

out of the fog bank
of snowy egrets(16)
through falling snow
the pale form of a snow goose-

Notice how the fog and the snow intensify the ultimately unknowable natures of the birds.

The embodiments of nonhuman nature have a liveliness that clearly meets their own ends, or presumably so. Here are three examples by the Americans, Elizabeth Searle Lamb and Molly Magner, and the Canadian Tim Sampson:

field of wild iris-
the pinto pony
kicks up its heels(18)

the neglected garden growing faster than ever19

not going gently
into the dark bag
ivy clippings(20)

One must of course excuse here the overworked allusion to Dylan Thomas in Tim Sampson’s feisty ivy clippings.

I have often driven by a house that, on nice days, had a table of something for sale. One day I looked closely. In sitting positions on little shelves, like the dressed-up dolls on Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival, were all kinds of Beanie Babies, those sought after miniature stuffed animals:

bright spring day
a table of beanie babies
on a front lawn(21)

It was early spring and I thought these Beanie Babies in their seeming liveliness almost sprouted up like colorful new spring flowers.

Admittedly, the ivy clippings and Beanie Babies haiku all but skirt anthropomorphism, but what about haiku in which the author their self engages directly with a nonhuman creature? Here are three cricket haiku, the first two by the Americans Garry Gay and Brent Partridge and the third by Issa:

3:15 a.m.  i carry a cricket
still I can’t fall asleep
you too cricket?(22)
i carry a cricket
back outside
it wants in again(23)
negaeri wo
suru zo soko noke
I’m turning over
look out! move out of the way

Neither Garry Gay nor Brent Partridge is actually talking to their respective crickets. They are expressing their emotions about the creatures in a conversational way. Nonetheless there is a clear bond between them and their crickets that incorporates the crickets into human situations in an almost human participation which in turn registers appealingly in the haiku. Issa is probably really addressing his cricket, which is more likely a grasshopper or katydid. He is, as a Buddhist, concerned about the welfare of all living things and doesn’t want to crush the creature. His haiku lets the reader of his haiku share the humor and compassion contained in his predicament.

Garry Gay and Brent Partridge reflect the occasional appearance of Issa-like haiku in modern Japanese and American haiku. The reason for this rare occurrence is the reluctance that contemporary haiku poets have in facing the criticism of mere sentimentality being directed at their haiku. One new contrary voice is the Canadian, Tim Sampson. He has the sensibility of an itinerant Zen man who expresses through haiku his humor, appreciation, joy, and compassion in relation to the flora and fauna that share this world with us. In Tim Sampson, as exhibited in his chapbook “‘chirp'” (2001), we find a type of sentimentality that Issa would recognize and that can stand up to the scrutiny of the postmodern situation. Here are some examples, set beside similar haiku by Issa, of the extraordinary beings and their lively activities that inhabit Tim’s rollicking word:

rusi ni suro zo
koi shite asobe
io no hae
we’re going out
make love and play together
my house flies

Ryokan is dead!
mosquito – it’s you and me
in this moonlit room(24)

The Zen monk Ryokan lived in simple dwellings like Issa and begged for his food. His haiku are full of the joys and tribulations that wavered between his solitary meditative activities and those in villages where he begged and played with the children. Sampson’s haiku reflects both activities, the mosquito standing in for the children. His consideration of the mosquito as a fellow traveler in the solitary Zen existence relates well to Issa’s attitude toward his house fly housemates.

Both Issa and Sampson can continue in this vein of concerned attention to the benefit of our amusement:

nomi domo ni
matsushima misete
nigasu zo yo
but fleas
I’ll show you Matsushima
then let you loose

terribly sorry
I wasn’t paying attention
but did you say “chirp”?(25)

Would any of us on the Basho Journey have thought to share the beauties of Matsushima with a lesser creature like a flea? Would any of us try to pay more attention to the meaning of a half-heard bird’s call? The answer to these questions would probably be no. But this does not mean that we couldn’t if we could attune our sensibilities in a different way and respond to the particularity of these creatures.

Eating and the pursuance of food take up much of the time of non-human creatures. For that matter we humans seem to spend a lot of time at it too:

ya ga yoku ba
no hitatsu tomare
meshi no hae
if the world were better
one more of you could perch
flies on the rice
enough on the shell
to keep 3 sandflies
chased by a child
but the pigeon never far
from the french fry(27)

Issa’s universal compassion may be more direct than Sampson’s more reserved observation but they share the same appreciation and wit in regard to these creatures.

Such compassion in both Issa and Sampson is in fact almost always expressed through wit:

yare utsu ne
hae ga te wo suri
ashi wo suru
oh, don’t touch him!
the fly is rubbing its hands,
rubbing its feet

bead of summer sweat
rolls back up my cheek
or an aphid(28)

We have seen a fly rubbing its hands before it eats. What scientists say it is doing, I don’t know. “Rubbing” is often translated as “wringing” to imply the fly is imploring or even praying. There is a long tradition in Japanese art and poetry to project onto non-human creatures attitudes of Buddhist behavior basically as a metaphor for universal compassion. Here Issa’s projection is Sampson’s legitimate puzzlement. A bead of sweat cannot flow against gravity; therefore, it must be an aphid. Unstated but understood is the thought that if it is an aphid it can’t be rubbed off of the cheek for fear of harming it. Both the projection and the puzzlement are of course a cause for humor.

Here are three last haiku by Sampson that highlight the animated qualities of non-human nature in their often humorous actions as they interact with the human world:

hitting my head
at less than tremendous speed
windblown blossom(29)
no real option
but to push the barrow faster
and catch the leaf(30)

after bouncing
off the monk’s bald head
hail lands softly(31)

Who would have thought to portray, or should I say experience, blossoms, leaves, and hail this way? Who would have thought of a kamikaze blossom, an errant leaf, or a cautious hailstone? Yet they are there in a way, if we are able to see them.

We are back to the “flowers and birds” of the “Kokinshu,” but not as ancient poetic conceits but as lively, living entities. If we would look at R. H. Blyth’s English translations of Basho’s mice and sparrows haiku, Issa’s young sparrows haiku, and Rogetsu’s frogs and young leaves haiku in the four volumes of his “Haiku,” we would find that he highlighted the liveliness of these creatures with words like “squeak,” “poop,” and “crying.”(32) There is a reason for this, and it is in our delight, his delight, and those haiku poets’ delight. In high school I read an essay by Aldous Huxley on writing a modern “Ode to a Nightingale.” He insisted that such a poem should include the latest scientific information about the bird. But would such a course really serve our delight in the bird? Somewhere the physicist Werner Heisenberg has said that atoms are not things. The so-called building blocks of matter are living entities not static objects. His influential “Principle of Indeterminacy” explicates the implications of this. According to this principle you cannot see the whole of a subatomic particle, its position and momentum, at once. Metaphorically speaking, the beings of reality from the subatomic electrons to the whirling galaxies of the cosmos do not want to be turned into objectified things. Nor should they.

If we remember that ” humor” or the ability to enjoy what is comical is derived from the word “fluid” and that from an early date as “humour” was associated with the bodily temperaments that determine one’s health, we will notice that humor is concerned in a sense with concretized vitality, with the Japanese ki and the Chinese chi. If we are centered in our hara or dan-tien we will have balanced ki or chi. We will have good humour. And because we are connected in a balanced way to the liveliness of those non-human creatures and to the manifested world as a whole we will see them and it in all their sprightliness and singularity. Yet, except for the postmodern West, we may not be so far from such a connection. There is apparently no concept for time in the languages of the Algonquin Indians of North America, that culture derived from a proto-Japanese-speaking Asian stock that later became Hinduism and Taoism, except as it is embodied in “the things of nature.”(33)

On the contrary, the postmodern West is dominated more and more by an abstract conception of time that propels the hectic pace of postmodern life. The concrete embodiment of time is found in all primal and archaic cultures. Japan’s major annual festivals to this day are accordingly comprised of seasonal agricultural festivals, festivals of exorcism and purification, and ancestral festivals, including moon viewing, rice planting, flower watching, harvesting, equinox celebrating, and the like. There is even a water kami festival. Such orientations to concretized time in a centered body should lead to the kind of haiku sensibility that movingly registers nature’s liveliness and Emerson’s “fundamental unity.” In other words, if we are in a state of connection with the liveliness of nature we are in true time, in the “haiku moment.”  Needless to say, it is a wonder that this nation hasn’t produced more Issa’s. I have often mused over the possibility that the exhibition of natural energy is a valid criterion of beauty in a revised aesthetic. In haiku, in the haiku presented in this talk, we have found examples of such beauty and the beginnings of such an aesthetic.


1….My translations.
2….All of the English versions of Japanese haiku and tanka are my own.
3….”Frogpond” 6:2 (83). By permission of the author.
4….”Reed Shadows” (Burnt Lake, 1987). By permission of Marlene Mountain.
5….R. H. Blyth, “Haiku,” vol. 1 (Hokuseido, 1981), p.8.
6….”Haiku,” vol. 1, p.11.
7….Online interview.
8….Online interview.
9….”Walden and Civil Disobedience” (Penguin, 1983), p.135.
10…”Walden and Civil Disobedience,” p.132.
11…Makoto Ueda, “The Master Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho” (Kodansha, 1970), p.31.
12…Quoted by Norman Havens, “Immanent Legitimation: Reflections on the ‘Kami Concept'” in “Kami, Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion 4, ed. Inove Robutaka (online).
13…”Japanese Poetry” in “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,” ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton University, 1974), p.428.
14…”Reed Shadows.” By permission of Marlene Mountain.
15…”Reed Shadows.” By permission of Marlene Mountain.
16…”Brussels Sprout”6, no. 2 (89). By permission of Virginia P. Dickson.
17…”Modern Haiku” 31, no. 1 (2000). By permission of the author.
18…”Casting into a Cloud: Southwest Haiku” (From Here, 1985). By permission of the author.
19…”Modern Haiku”29, no. 1 (89). By permission of the author.
20…”‘chirp'” (self-published, 2001). By permission of the author.
21…”Modern Haiku” 30, no. 3 (99). By permission of the author.
22…”Wind Chimes” 4 (82). By permission of the author.
23…”Brussels Sprout” 8:1 (91). By permission of the author.
24…”‘chirp.” By permission of the author.
25…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
26…”chirp.”  By permission of the author.
27…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
28…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
29…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
30…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
31…”‘chirp.'” By permission of the author.
32…”Haiku,” vol. 2 (Hokuseido, 1981), pp. 520, 526; “Haiku,” vol. 3 (Hokuseido, 1982), p. 814.
33. ..Evan T. Pritchard, “No Word for Time, The Way of the Algonquin People” (Council Oak, 2001), pp.11, 244.

This entry was posted in Basho, Classics, Haiku, Issa, Vol 3-1 March 2003 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Liveliness in Haiku

  1. Pingback: Poetry, scrawny frogs, humor and much more « Rohini Gupta's Blog

  2. Pingback: Thưởng thức 7 bài thơ haiku |

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