The Other Side of the Coin

WHR August 2001

The Other Side of the Coin:
Haiku and the Harsh Realities

Peter Brady

For many of us, our introduction to haiku was through such masterpieces as Basho’s frog pond or Issa’s fly rubbing his forelegs and back legs in a comic plea for mercy. These were light poems, pleasing, uplifting and enjoyable. Consequently when we began writing haiku, we chose the same subjects and strived to achieve the same emotions. Based on this limited, one-sided view, we gained a certain although limited expertise. However, we have overlooked another and equally important aspect of haiku.

First and foremost, haiku are intended to depict our life and our interaction with the world around us. As well as the natural beauty so often written of — and which is mistakenly assumed to be the only appropriate subject, haiku must include the unpleasant, the harsh and downright ugly. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be or as we think we remember it to have been. In other words, a more open and more balanced approach.

Taoism speaks of yin and yang and the constant shifting between the two as we try to find the balance of the two poles. Psychologist C. G. Jung makes much of the two facets of our personality, the light and the dark. He discusses the tension between the two and the need to acknowledge and to know both sides if we are to know ourselves. Likewise, the world around us has two facets and it is best to acknowledge and know them both. It is here we live, it is here we should write, presenting both aspects – the bright and beautiful and the dark and ugly.

No one is continually surrounded by beauty. Television and newspapers very frequently show the sensational, the lurid, the violent side of the world. Often we also see car accidents and their aftermath, or we experience pollution, such as smog, or simply the neighbor’s dog barking or howling in the middle of the night or a stereo blaring loudly. These too are valid subjects for haiku.

From a reading of Basho, Issa and other haiku poets in Japan and elsewhere, it is clear that they had moments of heightened awareness that included excrement and urine and wrote of them:

Fleas, lice,
The horse pissing
Near my pillow

Basho [trans. R.H. Blyth]


Ah! The uguisu
Pooped on the rice-cakes
On the verandah

Basho [trans. R.H. Blyth]


after pissing
rinsing the hands…
hard winter rain

Issa [trans. David G. Lanoue]


wiping horse shit off his hand
with a mum

Issa [trans. David G. Lanoue]


A stray cat
In the winter garden

Shiki [trans R.H. Blyth]


More recent examples include haiku by the Balkan haiku poets who depict their world in wartime:


the waiting
for the bombers
prolongs our night

Dragan J. Ristic


smoke and fire —
near the destroyed home
cherries still in blossom

Vid Vukasovic
Belgrade, Yugoslavia


way to shelter —
someone’s phone is ringing
and ringing…

Milenko D. Cirovic-Ljuticki


too early for sunrise
the horizon glows with the red
of burning villages

Ruzica Mokos


Takashi Nonin has described his own experiences in World War II:

dead quiet…
no signs of bombers –
going out for food


scorching ground –
running to safety
naked and barefoot


The world around us and our life in that world contains things and people which we see as bothersome, irritating, upsetting, terrifying and worse. Since these have been haiku moments for others, all of these can be the same for us:


the wake of passing cars
ruffles its fur


to the abandoned death camp
its rails still shiny


mum just dead
the neighbor’s stereo


muggy afternoon
the stink of garbage
put out for pick-up

(all above four by Peter Brady)


In all of the haiku cited above, the images elicit anger, outrage, pathos, tears — a wider range of emotions than joy or calm or a nod of recognition at some pleasant memory. Again, both the pleasant and the painful emotions should be explored and written about; if we do not want to share these haiku with others, that is our choice. However, what unpleasant emotions we experience should be written down. If we are to leave an accurate record of our world, these moments must be written down.

Often, through exploring the darker facet we expand our viewpoint and ultimately our vocabulary. This will expand our ability to write and in the end will influence how we write all our haiku. We will see more, we will feel more, and most important end we will write more profound and perhaps better haiku.

As when exploring anything new, there is the danger of being overly enthusiastic. We embrace our new experience wholeheartedly and run the risk of exaggerating or overstating. This is the reverse of what makes a haiku. An extreme example of this can be seen in many films which include gratuitous violence or sex or surfeit of computer graphics which do nothing to advance the story line.

The key to haiku is understatement when describing our experiences. The animals, things, and people depict the moment and provoke the reader to respond. Haiku touch each reader differently and the less bias in each haiku opens it to a greater interpretation. By the choice of details the reader is led in a certain direction; but nothing more.

This is so different to most Western poetry where the tradition is to bare one’s emotions, to hold back little, and to control the reader’s reaction through a plethora of words. Haiku, regardless of subject, do the opposite. By maintaining an understated tone we can present the uglier side of the world without praising or condemning it. This will move a reader far more deeply than a lengthy ode venting all our emotions.

As mentioned earlier, Taoism preaches finding and maintaining the balance in our lives. Though seldom found or maintained, it makes life a continual effort to experience it. This striving allows us to find the harmony between the two extremes and experience the full range, the sweet, the bitter, the happy, the sad – all that comprises life. If we write of the same topics, we have a tool to explore the greater gamut that is our life.

This entry was posted in Basho, Classics, Haiku, Issa, Shiki, Vol 1-2 August 2001 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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