Haiku is a style of poetry, originating in Japan, which is structured on a metrical pattern of 17 units; in English most often seen as a three-line pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. It generally involves elements of nature, and is, in it’s essence, brief, personal and direct. The form has been used by poets both East and West, but in particular its knife-like directness and crystal clarity has made it particularly well-suited for adoption by practitioners of Buddhism – Basho and Issa being two of the most famous.
Matsuo Basho was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan and lived from 1644 -1694. While Basho’s home was in the city of Edo, he renounced the urban life and spent much of his life wandering throughout Japan gaining inspiration for his poetry.
Basho’s best-known poem is probably the following, of which there are many, many English translations, this one by R.H. Blyth:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.
Basho brings us right into the heart of the moment so entirely that we have to stop to catch our breath. Can’t you hear the `plop’ as the frog breaks the water’s surface? This poem, like all haiku entreat us to: Stop! Look! Listen! Be aware, be in the moment, be mindful!
Kobyashi Issa, 1763-1828, a Buddhist of the Pure Land sect, more popularly known simply as Issa (meaning cup-of-tea), reflected a profound understanding of our finite, suffering existence and a yearning for something other beyond.
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
The website Haikuguy.com offers an archive of over 9500 (of the over 20,000 haiku Issa produced in his lifetime) and a button that will pull up at random, one of the almost 10,000 for your immediate reading pleasure.
When I was in grade school, we had a poetry anthology that contained some haiku translations. The following poem by 19th Century poet Masaoka Shiki (who gave us the name Haiku for this style of poetry and incidentally played baseball in his youth and was inducted into the Japanese baseball hall of fame) stuck in my brain and to this day I have never forgotten it:
Cherry Viewing at Ueno
Coming to see cherry bloom
He had his money stolen –
The country bumpkin
Cherry blossom viewing or “Hanami” is a very popular activity in Japan. Ueno park features more than 1,000 cherry trees and attracts many visitors during cherry blossom season. There is poignancy in this short poem and the juxtaposition of the beautiful cherry blossoms with the plight of the poor rustic has a kind of humour and bittersweet flavour that is almost impossible to duplicate. Whenever I recall this poem, I can’t help but smile inwardly and sigh.
Haiku poetry is not restricted to the Japanese. Haiku poetry in the West, although it may not follow the precise metrical requirements of the original, retains its subtlety and powerful simplicity. The following poem, by the beat poet, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), anthologized and with commentary by Patricia Donegan in “Haiku Mind”, “108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open your Heart”, could not more beautifully express our relationship to the divine:
The African-American novelist, Richard Wright (1908-1960), during his self-exile in France, discovered Haiku the year before his death. He was suffering from a relapse of amoebic dysentery and grieving the loss of friends, family and dealing with dwindling financial resources. In a few short months, in a radical departure from his previous fiction, he had composed some 4,000 haiku.
Some 817 of these were published, posthumously in a collection called “HAIKU – This Other World”, Arcade Publishing, 1968.
Here’s one, in a prosaic style, that speaks to the joy of discovery in an urban setting:
Keep straight down this block,
then turn right where you will find
a peach tree blooming
Haiku has a way of speaking to us in a way that cuts through us like a samurai sword slices through a water bottle (see the video here http://www.maniacworld.com/Samurai-Sword-Slices-Water-Bottle.html), and confronts us with a world that is so fresh and new and different we cannot help but be moved and changed for the better.
Want to try your own hand at writing haiku (or something like it)? After one of our lively discussions, Chuck Gallozzi was kind enough to send me this link where you can download a little application to your computer to enable you to create random poetry on the fly. http://www.iconpoet.com/. On the same site you can read poetry others have created with this tool.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.