April 25, 2007

Haiku Workshop - Hobart

1st May 7 – 9 pm Haiku - Writing Workshop with LYN REEVES
An introduction to haiku
Rosny Library Meeting Room, Bligh Street, Rosny Park, Hobart – near Service Tasmania.

Haiku are tiny poems that were first written hundreds of years ago. People from all over the world are discovering the pleasure of these condensed capsules of poetic insight, so that Haiku-in-English has become the fastest-growing literary genre. Today's haiku have their beginnings in ancient Japan, but today's poets use haiku to express the uniqueness of everyday experience and the environment they live in. A haiku captures a moment in time and shares that experience with a reader. The skills developed by writing haiku can make all types of writing more vivid and immediate.

Lyn Reeves is the haiku editor for the Tasmanian literary journal Famous Reporter. As representative editor for the Australian Haiku Society she has selected Australian content for the Canadian-based ezine above ground testing and for the World Haiku Association's website. She also served as secretary for Australia's haiku association, HaikuOz and is currently its vice-president.
All welcome. There will be a $3 charge to cover venue hire and supper. Enquiries 6248 8496 or 6248 8726

Soft Upon My Shutters

Hattori Ransetsu 1654-1707

by Jane Baker

Basho is rightly famous but why does the western world know so little of his contemporaries? Deep in Basho’s “old silent pond” dwell all sorts of interesting other frogs – Kikaku’s that “command the dark”; Onitsura’s “froglets” that in summer “sang like birds” but with winter’s onset “bark like old dogs”; Joso’s “good Buddhist frog…/ rising to a clearer light / by non-attachment” as well as Issa’s “fat frog / in the seat of honour / singing bass”.

The fact that a poet is not widely known as often reflects his history and social circumstances as it does his being of lesser literary stature than better-known contemporaries. Little is known of Hattori Ransetsu beyond his inclusion in the circle of Ten Philosophers as an intimate as well as a student of Basho yet any trawl of the Web will turn up his poignant “childless woman” haiku.

Born in 1654 his name first appeared in literary circles with the 1680 publication of two anthologies under Basho’s name which included works by both Ransetsu and Kikaku. Obviously Basho thought highly of his student’s writing if he collaborated in a joint production when Ransetsu was only twenty-six. In the winter of 1702 Ransetsu was obviously well established as a poet because he circulated a New Year Haikai Ichimazuri – the sort of poem that was not offered for sale but distributed on a single sheet of quality paper among fellow haijins (poets).

When Basho died Ransetsu shaved his head and became a Buddhist monk, perhaps an indication that he closely shared Basho’s later life preoccupation with Buddhism and inclination towards monastic life. Certainly, retirement to a monastery ruled out any possibility of a Ransetsu school and of disciples in whose interests it would be to promote his life and works. Nothing seems to be known of his death other than the year of its occurrence, 1707, just five years after his New Year Haikai’s circulation, when he was fifty-three. Like his contemporaries, Ransetsu was concerned with time passing, with the transience of beauty, with capturing the unity of man and the natural order in the experience of natural phenomena and universal processes. His was a very individual eye and a very individual sensibility expressed in original and compact imagery e.g.

     In stony moonlight / hills and fields / on every side / white and bald as eggs …

Sometimes his marrying of image and thought is so precise that the one becomes the other. In the “pilgrim” haiku, for instance,

    Above the pilgrims / chanting /on a misty road/ wild geese are flying

both pilgrims and geese are moving in formation through the landscape. In the mist the pilgrims are as without individual feature as the geese in flight. Their chanting echoes the cry of the geese overhead. They and the geese are engaged in a search that consumes them. In this white landscape they are the black visualization of the search for meaning and purpose in existence.

There is something of a Hopkins sensibility about his oft-quoted “leaf” haiku :

    A leaf is falling …/ alas, alas another / and another / falls

Yes, it is an autumn poem and leaves are doing their autumn thing but Ransetsu does not talk of leaf fall but of the death of one leaf and then of another and yet one more after that one. The death of summer is not in the heaped up leaf litter but in the death of each single leaf making its own individual break with life. Each death is a source of grief and each leaf’s fall contributes to that grief which recognises all mortality.

Ransetsu’s most loved verse,

    A childless woman …/ how tenderly / she touches / little dolls for sale

is widely quoted. The childless woman does not hold the dolls but just “touches” them as if she has no right to anything more. Her tenderness conveys all the love she can never spend on a child of her own. A hallmark of Ransetsu’s work is his compassion for all living things and their condition. In this haiku the tragedy of barrenness is almost palpable.

Like Onitsura’s Ransetsu’s work can occasionally display a lightness of humour that avoids the pretension of less-skilled poets. His

    New year’s day/ The sky is cloudless;/ Sparrows are gossiping

succeeds for this reason where Senna’s ponderous

    A solitary bird /For my companion / Upon the withered moor

fails. His sharp eye for observation is evident too in his cheerfully idiosyncratic comment on the movement of the spheres:

    Waking before dawn, see / how the constellations are all / turned round.

Much has been written about his plum blossom haiku. It has had many translations, so succinct was its original construction, and some of them differ wildly. I prefer the Behn translation

    Out of one wintry / twig, one bud / one blossom’s worth / of warmth at long last!

to the Henderson which runs :

    One the plum tree / one blossom, one blossomworth / of warmth

This is no usual spring haiku. It links personal and seasonal warmth to the emergence of spring plum blossoms as one would expect but, more than this, it suggests that a whole season’s warmth is carried in the heart of one tiny bud. Ransetsu’s single bud is all spring, all warmth, all promise of renewal and growth. This haiku celebrates the whole universe in all its workings in the form of a single blossom on a winter bare bough.

Hattori Ransetsu, regarded by Basho as a favourite student, has not left a large volume of poetry behind him but those haiku of his that survive display an individual perception and sensibility that warrant greater recognition than that received to date.

Note: Most modern translations are written in three lines but earlier translations were more usually written in four lines. Four-line texts quoted are drawn from the four-volume translations by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn, published by Pauper Press, New York, in 1960 and three-line texts are drawn from a 1970 Hallmark Collection selected by Mary Dawson Hughes from translations by R H Blyth published by Hokuseido Press, Tokyo. The Henderson translation is quoted from an Anita Vergil E-Journal Feature article at:

Biographical Note: Jane Baker is a poet with background careers in secondary and tertiary education, freelance journalism and editing, and disability advocacy. Her work has been anthologised and recognised in competitions across Australia. In 2004 she won the FAW Jean Stone award for poetry. Jane has a lifetime interest in Asian history and culture, particularly in the poetry of Japan and also of China.

Haiku Lessons

by Alison Williams

This article was first published in Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005, pp. 30-31, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

Alchemy is sadly missing from the curriculum, and so it is possible that you may not be aware of something called prima materia. Prima materia is said to be the original pure substance out of which everything was created, and is so easily overlooked that only a master alchemist recognises it as the vital ingredient of the Philosopher's Stone.

I think that haiku could be the prima materia of poetry. Outwardly they appear simple, even trivial, but the best of them touch on the very essence of things. Due to their apparent simplicity they are frequently looked down on, made light of, or - by the more charitable - given to children as exercises in nature poetry.

However, the humble haiku can provide some lessons that would do any poet, or indeed any writer, no harm at all to learn and practice - and I don't mean syllable counting!

What lessons can haiku teach?

Don't waste words. There may be disagreements about exactly how short a haiku can or should be, but everyone would agree that brevity and concision are vital defining features. There is no room for superfluous words. In a longer form it may be easier to get away with a few wasted words here and there, but only at the risk of trying the patience of both editors and readers.

Hone your editing skills. All but the briefest of notebook sketches will need to be pared down to make a haiku. Haiku writing is usually an exercise in cutting out and cutting back to the absolute essentials - but no further.

Every writer needs to be able to edit his work, and the constraints imposed by this short form help to build skills that can be usefully applied to longer poems or even prose.

Be clear and precise. When so few words can be used all of them must be well chosen to convey meaning as precisely and clearly as possible, to create the right tone, and to carry the appropriate associations or allusions. They must also be chosen and combined with a view to the overall flow, rhythm and sound when read aloud.

Evening wind:
water laps
the heron's legs
       - Buson

Focus on the image. Too much reliance on generalities and abstract concepts - love, loneliness, beauty, sorrow - earn enthusiastic but inexperienced poets many rejection slips. Haiku is image based, its business is with the real and specific. Not freshness, not even flowers, but this daisy, here on my lawn, still sparkling with this morning's dew.

Use the power of juxtaposition. Many haiku rely on the effect of juxtaposing images without explanation or direct comparison, often by means of a break in syntax. They are the poetry of unsaid things at one and the same time as they are simple and direct on the literal, surface level. By juxtaposing images the poet encourages the reader to engage with the poem and complete it by connecting the images for themselves. Juxtaposition of images is a subtle technique related to the more commonly used poetic devices of metaphor and simile.

Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end -
tonight's moon


Trust your reader. In longer pieces it is possible (but not advisable) to elaborate and explain everything, leaving nothing for the reader to discover or contribute for themselves. You can't do that in a haiku, you have to trust your reader to get the point.

Show, don't tell. Haiku rarely declare an emotion explicitly, although the best have a depth of emotional tone powerfully implied by the imagery they use. Often they draw an unspoken parallel between the external world that provides the images and the internal, personal experience of the poet that has found resonance in those images.

A crow
has settled on a bare branch -
autumn evening

       - Bashō

Use your senses. To find the fresh images needed to write haiku you need to be actively aware of the world around you with all your senses. The words may be jotted down while out and about, or they may not come until later, but they will be grounded in directly experienced physical sensations. A boat emerging from the mist; birdsong in the forest; the roughness of tree bark under your hand; blustery wind in your hair on reaching a hilltop; the smell and taste of freshly baked bread. This helps to give immediacy and appeal to any writing.

Observe. Because of the focus on the senses writing haiku can help to sharpen your observation skills. The fact that haiku are concerned with the specific rather than the general may lead you to learn more about your particular local environment. I have often heard newcomers to haiku say that since taking up the form they have s tarted to notice details of the world around them that they had overlooked before.

In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
look cold

       - Bashō

Draw on common experience. All effective communication depends upon there being a common ground of experience that both parties share. A haiku-like focus on everyday things, presented in straightforward language, can help to engage readers who have become disenchanted with more complex and abstruse poetry, where the common ground of experience is not so readily apparent.

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish

        - Issa

Share your work. Haiku has a long tradition of being a social activity, with writers meeting for renku (linked verse) writing sessions or for ginko (haiku walks). Taking part in writers' groups and workshops can help to provide feedback on work in progress and to motivate new writing.

Be prepared to learn humility. There is no such thing as a rich and famous haiku poet!

I hope haiku writers will be encouraged to apply their skills to other forms of poetry, and other types of writing. For anyone reading this who has not attempted haiku before, I hope you might decide to give it a try. You just might find you've been overlooking something of value.

Alison Williams is the librarian of the British Haiku Society.

© Copyright Alison Williams

Masaoka Tsunenori — the Haiku Master Shiki

by Janice M Bostok

A pure black
butterfly frisks keri
Cloud Mountains

Shiki was born on 14th October 1867, in Matsuyama, Japan. His gô, or pen name Shiki, which means a small cuckoo-like bird, came about after he spat blood for a week in May 1889. It is said the bird, in order to attain the fine tone in its voice must keep singing until it spits blood. For most of his adult life Shiki suffered from tuberculosis. He died on the 19th September 1902. His father was a Samurai and his maternal grandfather a Confucian scholar. He began writing Chinese verse at the age of eleven. His earliest existing tanka was written at the age of fifteen. He began studying at university but left without graduating. For a time he was a war correspondent in China. Shiki is considered to be the last of the traditional haiku masters and the first of the modern ones. Although he advocated reform most of his poems are written in the traditional form. It is his method and content for which he is remembered.

Into the ashes
it fell and got smudged;
new calendar kana

He formed a group and had a number of disciples who followed him in his desire for reform. Some of those who came after him were the free metre poets, Kyoshi, Hekigodo, Ippikiro and Meisetsu. The free metre poets tended to lengthen haiku and dismiss the seventeen Japanese syllable count. Makoto Ueda says if we are to think of the three lined haiku as a triangle shape, the free metre form of the New Trend Haiku could be considered as a rectangle.

It is thought that the haiku had been perfected in the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was thought to have reached its heights. However, when the Emperor Meiji began to reign the people's circumstances began to change. Haiku became of interest only to a smaller and smaller group of educated individuals and were mostly incomprehensible to the average Japanese person. A failure to adjust the haiku to the people produced a feeling of disinterest and resentment.

Shiki's reform was to bring back to the haiku a naturalness which had been lost in the over-use of classical literary references.

The outdoor stall
has a huge umbrella ya
Twilight icy rain

The method Shiki proposed to rejuvenate the haiku was Shasei, or 'sketch from life'. This idea was similar to the painting movement which was popular in Europe at the time. For the first time artists went outside and sketched from real life, from nature, capturing the light and movement as it was at that moment. Previously the classic painter had only painted within the studio, using models and artificial backdrops. The thought was to move from pure vision to pure painting - the view from an open window. The result was to return to vision a kind of virginity. It severed the moorings which tied nature to intellectualisation.

Lightning ya
A restless stir through the herd
of mares

Although Shiki thought haiku should be an experience he also thought it may become commonplace and trite if merely expressing self. He thought a poem that was an observation of life was always fresh and while many lives may be the same, people who could express themselves individually, would be different in their approach.

The hokku or starting verse of the haikai-no-renga had previously been established as a separate poem, standing alone. However, it took someone of Shiki's reputation to 're-invent' it, or to complete the process which had begun one hundred years earlier, by renaming the hokku the 'haiku'.*
Shiki believed that the language of haiku should be objective. Placing the author's subjective feelings in the poem restricted the readers from experiencing the poem in their own way. He also believed that haiku should be written from real experiences and not from the imagination.

A highwayman
stepped from behind the pine tree.
Coldness kana

In the past classic, traditional Japanese haiku contained literary references which were selected for the purpose, not because the author was experiencing and writing his poem in that particular moment. In English translation this may not be clearly seen from the western point of view. But the approach to writing haiku had changed, had become natural.

It is thought that Shiki single-handedly saved the haiku from oblivion in the onslaught of western free verse in the nineteenth century. So popular had the freedom from form, and the western expression of emotional content become in Japan, it was considered the Japanese forms would become extinct.

Shiki decreed that haikai-no-renga was not literature, and by his time it was in decline. By declaring it to be dead he actually kept it alive.

In ricefield mud
wild geese footprints
remain keri

Like many reformists, Shiki mellowed in his reform. Whether he simply saw that it wasn't as successful as he previously thought it would be, or that as he came closer to death he wanted the familiarity and comfort of convention. Whichever it was, he became less radical in his own writing than some might have wanted him to be.

As the artist Maxime DuChamp says, one must belong to one's age, no matter what.

*Haiku was a term which could be used for short verse but rarely had been up till that time. Any stanza of a haikai-no-renga which became an independent poem could be called haiku.
CUTTING WORDS (written punctuation): KA Indicates a question; RAMU Indicates probability; SHI Is used to end a clause; TSU Indicates present tense; YA Means a turning from one subject to another; KERI Is a definite break or finish; KANA Indicates wonder at the scene or event.

William J. Higginson. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1985.

Makoto Ueda. Modern Japanese Tanka. Columbia, New York, 1996.

Haiku by the Upasaka Shiki. Peonies Kana, Translated and edited by Harold J. Isaacson. Allen and Unwin. London. 1973

René Hughe. Impressionism. Réalités Press, Italy, 1977.

First published Yellow Moon 13 2003 pp 33-34 Copyright Janice M Bostok © 2003 sumi-e Shiki's persimmon copyright Janice M Bostok © 2005 This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 13 2003 pp. 33-34

April 19, 2007

Nobuyuki Kobayashi — ISSA

1763 — 1827

by Janice M Bostok

The spring moon
Shines Godlike
Upon a flower thief
At work on a hill. 1

Issa was born in Kashiwabara village, Japan, the first son of a farmer. His childhood name was Yatarô but he was registered with Nobuyuki as his first name and Kobayashi as his surname. Issa did not have a happy or fortuitous life. While he was still young (at the age of about three) his mother died. His grandmother took over raising him. Later she also died and his father remarried. His stepmother eventually forced Issa to leave home at the age of thirteen.

He traveled to Edo, which is now the capital, Tokyo. City people scorned country folk and called the peasants 'grey starlings'. Issa wrote over five thousand haiku during his lifetime, many of them about starlings and sparrows and other animals and insects.

joining the starlings
a night of winter

dejected —
even among sparrows
a stepchild

Issa remained in Tokyo for twenty years, living in poverty. He became seriously interested in writing haiku at the age of twenty five. When his teacher died he succeeded him as leader of the group. However, this position didn't sit comfortably with him and he chose to wander through the southwest of Japan until 1801, when his father died and he returned to the village where he was born.

As pine trees grow all over Japan Issa wrote many poems about them. They became a symbol for shelter for the homeless.

in pine-tree shade
eating, sleeping
60 provinces!

Even though he inherited his father's property, his stepmother and stepbrother managed to keep him from moving into the dwelling that was rightfully his and he lived in a rented hut at the edge of the village.

sparrows at the gate —
the brothers' first

well here it is
my final home?
five feet of snow

my dear old village
every memory of home
pierces like a thorn

In 1815 Issa married a young woman of twenty eight years of age. He was fifty two. His wife produced four children all of whom died in infancy. His wife also died in the final childbirth.

evening falls —
a stepchild sparrow
cries in the pine

It appears he really did live in the shadow beneath the pines even in the village of his birth where he should have been settled at home.

Issa married a second time and seemed happy at last. By this time he had moved into his rightful home, although he enjoyed a casual lifestyle. Because of his own treatment by society and closer to home, by his step-family, Issa felt compassion and tolerance for all life, even the fleas and flies.

don't chase, don't chase
that flea has kids

don't swat the fly!
wringing hands
wringing feet

Issa's second wife produced a girl heir for him. Unfortunately the baby was actually born after his death and he never saw her. He was sixty five years of age when he died.

Issa (Cup-of-tea) will be remembered for his masterpiece 'Ora ga haru': The Year Of My Life, 1819. (A Haibun) It should be noted that the particular sect of Buddhism to which he belonged (Shinshû) was a lot more liberal than what Bashô believed in. His wanderings are somewhat more social.
Not consciously developing a style as Bashô may seem to have done, nor writing as formally as Buson, Issa had a personality all his own. He used the local dialects and the language of daily conversation. For us, today, his work appears to manifest the true philosophy of the Buddhist intent without the obvious religious rhetoric which many writers get caught up in. We love him for his simple warmth of humanity and his compassion for all living things.

There is a story, whether it is true or not, that the daimyo Maeda, the great Lord Kaga sent for Issa to come and speak about haiku. Issa refused, because although still a peasant, he would not be 'ordered' to appear before nobility. It may be a true story because Issa also shows some of this 'nerve' in his poems.

losing the contest
surprise, surprise
the lord's mum won. 2

Rather than the ancient anecdotes, I prefer the present-day novel titled Haiku Guy by David G. Lanoue, published by Red Moon Press, in the USA. It's a hilarious, loosely termed historical novel based on Issa — or Cup-of-tea. It is said he was called Cup-of-one-tea because he only stopped to have one cup of tea and then continued on his travels.

It is now thought that many of Issa's childhood poems were written from memory when he was older and more mature. Considering he only began writing haiku seriously at the age of 25, this is probably the case. But it is known that his father wrote reasonably accomplished haiku, and Issa attended the home of an educated man in the village, to learn to read and write. This educated man wrote haiku. So it is possible that he knew quite a bit about writing haiku before he left the village.

It also seems that many agree his poems about animals, bird, and insects are actually about his own lifetime circumstances. He was the orphaned sparrow in his mountain village; he was the peasant starling in the city; and he was the homeless cat and dog looking for shelter and love after returning to his home village — where his house burnt down.

Since haiku has become known in the west we have been told not to use simile, metaphor, or personification. Issa certainly used all of these devices in his poems. If we carefully study many of the Japanese master's works we can find a similar usage in their poems, but perhaps not as exaggerated as in Issa's case.

For example Bashõ wrote about 'should I hold it in my hand, it would melt from my tears, the mountain snow'. He was really talking about his dead mother's lock of hair! Now translators are saying 'his dead mother's lock of hair'. Japanese haiku is full of simile, metaphor and personification.

Many non-haiku poems can be interpreted in this manner. The layers of meaning are what makes a poem great. However, because of Issa's compassion we sometimes get caught up in his style of writing and want to share our own understanding and enjoyment of our own environment. But we must remember poetry is language on the cutting edge, as we say. We would no longer think of a fly wringing its hands in begging mode, unless it was a giant cyber space monster perhaps!

In our cynical/belief/non-belief confusion we are more likely to say 'don't swat that fly, it may be your reincarnated grandmother'!

What we should remember is that poems of any form should read naturally, make sense and be mature in tone and capable of triggering the reader's response. What we know is that Issa was a priest-like gentle, homeless person who wandered around for most of his life searching for that zen-like acceptance and peace. Hopefully, each of us will find it in our own way and express it in our own language of today's lifestyle. And, perhaps we should also remember what Bashô said: …'if one is to write good haikai, one must interpret and describe the lowly and the commonplace with high serious intent'3

1 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P.40
2 chrysanthemum
3 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P. 17

All poems quoted (unless otherwise stated) are translated by David G. Lanoue, who has a wonderful website about the lives and work of the Japanese Masters: He must be interested in all things Japanese because you can find anything you would wish to know about Japanese culture and interests on this site.

© 2004 Janice M Bostok
sumi-e Issa's flea by Janice M Bostok © 2004
This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 16 2004 pp. 33-34

Yosa Buson – BUSON

1716 - 1784

by Janice M Bostok

Perched upon the temple bell
the butterfly sleeps 1

Buson was originally named Taniguchi Buson (pronounced boo-sahn). He later changed his name to Yosa Buson. It appears he had more than one pen-name or 'go' throughout his lifetime. (Particularly as there are various seals that he used on his paintings.)

Buson was born in the village of Kema in the Settsu Province. Very little is known of his early childhood. His parents split up when he was eight years old and his mother died a few years later. His father died when he was about thirteen years of age. His family came from a farming village and it is recorded that Buson squandered his family inheritance.

Buson travelled to Edo when he was seventeen, some say. It is also thought that he might have been slightly older, but this was when he began to study haiku. Buson studied the haiku tradition of Bashô and it is thought that his work is second only to Bashô. Shiki shocked the literary community in Japan, at the time, by saying that he thought Buson was a greater poet than Bashô, because he was more objective. This objectivity may have come from his observation and interest in painting. Buson is considered one of Japan's finest artists.

During this period he began studying Chinese literature and art. Buson was literally a self-taught painter. He took a separate 'go' for his paintings.

When his haiku teacher died he began a ten-year period of wandering about the countryside, and retraced Bashô's steps on his most famous journey: The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Buson also wrote a type of free-verse/prose haibun. One example, Uji Visit, can be read in William J. Higginson's handbook2. It is considered that Buson was writing free verse long before the western influence almost swamped Japanese verse in the mid-nineteenth century, causing Shiki to revive it and save it from extinction.

It was during this period that Buson studied with other students, and stayed at Buddhist temples and earned his living as a haiku teacher. This is when he began to use the 'go' Buson. He published a collection of New Year Poems in 1744. He was twenty-nine years old. Some think Buson means 'my fields and orchards are invaded by weeds.' Perhaps he just wanted to return to his family farming village. He was also known to sign himself 'Monk Buson'. And he signed some of his paintings: Buson Zensh.

In 1751 at the age of thirty-seven he stopped wandering and settled in Kyoto. He was virtually unknown as a poet and painter at this time and lived in Buddhist temples for the next few years. This is where he developed his unique technique as a painter. In 1760 he married. Little is known about his wife and daughter, although they are briefly mentioned in letters.

Buson brought the influence of Southern Chinese painting to Japan. He liked bright colours and quick brush movements. As art critics have noted, he used a relaxed wrist style and fluid elbow movement. His quick strokes reveal little use of the flat part of the brush. He appears not to have paid much attention to the mastery of the set types of brush strokes (which one is expected to practice for years until one can do them perfectly, when learning Japanese painting). This is further evidence that he was self-taught and spent many years practicing his own technique. Apparently his technique for art was different from Bashô's advice for writers of haiku: learn the rules and then forget them.

Buson's best known statement about haiku comes from his preface to a collection of a haiku diary called 'Spring Mud', which he published in 1777. He says: 'the essence of haiku is to use ordinary words and yet become separate from the ordinary,' Be separate from the ordinary and still use the ordinary. Most of us would think this very difficult to do.

It is recommended in the Li Yu Mustard Seed Garden Manual for Painting that the painter should, from time to time, lay aside his brush and read poetry. Buson agreed with this advice and thought that surely haiku and painting was close. 3

His skill as an artist came into its own with 'haiga': the combination of haiku poems and painting. Buson was one of the most skilled of the ancient Japanese artists. He practiced three arts: literature, painting and calligraphy. It was very rare to be so skilled in all three. The painting to accompany a haiku poem is called a haiga. When calligraphy is also added the art is called 'ghaiku'. Buson's work is called ghaiku-spirited.Literary allusion often appears in haiku and because of the artist in Buson he is capable of bringing layers of meaning to his poems. At first his work may appear to merely be a beautiful painting in carefully chosen language. But it pays to take the time to search out and peel back the layers.

mountain ants
on a white peony 4

At first we may simply see a vividly painted picture in our minds. But if we think about it we see the whole universe; the eco-culture working in harmony, as it should be.

in a bitter wind
a solitary monk bends
to words cut in stone 5

Like many artists Buson did not retire or stop creating. He painted and wrote poems right up until he died, on 17th January 1784. He was buried near the master Bashô, as was his wish.

When I too depart,
I'll adorn the master's tomb
with dried pampas grass 6


1. Translated by Lafcadio Hearn.
2. Quoted from Creativity and Aging: What the Active Lives of Older Artists Can Tell Us, by Bruce Darling. (from the website P.5 of 10)
4. From Haiku Menagerie, by Stephen Addiss with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, Weatherhill: New York, 1992.
5. Ibid.
6. Quoted from Creativity and Aging: What the Active Lives of Older Artists Can Tell Us by Bruce Darling: (from the website P. 10 of 10)


William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook, How to Write, Share and Teach Haiku, with Penny Harter, McGraw Hill, New York: 1985.

R.H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Hokuseido Press, 2 Vols. Tokyo: 1971 & 1976.

Harold G. Henderson (ed.), Introduction to Haiku, Doubleday/Anchor, New York: 1958.

This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 18, Summer 2005, pp. 32-33

Matsuo Kinsaku — Bashõ

1644 - 1694

by Janice M Bostok

Most of you who have heard of the short Japanese poem haiku will no doubt have heard of the haiku master Matsuo Bashõ. He is considered the first of the four Japanese masters who are the pillars of the development of the haiku poem. In the west, we are probably first introduced to him in translation and many of us say we fell in love with haiku because of Bashõ's work. Of course, there has been much more development of the haiku over the years in Japan, but this is the starting point where we are introduced to haiku and become serious about wanting to write it in English.

Little is known of his childhood. He was born near Ueno in the Iga province. As a child he was known by a number of names. Kinsaku was one of them. We think of Bashõ as solitary, a loner, but he had an elder brother and four sisters. His father Matsuo Yozaemon was a low-ranking samurai who farmed in peacetime. Little is known of his mother. It is thought that the social standing of the family was not above average and his future was uncertain, and by no means guaranteed to be exceptional.

At a very early age Bashõ was placed into service with Todo Yoshitada who was a relative of the Feudal Lord and merely two years older than Bashõ. So they quickly became companions. Bashõ's young master wrote haikai and eventually this strengthened the bond between them. Bashõ's early life so far appeared to be peaceful and contented and he may have remained in service for many years, except for the fact that his young master fell ill and died while still quite a young man. The brother of Yoshitada succeeded him and married his widow. It is believed because of this Bashõ left the service and began his life as a wanderer.

Whether it is fabrication or not we will never know, but it is said that Bashõ had numerous love affairs with women (his own brother's wife, perhaps Yoshitada's wife and his master's maids). One which seems to bear some truth is that he had a long standing affair with a woman. Jutei, who later became a nun. However, she had several children who could have been by Bashõ.

Bashõ continued his interest in writing and the earliest poem still in existence was written in 1662. He contributed to anthologies and when he attempted to compile a book of poems many poets were pleased to participate. He called it The Seashell Game: (Kai Oi), produced in 1672. The Seashell Game was a haiku contest whereby poems were matched in pairs by different poets and then judged. The value was not in winning, but the judging and critical comments by Bashõ, when the work was published.

Bashõ moved to Edo. Perhaps this was for career advancement, because he was known to consider a government post highly desirable. But at the same time he was also becoming known as a poet and possibly wanted to become a professional poet and teacher. He already had students.

Bashõ lived in a modest hut built for him by his students, on the edge of the city. His students gave him a banana plant to grow at the door of his hut. This is where he took his haiku name from: Bashõ means banana plant. He was enthralled with the plant and thought of it as somewhat like himself as it grew; it had big soft leaves which easily ripped in the wind; small ordinary and useless flowers; and was unable to produce fruit in the cold Japanese climate. Those of you who have ever grown banana plants or lived near plantations (as I have) will know the sound the large leaves make in the wind. It's sometimes exciting and sometimes mournful. This may depend on one's mood, I imagine.

In the winter of 1682 Bashõ's hut was destroyed by fire which also destroyed the whole neighbourhood. He was again homeless. He had spent time working on his spiritual life and had even mentioned that he might enter a monastery. However while he meditated and studied zen under a Priest called Butcho he never officially became a priest.

His students built him another hut, but while he was pleased not to be homeless it was not enough — neither poetic success nor his new hut seemed to console him. He already had the spirit of a wanderer. He set out on one of his famous journeys.When he stopped at his childhood home he was shown the lock of hair from his dead mother. He wrote:

Should I hold it in my hand
It would melt in my burning tears —
Autumnal frost

It is accepted now that he was writing about his mother's lock of hair and it seems many ancient Japanese poems are bordering on metaphor or simile. (Something which perhaps we will need to look at in the future of the writing of haiku in English.)

Towards the end of his life Bashõ found he had responsibilities which he had taken up writing possibly to avoid. An invalid nephew came to live with him and the woman he had been involved with earlier in his life (Jutei) also came to live with him, with a number of her children. Because of his fame many people wanted to visit him. He declared that he would either give up poetry and remain silent, or stop seeing people. In the autumn of 1693 he gave up seeing people. He died not long after. One of his last poems was:

This autumn
Why am I aging so?
Flying towards the clouds, a bird.

Bashõ is famous for re-inventing the renga or renku form. The form whereby a number of poets sit together and write verses in turn. It is believed in 1665 he and his young master and another poet composed their first renku of one hundred verses. Bashõ contributed eighteen verses. This interest in renku was important for the form, because it had deteriorated to its lowest depths and was considered vulgar. Yet, he stimulated other poets to write it as he wandered around on his travels.

The other Japanese form which Bashõ is famous for is the haibun, or the diary entries which he kept on his journeys. He set out on a number of journeys and lived to write about them and leave them for us to enjoy today.

Travel and the recording of his travels was the climax of Bashõ's life and his maturity as a writer and a man. The Narrow Road To The Deep North was one of the highest attainments of poetic diaries in Japan.

In his unsurpassed work Matsuo Bashõ, Makoto Ueda (published by Twayne in 1970) says Bashõ considered prose and poetry to be complementary. But while he wrote many long pieces of prose which we consider to be haibun Makoto Ueda does not count the prose of 'headnotes' of haiku as prose in the same sense as haibun. Many Japanese haiku include headnotes and we do not consider them to be haibun.

For example one of the headnotes to a poem about the banana plant:

'I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon, I feel lonely as I think about myself, and I feel lonely as I ponder upon this wretched life of mine. I want to cry out that I am lonely, but no one asks me how I feel.'

I think this is the reason so many writing haibun in English today, think that a haibun is merely a short paragraph of prose, ending with a haiku. They are writing a form akin to a haiku with a headnote, not a fully developed haibun. Writing 'haibun' in this form is something which has worried me since the popularity of haibun has soared. I label them 'detail preceding haiku'.

Perhaps it is time to go back to where it all began and read Matsuo Bashõ's travel journeys in a good translation.

It is generally agreed that Bashõ's most famous haibun is 'Oku no Hosomuchi' — literally translated as Narrow Roads to the Interior. But it has also been translated as Back Roads to Far Towns, by Cid Corman and Narrow Road to the Deep North by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Other haibun, or haiku prose that I have been able to find are the following: The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton; The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel; A visit to Sarashina Village; and House of the Falling Persimmons.


The Haiku Hand Book, How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku; William J. Higginson, with Penny Harter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North and Other Travel Sketches; Nobuyuki Yuasa, translator. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966

Back Roads To Far Towns; Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu; New York: Grossman, 1968

Matsuo Bashõ: Narrow Road To The Deep North; Makoto Uedo, New York: Twayne, 1970

© 2005 Janice M Bostok
sumi-e by Janice M Bostok © 2005
This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 17 2005 pp. 33-34

April 17, 2007

Spinifex: haiku - two reviews

There are two reviews of Beverley George's new haiku collection, Spinifex, now online. Reviewed by Patricia Prime Reviewed by Lorin Ford

April 16, 2007


Sponsored by the Haiku Poets of Central Maryland
Judge: Billie Wilson, Juneau, Alaska


summer dawn
the bones of the bonfire
charred black
~Kate Bosek-Sill, Rochester, NY

A new day is dawning, and the remains of this fire remind us that yesterday is gone forever—as fully consumed as the wood (the “bones”) of that bonfire. There is a nice edge of wondering why the fire was built. The use of “bones” is not only intriguing within the haiku, but within the context of etymology, since “bonfire” comes from the medieval “bone-fire.” This is an excellent poem to be read aloud. The inner play of the long “o” sound of “bones” with the short “o” in “bonfire—the near-rhyme of “dawn” and bonfire”—and the alliteration of “b” words in the second and third lines—add layers of pleasing sound.


whaling station—
the weight of rust
on the snowline
~Ron Moss, Tasmania, Australia

An unusual topic. The freshness of the material is appealing, and the juxtaposition is compelling. Even in abandonment, the very existence of this station “weighs” heavily against human history. The damage done is powerfully captured in understatement: that feather-light rust is like blood against the snow.


in my pocket
a small stone
from the top of the mountain
~Karen Sohne, Toronto, ON, Canada

The use of a pivot line showcases the tiny stone that symbolizes the conquering of a mountain. And within that symbol is a gift of encouragement regarding any mountain that might seem to be blocking our path.


starry night
snapping the wishbone
by myself

~Vanessa Proctor, Pymble, NSW, Australia

fresh snow
the cat prints
change direction

~Wanda D. Cook, Hadley, MA

uprooting the lilies—
he forgets what year
his father died

~Bill Pauley, Dubuque, IA

all the shadows
become one
winter evening

~Desireé McMurry, Franklin, MO

ebb tide—
a clamshell nestled
in seagull tracks

~Scott Mason, Chappaqua, NY