Talk given at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California on April 28, 2009
Thank you for that introduction and a special thanks to every one of you who has made whatever trip you had to make to be here tonight. Your being here to celebrate Poetry Month truly our common wealth. Therefore you are invited to use the cards, not only for your questions, but also for your own haiku.
I have a speech that is about one and a half hours long and I considered reducing it to seventeen syllables and then sitting down. Also if I don’t breathe that will shorten it and the short-term memory loss should make it just about right.
Since I‘ve come tonight, and brought Basho, or at least his words, and since he is the saint of haiku, I’d like to first clear up some misconceptions people often have about haiku.
1. A HAIKU DOES NOT HAVE TO HAVE 17 SYLLABLES.
STILL USE 17 AS A FORM FORMER
2. HAIKU CANNOT BE WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
3. HAIKU HAS NO PLURAL
3. HAIKU IS NOT JUST FOR SECOND GRADERS (math ex)
ADULTS CAN AND SHOULD WRITE HAIKU (because. . .)
4. H. NOT JOKES OR STORIES – JUST A GLIMPSE OF REALITY
5. H. NOT APHORISMS – NOT A SENTENCE
H. HAS TWO PARTS - explain
6. HAIKU ARE POETRY
Poetry is the art of piling up of dissimilar images to create an idea that has no exact name.
The art of poetry is such a hard thing to describe. Everyone is looking for a way to put words to something that is larger than words, more alive than thought, and longer lasting than any one poem.
Picture this. A person is standing at an open window. Just staring into space, a bit unfocused, lost in world of thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a small brown bird alights on the window sill. She knows she should carry the bird out the door and let it go but before she does, she has to do one more thing.
She builds a cage out of words. The cage she can share with others and so she does. The work on the cage goes on for days, maybe it is even years until the cage comes under the eyes of another person.
In that moment, when the cage of words enters another’s mind, it begins to expand. It breaks up into thought – images created by the reader. Thru the maze, and amazement of the reader, two cupped hands come forth.
The woman relaxes and lets the bird go,
Now its dry feathery weight is in the man’s palm. What does it look like? What is it like?
Slowly he makes a tiny finger crack window in his hand and he sees the same eye staring at him that stared at the woman a long time ago when it stood on her window sill. With a flurry of feathers, that shed a magic rarely found, the bird flies back into the sky. It is impossible not to say, “Ah ha!”
So that is what haiku is all about. How to build the cage of words to hold the miracle safe and full of sound until the images in a reader’s mind open the door to the wonderment and delight the author found in one part of the world . It is the cage that will attract and intrigue the reader, but it must also be well-built enough to bring the experience intact far across time and space.
Basho’s poem about a bird:
ON A BARE BRANCH
A CROW SETTLED DOWN
Haiku, as you can see make excellent cages. They are the perfect size for carrying our deepest experiences. Not big and clumsy with too many words. Not with thick bars of old ideas and abstract thinking. Haiku are alive. Like a cage made of living branches, they support and nourish the art of poetry until it arrives – safe and alive – in the mind of the reader.
One reason I am telling you this is because I want to prove something to you. I believe in each person there is a poet.
Some of you may suspect this about yourselves because of an undefined yearning – a place within you that you cannot scratch or reached. Perhaps some times this yen sublimates into a joy in words, a delight in the melodies of dialect, or in other forms of writing. Often it manifests in an interest in reading poetry by others with admiration. Or it can come in the simple desire of noticing a beautiful thing and wishing to hold on to the feeling it gives you.
No Talent ?= loving something so much you can do it over and over.
I know You can be a poet if you really want to be AND TO THE DEGREE YOU WANT TO BE and I believe Basho can show you how. He can at least show you how to write haiku.
learning to write haiku HAS Advantages FOR learning to write anything
Begins where you are – The present – Kirkegarde’s unhappy man
Brevity – less room for mistakes; easy to remember
Awareness of the natural world – appreciation, in touch, go there for inspiration
Single focus – IMPORTANCE OF
Many layers of meaning
Smallest poetry form elastic enough
Also smallest form – most to learn
Bashō is the most famous and well-known Japanese writer of all times. In Japan there is not a person who does not know his most famous furuFOO-ROO ikeEEKE ya” “old pond –poem.
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
EXPLAIN THE POEM
1644 Matsuo (MAH-TSU-OH) Kinsaku (KEY-N-SAH-COO) (Bashō) born at or near Ueno (OO-AY-NO) in Iga (EE-GAH) Province – now Mei (MAY).
Father – Samurai / calligrapher, Mother from Shikoku (she-coo-kuh)
one brother and four sisters.
1656 = 12 YEARS OLD, his father, dies. Bashō probably was already in the service of Tōdō (TOE-OH-DOH-OH) Yoshitada (YOH-SHE-TAH-DAH), son of the local feudal lord for whom his father had been a samurai. As companion to Yoshitada, excellent education.
RENGA MASTER FROM KYOTO
1662 = 18 years old Earliest extant poem. (has spring come? or the year gone away/ second last day)
1666 = 22 years old Sudden death of Yoshitada (YOH-SHE-TAH-DAH), Bashō’s friend, fellow-poet and employer. Bashō resigns his position and begins a time of being unsettled. He may have lived in Kyoto.
1672 Writes his first book, The Sea Shell Game – Kai ōi, based on his critical comments judging a poetry contest he composed. This was dedicated to the Shinto Shrine in Ueno(OO-AY-NO). He later moves to Tokyo – Edo.
EXPLAIN SHELL GAME
In his day, the latter half of the 16th century, Bashō was already a famous poet and people in various parts of Japan vied to entice him to settle in their areas in order to bask in his popularity and to learn from him. Wherever he stayed for any length of time, a group of poets was organized to study with him, to write with him, and become his followers. His casual writings were saved and preserved along with over 165 of his letters. His utterances were written down by his disciples. An informal postal system was set up between the groups to share his teachings and their works. Still today, in places he visited four hundred years ago, stories are retold to tourists and bits of paper or stone monuments bear the poem he wrote on that spot. His popularity was unparalleled during his life.
1680 Moves from central Tokyo – Edo, to the outskirts where his students built a cottage for him on the Fuka River.
1681 Is given a banana plant – bashō – and from that takes a new pen-name. Practices Zen under Butchō (BOOT-CHOO), 1642 – 1716.
1683 In January the neighborhood is ravaged by fire. Bashō escapes by diving into the river. With his home destroyed, he takes refuge in Kai (KII)Province. Later, his mother dies in Ueno (OO-AY-NO). A new house is built for Bashō by his students.
Begins travels – Nikko haibun ANOTHER WAY TO USE YOUR HAIKU WRITING SKILLS
TRAVEL JOURNALS (PROSE + TANKA)
1687 Journey to Kashima (KAH-SHE-MAH) which resulted in the Kashima Journal – Kashima Kikō. Had published Collected Verses – Atsumeku, a selection of thirty-four of Bashō’s single verses. In November Bashō set off on the journey that would become Knapsack Notebook – Oi no Kobumi.
wind pierces my body
into my heart
1688 Travels to Sarashina (SAH-RAH-SHE-NAH) to see the harvest moon which results in Sarashina Journal – Sarashina Kikō. Returns to Tokyo in September.
not yet dead
but sleeping at journey’s end
1689 Leaves in March to begin a journey to the northern provinces of Honshu (HOHN-SHOE) which becomes the basis for the book, The Narrow Road to the Far North – Oku no Hosomichi. (OO-COO) (HO-SO-ME-CHEE)
Works on the book for 4 years moving between Tokyo and Kyoto and Lake Biwa
1694 Though in poor health, Bashō begins another journey homeward to Ueno (OO-AY-NO). While in Osaka Bashō becomes ill and
ILL ON A JOURNEY
DREAMS IN A WITHERED FIELD
His last poem – a revision:
SCATTERED ON THE WAVES
GREEN PINE NEEDLES
NO DUST ON THE WAVES
THE SUMMER MOON
“Those flies are delighted to have a sick man around unexpectedly.
dies on November 28. His body was buried, according to his wishes, on the Gichū (GEE-CHEW) Temple grounds near Zeze (ZAY-ZAY)on Lake Biwa (BEE-WAH).
At his death, in 1694, over seventy persons were considered to be his disciples, while about two thousand accepted and aligned themselves with his teachings as associates. On the one hundredth anniversary of his death the Shinto religious headquarters honored him by canonizing him as a deity. Thirteen years later the imperial court gave him a similar status. Even in his lifetime he had been known as a haisei – the saint of haiku.
How to write a haiku
1. learn to read haiku
2. read all the haiku you can. translations and contemporary
3. decide which ones you like
4. PICKING YOUR RULES
counting syllables or not
5. THE WAY OF HAIKU
-being aware – small now
- being non-judgmental
-having a sense of oneness
- simplicity – language, expression, childlike wonder
- being humble haiku are given gratitude
6. season words kigo (in Japan) here
7. remember fragment and phrase – 2 parts
I wish many delights on your own journey to being a poet and may haiku be your starting point and companion.
Building an Excellent Birdcage by Jane Reichhold
What is poetry?
Poetry is the art of piling up dissimilar images to create an idea that has no exact name. The English language, they tell me, has more words than any other language. Yet think about how many things there are no words for – and anything that we experience personally is always shifted a bit by our own personality, and the only way that you can express that is by using words other than the abstract ideal.
It’s so hard to describe what the art of poetry is, but imagine a woman standing by an open window and a bird flies in over the sill. She reaches out and puts her hands around it to carry it back outdoors. And while she has her hands around it she feels the dryness of the feather, its heart beating against her hand. Before she walks out the door she thinks, “if only I could show this to someone else”.
And so she begins to build a cage of words to carry her experience. She works on these words and builds the best cage she can. She gets it published and someone reads it. And the minute the reader puts the words into images her hands with that bird reach through and the reader can feel what she felt. The reader doesn’t know what the bird looks like so the reader will open his hands and the bird will fly free and there goes the poetry.
Part of what makes haiku so interesting is that in learning how to read it you have to learn how to build these images. You read the first line and there’s a pause at the end of the line to form an image:
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
- Matsuo Basho
You read “old pond” and you instantly imagine some old pond – and everyone’s old pond in different.
“a frog jumps into” and your mind sees a frog, jumping left or right or straight ahead and every one of us imagines a different frog. And then comes the kicker in the last line “the sound of water”. What does he mean? It jumps into its own sound? But it does, and if you can imagine the frog jumping then you will be able to hear that sound.
So you see haiku do make excellent birdcages and they are the perfect size for carrying your ideas. They’re not too clumsy with too many words and there aren’t the thick bars of ideas and philosophy. You’re not going to teach anybody anything with your haiku – you’re going to show them the experience.
I believe that every person has the ability to be a poet, whether you think you can or not. You don’t need talent, you just need to do it, and do it and do it, and enjoy it … and to do it some more. If you go back to poetry that you have written and been unhappy with, go to the best and most interesting part of it and I can almost guarantee that there will be a haiku right there.
Being a poet will make your life a lot richer
If you allow yourself to write haiku your life will change. I guarantee you that. Haiku writing is different to any other kind of writing because it demands that you change the way you act, the way you look at the world and think.
It begins where you are – in the present.
Kierkegaard said that the unhappy man has no present, and I think much of our unhappiness lies with old memories that are painful and fears of the future, but if you come to this moment, this place where you are and by thinking about your uncomfortable chair or the temperature of the room you accept them and that helps everything.
Haiku are brief and that makes them easy to write because you don’t have the chance to make that many errors. You always write them in the present tense, keeping them simple, keeping them brief and using common words, not fancy ones.
The other good thing about haiku is that it will connect you to the world outside and one of the ways of learning to write haiku is to take a walk. You will see things, things will call out to you and you will suddenly see something different that you’ve never seen before or you’ll see a relationship between the rolling surf and a cloud above; or you’ll see something odd and you’ll watch and your whole focus will leave your body and go to what you’re watching.
And that is the most freeing thing you can do. I think you live longer if you can do that. We’ll see.
The question of syllables
Many people think haiku are not real haiku unless they have 17 syllables – but this does not have to be. In Japan if you’re counting the sound units there should be 17, but English syllables and Japanese sound units are different. The sound units are much shorter, and so if you would write a 17-syllable haiku it would come out about one-third too long. For instance, if you say “Tokyo” it has 3 syllables, but in Japanese it has 4 sound units.
When the Japanese tried to translate English haiku into Japanese they ended up with big, clunky poems and way too many words. So we’ve taken the idea of using short, long, short lines and this conforms to the haiku form, but it allows us a little more freedom in how many words we use. Also, in Japanese instead of having a full stop or a comma or a dash they have a word for the break the punctuation creates, and those words take up a couple of sound units so that’s another way of shortening it.
Modern haiku writers think you should not count English syllables when writing haiku and this allows a lot of freedom – you can forget about those particular bars.
Should haiku be written in English?
There’s an old idea that haiku cannot be written in English. In the 1960s RH Blyth wrote: Women cannot write haiku. So, here I am.
Earl Miner wrote a book about Basho’s renga and said it’s an interesting form and a beautiful thing to study … but we shouldn’t try it in English. And this is still the attitude in a lot of universities where they start with the idea you’re taught haiku in the 2nd grade (aged 8), therefore it’s something for elementary school.
Well, you learn addition and subtraction in the 2nd grade too, but that doesn’t stop you from studying calculus and algebra. And the same is true for haiku. The more you know about the form the more there is to learn.
I would like to see haiku, or Japanese genres, taught in universities because I feel there is so much more to be learned. In the 1920s when poets first began to be exposed to translations, like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, they got this idea of how important it is to work with images instead of abstract ideas, and so they began to use these methods with their own poetry.
But they didn’t take it far enough. They didn’t study the form so they could write really well. But it is possible, I believe, to write very good English haiku. I suppose I’ll be struck dead for saying it, but I take a Japanese magazine of haiku in which they translate Japanese into English and I would say that what is being written in English is better.
The Japanese are working with the ideas of how to build a haiku, but we’ve had to study it so much and we’ve had to figure it out. A lot of Japanese have heard the Japanese poems from their childhood and therefore think they can do it. And they can. They bring a spirit to haiku that I don’t think English-speaking people will ever have – their sensitivity, their grace, their elegance. We can’t do that. But we can bring what we are to that form.
Stop telling stories
One of the early mistakes people make when writing haiku is that they want to tell a story because we come from a literary tradition of storytelling and it’s hard to stop that. It’s very easy to say “the door opened, the dog came and spilled his water on the cat”.
That’s not haiku. Haiku focuses in, it goes right to the very heart. In this story you would focus on the water hitting the cat and that’s all you would talk about because that’s all that’s important in that story.
This is something that it takes a while for people to understand. One of the best ways of finding out what haiku is is to read them.
Reading and writing
But reading them is not easy. I handed a friend of mine a haiku book and she called me up weeks later and said, “Jane, you know I love you, but I cannot figure out what these are”. And she simply didn’t know how to read them – it’s true that you have to learn how to read a haiku.
When they were first introduced in English people thought they were epigrams or aphorisms and that implies that they are one sentence long. Haiku are not sentences. A haiku is built of two parts: The phrase and the fragment. The fragment is usually in the third or first lines, and the phrase combines two lines, usually the second and third, or first and second.
I think Basho is the one who can show us most clearly that haiku is poetry. When he started writing they were like a game or a pastime, and unfortunately this aura still hangs around haiku and you see with this the online jokey haiku.
Basho took the idea that if you’re a serious, deep person then your haiku will be serious and deep. Even though haiku are very small, they’re extremely elastic. You can put in everything that you can feel, and it’s only your lack of writing skills that would make that not possible.
Haiku can be and sound extremely simple but hold vast reservoirs of meaning in their layers, like the Basho poem about the crow:
a crow settles down
on a bare branch
It’s also interesting that haiku being so small have the most rules. Everybody who has learned it in the 2nd grade has learned 17 syllables and something about nature and you think you’ve got it covered, but you don’t – I’m still learning new rules, many from working with Basho’s poems.
Editor’s note: Jane Reichhold has written over 30 books, mostly on haiku. She is a three-time winner of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award, and has won two Museum of Literature Awards (Tokyo) for her haiku. She started the AHA publishing company (and now a website) in 1987. Her most recent book is a translation of all of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, Basho: The Complete Haiku (Kodansha International, 2008). Jane lives in Gualala, California. This article appears here with her kind permission and is adapted from a speech she gave to celebrate Poetry Month in California (April 2009).