14-2-55-1-1The old pond
a frog jumps in—

Matsuo Basho’s haiku about the frog and the old pond has become so deeply scored in the popular imagination that it seems to have distilled into pure image. The seventeenth-century poet Basho, dressed in mud-spattered robes, wandering rugged mountain landscapes, or sequestered in a tiny hut in the rain on the outskirts of town, has become almost as vivid a figure of international folklore as of poetry. It was under his influence that haiku’s reputation emerged as a poetry humble in subject, unfriendly to pretension, and devoted to Buddhist-inspired insights into the natural world—and the sphere of human nature.

As many are aware, Basho was the poet’s pen name. He had previously published under the name Sobo, but took the epithet under which he is now known from a banana tree planted by students outside his hermit hut, his basho-an. He loved the tree for its uselessness: The basho’s flowers are not much to look at, lacking the delicacy you’d want on an altar. Japan’s northerly, sea-blown climate is too cold for the tree to bear edible fruit; and one could not make a decent piece of furniture of its fibrous wood. In the spirit of renunciation, Basho declared haiku equally useless: “a fireplace in summer, in winter a fan.”

Basho and his contemporaries insisted on plain or commonly used language for haiku, distinguishing it from the classical poetry of the past, which was aristocratic in both tone and vocabulary, and carefully restricted in subject matter. The frugal, democratic idiom haiku assumed perhaps accounts for its particular appeal to Americans, who tend to fancy themselves lean in character, and sculpted by hard work if not by outright hardship. Jack Kerouac articulated the same ideals as Basho in his own lifestyle and writings, and Allen Ginsberg noted, “He’s the only one in the United States who knows how to write haiku… [he] talks that way, thinks that way.” In all his work Kerouac celebrated the down-home, the humble, the image so ordinary that a thousand people ignore it each day—

The windmills of

Oklahoma look

In every direction

In Japan this aesthetic has been called wabi-cha: rough-hewn, rustic, without posture, solitary, even melancholy. As a lifestyle it means to appear poor on the outside, but inwardly to control enormous riches. To Kerouac, poetry mind and the mind of renunciation were not different. Looking back over a long heritage of wandering Buddhist poets, Kerouac wrote in his novel The Dharma Bums, “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with their rucksacks, going up the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad. n lunatics who go about writing poems.” Haiku writing was at the core of Kerouac’s Zen poverty, and his own haiku capture the same qualities Basho settled on:

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age


A crow has settled
on the withered branch—
autumn dusk


The term haii, which underpins the word haiku, means comic, lighthearted, sportive. It implies a sense of high-spirited innovation, some wise irreverence, and not a little reckless spontaneity. Even in melancholy it aims for an innovative use of popular language. Haiku itself developed out of the highly formalized, linked verse called renga, popular at gatherings among Japan’s newly prosperous middle class during the seventeenth century. Each guest would contribute half a tanka (a traditional thirty-one-syllable poem), and a collaborative sequence would evolve, link by link. Invented on the spot, renga were subject to increasingly elaborate rules, which were outlined in books. Raucously democratic in tone, full of humor and put-downs, except in the hands of a few master poets renga rarely resulted in inspired poetry. It was from these party-like occasions, though, that true haiku developed.

Guests would appear at the renga session, each with a satchel containing several opening verses, which were called hokku, hoping one of their own might receive the honor of being selected to initiate the sequence. At a gathering, of course only one hokku could be selected. It appears that poets began to accumulate such opening verses, the unused ones, and slowly these came to stand as poems in their own right. The term that eventually applied to them, haiku, may have been invented by Basho.

Haiku flourished in Japan during the Edo Period (1615-1868). The old base of power had shifted, away from an aristocratic minority secluded around the emperor in the ancient capital, Kyoto. With the rise of the Tokagawa shogunate, a system of military rule that established the shogun of the Tokugawa clan as chief of warlords, Japan’s capital moved to Tokyo (then called Edo). The old social system began to open up, and a newly prosperous middle class emerged. Merchants in the cities and agrarian people in the towns began to receive education, and literacy became, if not universal, at least widespread. Haiku’s popularity rose among the newly literate, a middle-class attempt to take part in traditional Japanese culture, appropriating the themes and elements of the artistic style that had once been the privilege of the aristocracy. Haiku in the hands of samurai and farmer, merchant and craftsman, however, introduced a riot of new possibilities to Japanese verse: vernacular words, colloquial phrasings, Chinese compounds, Buddhist terminology, and popular slogans. Cutting free from stodgy topics of the past, novel subject matter arose in the effort to break with outdated themes. “The old verse can be about willows,” Basho told his students. He was gazing back across Japan’s long tradition of elegant court poetry. “Haiku,” however, “requires crows plucking snails in the rice paddy.”

Yet in time—largely due to Basho’s influence—haiku’s jostling new language came to be imbued with profound silences and great open spaces for the mind as well. The irresistible effect of Basho’s “old pond and frog” haiku seems to derive from a visceral feeling that the silence surrounding the pond has been made more palpable—deeper—by the sound of the frog-splash; as the sound dies away the scene takes on a more resonant silence.

There is a solidity to the best haiku images. The old crow or the fly in a medicine cabinet linger on in the mind’s eye long after the words themselves have been examined from every angle and exhausted. This is why haiku holds the flavor of Zen: from one essential detail, a sudden direct apprehension of the great Void. Haiku is simply too short for explanation, indirection, bombast, descriptiveness, complicated figures of speech, or sermonizing. Its linguistic effect is close to magic or mantra. For the modern poet brought up on traditional Western poetry, what a relief to leave theology, mythologies, and big claims behind! As Kerouac saw, haiku is the “rucksack” form of poetry; its practice has come to seem nearly inseparable from a pilgrimage through natural and human landscapes, an outward journey that is vividly an inward journey too.

Traditional Japanese haiku—as even American schoolchildren know—occurs in seventeen syllables; the opening verse of the renga was written in this form, and haiku retained the pattern. Traditionally the poem has three parts (usually written in three lines in English) measured in a sequence of five, seven, and five syllables. Need to remember the sequence? Contemporary New York poet Ron Padgett gives this ready lesson—

First five syllables.
Second seven syllables.
Third five syllables.

American poets who take up haiku, however, often discard the seventeen-syllable structure as irrelevant to American speech or writing. Japanese and American English are substantially different; a rigid structure that worked for several hundred years in feudal Japan transported to this continent may simply hamper spontaneity—an element that has become almost an ethos in the past fifty years. In haiku spontaneity may not be the single most important aspect (it surprises many to discover how much revision Basho could put into a single verse, sometimes keeping at it for six months), but haiku that don’t carry a good whiff of freedom, innovation, or the unpredictable fall pretty flat. Basho charged us: “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.” Three centuries later, Kerouac provided an American definition of the form: “POP-American (non-Japanese) Haikus, short three-line poems, or ‘pomes,’ rhyming or nonrhyming, delineating ‘little Samadhis’ if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightenment.” Basho, who wore patchwork monk robes, might have remained silent on the enlightenment target.

The other requirement for traditional haiku was that each poem conjure a particular season, and most of the celebrated anthologies in Japanese, English, and other languages fall into seasonal chapters. Close attention to nature, and from that an awareness of the impermanence of life: In this lies the moon-in-a-dewdrop reflection of Buddhist teachings, Kerouac’s “little Samadhis”—nondual states of consciousness. The Japanese poets and early diarists, under the impress of such teachings, referred to life as the “the floating world,” sometimes “this floating bridge of dreams.” But what lies behind the dream? Buddhism has in its view of existence no creator figure, no higher power, no heaven. There is no “meaning” behind existence to try to discern, not in nature, not in the poem.

If haiku, then, points to no higher meaning, what makes a good one seem so vast? so rounded by silence? so full of emotion and insight that we can’t explain? “It’s there,” says Kerouac, “and nothing you can say or do about it, except look in dismay at the power of looking.” This actual moment! That bedraggled crow! This moonlit evening, that cold rain on your skull! There you stand, inhabiting your body with animal clarity, wide-open senses, and no preconception or abstract idea can touch the experience itself. Buddhists call thistattva, thusness. “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams famously wrote, setting ten thousand poems free from abstraction. He could have been reading Basho: “To know the pine, go to the pine. To know the bamboo, go to the bamboo.”

For sixty years, English-speaking Americans have been tending an exotic plant in their gardens, observing what makes it grow best and debating the essence of haiku. Curiously, had poets of the western United States peeked over their back fences in the decades before World War II, they could have found haiku in a neighboring garden, growing in profusion—though not in English.

In 1915 the Japanese poet Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887-1946), living in Tokyo, helped found a circle of freestyle, modernist haiku writers. Japan had not produced much notable haiku for decades, and some of the more innovative poets felt the form needed airing out. They noted that even Basho had continually reevaluated what made good haiku, changing his style to keep poetry fresh, even breaking the strict seventeen-syllable count when a higher truth required it. In this spirit, Nakatsuka decided poetry should not be restricted by arbitrary rules—the strict syllable count or the use of seasonal words. A flowering quince with crimson blossoms grew around the inn where he lived, and he named a newly founded haiku journal Kaiko, “crimson sea,” after the flower. Kaiko became the term for the free-style haiku Nakatsuka advocated. A number of young Japanese with literary interests emigrated to California during this time and took with them an enthusiasm for kaiko haiku.

The same year Kaiko appeared in Tokyo, one of these emigrants, Nieji Ozawa, founded a freestyle haiku society in San Francisco. Moving to Stockton, California, he founded the Delta Haiku Society in 1918. He later settled in Fresno, where most of the agriculture workers were of Japanese ancestry, and in 1928 convened the first meeting of the Valley Ginsha Haiku Kai (kai means “club”) at his house. Violet Kazue de Crostoforo, a member of the Fresno group, described its members: “grape growers, onion farmers, teachers, housewives, bankers, pharmacists, and others.” The members of the early California haiku societies probably looked not too different from Basho’s crew of pupils three hundred years earlier, which included rich samurai, shrewd merchants, hardscrabble radish farmers, a beggar, and a thief.

From their inception in 1915, for nearly thirty years the unassuming but free-spirited California haiku clubs met, usually once a month. The members arrived with poems to exchange and to offer up for critique. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, and the subsequent signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were removed from their homes and placed in detention centers. Both American citizens and resident aliens were permitted to bring with them only the barest belongings. In their hasty, uncertain departures, most destroyed any Japanese writing—including haiku—for fear they might incite hostility. In the climate of uncertainty, anger, and unrest, would arresting officers or paranoid neighbors be able to discern a Buddhist sutra from a military dispatch? haiku from a coded communiqué?

The detention centers were located far from the strategic coast, in northeastern California, Wyoming, the Utah desert, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Colorado, and were notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary. The Japanese Americans arrived in high-security trains and under armed guard. Inside the camps the detainees tried to resume lives that felt as normal as possible, under very primitive conditions. Compared with the fertile Central Valley of California, the new landscapes seemed hostile and frighteningly desolate, but the resilience of haiku, tempered by its Zen equanimity perhaps, made a home with astonishing bravery.

The war detainees’ haiku reflect the landscape of their experience. There had been the abrupt, unexplained removal, by law enforcement officers, of intellectuals and Buddhist monks from West Coast communities. Then the coordinated dispersal of thousands to the various detention camps deep inland. The locomotive clank of their deportation, hard screech of brakes under the desert moon, primitive barracks, barbed wire, armed sentries, guard towers. The haiku societies gradually reconstituted themselves inside the camps, and published their work in camp newsletters, most of which have not survived. Haiku from some found their way to the Japanese-language newspaper of Salt Lake City, the Utah Nippo, and these poems survived destruction when their authors were transferred to other far-off camps, ordered to carry only “necessary items.”

From poets of the Fresno and Stockton haiku clubs a few handfuls of notable verse survive. By “notable,” I mean they capture with unsentimental precision the texture of an American experience that until recent years has been routinely dismissed or ignored. Remember that these poets are American citizens charged with no crime. Some were grandmothers, or children.

14-2-56-1-1Misty moon
as it was
on my wedding night.

—Kazue Matsuda

Rain shower from mountain
quietly soaking
barbed wire fence

—Hekisamei Matsuda

Even the croaking of frogs
comes from outside the barbed fence
this is our life

—Shizuku Uyemaruko




14-2-58-1-1The San Francisco poet Itatu Ina ended up in the high-security facility at Fort Lincoln, Bismarck, North Dakota. Angered at the treatment he and his fellow detainees were receiving at Topaz, Utah’s center, he renounced his American citizenship. He was shortly arrested as an enemy alien, separated from his family, and sent to Fort Lincoln.

Having my fingerprints taken—
the new-leaf trees
come and rustle at the window.

Over the fence
we touch hands—
autumn farewell.

The iron door is closed.
The guards have all gone—
Moths dance around the light.

—Itaru Ina

Until the end of World War II, there were few books in English that could provide an accurate sense of haiku or its history. It was the writings of the scholar R. H. Blyth that finally brought haiku to English-speaking citizens of the United States. His History of Haiku—four volumes published between 1949 and 1952—gave a richly illustrated account of the form, along with its Zen Buddhist underpinnings, to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and other poets, who were largely responsible for bringing haiku into the American mainstream.

Blyth was a British citizen who had been studying Zen and Japanese literature in Japan prior to World War II. Along with other foreigners, he was detained by the Japanese military and eventually placed in a loosely guarded camp in the hills above Kobe. This was where he encountered Robert Aitken, and was the first to introduce the now-celebrated Zen teacher to Buddhism. Aitken, a civilian internee from Guam, had also been transferred to Kobe by the Japanese authorities. In his essay “Remembering Blyth Sensei” he recalls a drunk Japanese guard handing him a copy of Blyth’s Zen and English Literature, then learning that the book’s author was being housed nearby. He gives a level portrait of Blyth the scholar:

He had his bed in the tokonoma, the alcove usually reserved for scroll and flower arrangement in Japanese homes and offices…. All day long he sat on his bed, sometimes cross-legged and sometimes with his feet on the floor, writing on a lectern placed on a bedside table, with his reference books and notebooks among the bedcovers…. I recall that he wrote rapidly, with his words connected, using two sets of pens, black for his text and red for his quotations.

Shortly after the war ended, Blyth’s books appeared in bookstores and libraries around the United States. Gary Snyder recalls finding them in San Francisco, “and they have been with me ever since.” Zen and the literatures of Japan quickly drew the interest of large numbers of American intellectuals and poets who were skeptical not only of Western ideology and military prowess, but of the sorts of poetry that celebrated Western civilization and expansionism. Asia had come close to North America, and the next step was to embrace its most portable art: haiku.

Meanwhile, also in the aftermath of the war, and alongside American military occupation forces, a lively expatriate community developed in Japan. The dollar was strong, Japan was rebuilding and modernizing, and English teachers were needed. Influential poets Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Cid Corman, and Philip Whalen lived in Kyoto for years, along with an ongoing stream of American scholars, travelers, artists, and writers. Zen and Zen-inspired arts attracted each of the poets, and they began to experiment with haiku, linking it to the poetry that was being written in postwar America. Snyder composed “Hitch Haiku” based on hobo trips he’d made up and down the West Coast looking for seasonal work:

They didn’t hire him
so he ate his lunch alone:
the noon whistle

A great freight truck
lit like a town
through the dark stony desert

Haiku’s simplicity of spirit is what so quickly allies it to Zen Buddhism. I like to think the current popularity of Zen in America is due in part to a tenacious belief that we remain a no-nonsense people, a people who talk straight and try to keep life simple—this and a mounting restlessness with our overabundance of things. How do we go into the mountains! or into the street! Clad in high-cost, high-tech gear? or in boots, blue jeans, and an old hat? Basho seems the prototype of simplicity—he wore sandals and carried a rucksack on a six-month haiku journey by foot into the rough, mountainous rural districts of northern Japan. On that famous journey late in life he slept in a horse stall; one haiku has the horse pissing on his pillow.

This Thoreau-like hunger for unadorned living, and the belief that the richest insights can only be acquired through close-to-the-bone experience, carries on in the spirit of modern poets. It is nowhere more evident than in the embrace of the haiku ethic. Remember Basho’s admonition that haiku is useless as a ragged old banana tree! Deep within the contemporary poem lies a similar ethos—skeptical of the rush to utility in our technologically driven, warfare-mad world. Sometimes the haiku ethos comes in three lines, sometimes the form sculpts itself differently: “in place of haiku.” The spirit remains—that old urge toward vernacular language, and that quick precision that marked haiku from its start.

I have to go water
the lettuce
then I have to go listen to Zen tonight

—Joanne Kyger

Andrew Schelling, poet and translator, teaches at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of ten books, including Tea Shack Interior: New & Selected Poetry; Wild Form, Savage Grammar {seeTricycle, Summer 2003}; and most recently Erotic Love Poems from India: A Translation of the Amarushataka.

Image 1: “Evening at Carl Inn,” © Chiura Obata, Oban Woodblock Print, 1930, Courtesy of the Obata Family.
Image 2: “Life and Deah, Porcupine Flat,” © Chiura Obata, Oban Woodblock Print, 1930, Courtesy of the Obata Family.
Image 3: “Moonlight Over Topaz,” Chiura Obata’s depiction of the Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah. © Chiura Obata, Watercolor on Silk, 1942, 15.75 x 20 inches, Courtesy of the Obata Family

Haiku by Andrew Schelling
Barefoot at dusk she carries
a glass of white wine
down the alley

Two children
who never got born—
by the flickering lamp

Squatting among her
zucchini, my neighbor
on a cell phone

When I kiss your
3 :00 a. m. thighs
the silver half-moon

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