Saturday, March 16, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Haiku Is Not Just the Art of “Singing about Flowers and Birds”

Below is an excerpt from my Lynx interview with Jane Reichhold:

L: Recently you were working with “darker themes” in your haiku. Why did you want to do this? And how did it work out for you? Do we need to enlarge the subject matter used in the Japanese genres?

CL: I've been writing a series of haiku noir on darker themes, such as sudden death, suicide, psychiatric illness, violence, homelessness, alienation, estrangement, racism, rape, …etc. I've had first-hand or second-hand experiences of dealing with most of them (note: a haiku noir is a narrative haiku, i.e. a cinematically dark flash non/fiction in verse. I’ll give in-depth analyses and examples in my future “To the Lighthouse” posts, entitled "The Arranged Marriage of Haiku and Cinema")

I am most influenced by Takuboku's conception of "poems to eat." He defined them as "poems written without putting any distance from actual life,...and they are not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal."

In terms of dealing with one's dark moments, the difference between poets and other people is that poets can convey their feelings through poetry. As Graham Greene stresses, “writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those, who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in [that] human condition.”

Every time when I put my tangled feelings, stress, or anxiety on paper, I feel relief in the moment. Especially when writing about dark moments, I connect them to the feelings of the past and of the present, and in doing so, it enables me to discover the wholeness of things and the connectedness of human experience. This view of writing about dark moments as a way of healing is well explored in Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our stories Transforms Our Lives. My review of this book can be accessed at .

As for enlarging the subject matter used in English language haiku, I think there is an urgent need to do so. most English language haiku are based on a narrower definition of haiku. Professor Haruo Shirane discusses this in his famous essay, titled “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths:” “English-language anthologies of haiku are overwhelmingly set in country or natural settings even though ninety percent of the haiku poets actually live in urban environments. This would seem to discourage haiku poets from writing serious poetry on the immediate urban environment or broader social issues.”  His essay reminds me of Shiki’s , titled “Haiku on Excrement,” about discovering -- or rediscovering -- beauty in excrement. In the essay, Shiki demonstrates that the old masters had great capabilities of producing beauty out of ugly material, “citing 41 poems (most of them haiku) on feces, 18 on urine, 4 on farts, 24 on toilets, and 21 on loincloths.” In the concluding section, he makes clear that he is not particularly fond of writing haiku on excrement; but he mainly uses this topic as an example to show how the poet can explore a wide range of themes (Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, pp. 29-30)

I identify with Shiki’s approach to writing haiku. Most of darker themes in my recent haiku are, directly and indirectly, related to urban life issues that are experienced by all of us and covered by media on a daily basis. For me, they are legitimate subject matters for haiku writing.

Haiku Examples and Commentary:

The following is an excerpt from Peter Harris's essay entitled "In a Sea of Indeterminacy: Fourteen Ways of Looking at Haiku," which is included in A Companion to Poetic Genre, a collection of essays that examines genres and forms:

a waterfall

Regarding Wave

Gary Snyder

Though humorous, it is something more than witty, at least one reads it in the context of Snyder’s Zen studies. Beyond the obvious, hyperbolic parallelism of two streams, this poem embodies the intersection of the relative and the absolute. In Zen, the universe is all “one body,” and in that body there is only one stream, and yet there are two -- both containing one another and the poet. This non-dual ideation works for Snyder’s poem in the same way it does in Basho’s most famous and endlessly referenced haiku about frog -- water -- sound. (p. 281)

The opening haiku in my haibun, Under the Sun, could be read  as a response poem to Snyder's:

New Year’s drink
our yellow streams cross
each other’s

“Son, now you’re a man,” Father says coldly. Something strange…something I can’t articulate in his eyes. A gaze I will carry with me always.

the moon floats
from one glass
to another…

Haibun Winner, 2012 Great Big Little Poems Contest

Note: My post title refers to Takahama Kyoshi's famous declaration that "haiku was essentially the art of "singing about flowers and birds ..." (Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism, P.113)


  1. Below is an excerpt from Forgive, But Do Not Forget, which was published in Simply Haiku, 8:3, Autumn/Winter 2011,, 8:3

    Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959), who was considered to be mainly in charge. Kyoshi was chief editor of the haiku journal Hototogisu, the journal with the greatest public success in Japan, and the inventor of the "traditional" haiku (dentô haiku). He was one of the two main disciples of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). With his aesthetics of kachôfûei ("singing about flowers and birds") Kyoshi propagated a return to "tradition", against the innovative reform efforts of other haiku poets and groups.


    Kyoshi reflects in this lecture about the development of his haiku style, of kachôfûei:

    Especially, the hokku of haikai, today’s haiku, became a completely specialized literature of kachô. . . . We ourselves are those who do not serve the nation well, but succeeding to and following the tradition of our ancestors’ taste, we cherish ka-chô-fû-getsu. Thus, in order to gather together the power of you men of culture, at a time when the Japanese nation stands in the world with its glorious power rising, Japanese literature must also rise within world literature. Then, when the time comes that the Japanese nation gains a strong footing in the world as the greatest nation, all peoples of other nations will without doubt pay close attention to the unique character of the literature of Japan. At that time, from among the crowds of plays and novels, there can be seen the face of a haiku poet, and he will say, “Here: this is the literature of kachôfûei. That is, haiku.” I expect such a time to come.7

  2. I'm sure you didn't intend to be in bad taste, Chen-ou, but your response haiku has for me distressing suggestions derived from the mixing of drinks and piss.


  3. Garry:

    I think it's better to read this 'mixing of drinks and piss' in the thematic context of its preceding line (New Year' s drink).

    And as the opening haiku, this seemingly vulgar image adds psychological depth to the poem.

    Thanks for sharing your thought.