This is what I love about haiku: A few words can hold a lot of meaning or form an arresting image or create a mood; they record the high moments of life and depend on the power of suggestion to be effective. A haiku is a starting point for trains of thought and emotion, so the reader has to fill in the details, make the connections, and discover the larger story for himself.
Here are some of my favorites from the haiku masters (17th to 19th century). Each could be the beginning of a story. This first one is by Moritake.
“Fallen petals rise
Back to the branch – I watch:
~ Moritake was a Shinto priest whose work was often inspired by religion. “Fallen petals” comes from a line of scripture that asks: “Can a fallen blossom return to its branch?”) Most haiku indicate the season in one way or another either by image or direct statement, as in Basho’s wild violets of spring…
“Here on the mountain pass,
Somehow they draw one’s heart so –
Violets in the grass.”
~ Matsuo Basho was born in the mid-1600s of samurai blood. This was a stable period in which men of the warrior class turned their energies to the art of peace. Poetry was one of the most popular art forms.
“Oh, these spring days!
A nameless little mountain,
Wrapped in morning haze!”
Basho’s “nameless little mountain” reminds me of some of my favorite sights — the Appalachian hills of my childhood, the fairy-tale cloud forests of Costa Rica, Ecuador’s Valley of the Dawn among the volcanoes, and the distant Sierra Madre on my morning walks in Mexico. I love cloud-draped mountains!
Likewise, I’ve had many days this spring when I’ve been out walking and caught a sweet scent in the air that I couldn’t identify. Much like the following…
“From what tree’s bloom
It comes, I do not know,
But – this perfume!”
A couple of days ago I was working on the back porch when I heard a frog croaking/singing, and I searched until I found him inside the hollow leg of a plastic shelf that holds several of my son’s bonsai trees. It’s shady in this tunnel of the shelf leg and he can hide in close proximity to the insects that flit about the little trees.
By coincidence I flipped a page and came to one of my favorite frog haiku. This one by Kikaku who showed a childish delight in his work where others tended to be more serious. The frog in the poem is a fun image, but it’s also a comment on human life. Is the frog swinging with joy or is he clinging to a single leaf, his feet dangling in the air?
“A tree frog, clinging
To a banana leaf –
And swinging, swinging.”
And this one –
“The dawn is here:
And ho! – out of peach bloom the voice
I’ve been awakened by the voice of roosters in the Kentucky hills and in the Andes Mountains and on islands in the Caribbean. A rooster’s voice at 5 a.m. sounds the same, no matter what language he speaks!
This one, by Kakei, also reminds me of home in Kentucky.
“Dawnlight, and from the well
Up comes the bucket – in it
Our neighbors had the kind of well with a long, cylindrical bucket that had to be dropped down by rope, filled, and then pulled up again when they needed water. There were no camellias around, but there was a tall pear tree on the hill above the well where a wild climbing rose had managed to weave its way almost to the top. The well had to be covered except when in use to keep out debris. I can imagine a well bucket full of water – and rose petals.
Cherry blossoms are a common theme for Japanese poets. I can understand why — their sudden beauty after a cold winter, the falling blossoms, the rebirth every spring. On my morning walks the past few weeks I have enjoyed watching the new cherry buds bloom, walking through the “rain” of petals, and now seeing the flowers cover the ground like pink snow. I like this one by Onitsura.
“They blossom, and then
We gaze, and then the blooms
Scatter, and then…”
~ Onitsura was another poet of samurai birth who started composing at a young age. Like many other poets, he often makes a sort of equation between human beings and inanimate objects, ascribing to the trees, for example, the same feelings that people have.
“How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices –
Pine and cedar trees.”
When I was a child I could look out my bedroom window and see a pine forest. My friends and I spent long hours playing in the pines. The “voices” of the poem could be that of the trees, the rustling sound they make in the breeze, or the song of birds, perhaps. But I read it and remember all those childhood voices – the laughter and excitement and squeals of delight.
Many poems have also been written about spring rain. The following two are by Buson. Taniguchi Buson was equally famous as a painter and is considered in Japan to be one of the best of the haiku masters. He wrote more than 30 haiku about spring rain. The first of these two is probably one of his least sophisticated poems, but it’s one of my favorites. The second suggests a darker side of things. Its effect is utterly Buson.
“Spring rain: and as yet
The little froglets’ bellies
Haven’t got wet.”
“As the spring rains fall,
Soaking in them, on the roof,
Is a child’s rag ball.”
A great deal of emotion can be packed into a pocket full of words. And the emotion can change, as in the following poem by Taigi, or be left to the reader to discern, as in Kito’s poem. Both poets were pupils of Buson.
“A flitting firefly!
‘Look! Look there!’ I start to call –
But there is no one by.”
Excitement is meant to be shared. I feel lonely when there is no one around at some special moment. But there is a more profound sadness when, in my excitement, I think about sharing something with a particular person and then suddenly realize that they will never be around again.
When memories come, how distant
Are the bygone days.”
This last one is by Issa, one of Japan’s best-loved haiku poets. It’s another look at spring rain and could easily be the beginning of a story…
“Rain on a spring day:
to the grove is blown a letter
someone threw away.”
Who threw it away? Why? Who found it? What did they do with it? What did the letter say? Fill in the details, make the connections, discover the larger story…. One amazing thing about life is this: everyone’s story is different!