December 30: First Snow

first snow
I finally
track you down


first snow
we’re warm
under that blanket


first snow
you’re starting
to drift away


By now here in Wisconsin, our first snow is a long distant memory — I think we’re about on our ninth. But “first snow” sounds, you know, more poetic than “ninth snow.” Although now that I have written this I think I will go off and write some haiku about snows other than first snows, because they deserve a little attention too.

December 29: Moon Marathon

nearly full moon not nearly enough


I went too far again a slice off the moon


and again I apologize for the moon


dead broke but there’s the moon


with or without you the moon


I fail again at trying the moon


all the time I’ve spent being someone else the moon


don’t kid yourself you’ll never be the moon


so we were driving out to the East Coast for Christmas (which takes eighteen hours) and as usual I just sat in the car and looked out the window and napped and daydreamed and didn’t read or write or talk or do much of anything else, until suddenly around 10:00 p.m. I decided it would be a good idea to haul out my little all-purpose notebook (it’s a score pad! it’s a grocery list! it’s a sketchbook! it’s a haiku repository!) and write haiku in the dark and hope they would be legible in the morning.

and the moon was incredibly cool, just off full and shooting around in and out of the clouds, so most of what I wrote was about the moon, like fifty-something haiku in just over an hour, and you know what that means? most of them were crap. but that’s okay, it was fun, and a few of them were pretty good, and several were not bad, and a reasonable number were all right in a sort of a limited way for an off night (apologies to Paul Simon), which is mostly the kind I have posted here because the ones that were better I am still trying to make even better and the ones that were worse I wouldn’t inflict on you.

anyway, as you can see, the moon makes me happy even when I am slightly depressed, so I guess it’s good that I’m a haiku poet because then no one blinks twice if I write about the moon constantly and they even patiently read all my tedious little moon poems, or if they don’t they’re too nice to tell me about it.

that’s my story. and I’m sticking to it.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 8: The Aftermath Edition

So. Christmas is over. Did everyone make it through okay? I’m always interested to hear how other people celebrate Christmas, or don’t celebrate it as the case may be, so if you want to leave me a comment about that or write me a descriptive haiku or something, that would be awesome. No pressure, though.

(Although you do know I am giving away a book to a random commenter this week, though, right? And not even a book by me, but a good book. So you might want to rethink your “nah, who has time to comment?” philosophy just for this week.)

We visited my sister on the East Coast for Christmas. This involved a lot of driving — I mean, a LOT — which I kind of hate, but it was all worthwhile because my sister basically spoiled us rotten. My husband and I slept in till eleven on Christmas Day — I know, I know, but we don’t have little kids jumping on us any more to force us to get up. (Although around ten-thirty my sister and my son started playing Christmas music really loudly to encourage us to keep them company.)

My sister, who is an amazing cook, refused all offers of assistance in making Christmas dinner, so instead of slaving in the kitchen my son and I went for a run around my sister’s insanely beautiful neighborhood and then we all watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on Hulu and then it was time to eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (which turned out really well, unlike every Yorkshire pudding I have ever made) and red velvet cake with peppermint frosting. Red. Velvet. Cake. With. Peppermint. Frosting. Um, YEAH.

Then we played “Clue” and my son won and gave his evil overlord laugh, which I totally love, and then we all sat down and started cozily reading (my husband) and memorizing lines for a play (my son) and knitting (my sister) and writing haiku (me). And drinking lots of tea and eating red and green M&Ms and cookies with red and green M&Ms in them, trying to stay awake until midnight when my mother arrived in town on a Greyhound bus, bearing in a plastic bag a large ham and five small apple pies. We are still not sure why. But it all tasted really good.

So that was my Christmas. I don’t know why I think you care, but I like to tell long pointless stories like that and it’s my blog, so that’s how it’s going down.

Now on to why you’re actually here, which is to find out what went down in the Haikuverse this week. I am writing this while wearing the dragonfly earrings my mother gave me for Christmas, so I am totally in the Red Dragonfly spirit and am ready to fill your life with haiku-y goodness. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.


So a week or so ago Google introduced its famous/infamous “Ngram viewer,” which is a database of, like, a jillion or so words culled from the gazillions of books it has been scanning for the last several years, which allows you to create graphs showing how the use of word has changed over the years. Best. Thing. Ever. I mean, if you have pet words, you can have so much fun seeing what they have been doing over the centuries.

Here’s the graph I made showing how “haiku,” “tanka,” and “senryu” have fluctuated between 1900 and 2000 (I discovered that all of these words were sufficiently rare in English before 1900 that it was hardly worth graphing them). And here’s the Basho/Issa/Buson/Shiki smackdown, once again 1900-2000. Mostly Basho has been winning, but it looks like Issa has been on the upswing lately, which I am feeling smug about.

Play around with it. And if you come up with interesting haiku-related graphs, feel free to share.


On Twitter last week, M. Kei (kujakupoet), who is compiling an apparently voluminous tanka bibliography in his spare time, started entertaining and educating us with tweets recounting the history of English-language tanka. Well worth checking out if you are interested in tanka at all.


I’ve been spending a lot more time lately over at see haiku here, which features amazing haiga of amazing haiku by Kuniharu Shimizu. Recently Shimizu wrote a very interesting commentary on “focus” in both painting and haiku, featuring Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“There is a painting of a snow covered forest. Everything, trees, snow on leaves, ground, is skillfully painted. I like the quietness emanating from the whole canvas. Then I notice. Something is lacking. Something that enhances the mood already present there, is missing. I tentatively name that something a focal point.

Haiku is a very small poetry, yet it is powerful. The reason resides in its structure, juxtaposition of two things. Basho called it “Toriawase”. Placement of two unexpected but somehow related things seems to evoke new awareness, pleasant surprise, and the switch of your imagination goes on, enabling you to appreciate it to a great extent.”

— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

Here’s a haiku from Blue Willow Haiku World that I am including as a little late Christmas gift to my son, who is a robot fan:

robotto ga robotto tsukuru fuyu-mayonaka
robots manufacture
winter midnight
— Noburo Yasui, translated by Fay Aoyagi


I was very impressed by a piece in Haiku News last week that references the headline “Child bride horrors last a lifetime”:

torn kite
in the red sea
her pieces
— Maya Idriss


I have not even come close to examining a tiny fraction of what is in the archive of David Giacalone’s defunct blog f/k/a, but it’s a big one, and one of the things in it was that amazing long dissection of haiku by Jim Kacian that I discussed in the last Haikuverse edition, so I’m suspecting there is a lot of other great stuff in there too. Report back to me on what you find.


You knew I was going to post this entry from Fiona Robyn’s wonderful little online semi-journal a handful of stones last week, didn’t you? If you didn’t, you should have.

(And for some reason I just now noticed that the author is one Christina Nguyen, whom I follow on Twitter under the name of TinaNguyen, and who writes a lot of wonderful haiku and gogyoghka — just Google it if you don’t know what that is, I don’t have time to explain right now. Her blog is linked below.)

ragged hip-hop
I read Issa

— Christina Nguyen

This haiga by George O. Hawkins blew me away when he posted it on Facebook last week. If you can’t see the picture, basically it’s a fancy picture of a butterfly, but the haiku … I rarely read any haiku that so perfectly and delicately combines the spirit (and content) of classical Japanese haiku with the spirit (and content) of contemporary American life. Nice work, George.

winter morning
I retouch
a butterfly
— George O. Hawkins

And Vincent Hoarau continues to stun me with so many of the French haiku he posts on Facebook, like this one from last week’s astronomical event:

solstice d’hiver –
il allume la lumière
de sa mappemonde

— vincent hoarau


Gillena Cox is having a “12 Days of Christmas” celebration at her blog Lunch Break, to which anyone can contribute haiku either by emailing them to Gillena or by posting comments on one of the 12 days. She’s up to Day Four today (theme: Four Calling Birds, or the four gospels). The first three days featured haiku by yours truly. (Never before seen! Act now!) Why don’t you head over there and see what you can come up with?


This will be the last Haikuverse of 2010, so naturally I need to discuss the last “Issa’s Sunday Service” of 2010 from last Sunday’s Issa’s Untidy Hut. The featured song is “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that sixties folk-rock standby on which I have a guilty crush. There are links to versions by both the Byrds and Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. There is also a great, thematically appropriate Issa haiku, which I would cut my right arm off with a dull penknife to have written:

a new year–
the same nonsense
piled on nonsense
— Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue


Dead Tree News: I left you with a cliffhanger last time when I discussed the first two of six chapters about the development of haikai poetry in Donald Keene’s World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867. I know you’ll be thrilled to hear that I have just finished chapter 3 and so you can find out what happened to haikai after it was given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by Matsunaga Teitoku in the seventeenth century.

Well, naturally what happened is that haikai became divided into competing schools, because that is what human beings do as soon as they invent something cool — they start to argue about what it really is and who should be in charge of it. On the plus side, this led to a lot more creative haikai as poets tried to carve out their own little niches in the haikai world:

Look at that! and that!
Is all I can say of the blossoms
At Yoshino Mountain.
— Teishitsu

Hey there, wait a moment!
Before you strike the temple bell
At the cherry blossoms.
— Shigeyori (This one references a No play, which his school of haikai did a lot)

Thanks to my gazing
I got a pain from the blossoms
In the bone of my neck.
— Nishiyama Soin, founder of the Danrin school of haikai. (This one is making fun of an old waka that waxes sentimental about cherry blossoms.)

There are some amazing stories about how fast these guys could compose haikai — Saikaku wrote a thousand in a day once, which everyone was impressed by until he wrote 1600 in a day and a night, which seemed amazing until he dictated 4000 in the same amount of time, which no one thought he could top until he composed 23,500 verses in a day and a night — “too fast for the scribes to do more than tally,” says Keene. Naturally, most of them weren’t much good, but that apparently wasn’t his goal: “His poetry delighted in the present, in the rapidly shifting patterns of the ‘floating world’ where the waves formed only to break.”

Despite all the quarrels between the competing schools, Soin wrote a really interesting statement of his haikai philosophy, which I can get completely behind:

Whether in the old style, the current style, or the in-between style, a good poet is a good poet, and a bad one a bad one; there is no such thing as distinguishing which style is the correct one; the best thing is to amuse oneself by writing what one likes; it is a joke within a fantasy.

Soin did not hesitate to express this philosophy with irreverent and humorous poems that took aim at the pieties of other schools and past generations, such as:

At Toribeno
The smoke never ceases
Over the funeral pyre.

Doesn’t it make the kites and
Crows sneeze?
— Soin

And that brings us almost to Basho, who was indebted to both schools of haikai for his masterpieces. Keene says, “From Teitoku he learned the importance of craftsmanship, from Soin the importance of spontaneity and of describing the present moment. Both elements were to be essential in developing the mature haikai.”

I’m feeling inspired already. On to the next chapter! Oh, and to the writing of more haiku. I hope your own work is going well in this week between holidays. It’s been a pleasure circulating the Haikuverse with you. I’ll see you again after the earth begins another trip around the sun.

December 28 (Evergreen)

he never
he’d run out
of time


yeah, I know, five lines. so I guess that makes this a tanka, or a gogyoghka, or something. or else a really incompetent haiku.

I really need to research tanka and gogyoghka. I have been trying not to pay attention to them because haiku are time-consuming enough, and also usually when I read tanka I have this feeling like, “This would be a really great haiku if you cut out two lines.” But so many people seem to swear by them, so maybe I should get with the program.

December 25: Nativity

Nativity scene
every year we think we’ve lost
the baby


Nativity scene
the shepherds are guarding


Nativity scene
the light in the stable
burned out


Nativity scene
folding a crane to replace
the broken angel

Nativity scene
the Wise Men never let go
of their gifts

Nativity scene
Joseph stares out
of the window

Nativity scene
the animals eye the manger

Nativity scene
Mary hides
from the visitors

Nativity scene
packing away the miracle
for next year


A very Merry Christmas to all my readers who are celebrating the holiday today. Thanks for all your well-wishes this season and all your support this year. Much joy to you and your families.

Haiku North America Conference 2011

NOTE: HNA 2011 will now NOT take place in Rochester, but in Seattle, Washington, from August 3-7.

Please check out the new details at the above link or at the HNA website!

I am only leaving this page up for archival purposes. Again, its details have been superseded by the information at the links above.



Michael Dylan Welch, the vice-president of the Haiku Society of America and an organizer of this conference, sent me this press release to post here, which I am very happy to do because I want you all to come to this.

I mean, I’m not completely sure I’m going to be able to come to it — I was definitely going to when they were planning to have it in Decatur, which is not all that far from here, but getting to Rochester will require some serious planning. And money. And luck. But if I can, I will, because I had a fantastic time at my first haiku conference and I think if anything this will be even better. And then we’ll all see each other there. Right?


New Location: Haiku North America to be Held in Rochester, New York, July 27–31, 2011

Organizers of the 2011 Haiku North America conference are pleased to announce that Rochester, New York, will now host the 2011 HNA conference, to be held July 27–31, 2011. The conference will maintain the theme of education in haiku and will take place at the Rochester Institute of Technology, cosponsored by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, by the Postsecondary Educational Network-International funded by the Nippon Foundation of Tokyo, and by the Rochester Area Haiku Group. Led by Jerome Cushman, the local organizing committee also includes Carolyn Dancy, Deb Koen, and Deanna Tiefenthal, with local and long-distance help from Francine Banwarth, Randy Brooks, and others. Anticipated activities include an Erie Canal boat cruise, banquet, regional readings, a memorial reading, anthology, T-shirts, and possible visits to nearby cultural attractions, including the National Museum of Play and a guided tour of historic Mt. Hope Cemetery, the oldest Victorian municipal cemetery in America and burial site of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, and poet Adelaide Crapsey. More details will be provided at and on the HNA Facebook page at!/pages/Haiku-North-America/113127392085466 (please take a look and click Like! if you’re a Facebook member). For more information, please contact Jerome Cushman at or Michael Dylan Welch at We look forward to seeing you at Haiku North America in Rochester!

Note: Randy Brooks and Millikin University regret that they are not able to host HNA in 2011. We’re grateful for Randy’s initial work in planning HNA for 2011, and also grateful to haiku poets in Rochester, New York, for taking on the conference. Don’t miss it!
—Michael Dylan Welch, Garry Gay, and Paul Miller

Call for Proposals
If you already submitted a proposal for HNA at Millikin University, it will still be considered (no need to resend). If you would like to submit a new proposal, please send it to Michael Dylan Welch at by January 31, 2011. The theme will be education in haiku, but proposals do not have to fit the theme. Proposals can include papers, presentations, panel discussions, readings, workshops, or other activities featuring haiku and related literature (except tanka) in North America. Please provide the following details with your proposal (directly in your email message; no attached files, please):

1.       Title (as you would want it to appear in the conference program—make it catchy or provocative if appropriate).
2.       A maximum of 50 words describing your presentation (as you would want it to appear in the conference program; please write to attract an audience).
3.       Additional descriptions or goals of your presentation (for the benefit of conference organizers), mentioning any planned handouts or activities.
4.       Special needs such as digital projection (for PowerPoint presentations), audio, whiteboard, etc.
5.       Length of time needed or preferred.

Present Yourself

I feel like giving you a present. Well, not all of you. I mean, yes, I do feel like giving you all presents, but I only have enough presents for one of you. Does that sound mean? Let me explain further.

This must be a thing left over from when I used to read a lot of craft blogs (I like to sew). Crafters are always making things and they always have spare bits and bobs and squares of fabric and darling little things they have whipped up in the middle of sleepless nights, and they are always giving them away to each other. They say on their blogs, “I happen to have this pile of darling fabric scraps and a pencil cozy I knitted last night, and I am going to give it all away to a random person who comments on this post.” It created a lot of camaraderie, plus, I imagine, it kept people coming back to read the blog in the hopes that next time they would be the one to win the pencil cozy.

Don’t worry, I don’t have any pencil cozies. What I do have is yet another book I picked up during my epic used-bookstore visit a couple of weeks ago. The thing is that I already own this book, a fact of which I was completely aware when I purchased it. This is a weird habit of mine. When I find nice used copies of books I really love, even if I already own a perfectly nice copy, even if they’re not rare, I often feel compelled to buy them anyway. Then I bring them home and stare at my bookshelves, which occupy pretty much all the spare floor space in my house and are so full I have begun stacking books horizontally on top of the vertical ones, and despair yet again of my sanity.

In this case, however, I conceived of a win-win solution to this problem: I would give away this book, which it just so happens I have written about at length on this very blog, to one of my readers. Not just because I need to get rid of a book. Not just because I like you. Not just because it’s the time of year when people traditionally give gifts to people they like.

But also because I like wrapping up books and tucking them in those cute little padded envelopes and trotting them down to the pharmacy-cum-post office on the corner and saying, “I would like to mail this, please,” which I always say even though what else would I be doing handing the people at the post office an addressed envelope? Don’t ask me why I like doing this, I just do. So you’re doing me a favor, really.

This copy of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (in case you were too lazy to click through to the link above) is a nice little rack-sized paperback that looks as if it’s never been read. It was printed in Japan as part of the “Unesco Series of Contemporary Works,” but it’s entirely in English and includes the enlightening introduction by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker.

So here’s the rundown: Comment on my blog. I know, you were going to do that anyway, weren’t you? Weren’t you? I will make a list of everyone who comments between now and December 31st (your name only gets to go on the list once, sorry, even if you comment every day, which I would be thrilled if you did).

Then I’ll put all the names in a hat, or something, and pull one out, and mail that person the book sometime after the New Year. It’s pretty simple, really.

(I may also include a special haiku I write just for you. You never know. Haiku don’t take up very much space in envelopes.)

Across the Haikuverse, No. 7: Please Don’t Make Me Go Christmas Shopping Edition

Yes, it’s that time again — time to check your booster rockets, lay in a supply of freeze-dried sushi, and climb into the shuttle for a whirlwind tour of the Haikuverse.

I am going to try to make this snappy since, in anticipation of the Holiday of Boundless Capitalist Delight, I’m planning to swing back by Earth later this afternoon in an attempt to observe this planet’s December ritual of purchasing an overabundance of material goods to honor the birth of someone who spent a lot of time talking about how stupid money was. If you joined me, we could amuse ourselves by trading senryu about the foibles of our holiday-crazed fellow human beings and then repairing to a tea shop to eat cookies and regain a Zenlike state of tranquility. Wouldn’t that be fun? Oh, well, maybe next year.


If you’re as stressed out by Chrismukkwanzaa as I am, you should go check out The Haiku Foundation’s new user forums. They have kind and helpful moderators, interesting discussion topics, opportunities to get feedback on your haiku from wiser and more experienced poets, and a generally happy, relaxed atmosphere, which we can all use this time of year.


Chris Gordon from ant ant ant ant ant stopped by here this week and left a brilliant comment that made me very happy, which reminded me that I hadn’t visited his wonderful blog in a while. Lots of great poetry there, including this lovely one-liner of Chris’s from his 2007 book Echoes:

the rain warmer than the air around it I find your scar

— Chris Gordon


Fiona Robyn, who posts her own lovely writing at a small stone and other peoples’ at a handful of stones, has gotten on the “write a whole bunch of stuff in a month in the company of other people” bandwagon (see: NaNoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo).

Her version is called “International Small Stones Writing Month,” and it’s headquartered at a river of stones. In a nutshell, the idea is to sign up to write one of the tiny poems Fiona calls “small stones” every day in the month of January. This seems like it would be a lot of fun for someone who, unlike me, had some extra time on his or her hands in the month of January. So if you’re one of those people, go make Fiona happy and hop on her bandwagon.

And speaking of a handful of stones, here’s one of my favorite posts from last week:

the fog finally
lifted, revealing distant

— @HaikuDiem


I’ve really been enjoying the haiku that George O. Hawkins has been posting lately on Facebook and Twitter. Like this one, for instance:

open water
the icy countenance
of a swan

— George O. Hawkins


Speaking of Twitter, CoyoteSings has created a blog featuring some of the best Twitter haiku and tanka, so if you’re wondering what’s going on over there on Twitter but you don’t want to actually get an account, you could check out Jars of Stars. Here’s a ku you might like, for instance:

such heat
then snow

our lives

— @PerlyGates


I liked this Daily Haiku entry last week:

first raindrops
an inaudible voice
on the answering machine
— Robert Epstein

I am so glad to see that Alan Segal, who had been on hiatus from his blog for a while, is back to posting fairly regularly at old pajamas: from the dirt hut. Alan’s poetry is surreal and challenging but I like the interesting things his images do to my brain. Example:

my horse dreams
of tracing the pattern
between stars…
and, ironhooved, shape,
sew his wooden kimono

— Alan Segal

I don’t pay nearly enough attention to haiga (there are only so many hours in the day) but every once in a while one really grabs me, like this illustration of a Ban’ya Natsuishi ku by Kuniharu Shimizu from see haiku here. (Go look at it. It’s a picture, see?)

“Issa’s Sunday Service,” over at Issa’s Untidy Hut keeps on making me happy. Last week there was a Grateful Dead song (“Althea”) that so, so geekily references both “Hamlet” and a 17th-century poem by Richard Lovelace (and, interesting to nobody but me, I just noticed that the version of the song linked to here was recorded in 1981, when I was twelve, at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, CT, about fifty miles from where I was living at the time).

Then there were several poems and ku on the subject of temple bells, including:

the praying mantis
hangs by one hand…
temple bell

— Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

Really, what’s not to like?


At Haiku Bandit Society the monthly Full Moon Viewing Party is coming right up on the 21st. Go on over there and share your ku on the subject of the full moon. All the cool kids are doing it.


On Michael Dylan Welch’s website, Graceguts, there is a great Lee Gurga interview, from 1991 but still well worth reading. (Michael reminded us of it on Facebook this week.) Here’s an excerpt:

My personal destiny is somehow intertwined with haiku, and has been since the dawning of consciousness in adolescence. I don’t feel this with any other kind of writing, nor with any other activity with the exception of planting trees and wildflowers. But please don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that I suppose there is anything “special” about my work, or that it is better than the writing of those differently related to haiku. But then, of course, the aim of haiku is “nothing special”—that special “nothing special” that somehow touches us at the core of our being.

— Lee Gurga


Over at extra special bitter, Paul David Mena blew me away with this one this week:

December rain —
the long night

— Paul David Mena


At Tobacco Road Poet, the “Three Questions” this week were answered by Jim Kacian, who is the founder and president of The Haiku Foundation and also one of my favorite living haiku poets. He wrote this, for example (and I had a really hard time choosing this one from among many other favorites), so you see what I mean:

just now
as my life turns crazy

— Jim Kacian

It’s worth reading Jim’s answers to the Three Questions and also worth reading much of the copious other material by and about him that is available out there on the Interwebs. There is this index that can get you started. I love the first essay it links to, “Haiku as Anti-Story”, which starts out this way:

Haiku are not really difficult, once you are willing to take the words at their own valuation. … So why is it so hard? Why does it need explanation? Because the mother, friend, reader is looking for story. “Yes, it’s a lily, but what is it really?” Your audience is looking for story, but you’re giving them — anti-story.

— Jim Kacian, “Haiku as Anti-Story”

Oh — so hard for those of us who love stories so passionately to let go of that narrative pull. This makes me wonder if I am guilty of wanting haiku to do too much — if I want them, too often, to be tiny stories. It also makes me wonder if it’s really impossible for haiku ever to be tiny stories. So much to think about…
But if you really want to be blown away by the comprehensiveness of Jim’s thoughts about and understanding of haiku, you’ll have to set aside a little time to read his magnum opus: First Thoughts: A Haiku Primer. This covers everything about haiku, from history to form to content to technique to language, in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, but exhilarating detail. (If for some reason you’re a little short on time this week and want to read a short excerpt to get an idea of what the Primer is all about, you could just read “How to Write Haiku.”) Try it, you’ll like it.


Dead Tree News: During the same used-bookstore visit in which I picked up the Johan Huizinga book on play I wrote about the other day, I found a thick tome by Donald Keene entitled World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. It covers poetry, fiction, and drama. I am making my way through it slowly. Very, very slowly. Okay, so I’ve only read two chapters. But they were great chapters!

These were two of six chapters on the early development of “haikai,” which are what we know today as haiku (in case you weren’t aware, no one called them that until Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century). Keene doesn’t even get around to Basho until chapter 5, so this is the really early development of haikai.

Some of this story was familiar to me — I knew that haikai originally were the first verses of renga, a linked verse form which at the time was primarily a kind of parlor game or a form of court entertainment, often employing crude humor or at best clever word play. But I didn’t know that no one took them seriously as an independent art form until a guy named Matsunaga Teitoku came along. He wasn’t a great poet or anything and he seems to have been a little OCD-ish in insisting that everyone follow the Official Rules of Haikai, which he kind of made up himself. (Some things never change.)

However, Teitoku did haikai the great favor of saying that it was just as valid a poetic form as renga or the fancier poetry known as waka, and also of saying that it was all right to use a simpler, more ordinary vocabulary — “haigon” — in haikai, compared to the more elevated, literary vocabulary that writers of waka usually employed. Here’s what Keene says about this development:

[Teitoku’s] insistence on haigon not only enriched the vocabulary of poetry but opened up large areas of experience that could not be described except with such words. Haikai was especially popular with the merchant class which, though it retained a lingering admiration for the cherry blossoms and maple leaves of the old poetry, welcomed a variety of poetry that could describe their pleasures in an age of peace and prosperity. … [W]ithout his formal guidance haikai poetry might have remained forever on the level of the limerick.

— Donald Keene, “Matsunaga Teitoku and the Creation of Haikai Poetry” from World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867

So there you have it … the next time you are writing a haiku and striving to keep it simple, stupid, you can thank Teitoku.


Okay, off to brave retail hell in the name of peace on earth. As ever, it was a joy circumnavigating the Haikuverse with you this week. I wish you many silent nights in which to read, and write, haiku, unless you are the kind of person who prefers the company of merry gentlemen this time of year, in which case, by all means, go for it.