April 18: History



spring planting
the history book open
to the last page

.(NaHaiWriMo topic: History)


When I gave this prompt, I suspected it might cause a little angst for some people who saw it as overly abstract or intellectual for haiku. And in fact, one person (whom I respect enormously as a person and a poet) did wonder whether haiku on this topic weren’t “desk haiku,” haiku based more on ideas than images. I understand why people might feel that way — the word “history” sounds so abstract, so theoretical. It might seem as if I’m asking for a term paper instead of a poem.

But the classical haiku poets didn’t shy away from historical topics — perhaps the most famous example being Basho’s haiku written after his visit to the site of a famous historic battle:

summer grass …
those mighty warriors’
dream tracks

— Basho, translated by William H. Higginson

There’s also Buson’s deathbed verse:

Winter warbler —
long ago in Wang Wei’s
hedge also

— Buson, translated by Robert Hass

I think maybe for some people history is a very textbook kind of thing; it doesn’t seem real to them, not in the same way that the events of their own daily life do. But as soon as these events happen — they pass into the realm of history. History isn’t all politics, philosophy, sociology — it’s the clothes people wore when you were a child, it’s the squat, homely horse Abe Lincoln rode to review the troops during the Civil War, it’s the birds that were singing right before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, it’s what your mother gave you for breakfast the morning JFK was shot. It’s the world, the whole concrete world of concrete details, the one that haiku poets cherish, only in the past.

This is how I responded on the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page when this prompt was called into question:

“Maybe I’m weird — history for me is about images a lot more than ideas, but then I tend to think in pictures a lot. For instance, when someone says ‘the battles of Lexington and Concord’ to me, I don’t start thinking about battle strategy or the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution, I start thinking about the field in Concord where the battle was, which I’ve visited; there’s a great wooden bridge there and the grass is very green in the summer, and it’s not far from Walden Pond, where there’s a stone cairn in the woods on the site of Thoreau’s cabin…

the battle site
children run back and forth
across the bridge

the cries of swimmers
we add one more stone
to his grave”


Anyway: Moving on:

NaHaiWriMo prompt for April 19th


See this post for an explanation of what this is.

See the NaHaiWriMo website.

See the NaHaiWriMo Facebook page, and contribute haiku there if you want. (It doesn’t have to have anything to do with this prompt. It’s just a suggestion.)

15 thoughts on “April 18: History

  1. No angst for me, Melissa. A challenge more like it. I’m still working on a two more, in fact. I love your prompts, truly! Thanks!

  2. And I suppose any concern that history might not quite fit haiku is a question of it fitting traditional haiku, and this not of concern to any movement outside a traditional tradition, as it were. But your example is a fantastic one too, especially love that Basho ku.

    Have you seen these three translations?

    Ah, summer grasses!
    All that remains
    Of the warriors dreams.

    R.H. Blyth

    Summer grasses
    all that remains
    of soldiers dreams.


    Here where a thousand
    captains swore grand conquest
    Tall grasses their monument.


    My fav is the Stryk one but the Beilenson one is interesting. From the same set of symbols, a lot of movement in meaning, huh?

    • Those are great, Ash. I love comparative translation. Really have to learn Japanese so I can actually figure out which one I think is most accurate. 🙂

      Yeah, obviously when you get into talking about gendai your perspective on history references in haiku is going to be completely different…but I didn’t really want to get into that on NaHaiWriMo. 🙂 Also, I am still working out what my theory of haiku poetics is and where gendai fits into that and what I think gendai is … just more than I wanted to take on at this point. (But if you have any thoughts on this I’d love to hear them!)

      • Wouldn’t that be awesome if we already had the Japanese language under our belts?

        Oh my, my thoughts on gendai? I’m with you – I’m not sure how much I get it. In fact, I think I’m trailing you, I don’t really know if I understand gendai at all. Perhaps a little, in that, I understand the urge to innovate while incorporating something of past traditions.

        But that might be all. I still think writing lots of gendai verses helps, which you can do so well!

        • Yeah…from a scholarly standpoint I know basically nothing about gendai, but I keep reading them and after a while their general aesthetic seeps into your bones…

          Although I’m not really sure I ever try to write gendai per se. I have haiku that I love and some of them have been classed as gendai and some haven’t. So really, basically, I’m trying to write the haiku that I think I would love even if I wasn’t the one who had written them. What their category is doesn’t concern me so much.

          • Yes, I think the general aesthetic just seeps in doesn’t it?

            I like that way of working, Mel – write and ascribe (if even required for some reason, comp, journal etc) a style to the piece later.

            • Wow, I must be lucky, I don’t think anyone’s ever required me to ascribe a style to anything I’ve written. Seems so weird. If someone asked me that question I think I’d say, “Well, what style do *you* think it is?” Since it’s so important to them. But then I’m a pain in the neck.

              • Hahaha! I think it’s the way I do it sometimes, I write a piece without over-thinking where possible, and then decide that it may or may not fit into the parameters of any given style, then decide what to do with it (submit or hide away etc)

                • Oh well, I mean of course I try to suit my submissions to what I perceive as the tastes of the editor judged by what kinds of poems have been in the journal in the past, but I still don’t usually really name the style of the poem even to myself when I’m doing this. Also, to me, “gendai” is a really huge category encompassing a wide variety of poetry, some of which seems like just slightly more edgy “regular” haiku and some of which seems like incomprehensible gibberish (and everything in between), so I don’t know how useful a category I even find it. Maybe the Japanese have a more coherent sense of it than I do, I don’t know.

                  • I know what you mean – huge spread of meaning within. What about a word fro English ku that approximates it? I’ve been thinking about one and ‘innovative’ or ‘modern’ doesn’t quite seem enough somehow. Any ideas?

                    • Once again I think you need more than one word…I think people do use “gendai” for ELH more or less because there doesn’t seem to be any English term that really gets at the nuance of meaning. You can do “avant garde” or “experimental” if they’re really wild, or “nontraditional” if you want a more neutral term, I suppose….I don’t know. I tend to prefer just describing what’s going on in them to labeling them, because the labels all mean different things to different people.

  3. Pingback: Concrete History: Haiga Leaf « A 19 Planets Art Blog 2010/2011

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