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Classic Haiku: Chiyo-ni

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Chiyo-ni, Woman Haiku Writer

Not many English speakers know that woman as well as men wrote haiku in
pre-modern Japan, but one of them, Chiyo-ni, is considered one of the great masters of the form.

Here, I will share some of her life story and her poems, with links to learn more about her. Finally, I'll tell you what her poems have taught me about writing haiku.

Chiyo-Ni and the Morning Glories

Chiyo-ni probably didn't look this much like a geisha, but this picture by a well-known artist shows how famous she was a century after she lived.

Chiyo-ni probably didn't look this much like a geisha, but this picture by a well-known artist shows how famous she was a century after she lived.

From Childhood to Widowhood

Fukuda Chiyo-ni (also called Kaga no Chiyo) lived from 1703-1775. Her parents were picture-framers, and she wrote her first haiku at the age of seven, according the short biography in Wikipedia. As a girl and young woman, she became well-known for her poetry throughout Japan.

Her most famous haiku is playfully illustrated by the Japanese print on the right:

Morning glories
grabbed my well-bucket -
I go to borrow water

(That is my translation, based on several on the section on Chiyo-ni at Dr. Gabi Greve's excellent website on haiku sponsored by the World Kigo Database.)

When she became engaged to the servant of a samurai, she wrote a poem which expresses her inexperience with marriage and sex in a wry and sophisticated way:

will it be bitter or not --
the first time I pick
a persimmon
(trans. Lenore Mayhew)

Married at twenty-five, she had only one son, who died, and she found a way to express her love and loss in haiku form:

dragonfly hunter
how far has he traveled
today I wonder?
(trans. Jane Reichhold, on the same site as above)

Poetry must have sustained her, because her life as wife and mother was short: her husband died when she was twenty-seven:

sitting up I see
lying down I see
how wide the mosquito net
(trans. Jane Reichhold )

Despite her loneliness, she valued her independence too much to remarry. Instead, she enjoyed deep friendships with women, particularly Suejo (or Sue-jo) who was like a sister to her, and with whom she wrote many renku, a longer Japanese form written by pairs or groups of people. Here are the first two verses of one; you can click on the translator to read the rest:

waking not
from the dreamscape
-- morning glories! (Suejo)

the moon held still
in a garden stream (Chiyo-ni)
(trans. John Carley)

Chiyo-ni studied informally with several of Basho's disciples, and many saw her as one of Basho's true heirs, both her in poetry, and in her simple life of loving awareness toward the world. On a portrait of Basho she wrote in calligraphy:

To listen,
fine not to listen, fine too...
(trans. Lenore Mayhew )

To me, this suggests that she was aware of being considered Basho's disciple, and wanted to say that she listened to him carefully, but did not copy him, "not to listen, fine too."

The Same Spring Leaves

Part of the essence of haiku is to capture what is always new in the returning seasons.

Part of the essence of haiku is to capture what is always new in the returning seasons.

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Chiyo-ni's Later Life

It may be that after her husband's death Chiyo-ni lived with and cared for her elderly parents. She wrote:

parents older than I
are now my children
the same cicadas
(trans. Jane Reichhold)

When she was fifty-two, Chiyo-ni became a Buddhist nun, shaving her head as is still the custom today. She took the name Soen, which according to Donegan means "Simple Garden," She wrote:

Putting up my hair
no more
my hands to the kotatsu
(trans. Donegan & Isibashi)

The "kotatsu" is a low table with a charcoal burner under it, important in Japanese homes without central heating or insulation. In this poem she expresses how she no longer has long hair to fuss with, and can now relax and warm herself at the stove.

Being a Buddhist nun in those days did not mean living in a monastery or nunnery. Soen/Chiyo-ni continued her simple life of writing and friendship. Another of her friends was a fellow nun, Kasenjo, who had been a prostitute in her youth. This isn't as strange as it sounds, as Japanese culture considered prostitutes socially marginal but not shameful or sinful, so they fairly often became nuns in their later years. Maybe Chiyo-ni was thinking of things Kasenjo had told her when she wrote:

on her day off
the prostitute wakes up alone
the night's chill
(trans. Donegan & Isibashi)

For Kasenjo in her later life as a nun, as for Chiyo-ni, a simple poet's life was better than security or wealth. Their friend Sue-jo expresses this in one verse of a renku she wrote with Chiyo-ni:

A writing stand,
paper, the moon...
(trans. Lenore Mayhew)

Chiyo-ni's Buddhist World

While there is some controversy about whether Buddhism and haiku were always related in old Japan, for Chiyo-ni they certainly were. In her book, Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master, Patricia Donegan cites Basho's philosophy of haiku, which is closely related to Buddhist practice and inspires much of Chiyo-ni's work:

"Learn about the pine from the pine and the bamboo from the bamboo--the poet should detach his mind from self . . . and enter into the object . . . so the poem forms itself when poet and object become one."

When I read many of Chiyo-ni's poems I have that sense of her oneness with what she describes:

a single spider's thread
ties the duckweed
to the shore
(trans. Donegan and Ishibashi)

Two or three
sing all night
(trans. Lenore Mayhew )

at the crescent moon
the silence
enters the heart
(trans. Donegan and Ishibashi)

That last one in particular leaves me almost without words to praise it,
filling me with the silence in describes. Perhaps it is what Donegan calls a "realization poem" expressing a moment of enlightment.

Chiyo-ni, like many enlightened Buddhists and haiku poets as well, spoke a poem on her deathbed:

having gazed at the moon
I depart from this life
with a blessing
(trans. Jane Reichhold)

Low Tide: A Video Version

Clear Water

Clear Water

What Haiku Poets Can Learn from Chiyo-ni

I will not go into technical details here: I am not really knowledgeable enough, and this article is already long. So I'll just say that Chiyo-ni teaches me to bring my whole self to my poetry, and be fully present to witness the world around me.
Sometimes she disappears into the natural moment, and sometimes her unique experience comes through, but both are always truthful and unafffected, and yet artistically expressed.

To tangle
or untangle the willow
it’s up to the wind
(trans. Donegan & Isibashi)

She isn't afraid to see the humor in things:

low-tide beach
everything one stoops to touch
moves in the fingers
(trans. Janet Reichold)

She tells you what she feels, without using adjectives or strongly personal language:

Rouged lips
forgotten --
clear spring water.
(trans. Donegan & Isibashi)

Can't you taste that cool water on your lips?

You May Also Enjoy

Classic Haiku Beyond Basho: Kobayashi Issa an appreciation of the work of the second most famous classic haiku poet, and my favorite.

Haiku by Richard Wright: An Unknown Treasure of Black Poetry an essay, with plenty of examples, about the many fine haiku that Wright created in the two years before his death in 1960.

Five Poetry Ebooks: Free Haiku to Download Good, literary haiku are being written today in English. Here are anthologies and single-authored books that I have read and re-read with pleasure.

Some Great Haiku Blogs Meet individual poets who specialize in haiku and other Japanese short form poetry such as tanka: all of them are worth reading.


Ryan Bernido Network from Manila, Philippines on April 28, 2020:

Thank you for sharing this. I really love haiku.

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on March 20, 2013:


KrisL (author) from S. Florida on March 20, 2013:

Welcome to HubPages and thanks so much for your kind comment.

I look forward to reading your hubs as well.

If you want to write haiku, I recommend my "how to write haiku, some great links" which has links to good hubs by others and outside sources on the form . . . and "how to write bad haiku,' my little how-not-to guide.

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on March 19, 2013:

I am a historian and love the story of Chyiyo-ni. Thank you for introducing me to this art form. I find it intriguing and plan to try it myself. I am now an active follower and am excited about the chance I have to learn from you. Long live chyiyo-ni!

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 27, 2012:

Thank you. It was fun chasing down her autobiographical and personal haiku all over the web.

She must have been quite a woman.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 27, 2012:

Your writing is the fresh response to old material...

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on October 08, 2012:

Audrey, thanks so much!

As I study haiku, I wish I could speak Japanese.

I appreciated your sharing it too.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 08, 2012:

This is such a wonderful article on Haiku and on Chiyo-ni. I speak a bit of Japanese and so am off to take a look st the Kigo website you referenced. Am sharing this!

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on August 27, 2012:

Thank you, Billy! I enjoyed writing the hub and I'm honored you took a moment to comment . . . I picked up little pieces of her biography & the corresponding haiku from all over the web,

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 27, 2012:

That was interesting! I like history of any kind, so thank you for the education.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on July 28, 2012:

Thank you, and yes, it amazes me what a good translator can do . . . and also how much is added in translation.

I actually removed the first translation I had for the haiku on morning glories, and ended up cobbling together my own "translation" from the work of others, because on reading the literal meaning I decided that he had added too much.

Unfortunately Donagan and Ishibashi's book dedicated to Chiyo-ni alone is now out of print and rather expensive, but she appears in other books, and also around the web.

Everything quoted here is from one website or another, and you can find more with the links.

whowas on July 27, 2012:

Thank you so much for another exquisite hub on Haiku and for introducing me to the life and work of this extraordinarily interesting and woman and poet.

I will find the time at the earliest opportunity to explore her work. I'm also put in mind of how very challenging it must be to translate haiku from Japanese into English and so we should also bow in the direction of the talented and sensitive work of the translator's of her work.

KrisL (author) from S. Florida on July 21, 2012:

Sid, thanks! One flower, both bindweed and morning glory, so exactly illustraties the haiku poet's ability to see beauty in the ordinary,

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 20, 2012:

haiku poetess

verse life twined - morning

glories - bindweed

Kris, thank you for enriching our lives with the story of Chiyo-ni.

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