Wait: Is Haiku Really Poetry?
For the average poetry reader—particularly a reader of Twitter or Facebook—a whole book of haiku may not seem like good news.
Many people write intentionally bad joke haiku, and many others write unintentionally bad haiku, just as people write and post sentimental or garbled poetry of all kinds these days.
The books I offer here give you a taste of the haiku masters of today. Not all will be read centuries from now, but all are worth your time.
For another look at contemporary poets worth reading you can also check out my hub on great Haiku Blogs.
Haiku: Poetry to Download
First, a Book that Helps Define Good Haiku
When looking for haiku ebooks, I want good poems above all, both for the pure pleasure of reading and to help me perfect my craft. I also want a book I can read or download without signing up for anything, or downloading software: all of these fit that requirement.
In addition, I am always on the look-out for intelligent writing about haiku that is interesting and insightful—but not wordy. I don't find it helpful to read pages and pages about one three-line poem.
H.F. Noyes answers my wish with fifty poems in Favorite Haiku: Brief Essays 1975-1998. The link is to volume one of the series which reflects almost a quarter century of reading the best of the genre. The rest are available in the Haiku Foundation's Digital Library. Each haiku comes with a one paragraph essay They are mostly by modern authors, both Japanese and English-speaking—although he has some older Japanese haiku, including one by Issa—and they cover a wide range of styles. He chooses both those that remind him of classic authors and also more modern and informal work.
Noyes's essays emphasize something important about all haiku: they convey a fully present way of seeing the world which is special to haiku, and also individual to every good haijin (haiku poet). In his first essay he calls it a "quality of alertness or special sensibility."
The book is attractively produced, easy to read on the computer, and reasonably readable on my Kindle Paperwhite. Unfortunately, a few of the later essays have formatting errors on one or two lines, but nothing that makes meaning unclear, and all the haiku are fine.
Here is one of my favorites in a "traditional style," which Noyes rightly compares to the old Japanese masters in the way it shows that everything we experience is intimately related to everything else. He calls it the "the spirit of the universe," understood as the "element of wholeness rather than holiness."
The old rooster crows . . .
Out of the mist come the rocks
and the twisted pine
~ O. Mabson Southard
Another haiku from the anthology has much of the same spirit. The event it portrays is as old as the human race, but its use in a haiku is both modern and necessarily the work of a woman poet.
warm rain before dawn;
my milk flows into her
~ Ruth Yarrow
As Noyes writes, this haiku is full of gentle yugen, "mystery," in Japanese. While yugen refers to the mysterious and miraculous in religious writing, in Japanese poems it often alludes to consciousness of something the poet is aware of but cannot perceive, like the moon behind a mountain or a silent birdsong.
Snow on the Water
Snow on the Water: Red Moon Anthology 1998, whose lead editor is Jim Kacian, is one of three Red Moon Anthologies published 1996-1998 and available in the Haiku Foundation's digital library (as are three of these five books).
Snow on Water is particularly high quality because it is a selection from over 1,000 already published haiku and other related forms, including senyru, and haibun (haiku with prose). As a nice bonus, the .pdf's simple but attractive format is easy to read on my Kindle Paperwhite.
Here are just a few of my favorites, two haiku and a senryu, the related form that is more personal and sometimes humorous.
". . . cat gone for years"
my pant leg—
cat gone for years
~ Edward Beatty
from its silent bell
the buzz of a nesting wasp
~ Robert Gilliland
after ringing it up
the cashier sniffs
my sprig of mint
~ Carl Patrick
"Winter dreams . . ."
Haiku Harvest 2000-2006, edited by Dennis Garrison, is a good download because of both its length and its variety. It collects every issue of Garrison's haiku journal, giving the reader plenty to explore, whether one chooses to read from beginning to end or to skip around. Because it is not an anthology of already published poems, like the Red Moon series, its quality is not quite as consistent, but its range is perhaps greater. Like the books above, it is readable on my Kindle.
Garrison is interested in variations on haiku and devotes one issue to "ku nouveau." These include haiku couplets, also called "crystalines," and the "cinquain" form, which has lines of 2, 5, 6, 8 and 2 syllables. You'll also find fifteen syllable "zip" poems, and the "shinku," a sort of entwined haiku form you'll just have to read to understand.
Still seeing your face in winter dreams
my summer friend, do you miss me?
~ Carol Raisfeld
between two days,
passed away, yet to be;
I, in the middle of this dream,
~ Debra Woolard Bender
Two issues are dedicated to "haiku noir." Derived, I think, from "film noir," this is a subgenre of haiku which seeks to stretch conventional range of haiku topics. As Garrison writes, they deal "with that which is not generally considered to be proper subject matter for the classical haiku," such as "depression, madness, terror, horror, anger, macabre humor, anti-heroism, crime, passion, the underworld/ subcultures, squalor, eros" and so on.
Some of the haiku noir seemed a bit forced to me, not because of the subject matter, but because they seem more clever than heart-felt. There were exceptions though, including some outstanding haiku by Dennis Garrison himself.
after serving thirty years –
or leaving it
~ J. D. Heskin
driving home again
after hours of one way talk
suddenly, hot tears
~ Dennis Garrison
Even when writing "normal" haiku, both Garrison and many of the poets he choses have a refreshingly wry view of the world, far removed from the haiku stereotype of pretty little poems about pretty little things.
garbagemen have left
cans lying in the gutter –
crows inspect the job
~ Dennis Garrison
To Make a World
To Make a World: Haiku and Tanka by James Luguri is a beautifully produced e-chapbook for the computer screen. It is arranged by the seasons.
The narcissus opens:
nothing to believe,
nothing to doubt.
A forgotten ball:
the moon is washed into shore
on wave after wave.
Putting out my light
birches begin to assemble
one by one in the dark
An hour’s snow:
heaven and earth settle briefly
all their old differences.
As the introduction explains, James Luguri was a unique man and poet, and much missed. He died of a heart attack in 1985 at only 38 years old. At thirteen, he entered a Carmelite monastery, leaving after ten years to go to college. At the time of his death, he was a professor of theology in California, and "his principle forms of expression were haiku and aphorism," although he also translated Rilke and wrote longer poems.
"The narcissus opens . . ."
Haiga by Basho
The Haiku Masters
The Haiku Masters: Four Poetic Diaries by Gail Sher is a unique work of art to read on your computer.
The four "haiku masters" in question are those who made the form what it is today. Two of them are familiar to anyone who reads haiku on-line, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Kobayashi Issa (1762-1826).
Yosa Buson (1716-1784) was also key to the development of haiku, and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) brought them into the modern era.
As Andrew Schelling writes in his preface to the book, the four poets are so different that "you might imagine they watch over haiku, like guardians of the Four Directions at some rustic wooden temple. Each introduced a new sensibility to the practice." Shiki, who lived into the twentieth century, "edges so near to our own world that poems of his are included in a recent anthology of haiku on baseball."
Gail Sher's homage to these poets is both sensitive tribute and an act of high wire literary chutzpah. She translates their poems (in italics), quotes from their prose writings, and also puts words in their mouths. She writes passages in which she speaks for each poet, explaining his approach to art or life, or presenting what seem like fragments of his diary, and writes poems in each one's style.
Gail Sher appropriately uses her section on Basho, the founder of modern haiku, to present his thinking about the art form: "Hokku [as haiku were called then] should not spell everything out. What remains unexpressed is rooted in its beauty’s source, deeper than human understanding."
tears in the eyes of fish
dawn melts into light,
pale clouds rise
picking herbs a young girl yawns
~ Sher, after Basho
The section on Buson is called "Get on a Sleigh: Buson's Heart Song." It portrays a man of kindness and unaffected sincerity for whom nature and the poetic tradition were equally real and present.
"While the young people are greedily hurrying ahead, I, far behind, quietly look from place to place. I find five mushrooms as big as small grass huts. How splendid! I wonder why Chief Counselor of State, Lord Uji Takakuni, wrote only about the strangeness of hiratake mushrooms and never mentions the splendor of matsutake." [Sher]
you should see
the five mushrooms with dew-drops
that were not picked!
"blossoms of butterbur"
Sher's chapter on Issa focuses on the difficult final decade or so of his life. He married, but his well-loved first wife died, and all his children died young.
This was the time that inspired his famous haiku after the death of his little daughter. It contrasts the Buddhist teaching of equanimity in the face of the world's transience with his own grief:
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
~ Issa, trans. Lewis Mackenzie
Sher expresses this struggle in the words she gives the poet:
"I quickly forgive Takamaru’s parents for weeping shamelessly, even though they are priests who preach indifference to life’s vicissitudes. 'Who can blame them?' I assure myself. 'It is only human that their hearts should be deeply oppressed by their unbreakable attachment to the child.'”
wedged in the pocket
of the drowned boy,
blossoms of butterbur
~ Sher, after Issa
In her section on Shiki Sher also focuses on the poet's difficult later years, in which he was bedridden with spinal tuberculosis. As a modern artist, Shiki was frank in describing his mental and physical pain, and Sher both quotes and expands on the sordid details of his sickbed. One can see this final section as an extended implicit question: "How does art like haiku address the depth of human suffering?"
The chapter gives no clear answers, but shows how writing haiku helped Shiki survive, and helped him and those who loved him see his life as valuable.
"Today, as usual, it rains. My grogginess is intolerable, so I take morphine. Then I try to sketch the Ezo chrysanthemum."
abandoned train station
a stone Buddha sits
autumn leaves in hand
~ Sher, after Shiki
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on January 02, 2016:
pursued with admiration
full speed ahead now
Shaloo Walia from India on December 09, 2015:
Jonas Rodrigo on August 04, 2015:
Thanks for this useful hub, Kris!
Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on July 04, 2015:
Interesting article!Well done Krisl!
KrisL (author) from S. Florida on June 16, 2013:
Deb (aviannovice) and Sid, thank you so much for your kind words. It's wonderful to tinker with a hub on and off for 2 months and then get instant affirmation when I publish :-)!
Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on June 16, 2013:
Beautiful! Once again, KrisL, you bless us by opening a gateless gate into the world of haiku.
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on June 16, 2013:
These all look like wonderful books, which will give the reader a greater understanding to what lay ahead in the world of haiku.