elegant spirit – book review of The Art of Haiku

(W)ithout an elegant spirit there could not be an elegant word or style.

Nijō Yoshimoto (1320-88), pg. 46

The Art of Haiku: Its history through poems and paintings by Japanese masters (Shambhala Publications) by Stephen Addiss is a multi-layered map of the origins, development, and art of Japanese haiku.  Prolific in his writings about Japanese art, poetry, print, and Zen, Addiss has yet to  disappoint despite the large volume of work he has produced.  His books have ranged across the genre of Japanese art from the instructive How to Look at Japanese Art (1996; co-authored with Audrey Yoshiko Seo) and the whimsical series of haiku-themed print collections (A Haiku Menagerie, Haiku People, & Haiku Humor) to the more serious examinations of Japanese art as a cultural and spiritual form in 77 Dances, Haiga: Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-Painting Tradition, and Art of Zen.  Addiss also curated the work of Hakuin for an art show, The Sound of One Hand, which opened in New York in 2010; you can read a review here.

I had a momentary concern that after all his contributions to the literature of Japanese art everything that needed to be written about the topic had been effectively exhausted.  In fact, the first paragraph of the book seemed to suggest it would be a compendium of art and poetry by the Trinity of haiku, Bashō, Buson, and Issa with a little Shiki thrown in for good measure.  Almost  immediately, Addiss disabuses this notion and begins a well-articulated and organized teaching of the definition of haiku (despite the confusion of how to define it) and paints a very comprehensive portrait of this art form that few can truly master.  He closes the chapter deftly by moving into a description of haiga, a “visual-verbal art” that is the intersection of calligraphy, art, and poetry.

Having established the historical and cultural coordinates, Addiss proceeds at a steady pace; he methodically explores the development of poetry from the early forms as song (tanka) into an ever-expanding dialogue between poets, lovers, scholars, or friends (tan-renga).  Addiss breaks up the academic, albeit totally accessible, portions of the chapters with examples of the topic (tanka, renga, haikai, haiga, etc.) using the works of various poets.  This approach lends the book its greatest charm and value.  Not only is there an opportunity to learn the intricacies of the production of haiku and all its variations, we are offered tours into the deeper structures of the poems.  Addiss not only places the poet’s work in historical and personal context, he also uses the haiku to demonstrate how the themes are developed and the nuances of song linger in the use of particular syllables or sounds (a “cutting word” like ya as a pause, kana to complete the verse, etc.).

This level of detail is never overwhelming or superfluous to simply enjoying the haiku.  Addiss writes with the skill of a seasoned teacher who is equally familiar with the verbal and visual traditions.  The writing flows smoothly and is compelling, never interfering with the possibility of simply reading the haiku for their own beauty.  The explanations are lean in expression and, even in the rush of trying to get the book read to a deadline, penetrated sufficiently that I felt a growth spurt in understanding the intricate beauty of this art form.  The comprehensiveness of the first two chapters becomes invaluable when Addiss introduces us to Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki.  Using their haiku, Addiss provides a new perspective on their lives.  The association of Bashō with frogs leaping into ponds and with long interior roads is fleshed out with insights to his emotional side.  Finding a toddler left on the road by parents who were too poor to care for him, Bashō wrote:

 for those who have heard the monkey’s cry,
this abandoned baby in the autumn wind –
 why?  how?

How did he deal with this?  What deep sadness did it stir in him as he tried to understand the vagaries of this floating world?  Addiss offers little solace but much insight to Bashō himself.  Other poems reveal a cheeky side of Bashō when he composes verses about rice cakes being pooped upon by warblers and one of equanimity in the face of his impending death.

In the chapter on Buson, we enter into a world of dispassionate observation and use of sounds to project the content of his haiku.  As with Bashō, Buson’s haiga amplify the feelings in the haiku and bring together the elements of the verbal and visual through art, calligraphy and poetry.  With Issa, we dive into the pain of his life rendered through his haiku.  There are verses here that may not be as familiar to us and this lends freshness to the conventional stories of a beloved poet.  

About the loss of his mother

  my lost mother —
every time I look at the sea,
  every time I look . . .

The “floating world”

  in this world
we are flower-viewing
  over hell

Realizing that Buddha exists everywhere

  where there are people
there are flies
  there are buddhas

Throughout the book, Addiss takes his time navigating in a gentle rhythm between the haiku and the exploration of its form and structure.  Again, the flow gives the chapters an easy-to-digest feel and rarely is the reader overwhelmed by details or explanations.  However, the chapter on Senryu and Zen and the final chapter on Shiki and other modern poets were regrettably short.  And yet, and yet…  it leaves room for more come in the future.

To my delight, buried in the scholarship and easy flow of the Masters of haiku, there was an unexpected treasure.  In Chapter 4, Followers of Bashō, he introduces the women haiku masters.  Poets such as Kana-jo wrote haiku on the seasons, Chine (1660-88) wrote of travels with her brother, also a haiku poet.  Her death poem captures the fleeting and vibrant nature of living and dying.

  easily blazing
and easily extinguished —
  the firefly

Chigetsu, Sute-jo, and Sono-jo wrote poems that serve as sharp observations of their life and culture, nature and the everyday.

  just like scarecrows,
how sorrowful —
  a group of nuns


  with water as a mirror
you can paint your eyebrows—
  willow by the river


Second generation from Bashō, Chiyo-ni composed haiga that expressed her sentiments in strong, tight strokes and an ear for sound.  She wrote one a haiku considered the most famous by any male or female poet.

  the morning glory
has claimed the well bucket —
  I’ll go borrow water


This chapter adds to the growing works on women in zen and might be one of the few that shows their creativity in the zen arts.  For this alone, the book is worth its weight in sumi-e ink sticks.

The Art of Haiku is a book seems intimidating however it lends itself well to being read at four levels: an anthology of haiku, a source of information about the history of haiku, an articulate lesson in the form and structure of haiku, and a well-organized, attentive work shedding a fresh light on the nature of the male and female masters of haiku and haiga.  And, in the spirit of what I learned about the power of repeated phrases in haiku, Nijo Yoshimoto words seem equally applicable to Addiss, himself a master of haiku, calligraphy, and zen art:

  an elegant spirit
fires the heart
  with elegant words and style

What better way to celebrate 108 Zen Books’ 3rd anniversary!

Thank you for walking this road to the interior with me.

5 thoughts on “elegant spirit – book review of The Art of Haiku

    • Thank you, David. And a bow of gratitude for your delightful presence!

      Stephen Addiss is an amazing teacher and I really miss his workshops at Zen Mountain Monastery.

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