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.

lost in spaces

And now I’ve lost my way again:
Body asking shadow, “Which way from here?”

Cold Mountain Poems II, Han Shan

That sums up the week.  Those of you on 108ZB’s Facebook page will have seen a stream of Twitter posts.  Yes, I have succumbed to one more rabbit hole of social media.  It’s been an interesting experiment in watching the grasping ego and the fragile, therefore easily muddled, mind.  For the first 48 hours I was caught up in acquisitions of those to follow and shameless seductions of those I wanted to follow me.  How fascinating to watch the wild horses of the ego drag me hither and yon across the landscape.  I can’t say it’s much of a revelation.  I mean, which of us doesn’t know we are nothing more than a lump of scheming desire seeking only the next opiate to ease our insecurities?

And yet.  In all that mess, there were a few redeeming features.  I learn that keeping the activities of the psychologist separate from those of the bumbling buddhist is a good thing.  It’s also wise to pick one’s social media face and wear it close.  Do I want to be a political pundit or a one-line insight slinger?  Do I want to be a deconstructionist of the flighty and famous or a parrot of what has been published in reams by famous teachers?

Apparently a successful face on Twitter does not depend on what one wants to be.  Regardless, for the moment, I shall play the parrot and re-tweet (got to love it!) the wisdom of the sages I encounter on this new path.

Other than that, I am strangely bereft of any dharma insights.  As the 3rd anniversary of 108zenbooks approaches, I’m preparing a review of The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters by Stephen Addiss and hoping to be hit with a rather large enlightenment stick.

Have a safe holiday weekend.  Be good even if you feel you don’t need to be because you already are.

death poem

Basho died while visiting friends in Osaka.  He wrote:

Taken ill on a journey,
my dreams wander
over withered moors.

Aitken Roshi, in The River of Heaven, suggests this was not Basho’s death poem.  Apparently, when asked for a death poem, Basho said:

From old times it has been customary to leave a death poem behind, and perhaps I should do the same.  But every moment of life is the last; every poem is a death poem.  Why then should I write one at this time?  In these last hours, I have no poem.

What is your poem in this moment?

blowing his nose

The sound of someone
blowing his nose with his hand
the cherry blossoms.

This juxtaposition of the delicate with the indelicate always pushes my edge of practice.  Aitken Roshi points out in The River of Heaven,  that while it may be blasphemy to blow one’s nose in the presence of sacred cherry blossoms, we can’t be taking it all so seriously.  The fleeting nature of life is such that a moment spent getting riled up over something is a moment gone.  Basho and the Prajnaparamita remind us: neither sacred nor profane – except that mind makes it so.

the river of heaven

Diving into Aitken Roshi’s book of haiku, The River of Heaven: The haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki (publication date June 14, 2011).  It opens with a bittersweet recollection by Susan Moon of Roshi’s stepping down ceremony. 

“Someone asked him, “What is the most precious thing?” and he replied, “A good night’s sleep.” “

Moon reflects that after all he had contributed to the world of Zen, a good night’s sleep must have indeed been a precious thing.  The River of Heaven is a gentle collection of haiku with Aitken Roshi’s commentary on each poem.  The commentaries reveal not only something about the authors of the haiku but also of Roshi himself.  At times critical, at times nostalgic, he finds a delicate presence between his persona of Zen Master and a humble reader of the Zen Masters.

The book is divided into The Summer Moor which showcases the haiku of Basho and The Spring Sea with the poetry of Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Aitken Roshi leads with Basho, clearly a favourite of his as he describes in the eponymous haiku:

The sea is wild!
stretching to Sado Island
is the River of Heaven.

The Milky Way is the River of Heaven and it conjures up wondrous images of celestial beings walking the path through the skies.  In the commentary, Aitken writes that he fell in love with Basho upon reading this haiku in the Library of Hawai’i in 1938.  Roshi Aitken passed from this earth on August 5, 2010, hopefully to stroll restfully along the River of Heaven.