The Essential Haiku, End Notes

… today, the book is finished… the last notes discuss the origins of the haiku form and the difficulties of translating them… i am surprised that Robert Hass is not fluent in Japanese but rather, learned what he needed to learn to translate the poems, initially for his own pleasure/study, later for publication… he says he set himself the task of translating one haiku a day, which involved looking up the characters of both the Japanese and Chinese languages and deciphering what they meant or implied…

… at the very end, there is a list of elements of Haiku that make them difficult to render in English:

  • syntax… The swiftness of the syntax is one of the fascinating things about these poems, and I don’t think itv can be rendered.1
  • Rhythm… exists in the structuring of the lines, where there are shifts and changes in direction, which have the effect of taking a 5-7-5 structure and rendering it as 5-4-3-5 or 5-3-4-5…
  • Chinese Characters… Japanese is written in a combination of phonetic signs for individual syllable sounds and ideograms based on Chinese characters, or kanji2
  • Pivot Words… words that suddenly change the meaning, or the expectation of meaning, of a sentence, as you read it, a kind of grammatical double exposure.3
  • Seasonal Worlds… known as Kigo… as Mark Morris observes, “translation cannot convey the feeling of at-homeness, of being inserted in the cycle of a natural and ritual calendar that kigo communicate to the haikai reader.”4

… the earlier traditions of haikai and hokku, which birthed the haiku form, are compared to the call and response improvisation of jazz bands of the 1920’s…


  1. Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku, p 310 [return]
  2. Ibid, p 311 [return]
  3. Ibid, p 312 [return]
  4. Ibid, p 314 [return]

The Essential Haiku, End Notes

… today starts the notes on Issa’s poems…

… in today’s notes, i learn that…

  • the Buddhism Issa’s family practiced is that of the Jodo-shin-shu sect which has become Mahayanna Buddhism in present day Japan… it is the most important school of Buddhism in Japan and is considered mainline, middle class… it accounts for some aspects of Issa’s sensibilities…1
  • Robert Bly believes didactic intent is not in the realm of haiku, that is, haiku should not seek to teach… what then, should haiku do?… observe?… and really, if it observes well, doesn’t an astute student learn from it?… doesn’t it teach?… it feels like an odd and splitting hairs sort of distinction…
  • scarecrows are an autumn kigo, which are words or phrases with seasonal reference, in haiku, a cultural code for the seasons… i found this extensive list of kigo in Wikipedia…
  • The World of Dew is direct reference to Buddhist teaching about the ephemeral nature of things… in Mahayana formulation, it is this: All conditioned things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a lightning flash. This is how to observe them.2
  • that women turning into serpents figure in No and Kabuki plays…3

… i have finished the notes related to Issa and a section of Basho on how to make poems… it is interesting to me that Hass spends much more note space on Basho than either of the other two poets… because of the stature of his poetry?… or, are Buson and Issa generally a little more accessible to the western mind?…


  1. Robert Haas, The Essential Haiku, pp 284-85 [return]
  2. Robert Haas, The Essential Haiku, p 289 [return]
  3. Ibid, p 292 [return]