These are excerpts from a rather long document by Basho, considered to be the top haiku poet of the 17th century. I am presenting these thoughts of his because they ‘make clear and plain’ what Basho believes is the correct approach to haiku. Today, lots of poets are attempting haiku, and missing by a wide streak. This is sad, but also represents a lack of study, perhaps pure laziness, and as one poet said: “Every thing I learned about haiku, I learned from the internet.”
This is especially sad, but an honest statement from one poet. There are enough books on haiku out there, and by masters of haiku, too, to read and learn from. That is not to say that haiku is easy. It looks easy, but isn’t. At least attending to some of words of poets like Basho will give us a hint.
Perhaps these words will help in our forming our own haiku. I offer some of my own, but these were formed before I had read Basho. Perhaps readers will see the struggle to form haiku. Writing haiku is definitely a learning process that should take a long time of study and contemplation.
Learn about the pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.
Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.
The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart. Cherry blossoms whirl, leaves fall, and the wind flits them both along the ground. We cannot arrest with our eyes or ears what lies in such things. Were we to gain mastery over them, we would find that the life of each thing had vanished without a trace.
Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of things—mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity—and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves.
One should know that a hokku is made by combining things.
The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.
One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once the mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object had disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.
Sabi is the color of the poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that.
When you are composing a verse, quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate a moment.
Composition must occur in an instant, like a swordsman leaping at his enemy.
Is there any good in saying everything?
In composing hokku, there are two ways: becoming and making. When a poet who has been assiduous in pursuit of his aim applies himself to an external object, the color of his mind naturally becomes a poem. In the case of the poet who has not done so, nothing in him will become a poem; he makes the poem through an act of personal will.
There are three elements in haikai: Its feeling can be called loneliness (sabi). This plays with refined dishes but contents itself with humble fare. Its total effect can be called elegance. This lives in figured silks and embroidered brocades but does not forget a person clad in woven straw. Its language can be called aesthetic madness. Language resides in untruth and ought to comport with truth. It is difficult to reside in truth and sport with untruth. These three elements do not exalt a humble person to heights. They put an exalted person in a low place.
The profit of haikai lies in making common speech right.
Haikai needs more homely images, such as a crow picking mud snails in a rice paddy.
In humanity, there can be something called a windswept spirit. A thin drapery torn and swept away by the stirring of the wind. Indeed, since beginning to write poetry, it (this windswept spirit…this dissatisfaction (my word) knows no other art than the art of writing poetry and therefore it hangs on to it more or less blindly.
Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter.
How invincible is the power of poetry to reduce me (Basho) to a tattered beggar!
It is the poetic spirit called furabo that leads one to follow nature and become a friend with things of the seasons. Flowers, moon, insects, etc. For those who do not see the flower are no different from barbarians, and those who do not imagine the moon are akin to beasts. Leave barbarians and beasts behind and follow nature and return to nature.
The bones of haiku are plainness and oddness.
From: Basho on Poetry.
My (Lady Nyo’s) examples of early haiku.
Pale lavender sky
Balances the moon and sun
The scale shifts to night.
Under the dark moon
I awaited your return
Only shadows came.
A swirl of blossoms
Caught in the water’s current
Begins the season.
Fallen leaves crackle.
Sparrows add the treble notes
Dogwoods are blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.