Basho on Poetry: Learn From The Pine

Pine tree

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.

Lady Nyo


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
Season’s musical.

Dogwoods are blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

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35 Responses to “Basho on Poetry: Learn From The Pine”

  1. Yousei Hime Says:

    If I read this, and it would have been over a year ago, it must have been in a different translation. Even so, I loved it. In the mood for haiku now. 😀


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Yes, I posted this a while ago, but thought it could be read again for good purpose. I’ve been reading some really bad haiku lately, have written some myself, but it does take time and energy expended to get the basics down for haiku. People just don’t bother with the work necessary to do much of that.

    I believe that it is necessary to go back to the fundamental writes, poets of tanka, haiku, renga, etc. to learn. Too many of us ‘learn everything we know from the internet’. Frankly, that’s just laziness. And questionable learning.

    Glad you read and liked this, Yousei Hime.

    Lady Nyo


  3. annotating60 Says:

    I am not a writer of Japanes haiku–though I write a more expansive short poem that is more fully impressionistic. But it has irked me how many people call their poems haiku simply because they follow a syllable number scheme and miss the whole heart of what it anbout. I hope other read tjhis. Also, I love this print below of the woman samurai. I have a small but selected collection of woodblock prints. I fell in love with them as a child.Thank you>KB


  4. ladynyo Says:

    I understand what you are saying about the syllables what drives me batty is also no nod to syllables…. Haiku suffers many ways.

    It’s not an easy form. People think that because it’s short that it can be easily thrown together. There are aesthetic considerations that should be studied. I think it is a attitude of arrogance and laziness when we bypass all that.

    Also, American and British writers, poets, are steeped in methaphor. Haiku isn’t ….but I wonder. In any case, it’s not a form of freeverse either. There is much to consider in writing haiku (tanka, etc) and when we bypass all of that…well, we aren’t writing haiku. I’ve made every mistake possible with haiku and it’s really a poetry form that can only be grasped with deeper study.

    Thank you for reading and your comment.

    Lady Nyo


  5. brian miller Says:

    rather fascinating bit on haiku…particularly i like the comparing of it to the slice of a sword…quick and with purpose….of yours i am most fond of the last one…the cruxifiction line jumps out at me…

    i agree though that the art of haiku is mostly lost…there is a bunch of garbage that follows haiku syllable-ism yet others that are as tight yet say so much…


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Oh…I lost my response, Brian. But just to recap…..The art of haiku isn’t lost…it’s just that it is a mentally ‘deeper’ form of poetry than we are used to, I believe.

    You fly at haiku with the cultural and classical ‘baggage’ that is necessary, and if you don’t know what you are supposed to bring to the poem, you flounder. It is ritualistic in a way, at least to me.

    Basho makes ‘plain’ in such wonderful ways, what he believes is necessary in haiku. I too, like that springing at it like a swordsman. No hesitation. The immediacy of it all is so important.

    The adhering to syllables doesn’t bother me….because perhaps somewhere in those `17 is something that makes it haiku? But of course, haiku can be made with much less.

    I think of all the Japanese forms of poetry, haiku is the hardest. When you squash down what we are so used to do in our rambling, you have to make every word count. Plus, there are all the other aesthetic considerations to learn and study.

    Haiku isn’t just short freeverse, and I think that is the first mistake we all make with early haiku.

    Well, thank you, Brian for reading and your encouraging comment. I think most of what I posted here was rather ‘lame’ as far as my haiku goes, but I agree, the last one was more in keeping with whst Basho is talking about. that particular oddness? LOL! “Odd’ done right can be original and innovative. I think that is what you find in the very best haiku.

    Certainly in Basho.



  7. ayala Says:

    You always share great things, thank you.


  8. M. J. Joachim Says:

    A lot of what I learned about Haiku was in school. This post brought back a flood of memories and gave me a bit of a refresher course, if you will. I don’t know if we studied Basho or not. It was much too long ago. However, I do remember learning much of what you shared here, from a teacher who truly loved her Haiku and wanted her students to appreciate it too.


  9. ladynyo Says:

    Hello! How wonderful you were able to study haiku in school~ I had to pick it up piecemeal.

    These few words of Basho made such an impression on me. I keep reading them over and over and they seem to deepen to me. I truly believe that you could give over a lifetime of study of haiku and never get it all or get bored.

    You were truly lucky in your choice of teachers. To love something so passionately and to be able to relay that passion to students much be a wonderful task.

    Thank you so much for reading and your comment.

    Lady Nyo


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Ayala~

    I learn so much from these things….and I don’t think we can ever learn enough about any form of poetry.

    Will be over tomorrow to your blog.



  11. Chazinator Says:

    Your haiku are quite lovely. I think they capture the spirit of the form quite nicely. You understand the secret of haiku – balancing presence and absence.


  12. ladynyo Says:

    Hello Charles!

    Thank you for that lovely comment. IF I do it’s rather hit and miss with haiku for me. I think it takes a lot of study of the aesthetics of the form to even get close to what they are supposed to be. Again, hit and miss here.

    But what you say, “balancing presence and absence’ is what Basho is talking about in this piece: sort of treading the line, or the space between reality and vacuity.

    These things, these concepts are hard to gather in. What angers me is that people are lazy….they think they are above expending the time and energy to study the form in its deeper fundamentals. You can only start on the internet, you can’t end there. So they throw out what they think passes for a haiku and keep asking ‘is this a haiku?”

    I know this sin well, as I have spent time doing the same thing. Only when I began some study of it, in the classical forms, and also beyond Basho …did I realize I was producing crap. I struggle with this form more than any other I believe. And still I feel that what I write generally is wanting.

    Again, I think it takes some age and reflection on a lot of things that perhaps come later in life to understand? This seems to be a poetic form that has this particular bend towards age and some sort of life-experience?

    Thank you Charles, for reading and your very kind comment.

    Lady Nyo


  13. Trenton O. Newton Says:

    In considering my response to the question do I write haiku in the same way that I write longer poems, I thought it a good moment to ask myself whether or not I believe haiku to be a form of poetry. As regards most aspects of haiku, there are varying opinions on this. In Traces of dreams, Haruo Shirane persuades us that Bashō saw himself in the context of the Japanese literary tradition and therefore must have thought of haiku as poetry and himself as a poet. RHBlyth on the other hand, maintained that a haiku was not a poem. ‘Haiku…has little or nothing to do with poetry, so-called, or Zen, or anything else’. (Haiku: Vol 1 Eastern culture) He goes on to say what he does think haiku is: ‘… a way of living, a certain tenderness and smallness of mind that avoids the magnificent…’ none of which to my mind rules out haiku as poetry. In fact, I believe that it is poetry, for if a haiku isn’t a poem, what is it? It certainly isn’t an epigram, a statement, or an aphorism; neither is its brevity a barrier to its claim to be poetry – several poems that find their way into collections and anthologies are no more than two or three lines long.


  14. Charley Harmon Says:

    Remember, haiku is more than a type of poem; it is a way of looking at the very nature of existence.


  15. ladynyo Says:

    It’s hard to tell what some commentators are meaning in their comments….language difference count for many things, but some are just creepy!


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  17. Tony Says:

    Under the dark moon
    I awaited your return
    Only shadows came.

    I really like this Haiku. I’ve been reading a book on Basho, Buson & Issa. Somewhere within the book, one of them mentions that Haiku should be written in the present moment, and express what is before you in the present moment. However, this Haiku of yours is describing something that happened in a past-tense.

    I actually really like this Haiku of yours. Which brings me to my question: Do you think it would be okay for other poets to begin breaking the custom of depicting the present moment in their modern Haiku, or do you think in order for it to be considered proper Haiku, it would have to remain rooted in the present moment?


  18. ladynyo Says:

    Probably not. I get sloppy in some of my haiku. This haiku would be ‘better’ written in the present tense. However, I think it more important to embrace, learn the aesthetics of mujo, aware, yugen in forming your haiku. It’s traditionally written in present tense, but perhaps it can be extended to past, but others will or will not agree.


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