Keiji Minato: Notes on Modern Haiku (2)

11 February 2009

TAKAYANAGI Shigenobu (高柳重信; 1923-1983) radically questioned the significance of the fixed form of haiku with his multi-lined (多行形式) verses. He also widely experimented typographical elements, publishing concrete haiku (concrete as in concrete poetry):


Mi o sorasu niji no / zetten / Shokeidai

The peak of a rainbow
arching its body
a gallow



Gunko nari / kôryô to / aki no / aza to naru

War drums beat
turns into bruises
of the autumn


Manako are / tachimachi / asa no / owari kana

My eyes ravage
& in a moment
the morning
comes to an end

A Japanese haiku is usually written as a one-liner. In this sense many definitions in English that say a haiku is a three-liner are wrong. Some people think haiku should strictly be one-liners. However, this might be misleading too. Traditionally Japanese had no equivalent concept of the poetic line in the European sense. Practically, writing in one line allows Japanese writers to create ambiguity that can be positively utilized in haiku. Takayanagi’s multi-lined haiku put such unconscious dependence on ambiguity into question. He often used the four-line form to disrupt the three-part (5-7-5) structure most haijin took (and still take) for granted.

KANEKO Tôta (金子兜太; b.1919), who is almost 90 years old now but still active as haiku writer and organizer, seems to have inherited his social consciousness from Watanabe Hakusen and tendency toward strong affirmation of life from Saito Sanki:

Bochi mo yakeato / Semi nikuhen no goto / kigi ni

The graveyard is ruined by fire too –
cicadas stick to trees
like pieces of flesh

Ginkôinra / asayori keikô su / Ika no gotoku

Bank clerks are fluorescent-lighted
from the morning
like squids


Wankyoku shi / kashô shi / bakushinchi no marason

Warped and burnt
the marathon
at ground zero

His strong will to tackle issues of the contemporary society in an active way often disrupts the 5-7-5 structure. As in Saito’s works, even negative elements suggestive of the war are turned into signs of life through his bold grasp of reality. Such boldness is aptly supported by accurate uses of tropes like metaphors and metonymies.

NAGATA Kôi (永田耕衣; 1900-1997) was born much earlier than Takayanagi and Kaneko, but his idiosyncratic style matured late in his life and came to be accepted widely much later. Nature images in his works transcend the seasonal cycle formularized in the history of Japanese poetry and popularized or made populistic by Takahama Kyoshi and his followers. The following examples both confound and fascinate readers with their Zen-like, enigmatic imagery:

Asagao ya / Hyakutabi towaba / haha shinan

Morning glory –

if I visit her a hundred times
my mother will die

Dojô uite / namazu mo oru to / iute shizumu

Coming to the surface
a loach says there’s a catfish too
& sinks down

Inran ya / Sôgyô to naru / uo no mure

Lechery –
in the shape of a monk
a school of fish

Although Nagata’s Zen practice and friendship with Zen masters helped him achieve his idiosyncratic style, the tie between Zen and haiku has not been so strong in the history of haiku as many non-Japanese haijin believe. The Japanese traditional forms of tanka and haiku derived as much from various sources like literary influences from China, Shintôist and more primitive animistic beliefs and the Jôdo/Jôdo-shin sects of Buddhism as from Zen Buddhism. Modern haiku has also been influenced by Western arts and philosophy. Few Japanese haiku writers regard Zen elements as necessary in their haiku writing. Besides, the Western world imported Zen Buddhism in a sterilized form. In contrast, Nagata’s grasp of Zen does not miss its complex tackling with the unlimited vulgarity of our desire. That cannot be achieved through prescription of purely descriptive practice.

I repeat: Haiku is a literary form. That is not to suggest limiting the realms covered by haiku but rather opening up its possibilities. Various beliefs that say “Haiku must be this or that” have some relevance as far as you are also conscious of their limits. Furthermore, writing haiku in non-Japanese languages necessarily poses questions about what is relevant in contemporary, global haiku. I would like you to know that Japanese haijin are as unsure as you are, and I believe that it is a healthy situation for a literary form that is vital only as far as it is open to the future.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS, FEATURES and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

About Keiji Minato

Keiji Minato was born in Osaka in 1973. He has published a book of poetry, 硝子 の眼/布の皮膚 (Glass Eye / Cloth Skin) (草原詩社, 2003), and as a scholar of literatures in English has written essays, mainly about Australian literature, for national Japanese magazines like すばる (Subaru) and 英 語青 年 (Eigo Seinen). He is one of the three members of the Kyoto-based experimental poetry group, the Experimental Language Factory.

Further reading:

Related work:

Comments are closed.