The HyperTexts

The Best Haiku Ever: the Greatest Haiku of All Time
a Haiku timeline with modern English translations of the Oriental Masters
Haiku definition, rules, dos and don'ts (at the bottom of this page)

Which poets wrote the best haiku of all time? Where do we find the best haiku and haiku-like poems in English translations?

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa have been called the "essential masters" of the Edo Era poets. Many haiku lovers would add Masaoka Shiki to create the "Great Four" of haiku. I will also nominate Uejima Onitsura, who greatly influenced the art. You can find some of their very best poems on this page, in accessible modern English translations. You are welcome to share my translations for non-commercial purposes, but please credit the original poet and the translator, if you do. You can do that easily by cutting and pasting the poem with the credit line immediately below it.

Petals I amass
with such tenderness
prick me to the quick.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lightning
shatters the darkness―
the night heron's shriek.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Picking autumn plums
my wrinkled hands
once again grow fragrant
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I'm trying to sleep!
Please swat the flies
lightly
―Masaoka Shiki, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These useless dreams, alas!
Over fields of wilted grass
winds whisper as they pass.
―Uejima Onitsura, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nowhere to dump the dishwater:
noisy insects’ annoyance.
—Uejima Onitsura, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This page also includes haiku and haiku-like poems written by poets such as Patrick Blanche, Nozawa Bonchō, Jorge Luis Borges, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Miura Chora, Sekitei Hara, Robert Hass, Kosugi Isshō, Michael McClintock, Arakida Moritake, Kyorai Mukai, Ippekiro Nakatsuka, Naojo, Plato, Li Po, Ezra Pound, Ranko, Hattori Ransetsu, Charles Reznikoff, Roka, Ryokan, Sappho, Yamaguchi Seishi, Shohaku, Takaha Shugyo, Ilio Sōgi, Yamazaki Sōkan, Natsume S˘seki, Hisajo Sugita, Kyoshi Takahama, Inahata Teiko, Richard Wright and Ō no Yasumaro.

When did haiku begin to influence Western poetry? Hendrik Doeff, the Dutch commissioner of an early 19th century trading post in Nagasaki, Japan, was the first westerner known to have written haiku.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people get different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his own poems into English.

Around two-thirds of the way down this page you will find an interesting collection of Zen Death Haiku. There are also some of my original haiku at the bottom of the page. Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinions, for whatever they're worth, but it never hurts to compare notes ...

Haiku Definitions

What are haiku? In Japanese hai means "unusual" and ku means "verse" or "strophe." So haiku are, literally, unusual verses. Sir George Sansom called haiku "little drops of poetic essence." Harold Henderson called them "meditations." I think of haiku as evocative snapshots constructed of words: the flash photography of literature. Another useful definition might be "transcendent images." I have also heard haiku called "zen snapshots." For example:

Grasses wilt:
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt.
―Yamaguchi Seishi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In the poem above, wilting autumn grasses and a braking locomotive grinding to a halt are metaphors for time, aging and the approach of death. Two simple images speak worlds, in the hands of a skilled poet like Yamaguchi Seishi. The next few haiku are among my all-time favorites.

Whistle on, twilight whippoorwill,
solemn evangelist
of loneliness
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The childless woman,
how tenderly she caresses
homeless dolls ...
—Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Traditional Japanese haiku have three lines with moras (syllable counts) of 5-7-5. However, because the meter of the moras does not translate into English, the 5-7-5 pattern is not a hard-and-fast rule for English language haiku. Therefore, in my translations I have elected to use as many syllables as seemed necessary to convey the images, feelings and meanings of the poems, as I "grok" them.

There is a section of haiku rules, dos and don'ts at the bottom of this page.

The Influence of Haiku on Modern English Poetry

The influence of haiku on modern English poetry is both obvious and pronounced. Indeed, certain precepts of Imagism clearly relate more or less directly to haiku, such as the use of concrete imagery and "direct treatment of the thing (object/subject)." Ezra Pound, the father and leading proponent of Imagism, translated Oriental poetry and wrote similar original poems himself. Here is one of Pound's more haiku-like poems, "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Sometimes a contemporary poet may write a haiku about a more ancient poet or poem:

... lifting my cup,
I asked the moon
to drink with me ...
—Li Po

And if Li Po had
got the moon in his mitts
what would he have done with it?
—Cid Corman

Well-known modern poems that bear marked resemblances to haiku include "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens. Other English language poets who either wrote, translated or were influenced by haiku include Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Amy Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Paul Muldoon and Cid Corman. Oriental influences have also been noted in the writings of early modernists like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick
—Richard Wright

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
—William Carlos Williams

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
—Langston Hughes "Suicide’s Note"

The spring lingers on
In the scent of a damp log
Rotting in the sun.
—Richard Wright

Here are two haiku I admire by a contemporary American poet. The second one suggests that not all American haiku is performance-ready!

Winter turns Spring as
I lug water home, my dawn
shadow scrawny-long…
—Nick Marco

Winter beer-belches:
Sumo-fat boors "slam" Haiku.
Buried, Basho moans.
—Nick Marco

The Oldest Haiku

These are my translations of some of the oldest Japanese waka, which evolved into poetic forms such as tanka, renga and haiku over time. My translations are excerpts from the Kojiki (the "Record of Ancient Matters"), a book composed around 711-712 A.D. by the historian and poet Ō no Yasumaro. The Kojiki relates Japan’s mythological beginnings and the history of its imperial line. Like Virgil's Aeneid, the Kojiki seeks to legitimize rulers by recounting their roots. These are lines from one of the oldest Japanese poems, found in the oldest Japanese book:

While you decline to cry,
high on the mountainside
a single stalk of plumegrass wilts.
―Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here's another excerpt, with a humorous twist, from the Kojiki:

Hush, cawing crows; what rackets you make!
Heaven's indignant messengers,
you remind me of wordsmiths!
―Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here's another, this one a poem of love and longing that reminds me of Sappho:

Onyx, this gem-black night.
Downcast, I await your return
like the rising sun, unrivaled in splendor.
―Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A Brief History and Chronology of Haiku

The night is clear;
the moon shines quietly;
the wind strums the trees like lyres ...
but when I’m gone, who the hell will hear?
Farewell!
—Higan Choro aka Zoso Royo (1194-1277), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I entered the world empty-handed
and leave it barefoot.
My coming and going?
Two uncomplicated events
that became entangled.
—Kozan Ichikyo (1283-1360), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Snow-obscured heights,
mist-shrouded slopes:
this spring evening.
―Ilio Sōgi (1421-1502), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Soundlessly they go,
the herons passing by:
arrows of snow
filling the sky.
―Yamazaki Sōkan (1464-1552), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: In some haiku circles it is considered a capital crime to employ traditional English meter and/or rhyme in haiku. But poets around the world have been borrowing from each other since the dawn of literature! I happen to like this translation myself, and I hope you do too.

O, fluttering moon, if only we
could hang a handle on you,
what a fan you would be!
―Yamazaki Sōkan (1464-1552), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Has an orphaned blossom
somehow returned to its bough?
No, a solitary butterfly!
―Arakida Moritake (1472-1549), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Life: a solitary butterfly
swaying unsteadily on a slender grass-stalk,
nothing more. But ah! so exquisite!
―Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Sleeping alone;
a mosquito interrupts my dreams
with its querulous voice ...
—Chigetsu (1632-1706), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



The hushed sound
of the scarecrow falling
gently to the ground!
―Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When no wind at all
ruffles the Kiri tree
leaves fall of their own free will.
―Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sunlight slants
through a red pine grove:
the shrike's shriek.
―Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



This deepening autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue?
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Winter in the air:
my neighbor,
how does he fare?
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there's no rice
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The first chill rain: so raw!
Poor monkey, you could use
a cape of woven straw!
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This snowy morning:
cries of the crow I despise
(ah, but so beautiful!)
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like a heavy fragrance
snowflakes settle:
lilies on rocks
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cheerful-chirping cricket
contends gray autumn's gay,
contemptuous of frost
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Explosion!
The frog returns
to its lily pad.
—Michael R. Burch

The legs of the cranes
have been shortened
by the summer rains.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch




When the blossoms
bloomed,
I understood the Way.
―Kyorai Mukai (1651-1704), a disciple of Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

While nobody's watching
the pepper pods redden.
―Kyorai Mukai (1651-1704), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Motionless spring mist:
mid-afternoon lethargy.
―Kyorai Mukai (1651-1704), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The rain is helpless to reach the ground—
a winter gale.
―Kyorai Mukai (1651-1704), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

 

My eyes,
having observed all sums,
returned to the white chrysanthemums.
―Kosugi Isshō (1652-1688), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



The childless woman,
how tenderly she caresses
homeless dolls ...
—Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Clinging
to the plum tree:
one blossom's worth of warmth
—Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

One leaf falls, enlightenment!
Another leaf falls,
swept away by the wind ...
—Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This has been called Ransetsu’s “death poem.” In The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Faubion Bowers says in a footnote to this haiku: “Just as ‘blossom’, when not modified, means ‘cherry flower’ in haiku, ‘one leaf’ is code for ‘kiri’. Kiri ... is the Pawlonia ... The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolizes loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers ... are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7 and 5 buds ... ‘Totsu’ is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground upon falling.”



“Isn’t it time,”
the young bride asks,
“to light the lantern?”
Ochi Etsujin (1656-1739), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Disdaining grass,
the firefly nibbles nettles—
this is who I am.
—Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A simple man,
content to breakfast with the morning glories—
this is who I am. 
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


This is Basho’s response to the preceding Takarai Kikaku haiku. I take Basho to be saying that, while his fellow poet drank to excess (the nettles) and provided his own illumination, Basho preferred to be more moderate and reflect the illumination he found around himself, in nature. However, this is my personal interpretation and not necessarily correct.

Morning glories,
however poorly painted,
still engage us
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


I too
have been accused
of morning glory gazing ...
original haiku by Michael R. Burch (1958-)



I take the first five haiku below to be about the haiku poet and his/her art ...

When a nightingale stops singing,
it’s just another bird.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A nightingale, when it ceases singing,
is just another bird.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sincerity of snow, the moon and cherry blossoms
is the truthfulness of art.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Above the garden
the camellia tree blossoms
whitely . . .
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), explaining the essence of haiku, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A cool breeze:
the empty sky fills
with the songs of the pines.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Moonlit hailstones:
the night hawks return.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nowhere to dump the dishwater:
noisy insects’ annoyance.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nowhere to dump the dishwater:
cricket cacophony.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A good father drives away crows
from his sparrow-like children.
—Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These useless dreams, alas!
Over fields of wilted grass
winds whisper as they pass.
―Uejima Onitsura (1660-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Return my dream, raven!
You woke me to a misted-over moon.
—Uejima Onitsura, said to be his death poem, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Taming the rage
of an unrelenting sun—
autumn breeze.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sun sets,
relentlessly red,
yet autumn’s in the wind.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As autumn draws near,
so too our hearts
in this small tea room.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nothing happened!
Yesterday simply vanished
like the blowfish soup.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The surging sea crests around Sado ...
and above her?
An ocean of stars.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Revered figure!
I bow low
to the rabbit-eared Iris.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nothing in the cry
of the cicadas
suggests they know they soon must die.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I wish I could wash
this perishing earth
in its shimmering dew.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring!
A nameless hill
stands shrouded in mist.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dabbed with morning dew
and splashed with mud,
the melon looks wonderfully cool.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cold white azalea—
a lone nun
in her thatched straw hut.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Glimpsed on this high mountain trail,
delighting my heart—
wild violets
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A bee emerging
from deep within the peony’s hairy recesses
flies off heavily, sated
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow has settled
on a naked branch—
autumn nightfall
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Except for a woodpecker
tapping at a post,
the house is silent.
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

That dying cricket,
how he goes on about his life!
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A raven settles
on a leafless branch:
autumn nightfall
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A solitary crow
clings to a leafless branch:
autumn twilight
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A solitary crow
clings to a leafless branch:
phantom autumn
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow roosts
on a leafless branch:
autumn nightmare
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: There has been a debate about the meaning of aki-no kure, which may mean one of the following: autumn evening, autumn dusk, the end of autumn. Or it seems possible that Basho may have intentionally invoked the ideas of both the end of an autumn day and the end of the season as well. In my translations I have tried to create an image of solitary crow clinging to a branch that seems like a harbinger of approaching winter and death. In the first translation I went with the least light possible: autumn twilight. In the second translation, I attempted something more ghostly. Phrases I considered include: spectral autumn, skeletal autumn, autumnal skeleton, phantom autumn, autumn nocturne, autumn nightfall, autumn nightmare, dismal autumn. In the third and fourth translations I focused on the color of the bird and its resemblance to night falling. While literalists will no doubt object, my goal is to create an image and a feeling that convey in English what I take Basho to have been trying to convey in Japanese. Readers will have to decide whether they prefer my translations to the many others that exist, but mine are trying to convey the eeriness of the scene in English.

Winter solitude:
a world awash in white,
the sound of the wind
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sick of its autumn migration
my spirit drifts
over wilted fields ...
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), said to be his death poem, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sick of this autumn migration
in dreams I drift
over flowerless fields ...
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), said to be his death poem, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: While literalists will no doubt object to "flowerless" in the translation above ― along with other word choices in my other translations ― this is my preferred version. I think Basho's meaning still comes through. But "wilted" is probably closer to what he meant. If only we could consult him, to ask whether he preferred strictly literal prose translations of his poems, or more poetic interpretations! My guess is that most poets would prefer for their poems to remain poetry in the second language. In my opinion the differences are minor and astute readers will grok both Basho's meaning and his emotion.



Observe:
see how the wild violets bloom
within the forbidden fences!
―Shida Yaba (1663-1740), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A white swan
parts the cherry-petalled pond
with her motionless breast.
―Roka (1671-1703), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: Roka became a pupil of Basho and studied haiku with him in 1694; that would have been in the last year of Basho's life.



Ah butterfly,
what dreams do you ply
with your beautiful wings?
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My well-bucket held hostage
by morning glories,
I went begging for water
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Morning glories!
Holding my well-bucket hostage?
... I go begging for water
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Because morning glories
keep holding my well-bucket hostage
I go begging for water
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Leaves,
like the shadows of crows
cast by a lonely moon.
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Her body-debt paid
she wakes alone—
a frigid night.
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Coolness—
strangers meet on a bridge
late at night.
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A woman’s passion
flowers from the roots—
wild violets.
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Also a poet
arranging words with its airy wings—
the butterfly.
―Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



A kite floats
at the same place in the sky
where yesterday it floated ...
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
                   casually.
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Robert Hass

The pigeon's behavior
is beyond reproach,
but the mountain cuckoo's?
Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Picking autumn plums
my wrinkled hands
once again grow fragrant
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

On adjacent branches
the plum tree blossoms
bloom petal by petal―love!
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The red plum's fallen petals
seem to ignite horse shit.
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Intruder!―
This white plum tree
was once outside our fence!
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

White plum blossoms―
though the hour grows late,
a glimpse of dawn
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch; this is believed to be Buson's death poem and he is said to have died before dawn

White blossoms of the pear tree―
a young woman reads his moonlit letter
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As the pear tree flowers whitely―
a young woman reads his letter
by moonlight
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The abandoned willow shines
between bright rains
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tender grass
forgetful of its roots
the willow
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: I believe this poem can be taken as commentary on ungrateful children. It reminds me of Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."―MRB

The dew-damp grass
weeps silently
in the setting sun
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since I'm left here alone,
I'll make friends with the harvest moon.
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Because I'm alone,
I'll make friends with the moon.
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The hood-wearer
in his self-created darkness
fails to see the harvest moon
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Even lonelier than last year:
this autumn evening.
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My thoughts return to my Mother and Father:
late autumn
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Late autumn:
my thoughts return to my Mother and Father
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The roaring winter wind:
the cataract grates on its rocks.
―Yosa Buson (1716-1783), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Plowing,
not a single bird sings
in the mountain's shadow
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dawn!
The brilliant sun illuminates
sardine heads.
―Yosa Buson, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



All evening the softest sound―
the cadence of the white camellia petals
falling
―Ranko Takakuwa (1726-1798), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Stillness:
the sound of petals
drifting down softly together ...
―Miura Chora (1729-1780), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



An enormous frog!
We stare at each other,
both petrified.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Skinny frog,
     hang on ...
Issa to the rescue!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Right at my feet!
When did you arrive here,
snail?
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translator unknown

I toss in my sleep,
so watch out,
cricket!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In a better world
I'd leave you my rice bowl,
little fly!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

All's well with the world:
another fly's sharing our rice!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cries of the wild geese—
spreading rumors about me?
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

While a cicada
sings softly
a single leaf falls ...
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wake up, old tomcat,
then with elaborate yawns and stretchings
prepare to pursue love
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cry of a pheasant,
as if it just noticed
the mountain.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As I stumble home at dusk,
heavy with her eggs
a spider blocks me.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

All the while I'm praying to Buddha
I'm continually killing mosquitoes.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This windy nest?
Open your hungry mouth in vain,
Issa, orphaned sparrow!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The ghostly cow comes
mooing mooing mooing
out of the morning mist
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

If anyone comes, child,
don't open the gate
or the melons will flee!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It's not at all anxious to bloom,
the plum tree at my gate.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Standing beneath cherry blossoms
who can be strangers?
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Petals I amass
with such tenderness
prick me to the quick.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This world of dew
is a world of dew indeed;
and yet ...
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dew evaporates
and all our world is dew—
so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), said to be about the death of his child, translator unknown

Cruel autumn wind!
Cutting to the very bones
Of my poor scarecrow!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translator unknown

Plume of pampas grass
Trembling in every wind . . .
Hush, my lonely heart!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translator unknown

The snow melts
and the village is flooded with children!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Full moon—
my ramshackle hut
is an open book.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, brilliant moon
can it be true
that even you
must rush off, late
for some date?
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The orphan speaks: the year-end party . . .
I am even envious
Of scolded children
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translator unknown

Don't weep, we are all insects!
Lovers, even the stars themselves,
must eventually part.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Buddha on the hill . . .
From your holy nose indeed
Hangs an icicle!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), translator unknown

In our world
we walk suspended over hell
admiring flowers.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Standing unsteadily,
I am the scarecrow’s
skinny surrogate
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn wind ...
She always wanted to pluck
the reddest roses
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Issa wrote the haiku above after the death of his daughter Sato with the note: “Sato, girl, 35th day, at the grave.”



The childless woman,
how tenderly she caresses
homeless dolls ...
—Hattori Ransetsu, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
umazume no hina kashizuku zo aware naru

Clinging
to the plum tree:
one blossom's worth of warmth
—Hattori Ransetsu, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

One leaf falls, enlightenment!
Another leaf falls,
swept away by the wind ...
—Hattori Ransetsu, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
hitoha chiri totsu hitoha chiru kaze no ue

This has been called Ransetsu’s “death poem.” In The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Faubion Bowers says in a footnote to this haiku: “Just as ‘blossom’, when not modified, means ‘cherry flower’ in haiku, ‘one leaf’ is code for ‘kiri’. Kiri ... is the Pawlonia ... The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolizes loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers ... are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7 and 5 buds ... ‘Totsu’ is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground upon falling.”

Disdaining grass,
the firefly nibbles nettles—
this is who I am.
—Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A simple man,
content to breakfast with the morning glories—
this is who I am.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
This is Basho’s response to the Takarai Kikaku haiku above
asagao ni / ware wa meshi kű / otoko kana

The morning glories, alas,
also turned out
not to embrace me
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The morning glories bloom,
mending chinks
in the old fence
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Morning glories,
however poorly painted,
still engage us
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
asagao wa / heta no kaku sae / aware nari

I too
have been accused
of morning glory gazing ...
—original haiku by by Michael R. Burch

Taming the rage
of an unrelenting sun—
autumn breeze.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
aka aka to / hi wa tsurenaku mo / aki no kaze

The sun sets,
relentlessly red,
yet autumn’s in the wind.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
aka aka to / hi wa tsurenaku mo / aki no kaze

As autumn deepens,
a butterfly sips
chrysanthemum dew.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
aki o hete / cho mo nameru ya / kiku no tsuyu

As autumn draws near,
so too our hearts
in this small tea room.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
aki chikaki / kokoro no yoru ya / yo jo han

Nothing happened!
Yesterday simply vanished
like the blowfish soup.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
ara nantomo na ya / kino wa sugite / fukuto-jiru

The surging sea crests around Sado ...
and above her?
An ocean of stars.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
ara umi ya / Sado ni yokotau / Ama-no-gawa

Revered figure!
I bow low
to the rabbit-eared Iris.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Nothing in the cry
of the cicadas
suggests they know they soon must die.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I wish I could wash
this perishing earth
in its shimmering dew.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring!
A nameless hill
shrouded in mist.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dabbed with morning dew
and splashed with mud,
the melon looks wonderfully cool.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cold white azalea—
a lone nun
in her thatched straw hut.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Glimpsed on this high mountain trail,
delighting my heart—
wild violets
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The bee emerging
from deep within the peony’s hairy recesses
flies off heavily, sated
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow has settled
on a naked branch—
autumn nightfall
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Except for a woodpecker
tapping at a post,
the house is silent.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

That dying cricket,
how he goes on about his life!
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like a glorious shrine—
on these green, budding leaves,
the sun’s intense radiance.
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
ara toto / aoba wakaba no / hi no hikar



Darkness speaks—
a bat in flight flits through a thicket.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

We cannot see the moon
and yet the waves still rise ...
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


The autumn wind eludes me;
for me there are no gods,
no Buddhas
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Such a small child
banished to become a priest:
frigid Siberia!
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I'm trying to sleep!
Please swat the flies
lightly
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I’m tired,
so please be so kind
as to swat the flies softly.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

After killing a spider,
how lonely I felt
in the frigid night.
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The night flies!
My life,
how much more of it remains?
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A summer river:
disdaining the bridge,
my horse gallops through water.
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

After the fireworks,
the spectators departed:
how vast and dark the sky!
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I got drunk
then wept in my sleep
dreaming of wild cherry blossoms.
―Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I thought I felt a dewdrop
plop
on me as I lay in bed!
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As thunder recedes
a lone tree stands illuminated in sunlight:
applauded by cicadas
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Summer thinness—
life sticks to my bones.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Paper dolls—
their faces
look like they long to be in love.
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

 

Late afternoon's dying echoes ...
something the mountains intimated
repealed.
―Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now nothing remains
of a night so vast
but its lingering fragrance.
―Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A man lies dead there,
yet his nails, beard and hair
continue to grow, unaware.
―Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This empty hand
once smoothed your hair.
―Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The light that winked out—
was it a distant empire
or just a firefly?
―Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Issa seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the peony, writing at least 84 haiku about the flower, sometimes praising it and sometimes accusing it of insolence and haughtiness!

Similarities to Lyric Poetry and Epigrams

Here's another ancient poem, written half a world away:

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
come, let my words
accompany your voice
―Sappho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sappho was the first great lyric poet we know by name today, and she may still be the greatest of the lyric poets. She is best known for her epigrams, which like haiku are brief, concise and often startling. As I worked on a page about the best lyric poems of all time, the haiku below appeared to me from "out of blue nothing," and without any prior intention I ended up not only creating this page, but also translating a number of haiku in the process. Did some ancient master provide the gift as a way of encouraging me to pay oriental lyric poetry its proper due? In any case, here's my poem:

Dark-bosomed clouds
pregnant with heavy thunder ...
the water breaks
Michael R. Burch

Here's my translation of one of my favorite haiku written by the Japanese master Basho:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It's interesting to note the similarities between three poems by three very different poets. Sappho was an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos; her homoeroticism lends denotations and connotations to our words "Lesbian" and "Sapphic." Matsuo Basho was an ancient Japanese master of haiku, who influenced (and continues to influence) many Western poets. I'm a little-known American poet with an affinity for all sorts of poetry. The poems share a number of characteristics: brevity, conciseness, clarity, and the use of imagery to convey emotion. In each poem the poet uses an image to convey more information than the literal words. Sappho invokes the lyre, the harp-like instrument that gave us our term "lyric poetry." When she calls the lyre "sacred," she also invokes the Muses (gods the ancient Greeks invented to explain the source of poetry, which they considered to be divinely inspired). Basho's poem is a deceptively simple masterpiece, as it portrays the symbiotic nature of life. The butterfly sips the nectars of flowers; in the process it helps pollinate them. Basho's poem is an example of art mirroring nature; it's hard to say which is more lovely: the butterfly, the orchid, or the exquisitely wrought poem. My poem compares a thunderstorm's clouds beginning to rain, to a pregnant woman's water breaking. I think it's an effective image, although I don't expect readers to think me worthy of the great masters. Hopefully, I can help pay them the homage they're justly due. And now, without any further ado, here are more of my favorite haiku ...

Pausing between clouds
the moon rests
in the eyes of its beholders
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above also illustrates the simplicity and power of haiku in capable hands. When a master like Basho deftly invokes the image of the moon, he can appeal to all the things we know and feel about the moon.

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!
―Takaha Shugyo, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above is another haiku I especially love, because the poet draws the reader into feeling empathy for, and sympathizing with, dying flowers. When I interpret the poem, I see petals falling beside rapidly rushing water, with the poet suggesting that a quick death is better than a slow, lingering death. The poem may be a suggestion that suicide and euthanasia are preferable to long, drawn-out deaths, although of course there are other interpretations as well. A good poem may have as many different interpretations as there are readers.

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
―Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I think there is a "family resemblance" between the brief, concise, evocative lyrics of Sappho and the brief, concise, evocative lyrics of the Oriental masters.

when you opened
my letter
were you surprised
my heart
fell out?

next door
the lovemaking
subsides
stars fall
from other worlds

an old photo
of my parents
young and happy—
of all the things I own
that is the saddest

The three poems above are by Michael Windsor McClintock, a contemporary American poet. In the late 1960s he was the Assistant Editor of Haiku Highlights. During the 1970s he was the Assistant Editor of Modern Haiku and also edited the American Haiku Poets Series and Seer Ox: American Senryu Magazine. I think his poems demonstrate how much emotion a simple, clear image can convey: a letter being opened, a star falling, a photo of loved ones touching our hearts. I think the ancient masters would applaud such poems.

One apple, alone
In the abandoned orchard
reddens for winter
―Patrick Blanche, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above is by a French poet; it illustrates how the poetry of Oriental masters like Basho has influenced poets around the world.

Our life here on earth:
to what shall we compare it?
It is not like a rowboat
departing at daybreak,
leaving no trace of us in its wake?
―Takaha Shugyo, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above is a tanka, another oriental poetic form. It speaks of the human condition: how many people die every day leaving no "wake"? For every Shakespeare there are a billion seeming non-entities, at least in terms of the world's direct remembrance. The best poets are truth-tellers. Unlike the witchdoctors and priests of religion, they give readers the unadulterated truth, as they perceive it.

Graven images of long-departed gods,
dry spiritless leaves:
companions of the temple porch
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I like Basho's poem above, because it questions the authenticity and authority of religion. The witchdoctors, priests and evangelists of nearly every religion pretend to be able to speak for the gods, but their gods are singularly unjust and ineffective. The gods of the witchdoctors, priests and evangelists never spare them from suffering and death: to the truth-telling poets, that seems to imply something obvious. Here is another poem that makes me think Basho was not a fan of organized religion:

The temple bells grow silent
but the blossoms provide their incense
A perfect evening!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here's another:

See: whose surviving sons
visit the ancestral graves
white-bearded, with trembling canes?
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Again, Basho speaks honestly, with a daunting but compelling truthfulness. The ancient Greek poets also spoke of death forthrightly. Here's an ancient Greek epitaph (a gravestone inscription) that rivals Basho:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Here's another Greek epitaph (a form of epigram) that matches the best haiku in simplicity, honesty, clarity and forthrightness:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Hisajo Sugita was an innovative and influential female poet:

I remove my beautiful kimono:
its varied braids
surround and entwine my body
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This day of chrysanthemums
I shake and comb my wet hair,
as their petals shed rain
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This sheer kimono―
how the moon peers through
to my naked skin!
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These festive flowery robes―
though quickly undressed,
how their colored cords still continue to cling!
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Chrysanthemum petals
reveal their pale curves
shyly to the moon.
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Loneliness―
reading the Bible
as the rain deflowers cherry blossoms.
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

How deep this valley,
how elevated the butterfly's flight!
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

How lowly this valley,
how lofty the butterfly's flight!
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Echoes from the hills―
the mountain cuckoo sings as it will,
trill upon trill
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here are a number of poems by Matsuo Basho:

Fire under the ash
and written on the wall
the shadow of a friend
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Cid Corman

Fire levitating ashes:
my companion's shadow
animates the wall ...
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The year's first day ...
thoughts come, and with them, loneliness;
dusk approaches.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An empty road
lonelier than abandonment:
this autumn evening
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn darkness
        descends
on this road I travel      alone
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow settles
on a withered branch:
autumn nightfall.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

High-altitude rose petals
     falling
     falling
     falling:
the melody of a waterfall.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cicada's cry
contains no hint to foretell
how soon it must die.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fever-felled mid-path
my dreams resurrect, to trek
through a hollow land
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sea darkening,
the voices of the wild ducks:
my mysterious companions!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Will we remain parted forever?
Here at your grave:
two flowerlike butterflies!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Air ballet:
twin butterflies, twice white,
meet, match & mate.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ballet in the air!
two butterflies, twice white,
meet, mate, unite.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Come, butterfly,
it’s late
and we’ve a long way to go!
—Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A spring wind
stirs willow leaves
as a butterfly hovers unsteadily.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dusk-gliding swallow,
please spare my small friends
flitting among the flowers!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These wilting summer flowers?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring has come:
the nameless hill
lies shrouded in mist
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Among the graffiti
one illuminated name:
Yours.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Morning glories blossom,
reinforcing the old fence gate.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Scrawny tomcat!
Are you starving for fish and mice
or pining away for love?
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon: glorious its illumination!
Therefore, we give thanks.
Dark clouds cast their shadows on our necks.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Curious flower,
watching us approach:
meet Death, our famished donkey.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ah me,
I waste my meager breakfast
morning glory gazing!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lightning
shatters the darkness
the night heron's shriek
Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lightning
the night heron's shriek
severs the darkness
Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A flash of lightning
the night heron's shriek
splits the void
Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch



Here are more poems by various poets:

Oh, brilliant moon
is it true that even you
must rush away, as if tardy?
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ghostly the gray cow comes
     mooing
     mooing
     mooing
out of the morning mist.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Peonies blossom;
the world is full of blooming liars.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In this world where I was born
every rose hides a thorn
that pricks me to the quick.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Overdressed for my thatched hut:
a peony blossoms.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, magnificent peony,
please don't disdain
these poor surroundings!
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Insolent peony!
Demanding I measure your span
with my fan?
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

"This big!"
The child's arms
measured the peony.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Peonies blossom;
the world is full of fibbers.
―Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

***

kari sugishi ato zenten o miseitari

Wild geese pass
leaving the emptiness of heaven
revealed
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

kurumi waru kurumi no naka ni tsukawanu heya

Such gloom!
Inside the walnut's cracked shell:
one empty room
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Michinoku no hoshiiri tsurara ware ni kure yo

Bring me an icicle
sparkling with the stars
of the deep north
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

matenro yori shinryoku ga paseri hodo

Seen from the skyscraper
the trees' fresh greenery:
parsley sprigs
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

ハート型彫られて一樹はや芽吹く
                hātogata horarete ichiju haya mebuku


A single tree
with a heart carved into its trunk
blossoms prematurely
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

d˘kefuku nugazu tent˘mushi no shi yo

Still clad in its clown's costume—
the dead ladybird.

 落椿われならば急流へ落つ
                ochitsubaki ware naraba kyūryū e otsu


Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Our life here on earth:
to what shall we compare it?
It is not like a rowboat
departing at daybreak,
leaving no trace of us in its wake?
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

 雁渡るらし燭の火の揺れつづけ
                kari wataru rashi shoku no hi no yuretsuzuke


Are the geese flying south?
The candle continues to flicker ...
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tree crickets chirping—
after I've judged
a thousand verses today!
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

(Takaha Shugyo judged a very popular haiku contest with around 30,000 entries per month, which works out to around 1,000 poems per day!)

***

Silently observing
the bottomless mountain lake:
water lilies
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cranes
flapping ceaselessly
test the sky's upper limits
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Falling snowflakes'
glitter
tinsels the sea
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Blizzards here on earth,
blizzards of stars
in the sky
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Completely encircled
in emerald:
the glittering swamp!
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The new calendar!:
as if tomorrow
is assured ...
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring
stirs the clouds
in the sky's teabowl
―Kikusha-ni, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tonight I saw
how the peony crumples
in the fire's embers
―Shuson Kato, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I stomp an ant
then realize my three children
have been intently watching.
―Shuson Kato, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It fills me with anger,
this moon; it fills me
and makes me whole
―Takeshita Shizunojo, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

War
stood at the end of the hall
in the long shadows
―Watanabe Hakusen, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Because he is slow to wrath,
I tackle him, then wring his neck
in the long grass
―Shimazu Ryoh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Silence:
a single chestnut leaf
sinks through clear water ...
―Shohaku, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Pale mountain sky:
cherry petals play
as they tumble earthward
―Kusama Tokihiko, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The frozen moon,
the frozen lake:
two oval mirrors reflecting each other.
―Hashimoto Takako, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The bitter winter wind
ends here
with the frozen sea
―Ikenishi Gonsui, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, bitter winter wind,
why bellow so
when there's no leaves to fell?
―Natsume S˘seki, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Crows departed,
the setting sun illuminates
a leafless tree.
―Natsume S˘seki, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Winter waves
roil
their own shadows
―Tominaga Fűsei, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

No sky,
no land:
just snow eternally falling ...
―Kajiwara Hashin, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Along with spring leaves
my child's teeth
take root, blossom
―Nakamura Kusatao, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The faint voices
of despised mosquitoes
filled me with remorse.
―Nakamura Kusatao, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Stillness:
a single chestnut leaf glides
on brilliant water
―Ryuin, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A pity to pluck,
A pity to pass ...
Ah, violet!
―Naojo, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The snake slipped away
but his eyes, having held mine,
still stare in the grass
―Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Girls gather sprouts of rice:
reflections of the water flicker
on the backs of their hats
―Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Murmurs follow the hay cart
this blossoming summer day
―Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The wet nurse
paused to consider a bucket of sea urchins
then walked away
―Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

May I be with my mother
wearing her summer kimono
by the morning window
―Ippekiro Nakatsuka (1887-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Loneliness:
striking the gong again and again,
the lookout.
―Sekitei Hara (1889-1951), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The hands of a woman exist
to remove the insides of the spring cuttlefish
―Sekitei Hara (1889-1951), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon
hovering above the snow-capped mountains
rained down hailstones
―Sekitei Hara (1889-1951), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I remove my beautiful kimono:
its varied braids
surround and entwine my body
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This day of chrysanthemums
I shake and comb my wet hair,
as their petals shed rain
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sea
roaring in the darkness;
the wild geese scream
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The summer sea's
roaring waves;
the perambulator sideways ...
―Hisajo Sugita (1890-1946), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, dreamlike winter butterfly:
a puff of white snow
cresting mountains
―Kakio Tomizawa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring snow
cascades over fences
in white waves
―Suju Takano, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ceaseless chaos―
ice floes clash
in the Soya straits.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Grasses wilt:
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Having crossed the sea,
winter winds can never return.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
(Written in October 1944 as Kamikaze pilots were flying out to sea.)

Banish the snow
for the human torpedo
now lies exploded.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sky hangs low
over Karafuto,
as white as the spawning herring.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Green bottle flies
buzzing carrion—
did they just materialize?
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Finally
the cicadas stopped shrilling—
summer gale.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As grief becomes unbearable
someone snaps a nearby branch.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As grief reaches its breaking point
someone snaps a nearby branch.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Trapped in the spider’s web
the firefly’s bulb
blinks out forever.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Trapped in the spider’s web
the firefly’s light
is swiftly consumed.
―Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Seishi Yamaguchi has been said to represent “a pinnacle of haiku in twentieth-century Japan.”

Winter blizzard—
I'll die knowing no hands
besides my husband's ...
―Hashimoto Takako (1899-1963), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Winter blizzard—
so much remains
unwritten ...
―Hashimoto Takako (1899-1963), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wanting to see him,
wanting to be with him,
I step out on thin ice ...
―Mayuzumi Madoka (1965-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An untouched wave
collapses without climaxing ...
―Mayuzumi Madoka (1965-), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Short Poems
by Matsuo Basho

A sturdy oak
In the plum orchard,
Totally indifferent
To the blossoms.

Not knowing
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.

Having sucked deep
In a sweet peony,
A bee creeps
Out of its hairy recesses.

From Jerusalem the Golden
by Charles Reznikoff

17

Rails in the subway,
what did you know of happiness,
when you were ore in the earth;
now the electric lights shine upon you.

39

What are you doing in our street among the automobiles,
horse?
How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?

40

Rooted among roofs, their smoke among the clouds,
factory chimneys—our cedars of Lebanon.

Zen Death Haiku & Related Oriental Poems

A night storm sighs:
"The fate of the flower is to fall" ...
rebuking all who hesitate
―Yukio Mishima, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch; this is said to have been his death poem before committing ritual suicide.


The night is clear;
the moon shines quietly;
the wind strums the trees like lyres ...
but when I’m gone, who the hell will hear?
Farewell!
—Higan Choro aka Zoso Royo (1194-1277), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I entered the world empty-handed
and leave it barefoot.
My coming and going?
Two uncomplicated events
that became entangled.
—Kozan Ichikyo (1283-1360), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Brittle autumn leaves
crumble to dust
in the bittercold wind.
—Takao (?-1660), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This frigid season
nothing but the shadow
of my corpse survives.
—Tadatomo (1624-1676), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My life was mere lunacy
until
the moon shone tonight.
Tokugen (1558-1647), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

“Isn’t it time,”
the young bride asks,
“to light the lantern?”
Ochi Etsujin (1656-1739), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

With the departing year
I have hidden my graying hair
from my parents.
Ochi Etsujin (1656-1739), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I wish to die
under the spring cherry blossoms
and April’s full moon.
Ochi Etsujin (1656-1739), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like blocks in the icehouse,
unlikely to last
the year out ...
—Sentoku (1661-1726), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Once again
the melon-cool moon
rises above the rice fields.
—Tanko (1665-1735), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

At long last I depart:
above me are rainless skies and a pristine moon
as pure as my heart.
—Senseki (1712-1742), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cuckoo, lift
me up
to where the clouds drift ...
Uko (1686-1743), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sixty-six,
setting sail through tranquil waters,
a breeze-blown lotus.
Usei (1698-1764), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Returning
as it came,
this naked worm.
—Shidoken (?-1765), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like dew glistening
on a lotus leaf,
so too I soon must vanish.
—Shinsui (1720-1769), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Is it me the raven summons
from the spirit world
this frigid morning?
—Shukabo (1717-1775), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

To prepare for my voyage beyond,
let me don
a gown of flowers.
—Setsudo (1715-1776), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

From depths
unfathomably cold:
the oceans roar!
—Kasenjo (d. 1776), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Today Mount Hiei’s sky
with a quick change of clouds
also removes its robes.
Shogo (1731-1798), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I cup curious ears
among the hydrangeas
hoping to hear the spring cuckoo.
—Senchojo (?-1802), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Life,
is it like
a charcoal sketch, an obscure shadow?
—Toyokuni (?-1825), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Having been summoned,
I say farewell
to my house beneath the moon.
—Takuchi (1767-1846), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since time dawned
only the dead have experienced peace;
life is snow burning in the sun.
—Nandai (1786-1817), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Bitter winter winds ...
but later, river willow,
remember to open your buds!
—Senryu (1717-1790), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This leafless willow tree:
unlikely to be missed
as much as the cherry blossoms.
—Senryu II (?-1818), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My path
to Paradise:
ringed bright with flowers.
—Sokin (?-1818), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Let this body
be dew
in a field of wildflowers.
—Tembo (1740-1823), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A willow branch
unable to reach the water
at the bottom of the vase.
—Shigenobu (?-1832), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Bury me beneath a wine barrel
in a bibber’s cellar:
with a little luck the keg will leak.
—Moriya Senan (?-1838), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Learn to accept the inevitable:
the fall willow
knows when to abandon its leaves.
—Tanehiko (1782-1842), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I wish only to die
swiftly, with my eyes
fixed on Mount Fuji.
—Rangai (1770-1845), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A strident cricket
accompanies me
through autumn mountains.
—Shiko (1788-1845), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cherry orchard’s owner
soon becomes compost
for his trees.
—Utsu (1813-1863), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn ends ...
the frogs find their place
submerged in the earth.
—Shogetsu (1829-1899), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

First one hidden face is revealed,
then the other; thus spinning it falls,
the autumn leaf.
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I persuaded a child to purchase rural wine;
once I'm nicely tipsy,
I’ll slap down some calligraphy.
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The thief missed it:
the moon
bejeweling my window.
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This world:
a distant mountain echo
dying unheard ...
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The peonies I planted around my hut
I must now surrender
to the wind’s will
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wild peonies
blossoming in their prime,
glorious in full bloom:
Too precious to pick,
To precious to leave unplucked
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

But one poet, at least, cast doubt on the death poem enterprise:

Death poems?
Damned delusions—
Death is death!
—Toko, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

New Zen Death Haiku, Added 10/6/2020

Air ballet:
twin butterflies, twice white,
meet, match & mate
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Denied transformation
into a butterfly,
autumn worsens for the worm
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dusk-gliding swallow,
please spare my small friends
flitting among the flowers!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Up and at ’em! The sky goes bright!
Let’s hit the road again,
Companion Butterfly!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Higher than a skylark,
resting on the breast of heaven:
mountain pass.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Farewell,
my cloud-parting friend!
Wild goose migrating.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow settles
on a leafless branch:
autumn nightfall.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An exciting struggle
with such a sad ending:
cormorant fishing.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Secretly,
by the light of the moon,
a worm bores into a chestnut.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This strange flower
investigated by butterflies and birds:
the autumn sky
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Where’s the moon tonight?
Like the temple bell:
lost at sea.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring departs;
birds wail;
the pale eyes of fish moisten.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon still appears,
though far from home:
summer vagrant.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cooling the pitiless sun’s
bright red flames:
autumn wind.

Saying farewell to others
while being told farewell:
departing autumn.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Traveling this road alone:
autumn evening.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Thin from its journey
and not yet recovered:
late harvest moon.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Occasional clouds
bless tired eyes with rest
from moon-viewing.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The farmboy
rests from husking rice
to reach for the moon.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon aside,
no one here
has such a lovely face.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon having set,
all that remains
are the four corners of his desk.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon so bright
a wandering monk carries it
lightly on his shoulder.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The Festival of Souls
is obscured
by smoke from the crematory.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The Festival of Souls!
Smoke from the crematory?
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Family reunion:
those with white hair and canes
visiting graves.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

One who is no more
left embroidered clothes
for a summer airing.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

What am I doing,
writing haiku on the threshold of death?
Hush, a bird’s song!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fallen ill on a final tour,
in dreams I go roving
earth’s flowerless moor.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Striken ill on a senseless tour,
still in dreams I go roving
earth’s withered moor.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Stricken ill on a journey,
in dreams I go wandering
withered moors.
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Today, catching sight of the mallards
crying over Lake Iware:
Must I too vanish into the clouds?
—Prince Otsu (663-686), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch
Momozutau / iware no ike ni / naku kamo wo / kyo nomi mite ya / Kumokakuri nan

This world—
to what may we compare it?
To autumn fields
lying darkening at dusk
illuminated by lightning flashes.
—Minamoto no Shitago (911-983), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

This world—to what may we liken it?
To autumn fields lit dimly at dusk,
illuminated by lightning flashes.
—Minamoto no Shitago (911-983), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Like a half-exposed rotten log
my life, which never flowered,
ends barren.
—Minamoto Yorimasa (1104-1180), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Overtaken by darkness,
I will lodge under a tree’s branches;
cherry blossoms will cushion me tonight.
—Taira no Tadanori (1144–1184), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Overtaken by darkness,
I will lodge under a cherry tree’s branches;
flowers alone will bower me tonight.
—Taira no Tadanori (1144–1184), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Let me die in spring
beneath the cherry blossoms
while the moon is full.
—Saigyo (1118-1190), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

There is no death, as there is no life.
Are not the skies cloudless
And the rivers clear?
—Taiheiki Toshimoto (-1332), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

All five aspects of my fleeting human form
And the four elements of existence add up to nothing:
I bare my neck to the unsheathed sword
And its blow is but a breath of wind ...
—Suketomo (1290-1332), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Had I not known
I was already dead
I might have mourned
my own passing.
—Ota Dokan (1432-1486), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Both victor and vanquished
are but dewdrops,
but lightning bolts
illuminate the world.
—ďuchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Even a life of long prosperity is like a single cup of sake;
my life of forty-nine years flashed by like a dream.
Nor do I know what life is, nor death.
All the years combined were but a fleeting dream.
Now I step beyond both Heaven and Hell
To stand alone in the moonlit dawn,
Free from the mists of attachment.
—Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

My life appeared like dew
and disappears like dew.
All Naniwa was a series of dreams.
—Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Felt deeply in my heart:
How beautiful the snow,
Clouds gathering in the west.
—Issho (-1668), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Brittle cicada shell,
little did I know
that you were my life!
—Shoshun (-1672), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Inhale, exhale.
Forward, reverse.
Live, die.
Let arrows fly, meet midway and sever the void in aimless flight:
Thus I return to the Source.
—Gesshu Soko (-1696), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem)by Michael R. Burch

My body?
Pointless
as the tree’s last persimmon.
—Seisa (-1722), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Farewell! I pass
away as all things do:
dew drying on grass.
—Banzan (-1730), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Seventy-one?
How long
can a dewdrop last?
—Kigen (-1736), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

A tempestuous sea ...
Flung from the deck —
this block of ice.
—Choha (-1740), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Empty cicada shell:
we return as we came,
naked.
—Fukaku (-1753), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Since I was born,
I must die,
and so …
—Kisei (1688-1764), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Let us arise and go,
following the path of the clear dew.
—Fojo (-1764), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Depths of the cold,
unfathomable ocean’s roar.
—Kasenjo (-1776), loose translation/interpretation of her jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Things never stand still,
not even for a second:
consider the trees’ colors.
—Seiju (-1776), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Lately the nights
dawn
plum-blossom white.
—Yosa Buson (-1783), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Bitter winter winds!
But later, river willow,
reopen your buds ...
—Senryu (-1790), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Who cares
where aimless clouds are drifting?
—Bufu (-1792), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

What does it matter how long I live,
when a tortoise lives many times as long?
—Issa (-1827), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Like a lotus leaf’s evaporating dew,
I vanish.
—Senryu (-1827), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Man’s end:
this mound of albescent bones,
this brief flowering sure to fade ...
—Hamei (-1837), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

When I kick the bucket,
bury me beneath a tavern’s cellar wine barrel;
with a little luck the cask will leak.
—Moriya Sen’an (-1838), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch
Ware shinaba / sakaya no kame ni / shita no ikeyo / moshi ya shisuku no / moriyasennen

Frost on a balmy day:
all I leave is the water
that washed my brush.
—Tanaka Shutei (1810-1858, loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Though moss may overgrow
my useless corpse,
the seeds of patriotism shall never decay.
—Nomura Boto (1806-1867), loose translation/interpretation of her jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

My aging body:
a drop of dew
bulging at the leaf-cliff.
—Kiba (-1868), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Forbearing the night
with its growing brilliance:
the summer moon.
—Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Blow if you must,
autumn wind,
but the flowers have already faded.
—Gansan (-1895), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Time to go ...
They say this journey is a long trek:
this final change of robes.
—Roshu (-1899), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

The moon departs;
frost paralyzes the morning glories.
— Kato (-1908), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch

Stumble,
tumble,
fall,
slide down the slippery snow slope.
— Getsurei (-1919), loose translation/interpretation of his jisei (death poem) by Michael R. Burch



The Orchid

Deep in the valley, a secluded beauty!
Serene, peerless, impossibly lovely.
In the bamboo thicket’s shadowy tower
she seems to sigh softly for a lover.
—Ryokan (1758-1831), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here are a few of my original haiku and haiku-like poems:

Childless
by Michael R. Burch

How can she bear her grief?
Mightier than Atlas, she shoulders the weight
of one fallen star.

Dark-bosomed clouds
pregnant with heavy thunder —
the water breaks.
Michael R. Burch

Dry leaf flung awry:
bright butterfly,
goodbye!
Michael R. Burch

A snake in the grass
lies, hissing
"Trespass!"
Michael R. Burch

Honeysuckle
blesses my knuckle
with affectionate dew
Michael R. Burch

My nose nuzzles
honeysuckle’s
sweet nothings
Michael R. Burch

The day’s eyes were blue
until you appeared
and they wept at your beauty.
Michael R. Burch

She bathes in silver,
        afloat
on her reflections ...
Michael R. Burch

My mother’s eyes
acknowledging my imperfection:
dejection
Michael R. Burch

Late autumn; all
the golden leaves turn black underfoot:
soot
Michael R. Burch

The herons stand,
sentry-like, at attention ...
rigid observers of some unknown command.
Michael R. Burch

one pillow
our dreams
merge
Michael R. Burch

Haiku
should never rhyme:
it’s a crime!
Michael R. Burch

Video
dumped the boob tube
for YouTube.
Michael R. Burch

bright leaf flung awry ~
butterfly, goodbye!
Michael R. Burch

leaf flutters in flight ~
bright, O and endeavoring!, butterfly,
goodbye.
Michael R. Burch

The whore with the pallid lips
lipsticks
into something more comfortable
Michael R. Burch

I am a traveler
going nowhere—
but my how the gawking bystanders stare!
Michael R. Burch

The moon in decline
like my lover’s heart
lies far beyond mine
Michael R. Burch

Night,
the ice and the darkness
conspire against human warmth
Michael R. Burch

Celebrate the New Year?
The cat is not impressed,
the dogs shiver.
Michael R. Burch

And here's a poem of mine that's composed of haiku-like stanzas:

Lift up your head
dandelion,
hear spring roar!

How will you tidy your hair
this near
summer?

Leave to each still night
your lightest affliction,
dandruff.

Soon you will free yourself:
one shake
of your white mane.

Now there are worlds
into which you appear
and disappear

seemingly at will
but invariably blown—
wildly, then still.

Gasp at the bright chill
glower
of winter.

Icicles splinter;
sleep still an hour,
till, resurrected in power,

you lift up your head,
dandelion.
Hear spring roar!
Michael R. Burch

Haiku Rules, Dos and Don'ts

Are there rules for writing haiku? Even the experts, many of them self-appointed, don't agree. While I don't claim to be an "expert," I will offer my opinions, which can be taken with a grain of salt, and surely will be, by the traditionalists and purists.—MRB

The 5-7-5 syllable rule: I don't think this rule has ever made much sense in English language haiku, since no rhythm is achieved by counting syllables. In English poetry, rhythm is created via patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. When meter is absent, poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance and consonance may be employed. Or haiku can be pure free verse without poetic devices. But in any case, I see nothing to be gained via the 5-7-5 form. I ignore the rule myself.

The three line rule: While most haiku have three lines, I see no reason haiku can't have fewer or more lines. I sometimes employ fewer or more lines, when the logic of what is being said seems to work more naturally that way.

The nature and season rules: The great Oriental masters of the form did not write strictly about nature or the seasons, so I ignore these rules.

The "cut" rule: I have heard variations of a "cut" rule in which two lines have to be about one thing only, with those two lines "cutting" over to the third line. While this is fine if poets want to do it, I see no reason to make it a hard-and-fast rule.

So what are my personal rules for haiku? I don't care much for rules myself, so I will use the term "guidelines" instead. I am more concerned about what haiku should do, than I am with creating arbitrary "don'ts" that just get in the way and clog up the works. For me, the essential attributes of haiku are minimalism, epiphany, and being a sort of poetic or "zen" snapshot. I would much rather bend or break the rules and produce an epiphany, than adhere to the rules and have the poem fall flat. Therefore, my guidelines are simple and flexible:

(1) Minimalism: A haiku is a brief poem constructed usually (but not always) of three short lines.
(2) Snapshot: A haiku is usually (but not always) a vivid snapshot of one thing or event, or of closely related things or events.
(3) Epiphany: A good haiku results in some sort of epiphany (a flash of insight, a feeling of dÚjÓ vu, "a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination," a sob, a tear, a wince, a chuckle, etc.).
(4) Imagery and metaphor: Most haiku employ imagery and many involve some sort of metaphor (transference).
(5) Poetic devices: Haiku may employ (but do not require) poetic devices such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance).
(6) Punctuation and capitalization: Because haiku are typically brief, and are thus generally easier to parse, punctuation and capitalization are less critical that with longer works of poetry and prose. This does not mean that some haiku will not benefit from punctuation. When a haiku might be read incorrectly otherwise, I employ punctuation. Punctuation can also help "slow down" the reading a bit, by indicating pauses to the reader. I think punctuation is optional in most haiku, but can be immensely beneficial in the proper spots. And it is never "wrong" to employ standard capitalization and punctuation.

How does one go about writing haiku? I think the first and most important step is to read the haiku of the Oriental masters, starting with grand masters like Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. There are, I believe, many good examples on this page. Pay particular attention to the "snapshot" and "epiphany" aspects of haiku. Then see if you can capture similar magic yourself. Don't get hung up on the rules. If you can produce an epiphany, who cares exactly how you did it? If you abide by all the rules and the poem falls flat, what has been accomplished?

Original Haiku by Michael R. Burch


The Masters of Haiku, Tanka, Waka and Related Forms

Matsuo Basho
Yosa Buson
Kobayashi Issa
Ono no Komachi
Yamaguchi Seishi
The Oriental Masters of Haiku
Japanese Death Poems

Related pages: The Best Sonnets, The Best Villanelles, The Best Ballads, The Best Sestinas, The Best Rondels and Roundels, The Best Kyrielles, The Best Couplets, The Best Quatrains, The Best Haiku, The Best Limericks, The Best Nonsense Verse, The Best Poems for Kids, The Best Light Verse, The Best Poem of All Time, The Best Poems Ever Written, The Best Poets, The Best of the Masters, The Most Popular Poems of All Time, The Best American Poetry, The Best Poetry Translations, The Best Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, The Best Old English Poetry, The Best Lyric Poetry, The Best Free Verse, The Best Story Poems, The Best Narrative Poems, The Best Epic Poems, The Best Epigrams, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Lines in the English Language, The Most Beautiful Sonnets in the English Language, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments, The Best Poems about Death and Loss, The Best Holocaust Poetry, The Best Hiroshima Poetry, The Best Anti-War Poetry, The Best Religious Poetry, The Best Spiritual Poetry, The Best Heretical Poetry, The Best Thanksgiving Poems, The Best Autumnal Poems, The Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Love Poems, The Best Urdu Love Poetry, The Best Erotic Poems, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Love Songs, The Ten Greatest Poems Ever Written, The Greatest Movies of All Time, England's Greatest Artists, Visions of Beauty, What is Poetry?, The Best Abstract Poetry, The Best Antinatalist Poems and Prose, Early Poems: The Best Juvenilia, Human Perfection: Is It Possible?, The Best Book Titles of All Time, The Best Writing in the English Language, Michael R. Burch Romantic Poems, Michael R. Burch Free Verse

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