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The Best Haiku Ever: the Greatest Haiku of All Time
with English translations of the Oriental Masters

compiled by Michael R. Burch

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." For example:

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

In the poem above, wilting autumn grasses and a braking locomotive grinding to a halt represent time, aging and the approach of death. Two simple images speak worlds, in the hands of a skilled poet.

While Japanese haiku have three lines with syllable counts of 5-7-5, this is not a hard-and-fast rule in English, so in my translations I have used as many syllables as seemed necessary to convey the images, feelings and meanings of the poems, as I grok them.

The Influence of Haiku on Modern English Poetry

The influence of haiku on modern English poetry is both obvious and pronounced. Indeed, some of the precepts of Imagism clearly derive from 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 poems himself. Here is Pound's most haiku-like poem, "In a Station of the Metro":

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

Well-known 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 and Paul Muldoon. Oriental influences have also been noted in the writings of earlier modernists like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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 (Record of Ancient Matters), a book composed around 711-712 A.D. by the poet Ō no Yasumaro. The Kojiki relates Japan’s mythological beginnings and the history of its imperial line. Like the Roman poet 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 by Michael R. Burch

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

Hush, cawing birds; what rackets you make:
heaven's
indignant messengers ...
you remind me of wordsmiths!
Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

And another:

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

A Brief History and Chronology of Haiku

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

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

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

An orphaned blossom
returning to its bough, somehow?
No, a solitary butterfly.
Arakida Moritake (1472-1549), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

Lightning
shatters the darkness

the night heron's shriek
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

My eyes,
having observed everything,
returned to the white chrysanthemums.
Kosugi Isshō (1652-168852), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Useless dreams, alas!
Over desolate fields
winds whisper as they pass.
Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Leaves, like the shadows of crows
cast by a lonely moon.
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Beneath cherry blossoms
who can be strangers?
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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 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 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 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 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:
a wind on desolate mountains
uprooting oaks.
Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation 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 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 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 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.

See: whose surviving sons
visit the ancestral graves
white-bearded, with trembling canes?
Matsuo Basho, loose translation 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


The two poems below are by Hisajo Sugita, a female poet:

I remove my beautiful kimono:
its varied braids
surround and entwine my body
Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This day of chrysanthemums
I shake and comb my wet hair,
as their petals shed rain
Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are a number of poems by Matsuo Basho:

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there's no rice
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first chill rain:
poor monkey, you too could use
a woven cape of straw
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

Like a heavy fragrance
snow-flakes settle:
lilies on rocks
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The cheerful-chirping cricket
contends gray autumn's gay,
contemptuous of frost
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

Will we meet again?
Here at your flowering grave:
two white butterflies
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

These wilting summer flowers?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors and their dreams ...
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

Here are more poems by various poets:

Right at my feet!
When did you arrive here,
snail?
Kobayashi Issa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

We cannot see the moon
and yet the waves still rise
Shiki Masaoka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face
Shiki Masaoka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wild geese pass
leaving the emptiness of heaven
revealed
Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Silently observing
the bottomless mountain lake:
water lilies
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Cranes
flapping ceaselessly
test the sky's upper limits
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Falling snowflakes'
glitter
tinsels the sea
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Blizzards here on earth,
blizzards of stars
in the sky
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Completely encircled
in emerald:
the glittering swamp!
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The new calendar!:
as if tomorrow
is assured ...
Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Ah butterfly,
what dreams do you ply
with your beautiful wings?
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Because morning glories
hold my well-bucket hostage
I go begging for water
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Tonight I saw
how the peony crumples
in the fire's embers
Katoh Shuhson, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, bitter winter wind,
why bellow so
when there's no leaves to fell?
Natsume Sseki, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Winter waves
roil
their own shadows
Tominaga Fsei, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

As thunder recedes
a lone tree stands illuminated in sunlight:
applauded by cicadas
Masaoka Shiki, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The snake slipped away
but his eyes, having held mine,
still stare in the grass
Kyoshi Takahama, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Girls gather sprouts of rice:
reflections of the water flicker
on the backs of their hats
Kyoshi Takahama, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Murmurs follow the hay cart
this blossoming summer day
Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The wet nurse
paused to consider a bucket of sea urchins
then walked away
Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May I be with my mother
wearing her summer kimono
by the morning window
Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The hands of a woman exist
to remove the insides of the spring cuttlefish
Sekitei Hara, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon
hovering above the snow-capped mountains
rained down hailstones
Sekitei Hara, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

Here are a few more of my original haikus:

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 mother’s eyes
acknowledging my imperfection:
dejection
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

Late autumn; now all
the golden leaves turn black underfoot:
soot
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

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