The HyperTexts

Haiku: the Best of the Masters (Translations and Original Contemporary Poems)

Who were the best writers of haiku, the acknowledged masters of the form? This page contains some of the best haiku written originally in the English language, plus a number of modern English translations of poems by the Oriental masters of haiku, waka and tanka. I have also included translations of haiku-like epigrams written by Sappho and other masters of ancient Greek poetry. This page also contains the death poems of two acclaimed masters of Oriental poetry: Basho and Buson.

compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
come, let my words
accompany your voice
Sappho of Lesbos

As I worked on our journal's pages about the best poems of all time, including the best lyric poems, the haiku below appeared to me out of the blue, and without any such intention or forethought, I ended up not only creating this page, but also translating a number of haikus 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, by the Japanese master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

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

It's interesting, I believe, to note the similarities between three very different poems by three very different poets. Sappho was an ancient Greek female poet from the island of Lesbos; her homoeroticism lends denotations and connotations to our terms "Lesbian" and "Sapphic." Matsuo Basho was an ancient Japanese master of brief, startlingly clear haiku, who influenced (and continues to influence) Western poets. I'm a little-known American poet with an affinity for all sorts of poetry, who's glad we live in a world where so much good and great poetry is freely accessible. The three poems share a number of important 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 stringed instrument that gave us our term "lyric poetry." When she calls the lyre "sacred," she invokes the Muses (gods the ancient Greeks invented to explain the source of poetry; they considered poetry to spring from a divine, otherworldly source). The voice Sappho speaks of might be said to be her voice, the voice of poetry itself, the voice of the gods, and the voice (music) of the lyre accompanying hers, as in her day poems were sung to the strummings of a lyre. So her apparently simple poem is anything but. Basho's poem is also a deceptively simple masterpiece, as it invokes the symbiotic nature of life. The butterfly benefits from the perfumes and nectars of flowers; in the process of imbibing their nectar 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 and 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 the reader to think me worthy of the great masters. Hopefully, however, I can pay them the homage they're justly due.

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 the hands of a master. My translation has a slightly different "take" on the poem, and I can't say that my translation is absolutely correct, but I like it. This poem hints of the connection between the stages of the moon and human life, which is a series of passages and rests. Usually we sleep as the moon floats above. If we see the moon at night, slipping between clouds, it can seem eerily lovely, haunting and restful at the same time. When a master like Basho deftly invokes the image of the moon, he can appeal to all the things we know (or think 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 and the poet suggesting that a quick death is better than a slow, lingering death. One might say that the poem is a suggestion that suicide or euthanasia may be preferable to a long, drawn-out death, although of course there are other interpretations as well. A good poem may have as many different interpretations as there are readers.

Eros shatters my soul:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains
leveling oaks.
Sappho, fragment 42, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The family resemblance between the brief, concise, evocative lyrics of Sappho and the brief, concise, evocative lyrics of the Oriental masters is startling, in a wonderful way.


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 be proud of 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.

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

The poem above is a wonderful example of a metaphor than conveys both meaning and emotion. Dying autumn grasses are compared to a braking locomotive grinding to a halt. Two simple images speak worlds, in the hands of a skilled poet.

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 also known as waka. The poem 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.

On rain-drenched branches
buds of the apricot tree
swell into blossom,
trembling anxiously,
as if waiting to be deflowered ...
Kazuhiko Ito, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above is another tanka. It metaphorically compares human virginity to the virgin buds of an apricot tree (or at least that is my interpretation of the poem). In my translation, I employed three rhymes: "tree," "anxiously" and "nervously." While rhyme seems to be frowned upon in some haiku/tanka circles, I see no reason to avoid rhymes that work. I also employed alliteration: "branches," "buds" and "blossom." Readers will have to decide for themselves if such English poetic devices add to the translation or detract from it.

As I slept in isolation
my desired beloved appeared to me;
therefore, dreams have become my reality
and consolation.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The poem above is another tanka, or waka, by a female master of the form. More poems by Ono no Komachi can be found later on this page, in the extended tanka/waka section.

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:

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

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

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water
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

Lightning
shatters the darkness

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

A flash of lightning
the night heron's shriek
splits the void
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

Too ill to travel,
now only my autumn dreams
survey these withering fields
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch; this has been called Basho's death poem

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 the 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 brown summer grasses?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
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

Here are more poems by various poets:

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

Oh, brilliant moon
is it true that even you
must fly as if you're tardy?
Issa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Blossoms of the pear tree
a young woman reading a letter
by moonlight
Yosa Buson, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

I thought I felt a dewdrop
plop
on me as I lay in bed!
Masaoka Shiki, 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?
Chiyo-ni, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Because morning glories
hold my well-bucket hostage
I go begging for water
Chiyo-ni, 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

More tanka/waka translations:

If fields of autumn flowers
can shed their blossoms, shameless,
why can’t I also frolic here —
as fearless, and as blameless?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Submit to you —
is that what you advise?
The way the ripples do
whenever ill winds arise?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Watching wan moonlight
illuminate trees,
my heart also brims,
overflowing with autumn.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

That which men call "love" —
is it not merely the chain
preventing our escape
from this world of pain?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Once-colorful flowers faded,
while in my drab cell
life’s impulse also abated
as the long rains fell.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I set off at the shore
of the seaside of Tago,
where I saw the high, illuminated peak
of Fuji
―white, aglow
through flakes of drifting downy snow.
Akahito Yamabe, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are 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 the 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

Even 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

Night
and the stars
conspire against me
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

Related pages: Ono no Komachi

The HyperTexts