The HyperTexts

Death Haiku Translations

These are my modern English translations of jisei or Japanese death poems. Many such poems fall into a category called Zen Death Haiku. However, not all the poems here are haiku: some are tanka or waka. And not all the poems have to do with Zen as I apprehend it: some of the poets seem to be seeking enlightenment and a few, perhaps, to have found it, while others seem more agnostic and doubtful of the possibility. What the poets have in common, I believe, is the ability to communicate aspects of what we call the "human condition" in sometimes stunning poetry of just a few lines.

A good number of these poems are widely considered to be the final statements on life and death by poets facing their final days here on earth. Where a poem is commonly believed to be such a final statement, I have used the terms jisei and death poem. The other poems are related to death, in my opinion, but do not seem to be such final statements. However, this is not an exact science, and what really matters is the poems and what they mean to you, the reader. Some of my favorite poems here are not final statements and they may touch on death less directly. For instance ...


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

I consider Matsuo Basho to be one of the world's greatest poets and this is one of my favorite poems of his. The poem can be interpreted many different ways and none of those interpretations is necessarily "wrong." My personal interpretation is that there is a note of reverence here. I see the jonquils bowing their heads and folding their leaves as if in prayer. What has awed them? Is it the power of nature and the snow to determine whether they live or die? Or are they happy, perhaps, to be done with their roles here on earth? Do they bless and revere the snow? Some human beings long to escape life but would prefer to end it without suffering. Might they bless a merciful euthanasiaist? In any case, I think it's a wonderful poem and I hope you agree.

You are welcome to share any of my translations on this page as long as you credit the original poet and translator. You can do that easily by cutting and pasting the poem with the credit line immediately below the poem.

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.

Petals I amass
with such tenderness
prick me to the quick.
―Kobayashi Issa, 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

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!
―Takaha Shugyo, 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. You can find some of their very best poems on this page, in accessible modern English translations.

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, Kosugi Isshō, Michael McClintock, Arakida Moritake, Kyorai Mukai, Ippekiro Nakatsuka, Naojo, Plato, Li Po, Ezra Pound, Ranko, Hattori Ransetsu, Roka, Ryokan, Sappho, Yamaguchi Seishi, Shohaku, Takaha Shugyo, Ilio Sōgi, Yamazaki Sōkan, Natsume Sseki, Hisajo Sugita, Kyoshi Takahama, Inahata Teiko, Richard Wright and Ō no Yasumaro.

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.

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.

Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinions, for whatever they're worth, but it never hurts to compare notes ...

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.

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, Langston Hughes, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Amy Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Paul Muldoon, Charles Reznikoff 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.

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

A Brief History and Chronology of Japanese Death Poetry

These are my translations of some of the oldest Japanese waka, which evolved into poetic forms such as tanka, renga and haiku over time. Some of 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

However, this poem may be older:

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

I find it of interest that around this time, ancient Greek epigrams with a "family resemblance" were being written by poets like Sappho. I touch on this family resemblance later on this page ...

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

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

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

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.
—uchi 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.
—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

My life was mere lunacy
until
the moon shone tonight.
Tokugen (1558-1647), 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

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

This frigid season
nothing but the shadow
of my corpse survives.
—Tadatomo (1624-1676), 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

NOTE: In some haiku/tanka circles it is considered a capital crime to employ traditional English meter and/or rhyme. 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.

When no wind at all
ruffles the Kiri tree
leaves fall of their own will.
―Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), 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

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
―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

A solitary crow
clings to a leafless branch:
autumn twilight
―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 translation I have tried to create an image of solitary crow clinging to a branch that seems like a harbinger of approaching winter and death.

Winter solitude:
a world awash in white,
the sound of the wind
―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

Nothing in the cry
of the cicadas
suggests 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

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

Fever-felled mid-path
my dreams resurrect, to trek
through a hollow land
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Will we remain parted forever?
Here at your grave:
two flowerlike butterflies!
—Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

These wilting summer flowers?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
―Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Curious flower,
watching us approach:
meet Death, our famished donkey.
―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 jisei (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 jisei (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.

While nobody's watching
the pepper pods redden.
―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), said to be her jisei (death poem), 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.”

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

These useless dreams, alas!
Over fields of wilted grass
winds whisper as they pass.
―Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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.

Brittle cicada shell,
little did I know
you were my life!
—Shuho (?-1767), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ah butterfly,
what dreams do you ply
with your beautiful wings?
―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

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

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  jisei (death poem) and he is said to have died before dawn

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

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

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

While a cicada
sings softly
a single leaf falls ...
―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

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

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

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

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 autumn wind eludes me;
for me there are no gods,
no Buddhas
―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

After the fireworks,
the spectators departed:
how vast and dark the sky!
―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




Meanwhile, half a world away ...

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

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.

Ancient Greek epigrams can bear a family resemblance to Oriental poetry ...

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

Here's another:

These men earned a crown of imperishable glory,
Nor did the maelstrom of death obscure their story.
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

And another:

Sappho, fragment 52 (Lobel-Page 52 / Cox 35)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

With my two small arms, how can I
think to encircle the sky?



Okay, back to the Orient ...

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 many religions, they give readers the unadulterated truth, as they perceive it.

Hisajo Sugita was an innovative and influential female poet:

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

Here are more poems by various poets:

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

Are the geese flying south?
The candle continues to flicker ...
―Takaha Shugyo (1930-), 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

The new calendar!:
as if tomorrow
is assured ...
―Inahata Teiko (1931-), 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

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

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

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

No sky,
no land:
just snow eternally falling ...
―Kajiwara Hashin, 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

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

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

Green bottle flies
buzzing carrion—
did they just materialize?
―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



More Zen Death Haiku & Related Oriental Poems

A night storm sighs:
"The fate of the flower is to fall" ...
rebuking all who hesitate
―Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch; this is said to have been his death poem before committing ritual suicide.


“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

Stricken 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.
—uchi 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

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

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 dj 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

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