The word haiku has been used in many ways
in English, on top of a few in Japanese, of course. As members
of an English-language haiku community devoted to the tradition,
we may not be pleased with such things as the Spam-ku,
headline haiku, and computer error message
haiku that once abounded on the Internet but are now
mostly the ghosts of passé fads. Long before the
World Wide Web or even the personal computer became factors
in the creation and publication of English-language haiku,
however, members of this community found that they were
not the only ones writing poems based on various understandings
of the Japanese haiku. Not too surprisingly, some professional
poets got there first.1
We have generally
been aware of the first attempts at haiku-like poems by
such poets as Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, and some of us
were even encouraged to take up haiku ourselves by the writings
of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg. At the same time, we
frequently criticize the so-called haiku of
our own contemporaries who happen to be professional poets.
For the most part, such criticisms occur mainly in private
conversations or correspondence, but if my experience is
any guide, quite a few haiku poets find these professional
poets haiku lacking some of the more important
characteristics of what they understand as haiku.2
All of which prompts me to take up this topic, the so-called
haiku of professional poets and how they may
or may not fit into a traditional notion of what haiku
really are. The astute reader may immediately see
my real purpose: Undermining the increasingly fixed and
limited notion of haiku that currently pervades much of
the English-language haiku community. In the meantime, I
propose to enjoy looking at some poems.
Of course, any serious poem-maker, worker with words and
images, may certainly do as she or he pleases. Professional
poets perhaps push beyond the boundaries of our expectations
more often than haiku poets. Perhaps we will learn a thing
or two by looking at their workserious, humorous,
or both at oncewhether we think this or that poem
is a haiku or not.
Right now, Paul Muldoon has moved into the spotlight among
serious (and humorous) poets writing in Englishon
both sides of the Atlantic. The Literary Supplement of
the Times of London singled him out as the most
significant English-language poet born since the Second
World War. His 2002 collection, Moy Sand and Gravel,
won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in the U.S. and the Griffin
Prize in Canada in 2003, and he teaches poetry at both Princeton
and Oxford Universities. As his two most recent books feature
substantial sequences of haiku and haiku-like poems, it
seems appropriate to begin what I hope will be a series
of occasional articles with a look at some of them.
The following poems appear in Hopewell Haiku
(published in Hay, 1998; the sequence also appeared
as a chapbook the previous year). Hopewell refers
to the New Jersey town where Muldoon lived for a time. I
take the poems out of order for the sake of this discussion.
A bullfrog sumo
stares into his bowl of wine.
Those years in Suma.
Those years in Suma refers to the time Prince
Genji, of Genji monogatari, was exiled from the capital
at Kyoto. The passage in the life of the fictional prince
aptly encapsulates the feelings of desperation associated
with Suma from its use as a place of exile for actual nobles
whom various governments literally wanted out of the
way. (Execution was not generally a punishment for
nobles in Heian Japan, who were more painfully punished
by such banishments.) It also reminds me of Bashôs
verse written at the Buddhist temple there:
sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku
Suma Temple . . .
I hear the unblown flute
in the shade of a tree
In the real war almost two hundred years after The Tale
of Genji, the war epically recorded in The Tale of
the Heike, the young Taira general Atsumori was killed
by a Minamoto warrior named Noazane, near Suma. Noazane,
father of a warrior son the same age as his victim, then
discovered on Atsumoris body a flute, and, reflecting
on the insanity of a world in which such killing takes place,
he became a Buddhist monk to pray for Atsumoris spirit.
That Green-Leaf Flute remains a treasure of
Suma Temple to this day. (The temple was founded in 786,
some 400 years before the war and 900 years before Bashôs
Bashô plays with the tradition of sadness, isolation,
death, and giving up the world at Suma, making the sound
of the unplayed flute a metaphor for Zen koans (on silent
flutes, clapping, and so on) that lightly dissolves into
the pleasant shade of a tree under summers sun in
this desolate place. But note how that shade suggests again
the Green-Leaf Fluteand the death of Atsumori.
Light as the last line of Bashôs poem may seem
on first reading, it grows deeper with the next.
Muldoons poem, in contrast, begins with the humorous
overlay of a metaphorical bullfrog characterizing a sumo
wrestler, shifts the wrestler into an inner, personal loneliness,
then deepens that mood with the Genji reference, and finally
comes round to humor again as it ends in the feminine slant-rime
sumo/Suma. Bashôs haikai twist
involves the dissolution of loneliness and intimations of
mortality into a pleasant physical comfort, but subtly reminds
us again of the vanity of this world. Muldoons changes
involve a full-circle progression that begins and ends with
humor encapsulating a dark night of the soul. Bashô
would bow to such craft put to the service of exploring
the range of human emotion and the interactions of place
and cultural memory.
Ive upset the pail
in which my daughter had kept
her fiveNo, sixsnails.
I cannot read this poem of Muldoons without thinking
immediately of Shûson Katôs famous haiku:
ari korosu ware o sannin no
ko ni mirarenu
killing an ant
I have by three children
Snails and ants share the distinction of being seasonal
topics in Japanese haiku (both summer). Whether a nearly
unthinking action against them seems deliberate, as in Shûsons
case, or accidental, as in Muldoons, the intense righteousness
of ones child or children brings the shocking tableau
into sharp focus. We will not soon forget such a moment.
At the same time, each poem displays its poets willingness
to push the craft while gently touching the emotions. Muldoons
poem begins as seemingly prosaic speech in the past tense,
but juts into immediacy with his childs cry, neatly
interrupting the rhythm and distracting attention from what
might otherwise become a thumping rime on the object of
all this attention. Shûsons begins immediately
with the small creature, moving from phrase to irregular
phrase to that silent accusation. (The originals rhythm
We might even say that there is a haiku tradition of witnessing
a killing. I think of one of the most controversial of Bashôs
saru o kiku hito sutego ni aki
no kaze ikani
you listening to a monkey
to an abandoned child in the autumn
wind, what . . . ?
I have rendered the English a bit more closely to the original
than most translators, who usually do not reflect the contrast
between the poems longish opening phrases and abruptly
ending rhythm (775) or the awkward mid-phrase
break, and often fill in some blanks, making it obvious
that the first line refers to a sound traditionally felt
as sad, that presumably the child is crying, and that the
last line might be expanded to What would you say
to (or do about) this dying child? In other words,
they like to tell us what the poem (supposedly) means in
an expanded paraphrase, rather than letting us wrestle with
it a bit ourselves.
As Makoto Ueda has pointed out, the Chinese conceit of
sadness as the characteristic emotion of a monkeys
cry was well known to Bashô and shows up in Japanese
poems as well (10304). It appears in many Tang Dynasty
poems, including, for English readers, Ezra Pounds
famous rendition of a Li Po poem entitled The River
Merchants Wife. In the prose passage of the
diary where Bashôs poem appears, he tells of
tossing some food to the child as he goes by. While some
Western commentators on Bashôs poem have decried
the Masters indifference, Japanese writers note that
leaving a young child out to die was not unheard of in those
difficult times, and that Bashôs poem directly
challenges the polite sadness of the Sino-Japanese tradition
with this real-life example of a truly sad event.
Bringing this back round to Muldoons poem, I would
only point out the craft of the halting rhythm in its last
line, that brings the childs cry directly into his
otherwise deliberately flat language. Like Shûson,
like Bashô, Muldoon knows how to jar our expectations,
and does so when the event and its emotional impact demand
And her homemade kite
of less than perfect design?
Also taken flight.
Why does this Muldoon piece immediately make me think of
Chiyo-nis lament for her son?
tonbo-tsuri kyô wa doko made
today, how far
has he gone?
At various times, the present object (or its absence) suggests
a more perfect present that the past has not allowed, and
we can only wonder, along with the twentieth-century master
Kusatao Nakamura, as we take note of what is no longer here:
naki tomo kata ni te o nosuru
goto aki ni nukushi
like my dead friend putting
a hand on my shoulder
the autumn sun warms
The Japanese tradition of death-anniversary haiku for famous
people of the past as well as more personal laments for
absent friends and family members usually goes to particulars,
as here the kindly touch of a friend, the favorite game
of a child. Like Kusatao and Chiyo-ni and Muldoon, we are
left only with small fragments of memories that touch us
one day or another. That particularity brings a smile to
our lips, though tears may also well.
In Muldoons more recent book, Moy Sand and Gravel,
he offers a shorter sequence of end-rimed, 575,
haiku-like poems called News Headlines from the Homer
Noble Farm; here is one that amuses more than we might
expect at first:
Behind the wood bin
a garter snake snaps itself,
showing us some skin.
Its hard to read a verse on a common snake and not
think of Kyoshi Takahamas well-known poem:
hebi nigete ware o mishi me
no kusa ni nokoru
the snake flees
the eyes that saw me
remain in the grass
While Im sure that Kyoshi meant his poem to be amusing,
an undercurrent of dread, a bit of a threat, lurks there
too with the memory of those eyes. Muldoons garter
snake, on the other hand, leaves only its skin behind. Both
poems play with the reader. Kyoshis poem depends on
an illusion of the mind, while Muldoons twists a common
phrase with some sexual innuendo into an entirely newand
presumably asexualcontext. Of course, the sexual undercurrent
in Muldoons poem is not entirely lost, given the relationship
of the snake to Adam and Eve. So, perhaps not so far apart
after all, both of these poems play on our expectations
and the afterimages left in our subconscious minds.
In a letter to Muldoon asking for permission to quote his
poems in this piece, I said I see your work as challenging
usthe haiku communityin
ways similar to the challenge thrown down by even the most
conservative modern haiku in Japan. As Ive been saying
for a decade or more, our haiku has become too
narrowly focused on the Zen/moment/meditation thing, and
not enough air and humor has been around for too long. Not
to mention serious craft. I think the poems above
pretty clearly surpass any view of haiku so limited in mode
Let me share two more of Muldoons Hopewell
Haiku for which I have not bothered to look for comparable
Like a wayside shrine
to itself, this sideswiped stag
of the seven tines.
Fresh snow on the roof
of a car that passed me by.
The print of one hoof.
In the first of these, Muldoon has found words to uplift
the commonplace death of a deer beside the roadsomething
no doubt often seen in or near Hopewell, just as it is not
far from my home. As often as I have seen such road-kill,
very few specific instances stick in my mind, but the image
of that shrine of the stag of seven tines will
live in my memory for a long time.
Also doubtless, some Japanese haiku may depend on an element
of the unusual for impact. This second poem brings a smile
to my lips like the freshness of a Chagall painting. A place
where some deer lightly touched the car as it leapt over
a road in a suburban park? The single tick of
one of Rudolphs feet guiding Santas sleigh?
Whether this poem finds precedents in Japanese or not, or
in our haiku or not, who cares? It does what a short poem
must do, it leaves us wondering.
Finally, I come to this verse, also from Hopewell
A hammock at dusk.
I scrimshaw a narwhal hunt
on a narwhal tusk.
I knew that this echoed an old Japanese haiku the moment
I first read it, but could not recall which. Letting go
of the quest, I simply moved more deeply into the mind of
this Muldoon, the man primitive in his concentration, carving
a scene as magically sympathetic in its mood and meaning
as any painting in a Paleolithic cave. (Note that a hammock
is the usual sleeping accommodation in old sailing ships.)
Weeks later, looking at the poem again, it flashed on me
where that same concentration had occurred in a similar
Japanese haiku by Issa:
aki no yo ya tabi no otoko no
autumn night . . .
a traveling mans
Of all the pairings of poems discussed here, this one probably
comes closest to being a direct parallel. What refreshes
me in Muldoons work, though, is that no reader of
Issas poem (even in my hyper-literal translation from
The Haiku Handbook) could predict Muldoons
poem on its basis.
Beyond their haiku characteristics, Muldoons verses
form rimed sequences. News Headlines from the Homer
Noble Farm runs in terza rima throughout. As David
Burleigh brought to my attention in correspondence, the
rimes in Hopewell Haiku leap across pages. The
apparently unrimed end of the middle line in the first poem
provides the end-rime for the first and third lines of the
sixth poem, and so on. Rimes from the last five poems wrap
back to the beginning five. This skipping terza rima,
though likely subliminal on first hearing, does provide
another kind of unity for the whole sequence. The plan may
be intellectual, but the effect is not. (I think of the
recurring images of moon and blossoms in Japanese linked
poems, and wonder what other surprises lurk here.)
The game of Japanese haikus mere influence on Western
poetry is over. Others may occasionally parallel or parody
a particular Japanese haiku in a poem of their own, as does
a young Amy Lowell with her poem,
Perched upon the muzzle of a cannon
A yellow butterfly is slowly opening and shutting
that so closely resembles Busons on a temple
bell/alighted and sleeping/this butterfly (tsurigane
ni tomarite nemuru kochô kana), or a young Allen Ginsberg
A frog floating
in the Drugstore jar:
summer rain on grey pavements.
to which he appends after Shiki, so we know
hes alluding to a particular poem. (He must have read
Shikis poem in 1955, in R.H. Blyths translation,
thus: A frog floating/In the water-jar:/Rains of summer.
[mizugame ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame], Haiku,
3:61). But Muldoon has replaced that game of imitation and
parody with a new and richer one: Rimed, syllabic poems
written in exquisite Englishevery bit as lightly witty
and deep with human pathos as the best of classical and
modern Japanese haiku.
Generally speaking, I am not happy with so-called haiku
in seventeen syllables, and I do not encourage any beginners
to get involved with end-rhyming haiku. Maybe some of us
with even a more purist attitude think that
end-rime must never show up in haiku in English, despite
Harold G. Hendersons adroit use of it in his
translations throughout An Introduction to Haiku.
For any who think that way, lets just call these haiku-like,
seventeen-syllable, end-rimed poems by Paul Muldoon Muldoons!
And anyone who wants to write Muldoons should be encouraged
to gain as much wit and humanity as shines so brilliantly
through these and his otherseven though some of them
seem less like haiku than those Ive quoted here. Some
of these, I fondly hope, will be considered among the classics
of English-language haiku.
1 For this article, I take as professional poets
those who write poems and engage in related activities
(such as publishing, giving public readings, and conducting
workshops related to poetry) as a vocation, not as an
2 By haiku poets I mean poets who devote
all or a majority of their poetic efforts to haiku. Certainly,
one may be a professional haiku poet; for
the purposes of this discussion, such a poet would be
grouped with the haiku poets simply because
I believe they generally share the views of the larger
Blyth, R.H. Haiku, vol. 3 (SummerAutumn).
Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1952. (Note that the 1982 paperback
edition has different pagination.)
Ginsberg, Allen. Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties.
Edited by Gordon Ball. New York: Grove Press, 1977.
Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology
of Poems and Poets from Bashô to Shiki. Garden
City: Doubleday/Anchor, 1958.
Higginson, William J. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write,
Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985;
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989.
Lowell, Amy. Pictures of the Floating World. New
York: Macmillan, 1919.
Muldoon, Paul. Hay. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1998. (The Hopewell Haiku sequence also
appears in his Poems, 19681998.)
Muldoon, Paul. Moy Sand and Gravel. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Ueda, Makoto. Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected
Hokku with Commentary. Stanford: Stanford University