Haiku: Poetry ancient and modern


“A book on haiku? You bought a book on haiku?” I asked AS, my colleague.

AS, who had just ripped open the packaging and was drooling over the book in question, looked up and answered, “Yes. Why? You don’t like haiku or what?”

“No. I don’t like haiku,” I said. And added for good measure, ” At all.”

“Why?” AS queried.”Haiku is so brilliant.”

“Maybe. It’s also too abstract for me,” I said.

“Abstract? Of course it is. It is minimally abstract and therein lies its beauty,” AS retorted.

“I don’t have a problem with minimal. Or abstract, ” I replied a tad defensively. “It’s just that the whole haiku thing is so vague.”

“I just think you’ve read the wrong type of haiku, Sudha. Here, read this. Then tell me you don’t like haiku.” Saying this, AS passed the haiku book to me.

And that’s how, dear readers, I ended up with Haiku: Poetry Ancient and Modern, an anthology edited and compiled by Jackie Hardy (2008, MQ Publications, 256 pages, Rs.325/-). Ended up holding it, opening it, flipping through it and finally reading it.

I randomly opened a page and the first haiku I read was:

by firelight
listening to the silence
of things we can’t see (Larry Gross, pg. 88)

These 11 simple, but powerfully evocative, words just blew away my protests of haiku being vague. I was hooked and immediately began my exploration of the book.

The Haiku book is very attractively produced and packaged. Hardbound and a 6″X6″ sized square book, it is very ideal to hold or carry around. A lot of thought has gone into the design and layout of the book—many pages have just one haiku on it, some have two and few have none. The supporting illustrations are stunning and are a mix of delicate Japanese watercolours, embroidery, applique work, and textile prints and textures. There is hardly a page without any illustration.

The book begins with an introduction by the editor, in which she traces the history of haiku through the ages, its arrival in the West in the 20th century, and the various forms it exists in today. Haiku originated in 17th century Japan as an offshoot of the renga (which flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries), “a form of collaborative poem where three four or more enthusiasts would get together to compose elegant verses” (pg.7). The opening verse of the renga was called the hokku. Over the centuries, the hokku started getting popular and many people started composing. It took a couple of centuries for the stand alone hokku to get ‘independence’ from the renga and became the haiku that we know of today.

For the writer, haiku not only express a moment of insight, but a reconnection with that time when words were a talisman. In their own unique, small way haiku show what it is to be human. (pg. 7)

The author has used the themes of the five elements of “Taoist cosmology—wood, fire, earth, metal and water” (pg.16) to select a mixture of classical and modern haiku. As I flipped through the pages of this book and read the various haiku in no particular order, it was clear that a lot of love, care and thought had gone in their selection for inclusion in this anthology. I present a selection of some of my favourite haiku from the book, one from each theme.

This long recession:
at the end of my tee-square
……..a spider starts work (by Brian Cater, pg.22)

the lantern blown out—
the sound of wind
through the leaves (Shiki, pg.98)

first snow
……..the neglected yard
……..now perfect (Elizabeth St Jacques, pg. 130)

the blind musician
extending an old tin cup
collects a snowflake (Nicholas Virgilio, pg.165)

little boy
discovers the world—
puddle after puddle (Bertus De Jonge, pg.220)

Each time I sat down with the book, it was difficult for me to put it down. Some haiku would lead me to introspect, some would have me trying to find other haiku by the same poet in this book, and some others had me calling up friends and excitedly sharing it with them immediately. Of course, there were also a few that I could not comprehend at all—ones that I would call vague and abstract.

Over the week that I read the Haiku book, the appeal of its simplicity, minimalism, abstract form, and sometimes even its vagueness grew on me. It was difficult not to like or appreciate this zen-like aspect of this literary form. AS was right. All these years, I had indeed read the wrong type of haiku.

And now there was only one thing left for me to do: order my copy of the book. 🙂


49 thoughts on “Haiku: Poetry ancient and modern

    1. I am a recent fan of Haiku, Divenita. To be more specific, I like the haiku in this book. Whether I am able to translate this like to haiku as a literary genre, only time will tell. 🙂


  1. This is such a wonderful post! When I began reading poetry, I couldn’t quite get the whole point of the Japanese form, but as I grew older, I realized its value. I found myself writing in this simple yet complex form more and more. 🙂


    1. Welcome here, Rigel. Delighted that you found the post wonderful. As I mentioned in response to the previous comment, I am a new fan of haiku and have a long way to go before I am able to appreciate and understand its nuances. Right now, I am enjoying the book and the beautiful haiku it offers. 🙂


  2. ALAS i wish i understood it , you make it sound so easy but the likes of me still have trouble understanding what the poem means let alone attempt it ..


    1. Till a week back, this is what I would have said if someone asked me about haiku. But as my colleague said, maybe you have been reading the wrong kind of haiku?


  3. I’m afraid I’ve never read much Haiko. What I have read, I’ve found- like you did- quite vague.

    I love the selection you’ve given here, though. Particularly the last one-
    ‘little boy
    discovers the world—
    puddle after puddle’
    Just lovely!


    1. Whatever haiku I read put me off so badly that I never attempted to explore this genre. Until this book was given to me. This book has a fabulous collection of haiku, though some are admittedly quite vague. It has piqued my interest enough to explore more of haiku.


  4. Only you can draw a reluctant reader to the book. Yes, the book is lovely – I am going to order one for myself too. Not only for the Haiku but for the lovely pictures – the amazing embroidery and paintings.
    Maybe as a friend of mine suggested, we can write our dreams in haiku.


    1. Well, only AS could have got me to read Haiku in the first place ! And once I did, I was hooked—first by the beautiful illustrations and then by the haiku, and finally by the whole package.

      As for writing dreams in haiku, I’ll try next time. 😛


    1. Jas, as I have said, haiku was not my favourite, and is still not my favourite, but the selection in this book and its simplicity have made me re-look at this genre once again. And so far, it has been worth it 🙂


  5. I, too, have difficulty appreciating poetry. In my case, it is more a question of the wrong person reading the haiku, for my difficulty exists with all forms of poetry 🙂 Reading this post has made me feel like the outsider looking enviously in!


    1. I know what you mean, Suresh, when you you talk about difficulty with allforms of poetry. I struggle with highly metaphorical poetry even today and most modern poetry tend to befuddle me. This particular anthology surprised me and I am glad I read it and did not hand it back to AS saying that Ï don’t like haiku and I don’t want to read it.”

      This was one occasion where I loved being proven wrong. 🙂


  6. Nicely written post that can give the taste of Haiku to the people who are just beginning to read Haiku. I have been reading Haiku for a long time and I am very passionate about this amazing ancient Japanese poetry form. I have heard about this book but was not able to find it in the book shops. Its not even available on Flipkart, if you let me know where did you get it from, I will be obliged.
    I have written ” Understanding Haiku – A beginners guide” at my blog, please have a look and let me know if you like it. Its about the nuances of Understanding Haiku, many of the master’s greatest and famous Haiku, The classical forms and its rules and what I think about Haiku at personal level.


    Thanks for sharing the book again and writing a lovely post about Haiku – which is the form of poetry closest to my heart.

    ॐ नमः शिवाय
    Om Namah Shivaya
    At Twitter @VerseEveryDay


    1. Welcome here Shashi, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Thank you also for giving me the lead to your post on understanding haiku. As you must have figured out, this is the first time I have actually enjoyed haiku and I know that it is because of the book and the selection it offered.

      I picked up the book from Flipkart and its available. Check this link: http://www.flipkart.com/haiku-1840723076/p/itmdyh8b47etkc2k?pid=9781840723076&ref=fff77ecc-4418-4422-8c5a-3eb3bb97ea75

      I hope you are able to get a copy of this book. 🙂


  7. I am fond of saying ‘Photography is the easiest and hardest of arts’. It is extremely easy to click an image, but extremely hard to create one. Guess it applies to ‘haikus’ too. I quite liked this:

    by firelight
    listening to the silence
    of things we can’t see


    1. Umashankar,I’ve shared my thoughts on poetry with you before. And as far as haiku is concerned, those thoughts are even more intense. But I was happy to be proven wrong with this book, which has come as a refreshing change from the rather horrible haiku I have read in the past.

      I liked all the haiku put up, but I found the one on recession particularly poignant and painful as I have a very dear friend who has been without a job for the last 1 year or so.


  8. Lovely post. Poetry isn’t my thing really and I was unfamiliar with Haiku, but now I am intrigued and love all the haikus you have mentioned in the post. Cheers!


  9. Heeey Sudha…I Looooovvvveeee Haiku…infact I have a very cute book on Cat Haiku that I can lend you…being a rather verbose person…I like the eloquent brevity of Haiku…good post…I enjoyed reading it. 🙂


    1. Now why am I not surprised that you have a book on Cat Haiku. 😀 I guess with Annabelle around you needed to have one. Come to think of it, how come you haven’t written any?


  10. very interesting, sudha.. my views on haiku are similar to what yours were, and even when we spoke, i must admit, i wasnt really convinced… but reading this post, i guess i would like to read the book too… and there increases the list of books i want to borrow from you!!! btw, among all those haikus you posted, the one i loved was the one on Earth!


    1. This book on haiku is very nice, Anu, in every sense. As someone who appreciates the aesthetics of a well produced book, I loved it. And as a reader looking for a good book, I was more than surprised and happy.

      I’ve added this book to the list of books you’ll be borrowing from me to read ! 🙂


  11. Now you have got me interested… ! I have never read it but I think it is about time I started. I think I may gift it to Mr. Practical – my husband. Maybe he will start taking an interest in poetry 😀 ( no harm in trying eh?)


  12. I guess for people like me who has no poetry within him, perhaps these peals of wisdom in the haiku form is easy to contemplate and synthesise. Nicely written. Some of the quoted ones are brilliant. May be like the little child discovering the world, puddle by puddle – as quoted from the haiku – we should have the perseverance to achieve our vision.


  13. I am afraid this haiku thingy goes straight over my head.If 20 persons read a piece they may impart their own meaning to it-who is to say which one is correct,which one was intended by the author?


    1. I used to think like that, Indu. But then I realised that there is no one correct thing as we all see the world in our own unique ways. So what the author intended and what each one of us makes of it may be entirely different. The important thing is to be able to connect. With haiku, tahnks to the book in question, I was able to understand haiku, at least some of them, for the first time.


  14. I really enjoy Haikus, since Haiku poems were introduced in Ananda vikatan long time ago and even the readers were asked to contribute their creations in Tamil in Haiku style!


    1. Haikus in Tamil? Wow ! That is news to me, I didn’t know that. The book I reveiwed mentioned that Japanese grammar lended itself well to the haiku style, but writing haikus in English was not that easy. Would you say that writing haikus in Tamil is easy?


      1. I don’t know whether writing Haikus in Tamil is easy as I haven’t tried my hands in writing Haikus. But many people do write Haiku Kavithaigal in Tamil. Some are really enjoyable!


  15. I like Haiku but of course only the ones I can understand 🙂 I loved your selection and particularly loved the ones on the elements — water and fire being the best of the lot.
    @Ranjani: I have read Tamil Haiku in AV too. Some of them are really nice and being in one’s own language, one can appreciate it even more.


    1. Ah ! But to like haiku, one has to understand it, na. 🙂 And was something that did not happen till I read this book. And I am glad that I got to read, understand and like many of them 🙂


  16. Innocently I opened it, unaware of the spark within.
    The timing was perfect.
    From miles away she ignited something in me.
    Now my bed is adorned with bound pages.
    From a place of bliss, I share –

    Unloading its freight,
    spilling new rainwater,
    the camellia bends.


    1. Well, well, well. 😀 Look who is here. I can’t contain my delight at seeing you in this space and am so happy that you liked it. And, you know what I love your haiku 🙂


      1. Ah, but I follow your posts my dear, albeit from the sidelines. And then sometimes I jump on and canter through the rides they take me on.


    1. Thanks, Aakanksha. Minimalism as a concept appeals to me. But to actually appreciate and understand it, I think one has to appreciate and understand haiku. 🙂


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