Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carpe Diem's "Just Read".

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

I love to introduce a new feature to you. Not a new challenging feature ... it's more a kind of background feature in which I will share articles about our beloved haiku and look closer to the shared articles, maybe I write a few articles myself. 'Just Read' is as it says ... just for reading and sharing knowledge to become a 'better' haiku poet. These articles are coming from haiku-magazines all over the planet and from the Internet ...
For this first episode I have a nice article about the 'crow'-haiku by Basho. It's written by Stephen Wolfe and I have tried to make it an excerpt.


The History and Significance of Basho's Autumn Crow Haiku - Stephen WOLFE

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

on a bare branch
a crow has stopped
autumn dusk

In 1689, five years before his death, Basho wrote this final version of this seminal haiku, which, according to many literary critics, ushered in modern haiku replete with its subtle yet profound power. It represented a revolutionary change from the shallow, pun-ridden, clumsy haiku of the Danrin  School that held sway at the time. In the words of R. H. Blyth, this 'crow' haiku by Basho was the watershed in "the setting up of his own, indeed, the creation of what we now call 'haiku.’

As an indication of the importance this haiku held for Basho in terms of artistic expression and poetic aesthetics, this final version passed down to posterity was honed through at least two previous incarnations. The original version of 1680 contained an even longer ten-syllable second part:

kare eda ni
karasu no tomaritaruya
aki no kure

The eventual change in the end of the second part from the kireji (cutting word) ya in the original version to keri in the final version tends to infuse the crow's action with a weightier sense of conclusion. Donald Keene points out that the significance of even this initial version was immediately perceived and described as "one of the three verses of our style" when it was included in a collection published in 1681.

Keri in Final Version

The final version with its use of keri, in addition to slightly reducing the cumbersome ten-syllable overload of the second part and adding a sense of finality to the crow's action, adds another dissonant "k" sound to the already present kare, karasu, aki and kure to suggest the latent cacophonous cawing of the crow behind the silent, immobile veneer of this haiku. One feels that the crow could at any moment swoop down from its solitary tableau, like a figure breaking loose from the restraining stillness of Keats' Grecian Urn, to butcher a helpless duckling or a still blind kitten with its sword-sharp beak. One is reminded of the way Bruce Lee (whose son Brandon, in a bizarre stroke of irony, was killed in the filming of the movie 'The Crow") would suddenly erupt from a yin meditative state to violent yang action to the accompaniment of his own, piercing
shrieks. The words of this haiku denote a surface reality of silence and stillness while connoting a lurking, reactive opposite. Basho's care in perfecting his crow haiku suggests that he was striving for a breakthrough nuanced innovation that he hoped would chart a new direction for haiku. Judging by the commentary of innumerable Japanese poets, scholars, and Zen practitioners who saw in this haiku a whole gamut of Japanese aesthetic principles and expression, Basho was successful. At this juncture a brief sampling of the critical acclaim lavished on this haiku by leading literary authorities will serve to suggest its overwhelming importance in defining a poetic genre that would eventually become synonymous internationally with the terse profundity of the Japanese sensibility.
Typical of the hyperbolic commentary engendered by this poem is the eminent haiku poet and scholar Miyamori Asataro's (1869-1952) conclusion that 'This is an epoch-making verse which took the first step in the movement elevating the haikai to serious, pure literature." Ota Mizuho (1876-1955), tanka poet and classical scholar, insisted that Basho "was trying to produce a model verse for haikai of the future" and simultaneously sustaining "an aesthetic of 'loneliness' handed down from the medieval waka tradition.”


Shimada Seiho (1882-1944), haiku poet and Waseda University professor, asserted that it was this crow haiku that illustrated a basic tenet of Basho's poetic direction which Basho described when he proclaimed: "Poetry of other schools is like colored painting. Poetry of my school should be written as if it were black-ink painting." In a similar manner, Handa Ryohei (1887-1945), tanka poet and Basho scholar, describes this haiku as a prime example of the Japanese aesthetic notion of shibumi, "the kind of poem which emerges when the subject is stripped of all its glitter and reduced to its bare skeleton." It is the above qualities that R. H. Blyth was responding to when he maintained that this haiku is a masterpiece because "The loneliness of autumn is thus intensified by the deathly immobility and colourlessness of the scene."
Basho scholar and editor Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-88) postulates that 'The aesthetic which the poet discovered in writing this hokku can be said to be a revival of the principles of hie ['cold, icy beauty'],  yase ['consumptive beauty, spare and slender'] and karabi ['the austere, monochrome beauty suggested by the image of a dried flower'u] ."  In short, this haiku has been credited with manifesting a plethora of key Japanese poetic principles and practices.

A significant part of Basho's motivation for seeking a new way of haiku was his disgust with the contrived tricks and superficial artifice of the Danrin haiku of his time. He asserted that the poet and object of the poem should merge with no room for poetic gimmicks or stunts, "neither calculated unexpectedness nor posed picturesqueness."  Basho's poetic creed called for the poet to express "unadorned nature" and "the complete identity of the poet with the scene he has intuited." This quality is intimated in his famous artistic decree, "Learn of the pine from the pine; of the bamboo from the bamboo."

"Without Wandering Thoughts"

He also expressed this notion when he urged his disciples, "In writing do not let a hair's breath separate yourself from the subject. Speak your mind directly; go to it without wandering thoughts." Higginson articulately sums up the poetic goal the crow haiku attained, and why, from its inception, Basho's influence on haiku was to be so profound: ... both the language of the poem and the mind of the poet should be transparent to the reader, who, on reading the poem, should see directly into the inner life of the object as the poet did. This is the ideal of Basho-School haiku, an ideal almost all haiku poets since have striven to attain.
The origin of this haiku has become indelibly associated with a legendary bit of Japanese literary folklore, the veracity of which has been debated over the centuries since Basho's death. Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it indicates the importance placed on this haiku in the annals of haikai history. Sakurai Rito (1681-1755), a haiku poet and scholar associated with Basho's disciples, most notably Ransatsu, gave the following account of the meeting of Basho with two other influential haiku poets circa 1680: As a leader -of the Danrin school Basho had been having a hard time, when Kigin, feeling sympathetic, came for a visit and had a talk with him and Sodo over a cup of tea. The three masters discussed possible ways to soften the excesses of the Danrin style, and in the end Basho was urged to take leadership in the matter. Thereupon he wrote the crow poem, saying it might point in a new direction.

"Mindless, Natural"

The subject of this haiku is one that frequently appeared in Chinese paintings and poetry. One notable example, among many, of this theme in Chinese poetry is found in the opening lines of "Autumn Thoughts" by the Yuan Dynasty poet Ma Chih-yuan:
"Withered vine/old tree/evening crow."  This image was also found in the controlled sabi of Japanese waka, especially those of Saigyo whose influence on Basho was enormous. However, Basho's poem effortlessly establishes, once again to draw on the words of R. H. Blyth, a "perfection of unity" between "the expressed objective and the unexpressed subjective." The overall effect is to create a sublime monochrome mood of tangible, transcendent loneliness. Perhaps the quality that most significantly sets this haiku apart from previous haiku and its Chinese poetic precursors, is what Henderson aptly describes as "the principle of internal comparison." The disparate elements in the haiku mutually reinforce and deepen the brooding overall mood. The barren branch, the blackness of the crow (akin in symbolic richness perhaps to Melville's "whiteness of the whale"), and the deepening autumn dusk, forge a shadowland operative on the plane of seasonal reality, and also serve as a glass darkly through which is revealed an unrelenting sabi netherland. What Henderson refers to as this principle of internal comparison might very well be the organic cohesiveness that Basho described as karumi when he wrote, "In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed." Basho urges the artist to remain, in Joycean fashion, aloofly paring his fingernails removed from the crafting of any intrusive artifice. Poets, scholars, artists and Zen masters alike have seen in the bare "suchness" of this haiku a spectrum of metaphoric significance intimating a sublime darkside hovering beyond, again to use a Melville phrase, "the
pasteboard mask of reality."

Poet of Eternal Aloneness

Zen Master Suzuki Daisetz, for example, describes Basho as "a poet of Eternal Aloneness" and insists "there is a great Beyond in the lonely raven perching on the dead branch of a tree. All things come out of an unknown abyss of mystery, and through every one of them we can have a peep into the abyss." Suzuki goes on to describe how Basho's spirit of Eternal Aloneness pulsating in this haiku encompasses "the chaste enjoyment of life and Nature, it is the longing for sabi and wabi, and not the pursuit of material comfort or of sensation." What might seem gloomy as the subject of poetry, here radiates a beatific aloneness reflecting the creative principle of the universe.

Basho's "feeling for Zen wanted to express itself in a type of poetry altogether in the spirit of wu-shih, nothing special." At the time the 'crow' verse was written Basho was consciously looking for the poetic beauty to be found in things not themselves particularly beautiful." Basho, through his poetic alchemy, could extract the special and the beautiful from subjects that seemingly, to those unable to tap into what Suzuki calls "the cosmic consciousness," lacked these attributes.

Spirit of Zen

Donald Keene points out that around the time this haiku was composed, Basho was studying with the Zen Master Butcho and suggests that 'The flash of inspiration that enabled Basho to detect in the quite ordinary sight of a crow alighted on a branch something of universal significance is of course akin to the spirit of Zen."

The crow that Basho immortalized in this haiku has taken on a mythic quality in much the same manner as John Keats' nightingale and Edgar Allan Poe's raven.

Influence on Modern Haiku

This haiku has exerted another kind of influence on modern Japanese haiku: Its relatively unrestrained form has inspired haiku poets to be more flexible in their approach to form. The nine-syllable second part has been seen by many modem haiku poets as an indication of Basho's artistic liberation from a strict 5-7-5 haiku form. In the introduction to On Love and Barley: Haikuof Basho, Lucien Styrk asserts that this haiku was proof that Basho "dared ignore the timehonored elements of the form, including the syllabic limitation." Styrk goes on to postulate that a new school of poetry was deeply and directly influenced by Basho's experiments with form: So rare in the history of haiku was such license that three hundred years on, a new haiku school, the Soun, or free-verse, school, justified its abandonment of syllabic orthodoxy on the grounds that Japan's greatest poet had not been constrained by such rules. This "crow"-haiku had a considerable influence on modern American poetry.

To conclude this excerpt I will share the translation of this haiku by Basho which I love the most:

autumn evening;
acrow perched
on a withered bough

© Matsuo basho (Tr. R. H. Blyth)


I hope you did like this article. It's just an excerpt and if you want to read the whole article, please let me know, than I will email you.
I couldn't retrieve a address or something to ask permission for using this article by Stephen Wolfe. So the copyright of this article stays at Stephen Wolfe. If there is a problem than please let me know.


  1. Thank you for sharing this article. A great new feature;

  2. Thank you....Every once in a while, I like to review the basics of poetry forms, look at how I am doing, and rationalize away my discipline..... tsk tsk.... Oh well, progress happens when one steps out of the box....Thanks again.....opie

  3. Goodness! That highlights the complexities behind simplicity...and interesing how Basho stepped from the 5 7 5 so beloved by a few here and there.

  4. I've always liked the crow poem much more than the frog pond poem. It has a dark atmosphere about it but it's all present in a matter-of-fact way that makes it open for many interpretations. That's what I like about haiku. Good haiku leaves it to the reader.

    I dunno about the analysis of some of these "experts." I think they make a simple poem way too complex because they can. "Basho meant this," "Basho was trying to evoke that," "No, he meant this, that, the other." I think people just put meaning where they want to see meaning, much like we still do today. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

    But it's when we start insisting that a poem written hundreds of years ago by a man, (not a god) who didn't say much about the poem he wrote himself, means X and only X is where we get into trouble.

    It's a beautiful poem and one of my favorites. I appreciate its long history and the fact that it blew 5-7-5 apart.

  5. The aspects of rigidity and free form going back as far as the time of the master Bash is extremely interesting in its history and evolution and influences for the haiku form narrowed down to copious definitions of today
    Thanks for sharing

    Much love...