Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Carpe Diem "Just Read ..." #5, "Building an excellent birdcage" by Jane Reichhold

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

I have a wonderful article for you, just to read. This time it's an article written by Jane Reichhold titled "Building An Excellent Birdcage". I ran into this article at the website of the New Zealand Haiku-Society. This article is about Basho and how Basho can help you to learn how to write haiku. All the used haiku are haiku by Basho translated by Jane.
I think it's a wonderful article and I wish you all a lot of reading fun. Maybe you can used it for your own growth in haiku composing ... that's what I hope of course.
!! I have asked Jane for permission to use this article !!


Building an Excellent Birdcage by Jane Reichhold

All the haiku used in this article are by Matsuo Basho and were translated by Jane Reichhold.
Jane Reichhold
clouds of fog
quickly doing their best to show
one hundred scenes

What is poetry?
The art of poetry is such a hard thing to describe. Everyone is looking for a way to put words to something that is larger than words, more alive than thought, and longer lasting than any one poem. Poetry is the art of piling up dissimilar images to create an idea that has no exact name.
Picture this. A woman is standing at an open window. Just staring into space, a bit unfocused, lost in a world of thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a small, brown bird alights on the window sill. She knows she should carry the bird out the door and let it go but before she does, she has to do one more thing.
She builds a cage out of words. A cage she can share with others. The work on the cage goes on for days, maybe it is even years until the cage comes under the eyes of another person. In that moment, when the cage of words enters another's mind, it begins to expand. It breaks up into thought - images created by the reader. Through the maze, and amazement of the reader, two cupped hands come forth.
The woman relaxes and lets the bird go. Now its dry feathery weight is in the man's palm. What does it look like? What is it like? Slowly he makes a tiny finger-crack window in his hand and he sees the same eye staring at him that stared at the woman a long time ago when it stood on her window sill. With a flurry of feathers, that shed a magic rarely found, the bird flies back into the sky. It is impossible not to say, "Ah ha!"
So that is what haiku is all about. How to build the cage of words to hold the miracle safe and full of sound until the images in a reader's mind open the door to the wonderment and delight the author found in one part of the world. It is the cage that will attract and intrigue the reader, but it must also be well-built enough to bring the experience intact across time and space. Part of what makes haiku so interesting is that in learning how to read it you have to learn how to build these images.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
You read "old pond" and you instantly imagine some old pond - and everyone's old pond in different.
"a frog jumps into" and your mind sees a frog, jumping left or right or straight ahead and every one of us imagines a different frog.

And then comes the kicker in the last line "the sound of water". What does he mean? It jumps into its own sound? But it does, and if you can imagine the frog jumping then you will be able to hear that sound.
So haiku, as you can see, make excellent cages. They are the perfect size for carrying our deepest experiences. Not big and clumsy with too many words. Not with thick bars of old ideas and abstract thinking. Haiku are alive. Like a cage made of living branches, they support and nourish the art of poetry until it arrives - safe and alive - in the mind of the reader. You're not going to teach anybody anything with your haiku - you're going to show them the experience.
I believe that every person has the ability to be a poet, whether you think you can or not. Some of you may suspect this about yourselves because of an undefined yearning - a place within you that you cannot scratch or reach. Perhaps some times this yen sublimates into a joy in words, a delight in the melodies of dialect, or in other forms of writing. Often it manifests in an interest in reading poetry by others. Or it can come in the simple desire of noticing a beautiful thing and wishing to hold on to the feeling it gives you.

Credits: Frog pond
You don't need talent, you just need to do it, and do it and do it, and enjoy it ... and to do it some more. If you go back to poetry that you have written and been unhappy with, go to the best and most interesting part of it and I can almost guarantee that there will be a haiku right there.
You can be a poet if you really want to be and to the degree you want to be, and I believe Basho can show you how. He can at least show you how to write haiku.
Learning to write haiku has advantages for learning to write anything. This was his final poem ...

clear cascade
scattered on the waves
green pine needles

and its revision ...

clear cascade
no dust on the waves
the summer moon

Being a poet will make your life richer
If you allow yourself to write haiku your life will change. I guarantee you that. Haiku writing is different to any other kind of writing because it demands that you change the way you act, the way you look at the world and think.
It begins where you are - in the present. Kierkegaard said that the unhappy man has no present, and I think much of our unhappiness lies with old memories that are painful and fears of the future, but if you come to this moment, this place where you are and think about your uncomfortable chair or the temperature of the room, and accept them, that helps everything.
Haiku are brief and that makes them easy to write because you don't have the chance to make that many errors. You always write them in the present tense, keeping them simple, keeping them brief and using common words, not fancy ones.
The other good thing about haiku is that it will connect you to the world outside - one of the ways of learning to write haiku is to take a walk. You will see things, things will call out to you and you will suddenly see something different that you've never seen before or you'll see a relationship between the rolling surf and a cloud above; or you'll see something odd and you'll watch and your whole focus will leave your body and go to what you're watching.
And that is the most freeing thing you can do. I think you live longer if you can do that. We'll see.

first blossoms
seeing them extends my life
seventy-five more years

First Cherry Blossom (© Chèvrefeuille)

The question of syllables
Many people think haiku are not real haiku unless they have 17 syllables - but this does not have to be. In Japan if you're counting the sound units there should be 17, but English syllables and Japanese sound units are different. The sound units are much shorter, and so if you would write a 17-syllable haiku it would come out about one-third too long. For instance, if you say "Tokyo" it has 3 syllables, but in Japanese it has 4 sound units.
When the Japanese tried to translate English haiku into Japanese they ended up with big, clunky poems and way too many words. So we've taken the idea of using short-long-short lines and this conforms to the haiku form, but it allows us a little more freedom in how many words we use. Also, in Japanese instead of having a full stop or a comma or a dash they have a word for the break the punctuation creates, and those words take up a couple of sound units so that's another way of shortening it.

Modern haiku writers think you should not count English syllables when writing haiku and this allows a lot of freedom - you can forget about those particular bars of the cage.

Should haiku be written in English?

There's an old idea that haiku cannot be written in English. In the 1960s RH Blyth wrote: "Women cannot write haiku." So, here I am. Earl Miner wrote a book about Basho's renga and said it's an interesting form and a beautiful thing to study ... but we shouldn't try it in English. And this is still the attitude in a lot of universities where they start with the idea you're taught haiku in the 2nd grade (aged 8), therefore it's something for elementary school.
Well, you learn addition and subtraction in the 2nd grade too, but that doesn't stop you from studying calculus and algebra. And the same is true for haiku. The more you know about the form the more there is to learn.
I would like to see haiku, or Japanese genres, taught in universities because I feel there is so much more to be learned. In the 1920s when poets first began to be exposed to translations, like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, they got this idea of how important it is to work with images instead of abstract ideas, and so they began to use these methods with their own poetry.
But they didn't take it far enough. They didn't study the form so they could write really well. But it is possible, I believe, to write very good English haiku. I suppose I'll be struck dead for saying it, but I take a Japanese magazine of haiku in which they translate Japanese into English, and I would say that what is being written in English is better.
The Japanese are working with the ideas of how to build a haiku, but we've had to study it so much and we've had to figure it out. A lot of Japanese have heard the Japanese poems from their childhood and therefore think they can do it. And they can. They bring a spirit to haiku that I don't think English-speaking people will ever have - their sensitivity, their grace, their elegance. We can't do that. But we can bring what we are to that form.
winter confinement
again I'll lean on
this post

Stop telling stories
One of the early mistakes people make when writing haiku is that they want to tell a story because we come from a literary tradition of storytelling and it's hard to stop that. It's very easy to say "the door opened, the dog came and spilled his water on the cat".
That's not haiku. Haiku focuses in, it goes right to the very heart. In this story you would focus on the water hitting the cat and that's all you would talk about because that's all that's important in that story.
This is something that it takes a while for people to understand. One of the best ways of finding out what haiku are is to read them.

storm-torn banana tree
all night I listen to rain
in a basin

Basho Tree (banana-tree)
Reading and writing

But reading haiku is not easy. I handed a friend of mine a haiku book and she called me up weeks later and said, "Jane, you know I love you, but I cannot figure out what these are". And she simply didn't know how to read them - it's true that you have to learn how to read a haiku.
When they were first introduced in English people thought they were epigrams or aphorisms and that implies that they are one sentence long. Haiku are not sentences. A haiku is built of two parts: The phrase and the fragment. The fragment is usually in the third or first lines, and the phrase combines two lines, usually the second and third, or first and second.
I think Basho is the one who can show us most clearly that haiku is poetry. When he started writing they were like a game or a pastime, and unfortunately this aura still hangs around haiku and you see with this the online jokey haiku.
Basho took the idea that if you're a serious, deep person then your haiku will be serious and deep. Even though haiku are very small, they're extremely elastic (but remember that brevity doesn't leave room for mistakes). You can put in everything that you can feel, and it's only your lack of writing skills that would make that not possible.
Haiku can be, and sound extremely, simple but they hold vast reservoirs of meaning in their layers, like the Basho poem about the crow:
autumn evening
a crow settles down
on a bare branch

It's also interesting that haiku being so small have the most rules. Everybody who has learned it in the 2nd grade has learned 17 syllables and something about nature and you think you've got it covered, but you haven't - I'm still learning new rules, many from working with Basho's poems.I wish you many delights on your own journey to being a poet and may haiku be your starting point and companion.
Jane Reichhold

This article was published earlier at and published here with her kind permission.


I hope you did like this article and I hope it has given you new ideas and thoughts to work with ... I have read this article with joy and it inspired me to write the following haiku ... in which I think I have caught the essence of the article and the beauty of Basho's haiku:

with my bare feet
in the cool grass of dawn
Ah! what a feeling

Well ... see you ... I am always searching for nice articles about haiku ... so if you have an idea? Than please let me know it.


Chèvrefeuille, your host


  1. Very interesting. Actually, I have a question for ask Jane: 'Jane, you stated clearly and almost irrevocably that haiku is poetry. Can you briefly revisit that? Does haiku not stand alone in its own category, and is it not closer to photograpy than to poetry? Or to short pieces of writing, like captions, etc?'

    1. Hamish, I have emailed your question to Jane Reichhold. Hope she will give you a great answer ... thank you for your response.

    2. Lesson 10 of Jane's book, BARE BONES (above in upper right corner of this page).....I believe she proves in that Lesson that Haiku uses all techniques (except for its exclusive form) of poetry....I was amazed at Jane's thoroughness in putting together what is an advanced work on poetry.... opie

    3. Will do Opie - was reading it, but will go to lesson 10. Thanks.

    4. An interesting question, Hamish -- sometimes haiku does seem a bit like pulling one frame from a movie, or capturing one scene on a slide or a photo. It seems like it's in that fuzzy, dreamy area someplace in between. Wrote a haiku about that somewhere - after one of my many trips to the local Drive-In movies.

  2. This article is a terrific find!

  3. This was a terrific read. Thank you for bringing this lady to my notice. I wrote today's haiku as closely as possible to my understanding of her theory. Still a long way off though. But a pleasure to try.

    1. Jane Reichhold is an internationally known haiku poetess Girl friday. She has written several books about haiku and has written a lot of haiku. She is also part of Carpe Diem Haiku Kai. We have a special feature titled 'ask Jane' in which she answers questions about haiku and tanka (a five-lined Japanese poetry form). In a way she is my co-writer and that's great.

  4. This article is great! I will read it several times and carefully - course I want very much to improve my writing and learn more.
    This group is amazing I'm glad I found you :)

    1. It's great to hjave you here Birgitta and I am glad that you are trying to become better in writing haiku. Haiku is really a wonderful way to capture nature and your feelings towards and in it. Spread the word (smiles) ... I love to see more participants ....

  5. Thanks for sharing more info on Jane Reichhold.

    1. You're welcome Dolores. Almost two years ago I came in contact with Jane and since than we have a warm friendship. She is really a great haiku poetess ...

  6. What a wonderful article, Kristjaan -- thank you for posting it -- and please send my "thank you" to Jane for allowing us to read it here :)

    This has my new favorite quote -- and one I plan to pass on to others. People say, "I wish I could write haiku - I don't think I can." I encourage them to give it a shot anyway. Jane's advice is awesome: "You don't need talent, you just need to do it, and do it and do it, and enjoy it ... and to do it some more."

    Great read ---

  7. Completely off topic (!!) but -- I found this and thought you might be interested.

    Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku
    (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary)

    1. translations of poems proliferate - that's the kicker! :-)
      there is something so tempting about translating another poet's work, and secretly feeling it has now become your own. Which of course, in a way it has. A murky subject.