Sunday, October 11, 2015


Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

First I have to apologize for being late with our new episode, there were other things (pleasant things) who needed my attention.

Welcome at a new CD Special as I promised you all as i was announcing our third anniversary month that I would have a few surprises for you all and that I had found a few well known haiku poets to participate in our third anniversary.
This CD Special is awesome I think and I hope it will inspire you all to write wonderful new verses. Maybe you can remember our special feature "Just Read", well this CD Special is quit the same as that special feature. Tom D'Evelyn has written an awesome essay especially for Carpe Diem Haiku Kai's third anniversary. I am so proud and honored that he would do that for us, for me. Thank you Tom for writing this essay, Basho and the smack of reality: A personal essay on haiku.
have fun reading it and of course I hope it will inspire you all to write wonderful haiku ...

Tom D'Evelyn

First I want to thank  Chèvrefeuille @carpediemkai for suggesting I write something for this special 3rd anniversary edition. I had more or less neglected haiku since the close of Single Island Press, where I was managing editor. But I continued to write lyrics that drew on styles and themes discovered in Chinese T’ang poets, the very poets Basho learned so much from. This essay has four parts: 1. the human situation in which we all find ourselves in; 2. Basho’s response to the human situation; 3. Haiku, Basho, and the understanding of “the between”; 4. My interest in the Basho tradition. With a sampling of recent haiku.


In his poem “The Anchor’s Long Chain” (I cite the translation by Beverly Brie Brahic published in PN Review 224), Yves Bonnefoy meditates on a megalithic monument found in southern Sweden: “59 boulders arranged in the shape of a ship” according to the editorial note. It is a poem about limits and thresholds. “Why must / Something within us lure our minds / In this crossing our words attempt / All unknowing, towards the other shore?”

Credits: Ale's Stones
Haiku addresses this perennial question: why must “something within us” provoke an incomprehensible attempt “of our words”  to cross to “the other shore”? Why do we conceive of human space as having that dynamic shape, oriented by the “other shore”? Haiku as I understand it STARTS here. This is the orientation of the form. Because of the elegant simplicity of the structure of haiku, the question remains open; what I shall call the “tension” between the contingencies of the narrative and the “other” aspect of necessity (the “kigo” or universal element) keeps the question from closing. Like the megalithic monument, the little poem reminds us of our fate on the earth.

That’s one aspect: the empty, the incomplete and incompletable. In addition, there’s haiku’s fullness. In the image that results from the tension built into the haiku, there is a non-verbal experience of “just so-ness.” In their own way haiku “click” as Yeat’s demanded of his lyrics. The tension is preserved but a sense of “immanence” is exuded from the precision of the specifics of word choice, rhythm, visual imagery, and so on. This is the origin of the variously described “moment” or “ah-hah” exhalation.


In the past, I have taught haiku, written polemically about contemporary haiku, and published, as managing editor of a small press, contemporary haiku for two years, but right now for me haiku means Basho. For the purpose of this essay, I will cite the presentation of Basho by Sam Hamill in Narrow Road to the North and Other Writings (Shambhala 2000).

In the brief but compact and eloquent Introduction, Hamill makes several points that sum up arguments about Basho that I’ve seen expressed at greater length by Jane Reichhold, David Barnhill, Peipei Qiu, Makoto Ueda, Haruo Shirane, and others – it really is a fine time to be reading Basho!

Here are some of the points made by Hamill.

1.       “Basho, among the most literate poets of his time, seems to be everywhere in the presence of history.”

2.       His “literary and spiritual lineage” included medieval Japanese writers and Chinese T’ang poets. What we call “ethics” (first and foremost, compassion) was inseparable from Basho’s literary pursuits. He devoted years to “making new” the Tang poets and Chuang Tzu.

3.       Basho’s poetry exhibits an acute sense of the unity of meaning and sound. Various kinds of what we call “rhyme” are a hallmark of his literary style.

4.        The sound of a haiku did not depend on counting units. He said that if even one syllable sounds stale in your mouth, “give it all your attention.”

5.       As he grew older, his style became simpler. “He wanted to make images that positively radiated with reality.”

Basho’s haiku are densely woven of differences, similarities, comparisons and contrasts: they are “tense” with the sometimes conflicting aspects of his world. Here’s a haiku Hamill presents in The Poetry of Zen (Shambhala 2007):

Now a cuckoo’s song / carries the haiku master / right out of this world (p 151)

Hamill’s use of key “pre-fab” phrases – “now,” “haiku master,” “right out of this world” – delivers the narrative as a kind of humorous insight. The lightness, the product of years of experimentation by Basho, may bely the complexity of tone. Eventually, one sees that the poem participates in what it describes: Basho himself wrote often of the “otherness” of the cuckoo’s song. We may call this “irony,” but it is more than that: it is a structural doubleness which leads to a surprise that itself illuminates reality: the cuckoo’s song AS otherworldly. Philosophers might call this “immanent transcendence.”


Traditional haiku – let’s call it Zen haiku – seems resistant to the consolations of certainty: ideological, patriotic, sentimental, religious. Every thing is touched by mortality. The paradox of empty/fullness aptly pertains to haiku. This may mislead the reader to thinking that Basho is “secular” in our sense. As Hamill shows, Basho was in his own way devout, a serious student of Taoist Buddhism or Zen as practiced by the Chinese T’ang poets; and he studied as they did, the Taoist master Chuang Tzu. As Hamill shows, Basho’s studies made him familiar with a sense of the Tao as a creative no-thing and with the doctrine of co-dependence of all things.

Credits: Alan Spence
Among contemporary writers, the Scottish poet and novelist Alan Spence writes in the Zen tradition. This is from Glasgow Zen (Canongate 2002).

Krishna Consciousness
(young devotee selling CDs)

As well as being
Totally transcendental
It’s damn good dance.

The fact that this is a proper English sentence lacking only a comma (perhaps the Scot in him rebelled against the comma--there are good reasons for avoiding punctuation in haiku) should not keep us from feeling the haiku movement amongst the themes. Essential to the classic haiku is a contrast between the universal and the particular, the necessary and the contingent: here “totally transcendental” is an (ironic) universal reference and the final line expresses the particularity of a given happening. How often I ran into, sometimes literally, such dancers in Berkeley in the 70s. Spence’s haiku captures the poignance and comedy—the “universality” -- of the moment. The flow of the poem, as is customary for the form, moves toward the particular; this way haiku participates in the quest for “luminous things” and “radiant particulars” and so on. The tension between the “transcendental” and the “damn good” dance is the point: the point is a tension.

The haiku moment, we may say, has this architecture. In a time when massive anxiety creates a hunger for certainty,  haiku reminds us of the “between” situation we find ourselves in, a situation in which consciousness must remain open to the other and forego reductive speculations. Rather than ideology, scientism, fundamentalism of various kinds, haiku is the other way.

Basho’s intellectual and spiritual interests as embodied in haiku remind me of the philosophy of the metaxy. The “metaxy” points to the space “between” (metaxu is an ancient Greek term meaning between) the extremes of human experience: certainty and doubt, bliss and agony, contentment and anxiety.  But in that tension there is a movement beyond a mindset: the lived space is a tension and oriented to the beyond which maintains its shape and direction. In the Zen tradition, the only mindset is meditative, open to the mind’s own emptiness and the paradoxical overflow from the dark enigma. In the tradition of the between, “the void is fertile.” The metaxy is profoundly imaginative as a response to the ambiguity of human existence.

Scene from Basho's Oku No Hosomichi, The Narrow Road Into The Deep North

Basho’s ethos of compassion is rooted in reality as the “space” we share with all other “things”:  creatures, animate and inanimate. All these things participate in the drama of coming to be and passing away. The between is saturated with wonder that there is anything at all: no myths of origins are allowed to replace this wonder. If not a-theistic (and traditionally the metaxy is a sacred liminal space contemplated in meditation), this space is not subject to dogmatic interpretation. To understand it is to feel the movement of mind towards an unknown threshold, sometimes death, sometimes identification with another created thing. Indeed, astonishment that there are “things” out there – this zero-grade wonder at otherness -- grows into restless questioning, the equivocal leading to the polyvocal, the appreciation of a variety of points of view; and that restlessness finally yields to an almost liturgical gratitude for existence for all its sadness and rigors and conundrums. The “third image” produced by the tension between the contingent situation of the haiku and the enduring element is non-verbal but very much the essence of the haiku. (In a longer poem, say Bonnefoy’s “The Anchor’s Long Chain,” this “third image” may be fleshed out in a symbol of the tension: “The bird looks out to sea, listens, hopes, / It guides the ship, and others, others . . . .”

Basho’s final art of lightness, his “comic genius,” is definitive for the form at its most penetrating. That’s a personal judgment, I suppose, and of course I don’t mean to suggest that Basho is the only great haiku poet. But his haiku are extraordinary and yet ordinary and representative. I only wish to suggest some reasons for this. We can’t avoid his practice of haiku as a “spiritual exercise” (to use Pierre Hadot’s phrase).  Hamill speaks of Basho’s life as “a lifetime of consciously perfecting his practice of both Zen and poetry, indeed of making them one seamless practice” (The Poetry of Zen 95).

The haiku way is demanding. I have found a way into Basho’s achievement by studying the metaxy. Honoring the “between” nature of experience, we may be tempted to deify certain moods or emotions. The meditative concentration required of the haiku way eventually leads to a personal “creative” act that takes a lot of practice to perfect. As many have observed the cliché “haiku moment” refers to a meditative act of attention which connects the poem to something beyond the poet. Personal originality is not the aim. Desmond writes, “Creation is not a matter of merely asserting one’s originality but of being honest about recalcitrant otherness, grappling with the fluid original power of our being, turning it from amorphous force to forceful form.” (The William Desmond Reader, 154).

Credits: Creation
Holding one’s inner attention on “the fluid original power of our being” as experienced in terms of an “other” – a dancing Krishna kid, a butterfly, the viscous sheen on gaseous effluvia in the modern city – that requires practice. The poems of Basho are there on the page, as “forceful forms” that shape our energies just as Basho engaged “the fluid original power of our being.” Is this saying too much? Perhaps Sam Hamill’s personification of haiku as “a great spiritual teacher” is more acceptable. In the “Translator’s Introduction” to The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets (Shambhala 1995), Hamill writes: “Haiku should be approached with a daily sort of reverence, as we might approach an encounter with a great spiritual leader. It is easy to imitate, it is difficult to attain. The more deeply the reader enters into the authentic experience of the poem, the more the poem reveals” (xiv).


The following haiku were all written after I said yes to the editor of this journal, who wouldn’t take no for an answer to his request to provide something for this special edition. Indeed, I am grateful to him for making me return to haiku after I left my home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for Portland Or. While in Portsmouth, I regularly wrote “Chinese” lyrics and they are archived at Here’s an example, written in our last winter in New Hampshire.

old ice whets the wind__I do a double take
a seagull rides in__a belated snowflake

pluperfect light__nothing stands in this gale
baffled and blown about__light beyond the pale

The medial caesura—the odd underscore in the middle of each line – “refers” to both the structure of the Chinese couplet and to the origins of English meter in Old English versification (Beowulf, etc.) Syntax is open: the phrases relate forwards and backwards, sometimes both ways at once; this in imitation of the relativity of the metaxy. The sense of rhyme is playful and ornate but creates webs of reference which I could not otherwise have sustained in these open-ended structures. These lyrics are meant to be “sung” or spoken or chanted. To write these “Chinese” poems I drew on Anglophone poets’ creative responses to the originals (e.g. Ezra Pound), as well as on contemporary Taoist literature, often of high philosophical quality. Finally I drew on various translations of the ancient texts, especially the work of David Hinton. Hinton’s monumental work (see Classical Chinese Poetry, 2008) has created a new watershed of awareness of how moving this poetry can be for us today.

In writing these haiku, which for those who know the pond songs may suggest a falling off of creative energy, I have depended on a mental stance learned writing the pond songs, an “emptiness” which is also paradoxically a kind of fullness. Above all, in the spirit of Basho, I hope they smack of reality.

What follows is the beginning of a book of haiku that is modeled on the book of epigrams as practiced in antiquity and in the Renaissance. The point of the book is to reveal the variety, depth, incoherence, superficiality, inanity, and wonder of the real world as experienced by the author. We’ll see how it goes. I can well understand the reader who feels that after traipsing over the mountain of this essay, they deserve a bit more than the mouse they get here. I hope it won’t seem disingenuous to note that disappointment is part of haiku’s comic aesthetic!


these are not
boxed epiphanies epiphanies
can’t be boxed

between us now
all that remains
is the poem

cedar chips everywhere
the emptiness of summer
is now complete

the sun goes behind
a cloud I remove my hat
and enjoy the sun

Credits: Juniper Bonsai

under the juniper
the page fills with dry juniper twigs
not poems

the haiku I write
sipping sake do not compare
with the sake

down these alleyways
how many seasons of plums pears
American dreams

waiting for the bus
after taking the red-eye home
full moon at dawn

once the mountain
is in view I sit down
in its shade

first school bus
and to think I had grown tired
of books

of all the gates
I noticed the one I didn’t notice
has opened

I’d sit on my hat
as I take in the view
but it’s raining

occupying the seat
next to me my backpack wonders
why we are sitting around

no ideas but in things
my friends all tell me
but I have dreams

how cozy
the sound of the traffic
now that it’s raining

Labor Day
I join the crowds celebrating
our need to celebrate

this land is your land
overhead the contrail of a jet

ah religion
the breath you’d have me control
beauty takes away

I almost said
it’s too cool for the wasp
to join me at breakfast.

Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Portland OR and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years. Tom's own weblog Haiku Eschaton worth a visit.



Wow what a wonderful essay. I hope you all did like the read and that this essay will inspire you to write haiku, tanka or other Japanese poetry forms.

I must say ... I am stunned ... that stunned that couldn't come up with an all new haiku myself. I hope you can come up with a haiku ... no prompt or theme this time, just the essay to use to write/compose your haiku. Have fun!

This episode is NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until October 15th at noon (CET). I will try to publish our new episode, Saint Patrick's Day, later on. For now ... have fun, be inspired and share your haiku with us all.



  1. That was quite a read. I wonder if Basho was empying our thoughts instead of filling them with his haiku. It remind,s me of some of the great Italian directors of the past. Who focused more on the question than the answer. Thank you for that.

  2. I enjoyed Professor D'Evelyn's essay and wrote a long response on my poetry web:

  3. So much to absorb. Thank you for having this for us this month.

  4. Thanks for sharing such a fascinating essay. It reminded me of certain aspects of haiku that I seem to have lost touch with a bit, lately. So, it was great to take a more attentive look again.

    1. It was a pleasure to share this essay with you Sue and all our other haiku family members. It's a great honor that Tom wrote this for us.