Ueshima Onitsura’s Icicles

are some icicles long
some short?

– Ueshima Onitsura (1660-1738) (Japan)

I want to mention a few things about Onitsura before I look at his haiku. He was a Japanese haiku poet of the Edo period, famous in the Osaka region for his haiku poetry. Belonging to the Danrin school of Japanese poetry, Onitsura is credited (along with other Edo-era poets) of helping to define and exemplify Bashō’s style of poetry.

Born to a family of brewers in Itami (present-day Hyōgo Prefecture), Onitsura showed exceptional talent in poetry at the age of eight. At the age of 25, Onitsura moved to Osaka, where he begun his professional career in haiku and other forms of poetry.

Although he never became as influential and famous as Basho, Onitsura has a strong place in the history of haiku. In R.H. Blyth’s words, a prominent translator of haiku:

“Onitsura composed the first real haiku. They show his genius; they show pure nature; they best express his unintellectualized experience; they are ‘a sort of thought in sense.’ His verses are simple and easy, melodious, and poetical. Contemporary with Basho, he was independent of him, and the chief difference between the two men was in their power of making disciples. … The poetry of Onitsura has something in common with that of Robert Frost.”

With that being said, let’s dive into one of Onitsura’s haiku, which I greatly admire.

At first, it looks extremely simple. It seems almost like a question a child would ask. However, it is a deep question that reflects Onitsura’s Zen practice (in his old age, he stopped writing haiku to practice only Zen).

There is no answer to the question. Icicles simply grow the length they are through random processes. There is no fate, no engineering. They form spontaneously. The length of the icicles is not important in this haiku, only the act itself of forming an icicle, which has nothing to think about it.

Whether long or short, an icicle is an icicle. Part of the wabi-sabi philosophy of Japan is to accept things at they are, and seeing beauty in seeming imperfection. In this sense, no matter how long or short, each icicle is perfect in its own way.

Essentially, Onitsura is asking readers to ponder why things are the way they are. The easiest answer: they are because they are.

Here are some more haiku by Onitsura for your reading pleasure:

all prettily made up –
cherry blossom viewing

there is no place
to throw the used bath water
insect cries!

this cool breeze –
the empty sky fills
with the sound of pines

though I have no lover
I too rejoice:
the change of clothes

my soul
dives in and out of the water
with the cormorant

Thank you for reading and taking the time to learn more about haiku.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)

Christina Sng’s Conversation

winter evening
grandma dozes off

© Christina Sng (Singapore)

Kokako 25, September 2016

What stroke me the most about this haiku was the ambiguity of the last two lines.  The act of dozing off could mean simply that her grandma was sleeping or that she had passed away.

It might not be so unclear though, as winter evenings can be harsh and lonely, and Christina sets an appropriate mood for death.

However, there is also an air of comedy as well. If she wrote, “grandma closes her eyes/mid-conversation” it would be much more obvious as to the poet’s intentions.

In haiku, though, ambiguity is a strength. Part of the reason why masters of haiku are read throughout centuries is because their haiku was not straightforward. Reading a haiku over several years, and maybe a lifetime, can yield discoveries of new layers of meaning and/or implication.

If one reads this haiku out loud, the second line seems light in mood, whereas the third line seems more serious. Plus, “winter evening” is a serious seasonal reference or kigo. So, I don’t want to pin down this haiku, but I am leaning more on the serious than the comical.

Though seasonal references are not required in haiku, they do add a lot of historical and philosophical information. With “winter evening” Christina adds our collective memories of winter evenings. They are often stark, lonely, harsh, but also a time for families to come together. In fact, each season is a duality. Winter is harsh, but brings us together for holidays and to escape the cold. Spring is the time of blossoms, but sometimes winter’s harshness remains, which is shown in what does not blossom. Summer is a fun time and full of energy, but the sun sometimes causes famines and natural disasters. Autumn is when the natural world is dying all around us, but in such a beautiful form that sometimes we forget about the suffering nature is enduring.

Just like winter being double-sided, so is this haiku. You can feel sadness, comedy, or maybe an indescribable mixture of both. This haiku shows us the spontaneity of life, and possibly death. Though we try to control our lives and manage our surroundings somewhat, we are far from being rulers over our lives.

Looking at it sonically, the “i” sound in the first line makes the winter even starker. The “o” sound carried through the last two lines show the lull and continuation that is insinuated. I think Christina made a smart choice not to use punctuation or kireji (cutting word) in the first line, as she already used a hyphen in the third line, and using a dash or ellipses may have looked awkward.

Technically, sonically, and atmospherically, this is a poignant haiku that begs to be read over and over again.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)



Saigyō Hōshi’s Wind

how can we quell
the burning thoughts
that inflame the body?
only by encountering
the cooling wind

– Saigyō Hōshi (Japan)

Tr. Stephen Addiss

Before I dive into the tanka itself, I want to supply some information about this renowned Japanese writer.

Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118 – 1190) was a famous Japanese poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura period. Born Satō Norikiyo (佐藤 義清) in Kyoto to a noble family, he lived during the traumatic transition of power between the old court nobles and the new samurai warriors. After the start of the Age of Mappō (1052), Buddhism was considered to be in decline and no longer as effective a means of salvation. These cultural shifts during his lifetime led to a sense of melancholy in his poetry. As a youth, he worked as a guard to retired Emperor Toba, but in 1140 at the age of 22, for reasons now unknown, he quit worldly life to become a monk, taking the religious name En’i (円位). He later took the pen name, “Saigyō” meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise. He lived alone for long periods in his life in Saga, Mt. Koya, Mt. Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is more known for the many long, poetic journeys he took to Northern Honshū that would later inspire Matsuo Bashō in his Narrow Road to the Interior. Some main collections of Saigyō’s work are in the Sankashū, Shin Kokin Wakashū, and Shika Wakashū. He died in Hirokawa Temple in Kawachi Province (present-day Osaka Prefecture) at the age of 72.

In Saigyō’s time, the Man’yōshū was no longer a significant influence on waka poetry, compared to the Kokin Wakashū. Where the Kokin Wakashū was concerned with subjective experience, word play, flow, and elegant diction (neither colloquial nor pseudo-Chinese), the Shin Kokin Wakashū (formed with poetry written by Saigyō and others writing in the same style) was less subjective, had fewer verbs and more nouns, was not as interested in word play, allowed for repetition, had breaks in the flow, was slightly more colloquial, and more somber and melancholic. Due to the turbulent times, Saigyō focuses not just on mono no aware (sorrow from change) but also on sabi (loneliness) and kanashi (sadness).

To me, Saigyō is a great self-realized poet who showed his depth of spirituality through symbolism. This tanka is no exception. The idea that thoughts can inflame the body is quite a Zen idea, I would say. The Zen state is being aware without thoughts. The burning might be real or metaphorical. If we indulge in thoughts, we set our reality ablaze instead of seeing it in its natural serenity. Speaking on a physical level, thoughts are reactions to stimuli, and these reactions can even heat up our liver and cause our body to heat up.

However, the last two lines can also be taken literally or figuratively. Saigyō was a wanderer and hermit who survived harsh conditions. He may have been giving credit to nature to exposing him to his true self by settling his thoughts through cool wind. But this also could be a reference to the wind that Bashō said called him to poetry. This wind, felt on the palms and above the head when one is a self-realized person, has been described in many spiritual practices and traditions, including Zen. It is interesting he says “cooling wind” instead of “freezing wind or “cold wind,” as “cooling wind” points more to a soothing experience, and possibly to the experience of wind being emitted from the hands and above the head from enlightenment. To some readers, feeling a cool breeze coming out of one’s hands and head may seem far-fetched, but this experience has been recorded by Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and many other traditions in the past and currently.

Personally, I believe Saigyō is talking directly about his experience as a self-realized person, and tells readers that they need to feel their eternal spirit to fully dispel their thoughts in order to know reality. Unless and until we experience this, reality will always be clouded by what we think of it.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)

Christina Sng’s Walk

walking home
from the hospital
a lone daffodil

Bottle Rockets #35, August 2016

© Christina Sng (Singapore)

I appreciate how this haiku allows for different interpretations for
the reader. Is the feeling of solitude one of joy and resolution
because the person is no longer confined within the walls of a
hospital? Or is it one of loneliness because a person is walking home
alone with no one to greet them at the door? There is room and space
left for interpretation, and emotions are generated from pure

I also enjoy the last line “a lone daffodil.” It brings rich
possibilities of where this daffodil is: perhaps growing from a crack
in the sidewalk or growing within a garden patch surrounded by
different types of flowers. I get a feeling of strength that this
daffodil is thriving, alone, no matter what environment is conjured up
within the readers’ imagination. An excellent haiku.

Jacob Salzer (USA)