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)

2 thoughts on “Ueshima Onitsura’s Icicles

  1. Yes! This haiku expresses the profound wonder at the root of consciousness: why just that? It’s really not a question. I’d add to your fine commentary that the haiku itself — in its long and short lines– expresses the thought-stopping wonder in that short last line. Don’t know the original but I love this translation. Are these haiku from Blyth’s anthology?

    Liked by 1 person

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