Haruo Shirane on Basho & Haiku

During the spring, Coldfront Magazine had the pleasure to attend Poets House 25th Anniversary Program event Passwords: Haruo Shirane on Basho & Haiku. As part of the Anniversary Program that covered twenty-five years of poetry over thirty six events, this talk was welcomed with enthusiasm by a full house of haiku practioners and those eager to learn more about the poetic form and its master Basho.

Haruo Shirane is the Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at Columbia University, and his talk was loosely assembled around his seminal study, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. While Western audiences tend to think of haiku as a “special genre” that is practiced by trained experts, Shirane argued that haiku was never an exclusive aesthetic form but has always functioned as an important means of social interaction in Japan. These poetic exchanges took place both between individuals and in groups. Haiku in fact became a popular art form precisely because of its accessibility.

Shirane took the audience through a number of poems, introducing a list of key Japanese terms such as hokku (opening verse), kigo (seasonal word), and kireji (cutting word).  He lingered at length on the key notion of ga-zoku which connotes the mixture of the elegant and the vulgar, or the classical and the popular. While classical Japanese poetry deals primarily with elegant topics, the emergence of the urban commoner class in the 17th century led to the mixing of the vulgar and the classical that made up the heart of haiku poetry. Here is an example from a well-known poem by Basho:

An old pond—

A frog leaps in,

  The sound of water

While a frog is often associated with singing and music in the classical tradition, this poem illustrates the sound of the frog as it leaps into the water, suggesting the arrival of spring after a long winter (“old pond”).

After explaining the formal and social aspects of haiku in the Japanese context, Shirane went on to address the rise of haiku’s popularity in Western culture in the 1950s and 60s through the Beats such as Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. Shirane also discussed D. T. Suzuki, perhaps the most famous Buddhist to Westerners, that held a teaching position at Columbia University around that time. Suzuki’s influence on the Beats, especially Ginsberg and Kerouac who attended Columbia, was significant in their burgeoning interest in Japanese culture especially in haiku.

The talk was followed by a lively discussion during the Q&A session, which continued into the wine and cheese reception in the upstairs library.  Be sure to check out Shirane’s book on Basho and his most recent publication, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts.


-steven karl