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The Moon Shines in Haiku

Illustrations by Ai Tatebayashi


Supermoon as a Creative Inspiration
September is a magical month for moon watchers: Time to observe the magnificent Harvest Moon. Illuminating the night sky, this bright, beautiful beacon is a friend to farmers, enabling them to “make hay while the moon shines” by harvesting crops after sundown. The Autumn Moon brings with it many memorable, moonlit nights – and over the centuries, its silvery sheen has kindled the flame of inspiration in Japan’s great writers. As the moon waxed, the poets waxed creative, composing verses with a lunar theme.

Three or four times a year, the new or full moon coincides with the perigee of the moon – the point in time when the moon is closest to the Earth, so it appears fuller and even more luminous than usual. Astronomers call this phenomenon perigee-syzygy, but in 1979 astrologer, Richard Nolle coined a catchy new term: Supermoon. The final Supermoon of 2014 occurs on September 9, a perfect occasion to appreciate Japan’s shortest poetic form, itself as fleeting and transcendent as a moonbeam: Haiku.

The Essence of Haiku
Think of haiku as a beautiful simplification of life’s most complex mysteries: the genre is as powerful as it is concise. Supermoon night is an excellent occasion to get together with friends and savor these brief, exalting verses by reading them aloud. Tsukimi (“moon-viewing”) is the Japanese tradition of partying to view the moon at harvest time. The custom began during the Heian period (794-the late 12th century), when aristocrats would gather to recite poetry by the light of the mid-Autumn moon.  Although commoners at that time did not enjoy poetry reciting since they could not read or write, they certainly appreciated the beauty of the moon. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), more and more people became educated, and the samurai class, especially, started doing what aristocrats did. These events coincided with the establishment of the haiku form.

Originally called haikai, the form of haiku was perfected by Basho Matsuo*. Here is one of his haiku poems featuring the Autumn moon:

月はやし 梢は雨を 持ちながら
Tsuki hayashi
Kozue wa ame o

Describing a rainy Autumn night, this haiku is a splendid example of the short poem’s beautiful features. Take a look at the following two English translations.

The moon is passing quickly, leaves of the trees hold the rain. (© DS)
The moon races the clouds while raindrops to the treetops cling. (© Thomas McAuley)

Each translation has its own interpretation. The first one adds “leaves,” although foliage is not specified in Basho’s haiku, while the second one adds “clouds” despite the fact that there is no equivalent for clouds in the original. “Kozue” in Japanese simply means branch(es), so it can signify one branch or multiple branches; a branch with leaves or one without; treetop branches  or ones near the lower part of the trunk. There is no way to know what Basho observed when he wrote this haiku in 1687, but his words give us the freedom to imagine.

Also, Basho reportedly wrote this haiku at a temple when he was 44 years old, so he might have been thinking of his own mortality—time flies (“the moon is passing quickly”) and branches are heavy with rain (the burdens of aging). Or perhaps, with childlike wonder, he delighted in the beautiful, twinkling raindrops on the leaves as they reflected the moon’s fast motion. We will never know for sure.

Illustrations by Ai Tatebayashi


The Grammar of Haiku Multiplies its Charm
Although writers the world over have tried composing haiku in their native languages – including the American authors Jack Kerouac and e.e. cummings – their poems simply cannot compare to the traditional haiku of Japan, which adheres strictly to certain time-honored rules. Japanese haiku is based on kigo – words that evoke the seasons. With its many phases and its potent symbolism of renewal, the moon is the ultimate kigo! The moon heralds its own season, a reliable constant of nature that occurs year-round, as compelling in the coldest winter as in the sultriest summer. Yet another “K” concept key to Japanese haiku is kire, or “cutting word,” which always crystallizes the theme of the poem. In the above poem by Basho, the kire is Tsuki hayashi.

In English, poetry is measured in syllables, but the phonology of Japanese, an open-vowel language, is based on a unit called the mora. An English speaker would pronounce the word “cat” with one beat, but Japanese does “kya-t-to” with 3 beats, meaning 3 morae. Another example is “MacDonald”, 3 beats in English but 6 beats in Japanese. This explains why it is one of the ultimate literary challenges for translators to capture the essence of traditional haiku in English.

English speakers tend to appreciate poetry that rhymes, but haiku does not. Instead, its rhythm is created by artful combinations of five and seven morae, which – although they do not rhyme – are as magical, in their own way, as the rhyming couplets of Shakespeare. Haiku follows a 5-7-5 mora structure, which adds up to seventeen morae.

Most of the traditional Japanese poetry employs various combinations of 5 and 7 morae.  Here is a primer on other patterns also used in traditional Japanese poetry:

7-5 Cho: A style of writing that uses combinations of 7-5 morae repeatedly. This style produces soft, elegant verse, and is used in the Kokin Wakashu (Kokinshu), an anthology of waka (poetry) dating from the Heian period.
5-7 Cho: Uses combinations of 5-7 morae repeatedly. This style creates plain, powerful impressions, and is used in Man’yoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry.
5-7-5-7-7: This mora style is called tanka.
7-7-7-5: This mora style is often used in dodoitsu, a comical poetic form.

Other Common Forms of Japanese Poetry
Tanka, mentioned above, used to be a more common form of poetry. The famous Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a classical Japanese anthology of the 5-7-5-7-7 tanka as imagined by one hundred different poets.  No fewer than twelve of the anthology’s poems revolve around the moon, which indicates just how popular the lunar theme is among poets.

Senryu has the same 5-7-5 structure as haiku – three lines with seventeen or fewer morae – and yet it is totally different in spirit. Senryu do not have kigo or kire. Whereas haiku are serious about eternal nature and capturing a moment in time, senryu cast a cynical, darkly humorous eye on human nature and current events, capturing their comic flaws. An earnest poem about the harvest moon is a haiku; but a poem that wryly observes how #Supermoon is trending on Twitter would be a senryu.

The moon turns full on Tuesday, September 9 at 1:38 Universal Time – in New York, that’s Monday, September 8 at 9:38 p.m. EDT. Take your favorite book of haiku outdoors when the moon shines its brightest, and the lunar-themed poetry of Japan will take on a whole new glow.


GIANTS OF HAIKU and Their Moon Haikus
The three great masters of the haiku genre are Basho, Buson, and Issa. The moon shines in the exquisite verse of each sensei, illuminating their timeless artistry for the ages.

Basho Matsuo (1644-1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period. When Basho began writing, the poetic form was called haikai no renga, a sequence opening with a verse in 5-7-5 mora format; this verse was called a hokku. After centuries, when hokku became a standalone poem, it was renamed haiku. He is known as the author of the travelogue, The Narrow Road of the Deep North, which is one of the important Edo literature pieces. In addition to the haiku quoted before, he wrote various moon haiku, including;

名月や 池をめ ぐりて 夜もすがら
Meigetsu ya                    The harvest moon—
Ike o megurite                I stroll round the pond
Yomosugara                  Till the night is through               (Tr. Makoto Ueda)

Buson Yosa (1716-1784) was a painter as well as a poet. Together with Basho and Issa, he is considered one of the greatest poets of the Edo period. His haiku style is known as realistic and picturesque. The multi-talented Buson also taught poetry, taking the pen name of Yahantei. Among his many moon haiku pieces, the most notable one is;

菜の花や 月は東 に 日は西に
Nanohana ya                    rapeseed blossoms
Tsuki wa higashi ni         the moon in the east
Hi wa nishi ni                   the sun in the west               (Tr. Gabi Greve)

Issa Kobayashi (1763-1828) wrote more than 20,000 heartbreakingly beautiful haikus. He used simple and plain wording, yet his haikus are comical, satiric and compassionate. His pen name, Issa, means “cup of tea.” The moon is one of his favorite motifs. This is a humorous and cute one;

名月を とって くれろと 泣く子かな
Meigetsu o                    “Gimme that harvest moon!”
Totte kurero to                cries the crying
Nakuko kana                  child               (Tr. David G. Lanoue)