Basho on How to Make a Haiku

17 statements from his letters and spoken word

Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins

Assisted by Sakata Shoko

  (Words of Basho are in boldface)


From the hundreds of passages I have translated from Basho’s letters to followers and from spoken word recorded by followers, I have culled 17 statements on how to produce a haiku. I offer this advice from the greatest of all haiku poets to all you folks writing haiku today. Three statements are from a letter Basho wrote in 1681 to his follower Biji. Throughout this letter, Basho repeatedly condemns “oldness” in poetry; he later said to his follower Doho: Oldness is the worst disease a poet can have. By “oldness” I believe he means what is “conventional, conforming to standards.”

1    Settling for standards and searching for reason places one in the middle grade of poets;  one who defies standards and forgets reason is the wizard on this path.

In the letter to Biji is is this point of advice:

2   Without a sense for how to use ordinary words, you will get mixed up in oldness.

Years later, Basho put this idea in positive terms:

3   Poetry benefits from the realization of ordinary words

                      (Haikai wa eki no zokugo o tadasu nar)  

This Basho haiku illustrates his mastery of the use of ordinary words

Sama zama no               Many, many

koto omoi-idasu           things come to mind,

sakura kana                   cherry blossoms

Basho’s words are completely, utterly simple. No complications: seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese and likewise in English. He says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these flowers and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. The plain and ordinary words are “realized” through the thousand years of associations of Japanese life with cherry blossoms. Ordinary words take on extraordinary meanings and feelings.

4 Know that a poem combines things . . .

   Poetry is the experience of the heart which goes and returns.

Ami no ko ga                    Fisherman’s child

kujira o shirasu                to announce a whale

Kai fuite                             blows on a shell

This single renku stanza combines the intriguing trio of child, whale, and shell; we start with medium-size child, then move out to enormous whale, return to small shell in boy’s hand, then spread out to fill the area with sound, the whale swimming away, the adults running to their boats, the boy watching excitedly from his post. So much life and aliveness.

5     “The skillful have a disease; Let a three-foot child get the poem

That disease is “oldness,” conventionality, heaviness in writing. A three-foot child would be five or six, so have little higher cortical function to circumvent the native spontaneity of the lower brain.

6   Only this, apply your heart to what children do.

Children’s actions are whole, not divided by the endless conflict of adult concerns. Strive to write poetry with that wholeness.

Ko no moto ni                      Under the trees

shiru mo namasu mo       soup, vinegar salad, and

sakura kana                         blossoms hurray!

The scene is the same in Basho’s time as in ours. The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favorite foods. The soup is brought to the picnic in an iron pot and heated over a fire. Namasu is commonly translated “fish salad” but cookbooks and experience at celebrations says different: it is raw vegetables (or sometimes fish) sliced thin, and marinated in vinegar, popular at celebrations. Amidst the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom kimono, laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the food.

At the time of this verse, Basho said,

7       “As I gained some feeling for the rhythm in this verse on blossom-viewing,  I made Lightness.”

Haruo Shirane defines Lightness as: “a stress on everyday common subject matter, on the use of vernacular language, and on a relaxed rhythmical seemingly artless expression” — each of these are conspicuous in UNDER THE TREES.

Basho says that Lightness comes from the kakari, or rhythm of the words. Shirane, from his native Japanese ear, describes the rhythm in UNDER THE TREES in Japanese: the verse “starts slowly with four successive ‘o’ sounds (ko, no, mo, to) and then plunges into a strong consonant beat: (ni shi-ru mo na-ma-su mo sa-ku-ra ka-na) with each new syllable seeming to pick up speed, and then ends on the emotive, exclamatory kana, thus suggesting the inebriated mood of a cherry blossom party.” The final kana is “emotive, exclamatory,” so HURRAY! We are celebrating the season of warmth and new Life. Lightness is Us, real people having fun, sharing food.

To those who love Western poetry, Basho’s verses of Lightness will seem so simple and Light they feel like nothing – but they leave the reader feeling good — as opposed to Heaviness which relies on heavy word associations and allegory to make the reader feel sad. Even without tragedy, sensationalism, or negativity, Basho reaches into the human heart:- in this verse, through taste sensations – soup which could be so many possibilities and raw vegetables imbued with the sour of vinegar. Taste images bring us back to the times when we ate those foods, times we celebrated together.

Four years after the birth of Lightness in the haiku UNDER THE TREES, Basho said at a gathering of his Edo followers before he left on his final journey west to Kansai,

8     Now in my heart the form of poetry is as looking into a shallow stream over sand with Lightness both in the body of the verse as well as in the Heart’s connection

9 – Do not allow your verse to be artificial.

Basho compares an artificial verse by Kikaku with his own naturally occurring verse:

Koe karete                     Hoarse shriek

saru no ha shiroshi         monkey’s white fangs

mine no tsuki                  moon over the peak

Shio-dai no                     Salted bream

haguki mo samushi      their gums so cold

uo no tana                       a fish store  

Kon says “Along a street in the desolation of winter, a few salted bream are lined up on a tray in a fish store. The lips drawn back in death reveal gums frightful in their coldness.”

Basho said, Kikaku surpasses all in exaggeration, so let us forgive him.        

10     The verse HOARSE SHRIEK is Kikaku.

             ‘Gums of salted bream’ is the poetry of my old age.

              The lower segment, “A fish store,”saying only that, is my style.

Basho in his old age has discovered something else: Lightness. Poetry can be excellent without heavy and exaggerated imagery; instead of monkeys shrieking and jagged mountain peaks like monkey fangs, poetry can reveal ordinary scenes in daily life. Kikaku wrote his verse from imagination, not from any actual experience of monkeys or mountains or the moon. It has nothing to give us; once the shock is over, there is nothing in the verse can we learn.

“A fish store” is Basho’s genius. Another poet would have ended the poem with something bold, striking, philosophical, or religious. Basho however just says “A fish store”, with all its daily life associations in smell and sound and sight. Any woman in the temperate zone near the sea can see Basho’s haiku right before her eyes when she goes shopping in winter. Kikaku’s verse is suitable only for people off in some fantasy world where monkeys shriek. It is literary and “old.” Basho’s verse is REAL and Light.

11 In the verses of other poets is too much making and the heart’s immediacy is lost.

What is made from the heart is good; the product of words shall not be preferred.

Words from the heart are good. Words from other words are not.

12 — A stanza may have extra sounds, 3, 4, even 5 or 7; if the phrase has good resonance, it is okay – however if even one sound stagnates in your mouth, scrutinize the expression.

Basho advises that we speak the verse out loud to insure that the phrases have “resonance” (hibiki) and do not “stagnate” in the mouth — like water in a stream stuck behind a wad of fallen leaves, old, foul, and heavy — but rather flow with natural rhythm that resonates in the listener’s ear. For many years I have enjoyed the natural resonance I hear when I speak:

“Many, many,

things come to mind

cherry blossoms.”

Recently I considered changing the middle segment to “things brought to mind” or “thoughts come to mind” to more “accurate” to the original – but when I spoke these phrases out loud, I found that they “stagnate” in my mouth. “Things come to mind” is natural English and resonates. Basho told Kyorai:

13   This is a path of a fresh lively taste with aliveness in both heart and words

In a letter of 1690, Basho offered the following haiku as an example of the qualities which make up Lightness.

Komo o kite           There is a man

tare bito imasu      covered by a straw mat,

hana no haru         glory of spring

14   According to your various talents, make the verse from your heart, whether linked verse or haiku, neither heavy nor merely spinning about.

A beggar sleeps under a straw mat in the freezing cold New Year’s weather. He has an identity, a human dignity within the glory of spring. If not for fortune, I could be him. The verse goes straight to its sociological meaning; it does not “spin about” aimlessly, yet is not “heavy”; it does not shove that meaning at the reader’s face.

15  In poetry is a realm which cannot be taught. You must pass through it yourself.  Some poets have made no effort to pass through, merely counting things and trying to remember them.  There was no passing through the things.

To write poetry, you must “pass through things.”

Kara tsubo ni                 On the saddle

kobouzu noru ya           sits their ‘little monk’ —

daikon-hiki                      daikon-gathering

This is not an actual apprentice monk but rather an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close. Because ‘daikon gathering’ in Japanese tradition suggests a happy family excursion, I have added in “their”: we feel not this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family.

Basho told Doho:

16         “To have the little boy stand out in relation to the daikon-gathering was the making of this verse”

The image of “little monk” makes the child “stand out,” the bald round head on a child‘s body sitting on the horse high above the horizontal field, watching his elders at work. (See the painting.)   This “standing out” is what “makes” the verse. The light color and roundness of the boy’s head are “cute,” while pulling gargantuan white radishes from the ground is dirty and rough. The important word here is “stand out.”   Unless something “stands out in relation” to something else, there is no poem.

Two months before his death, although it was autumn, to his long-time followers aged like himself、Basho wrote a Spring verse.

Kao ni ninu                  Unlike our faces

hokku mo ide yo       may our haiku emerge

hatsu-zakara              as first blossoms

Though our faces are wrinkled and pockmarked by the ravages of time, our poems can be as fresh and vibrant as the first cherry blossoms to emerge on their twigs. About this haiku Basho said:

17 The physical form, first of all, must be graceful, then the musical quality makes a superior verse.

For the “physical form” to be “graceful,” I believe the verse must have a consistent rhythm of beats.

Basho speaks of a “quality of turning,” as in music that quality which gives an “accent” or “resonance,” instead of being flat and boring, yet even with all that “turning,” all haiku are scored with the same steady

four beats per measure. Syllables expand or contract to fit into the four beats: thus in the chorus to We are the World, the one syllable of “world” expands to fill an entire measure, and the six syllables of “ones who make a brighter” contract to four beats. I discuss this at length in my article “Syllables, Words, and Beats”.

By translating with a consistent four-beat rhythm — 3 beats and pause / 4 beats without pause / 3 beats and pause – and using ordinary English words which (I hope) resonate, I aim for a graceful physical form with a musical quality.


I request your assistance in getting out the word on the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and children, about friendship, love, and compassion — hundreds of Basho works few people know, yet I believe the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.

Feedback will be greatly appreciated.