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LEARNING: the heart of a haiku | haiku magic! | part one

Updated: Apr 26

Written by Kala Ramesh

First published in Pune365, an online newspaper. August, 2016

the heart of a haiku

a space for a little poem

to weave its magic!

part one

Most often, the appreciation of an art form begins to take shape even before the learning process begins. Something moves us from deep within – say, when we listen to Pandit Kumar Gandharva sing one of those memorable ‘nirguni bhajans’ of Sant Kabir. Maybe we could call this stimulation, this spark as ‘Rasa’ — the connection between the performer and the listener. Those claps, that wah! arising so spontaneously from our lips when those notes or the poetry of the moment hits us.

The most important aspect of rasa is that it lingers on long after the stimulus has been removed. We often ruminate over a concert for days and savour the joy of its memory. Thus, although the stimulus is transient, the rasa that is induced continues.

This is very true of haiku. There were days when I would quickly switch on the computer to once again read some beautiful haiku I had read a while ago, for I needed to know how the poet could pack so much in such few words.

To begin with, shall we see how this haiku magic works?

Let’s read a few haiku that I love even after repeated readings. Take special care to notice the use of concrete words and specific images. It may surprise you to learn that the use of adjectives is kept to a minimum but the images are strong. I quote haiku written by two Japanese masters, Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa, both translated by renowned authors. Can you immediately picture this in your mind or draw it on a piece of paper?

on a bare branch

a crow has alighted ...

autumn nightfall

Matsuo Basho

Translated by Makoto Ueda

Now look at your drawing. Is it a picture of autumn nightfall? Is there another diagram of a bare tree and a crow landing on a branch?

So you have two striking images ... right? One image — autumn nightfall — forms a backdrop, as in your school play, while the other image, in the foreground, shows a bird landing on a bare branch. Keep this in your memory! When two images are juxtaposed (put

together side by side) a poem becomes a haiku. Otherwise, it would just be a three-line poem.

In this translation (there are many other versions too), what struck me most were the images that arise from within the poem which have not been mentioned in words. One such strong presence is the moon – I see a full moon and that to me creates the glow which helps differentiate the branch, the crow, and the night.

Let us see some more examples:

a great spot

to hear the cuckoo ...

but mosquitoes!

Kobayashi Issa

Translated by David G. Lanoue

We have a similar haiku here by a contemporary haiku poet, the late Laryalee (Lary) Fraser:

outdoor concert

the mosquitoes


I leave you here today to mull over, ruminate, and perhaps meditate over these images and will meet you later with much more to satisfy your hunger for this beautiful little poem called haiku.

* The copyright of the translations rests with the authors, and that of Lary’s rests with her family.

* Copyright of this title and the page rests with Kala Ramesh. This essay was originally published every Monday in Pune 365 - an online newspaper in August, September and October 2016. And then later, this set of nine essays were picked up by the British Haiku Society for their website. Passionate about taking haiku to everyday spaces, Kala Ramesh initiated the ‘HaikuWALL India,’ where she gets graffiti artists to paint haiku on city walls. As an external faculty member of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, she teaches undergrads haiku and other allied Japanese short forms of poetry in a 4-month-60-hour course. The haiku feature appears every Monday on Pune365, August to October 2016.

124 views24 comments


Dear Kala,

Thank you. I have been at it for a while now. Reading the masters, I mean. An important lesson I have learnt is that the images should be presented by the poet and the adjectives inferred/constructed by the readers. This is perhaps how the readers participate (i.e. complete the poem). It is often very hard to translate the Japanese images into English, since those images are a part of their culture. But one can carry out the same experiment in English or any other language aided by native cultures.

Only yesterday, I was reading an early poem by the great Bashō. Reichhold translates it thus --

the old woman

a cherry tree blooming in old age

is something…


Dear Kala—Concise and beautifully penned...enjoyed a lot. Thanks for sharing Gauri.


Reading these essays is an everyday learning for us. Thanks for putting this up!

Replying to

Thank you so much, Lakshmi.


Kanji Dev
Kanji Dev
Apr 15

                      outdoor concert

                      the mosquitoes


Laryalee (Lary) Fraser:

Oh, the laughther which ensued upon reading this. Thank you, Kala, for posting these essays here!

Replying to

Happy you liked Lary's ku. She remains one of my favourites.


Thank you so very much dear Kala. The articles published in the British Haiku are undoubtedly a treasure trove - I keep returning to to them! Thank you very much for these writings ... really appreciate the time and care you give to nurture us.

Replying to

Thanks, Padma.

Happy you like these essays.

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