The Best Haiku Ever: the Best Haiku of All Time, with Translations of the Oriental Masters

The HyperTexts

The Best Haiku Ever: the Greatest Haiku of All Time
a Haiku timeline with modern English translations of the Oriental Masters

Which poets wrote the best haiku of all time? Where do we find the best haiku poems in English translations?

Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki have been called the “Great Four” of haiku. You can find some of their very best poems on this page, in accessible modern English translations.

This page also includes haiku and haiku-like poems written by poets such as Patrick Blanche, Nozawa Bonchō, Jorge Luis Borges, Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Sekitei Hara, Robert Hass, Kosugi Isshō, Michael McClintock, Arakida Moritake, Kyorai Mukai, Ippekiro Nakatsuka, Plato, Li Po, Ezra Pound, Charles Reznikoff, Roka, Sappho, Yamaguchi Seishi, Takaha Shugyo, Ilio Sōgi, Yamazaki Sōkan, Natsume Sôseki,Hisajo Sugita, Kyoshi Takahama, Inahata Teiko, Richard Wright and Ō no Yasumaro.

When did haiku begin to influence Western poetry? Hendrik Doeff, the Dutch commissioner of an early 19th century trading post in Nagasaki, Japan, was the first westerner known to have written haiku.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

There are some of my original haiku at the bottom of this page. Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person’s opinions, for whatever they’re worth, but it never hurts to compare notes …

Haiku Definitions

What are haiku? In Japanese haimeans “unusual” and ku means “verse” or “strophe.” So haiku are, literally, unusual verses. Sir George Sansom called haiku “little drops of poetic essence.” Harold Henderson called them “meditations.” I think of haiku as evocative snapshots constructed of words: the flash photography of literature. Another useful definition might be “transcendent images.” For example:

Grasses wilt:
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt.
― Yamaguchi Seishi, translation by Michael R. Burch

In the poem above, wilting autumn grasses and a braking locomotive grinding to a halt are metaphors for time, aging and the approach of death. Two simple images speak worlds, in the hands of a skilled poet like Yamaguchi Seishi. The next three haiku are among my all-time favorites, by the master Basho. You are welcome to share my translations, but please credit the original poet and the translator, if you do.

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
― Matsuo Basho, translation by Michael R. Burch

Whistle on, twilight whippoorwill,
solemn evangelist
of loneliness
― Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), translation by Michael R. Burch

shatters the darkness―
the night heron’s shriek.
― Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), translation by Michael R. Burch

Traditional Japanese haiku have three lines with moras (syllable counts) of 5-7-5. However, because the meter of the moras does not translate into English, the 5-7-5 pattern is not a hard-and-fast rule for translations. Therefore, in my translations I have elected to use as many syllables as seemed necessary to convey the images, feelings and meanings of the poems, as I “grok” them.

The Influence of Haiku on Modern English Poetry

The influence of haiku on modern English poetry is both obvious and pronounced. Indeed, certain precepts of Imagism clearly relate more or less directly to haiku, such as the use of concrete imagery and “direct treatment of the thing (object/subject).” Ezra Pound, the father and leading proponent of Imagism, translated Oriental poetry and wrote similar original poems himself. Here is one of Pound’s more haiku-like poems, “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Sometimes a contemporary poet may write a haiku about a more ancient poet or poem:

… lifting my cup,
I asked the moon
to drink with me …
—Li Po

And if Li Po had
got the moon in his mitts
what would he have done with it?
—Cid Corman

Well-known modern poems that bear marked resemblances to haiku include “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. Other English language poets who either wrote, translated or were influenced by haiku include Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Amy Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Paul Muldoon and Cid Corman. Oriental influences have also been noted in the writings of early modernists like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick
—Richard Wright

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
—William Carlos Williams

The spring lingers on
In the scent of a damp log
Rotting in the sun.
—Richard Wright

Here are two haiku I admire by a contemporary American poet. The second suggests that not all American haiku is performance-ready!

Winter turns Spring as
I lug water home, my dawn
shadow scrawny-long…
—Nick Marco

Winter beer-belches:
Sumo-fat boors “slam” Haiku.
Buried, Basho moans.
—Nick Marco

The Oldest Haiku

These are my translations of some of the oldest Japanese waka, which evolved into poetic forms such as tanka, renga and haiku over time. My translations are excerpts from the Kojiki (the “Record of Ancient Matters”), a book composed around 711-712 A.D. by the historian and poet Ō no Yasumaro. The Kojiki relates Japan’s mythological beginnings and the history of its imperial line. Like Virgil’s Aeneid, the Kojiki seeks to legitimize rulers by recounting their roots. These are lines from one of the oldest Japanese poems, found in the oldest Japanese book:

While you decline to cry,
high on the mountainside
a single stalk of plumegrass wilts.
― Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here’s another excerpt, with a humorous twist, from the Kojiki:

Hush, cawing crows; what rackets you make!
Heaven’s indignant messengers,
you remind me of wordsmiths!
― Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here’s another, this one a poem of love and longing:

Onyx, this gem-black night.
Downcast, I await your return
like the rising sun, unrivaled in splendor.
― Ō no Yasumaro (circa 711), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A Brief History and Chronology of Haiku

Snow-obscured heights,
mist-shrouded slopes:
this spring evening.
― Ilio Sōgi (1421-1502), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Soundlessly they go,
the herons passing by:
arrows of snow
filling the sky.
― Yamazaki Sōkan (1464-1552), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: In some haiku circles it is considered a capital crime to employ traditional English meter and/or rhyme in haiku. But poets around the world have been borrowing from each other since the dawn of literature! I happen to like this translation myself, and I hope you do too.

O, fluttering moon, if only we
could hang a handle on you,
what a fan you would be!
― Yamazaki Sōkan (1464-1552), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Has an orphaned blossom
somehow returned to its bough?
No, a solitary butterfly!
― Arakida Moritake (1472-1549), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Life: a solitary butterfly
swaying unsteadily on a slender grass-stalk,
nothing more. But ah! so exquisite!
― Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The hushed sound
of the scarecrow falling
gently to the ground!
― Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When no wind at all
ruffles the Kiri tree
leaves fall of their own will.
― Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sunlight slants
through a red pine grove:
the shrike’s shriek.
― Nozawa Bonchō (1640-1714), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This darkening autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue?
― Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there’s no rice
― Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree

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