The Moon in Haiku
If you can think of a topic or a subject, chances are, there is a haiku out there about it. Everything from relationships, family, birth, and death to nature, objects, and places can all be inspirations in writing. Since the time of the great Matsuo Basho in the 1600s to present day contemporary authors, seasonal words, or kigo, appear very frequently. Besides the obvious spring, summer, autumn, and winter, other descriptors can also be used to indicate a particular season. Cherry blossoms, for example, coincide with spring. The mention of the harvest moon usually indicated the season of autumn. Use of the moon is even a requirement in kasen-no-rengas.
Speaking of the moon, anyone who has studied haiku in depth and has traveled back in time to look at haiku from old world Japan has probably noticed its frequent appearances. The moon seems to sneak into many poems, either indicating night time or even the season of the year. There is something about the imagery of the moon that seems to have captivated the world of haiku, but what’s the reason for that? What is so special about the big gray circle in the night sky and why are haiku writers everywhere so infatuated with it?
I fell a tree
And gaze at the cut end—
The moon of tonight.
Matsuo Basho, Matsuo Basho, 42
This first example, dating from the 1600s by who is considered to be one of the most prominent haiku writers of all time, Matsuo Basho, compares the moon to the end of a tree stump. I think we all occasionally experience those moments when we are doing something somewhat trivial and unexciting, such as a cutting down a tree or chopping wood, and we suddenly realize the beauty in it. Sure, the moon may look pretty, but in the end, isn’t it just a big gray circle in the sky? It is not always the physical characteristics that make something beautiful. Sometimes it is the idea of something or the nature of it that really awes us. The sun goes to bed every night and the moon takes its place. No matter where you are in the world, we all see the same moon. It may be at different times, and on different sides of the earth, but it’s something that connects us all and that can be a really comforting thought. Cutting down a tree may seem dull, but there is a lot more to it than just a wooden stump. Trees are living things; they help sustain our lives. Trees can grow old or be cut down before they have a chance to reach their greatest height, a characteristic very similar to people. Trees can be planted alone on a hilltop or in large groups of forests. I think Basho understood the concept of beauty being all around us. He compared a tree stump and the moon because although we see the sky and trees routinely, we may not always take in the real essence of what makes them alive and real.
Haiku often makes connections with nature and things that are untouched by mankind, some of the most popular being the sky and all things having to do with it, trees, animals, furry woodland creatures, weather, land, and things of the sort. Being in nature is probably the purest experience someone can have, in term of what would exist already would human interference. Even standing in the middle of downtown Chicago, on a clear night, the moon will still be there. Unless we create some kind of giant cover the wrap around the entire Earth or completely destroy the ozone layer to the point where we can’t see the sky anymore, the moon will always be there. We can’t cut it down or move it around or get rid of it, even if we want to. Outside, the sky will always be our ceiling. We can try and escape it with out fancy buildings and expensive houses and apartments, but if you take down all the wooden and concrete walls we are all under the same cosmic roof. I think that is one of the most attractive things about the moon; it’s a giant connector. All of our lives are different in one way or another and no two people are even exactly the same. It’s a nice thought to have some things exist, like the moon, that is the same and will always be the same. So much in our lives is unpredictable and unreliable.
sleeping rough a leaf across the full moon
Ross Clark, Red Moon Anthology 1997, 11
This one by Ross Clark embodies the calmness the moon can reflect. On the first reading, I pictured someone laying in bed unable to fall asleep, staring out a nearby window at the moon and watching a leaf float by in the wind. Maybe the person can’t sleep because they are worried about something, are stressing over work or school or relationships, and in general just has a lot on their plate. Everyone feels like that at one point in their lives, college being a perfect example. Sometimes we can’t escape our problems even in sleep, and it can all seem like too much. We all have those days where we just want to crawl back into bed and stay there, hiding from the world under the sheets. Whatever this poor guy or girl is having problems getting to sleep over, I imagine them seeing that one little leaf fluttering through the air and saying to themselves, “you know, life may not be so bad.” I think the moon definitely has the ability to have that affect on us if we let it. Even in the worst of times, the moon will always be there, even if it’s behind the clouds.
Tightening the darkness
A cricket’s ratchet
Wally Swist, The Silence Between Us, 51
Wally Swist captures a summer scene in his haiku from his collection, The Silence Between Us. Not only is the moon beautiful both physically and symbolically, but it also goes through a life cycle, that we experience, like every other living thing. The moon can take on a series of shapes from full, to half full, to gone, and back again. Throughout our lifetime, we will all experience ups and downs. Some days things will seem perfect and others it will all be a giant mess. We go through upward climbs and downward falls. While the moon will always be there, in a sense, it allows itself to change, grow, and restart itself. If a full moon is considered to be a “perfect moon,” it doesn’t spend all of its time that way. We may always think of the moon as being full, but in reality, that’s impossible. Sometimes we have a tendency to push perfection on things and people that just completely unrealistic. If even the moon isn’t capable of always being “perfect,” how are the rest of us supposed to be?
shimmer of the moon-
swirling winds scours the frozen pond
Wally Swist, The Silence Between Us, 119
Wally Swist also conjures up an elegant imagine involving the moon in this one. It brings to mind a quiet, ice covered pond somewhere far enough away from the road to make it stand on its own, and close to sprinkled with bits of dust from it in a strong wind. The word ‘shimmer’ in the first line really makes the imagine dance. Nighttime is stereotypically calmer and more serene. Everything goes to sleep while the moon and stars keep the black sky company, watching over the sleepy Earth below. While man may have gone to bed, our roads and cities and buildings and things are all still there, waiting for us when we wake up. The roadside here could be interpreted as dust, or even roadside trash being swept over the frozen water. The moon is safe because it is out of our reach; isn’t little fishing ponds, however, are not.
glowing in the blacklight
full moon at the window
Dianne Borsenik, A Solitary Leaf, 10
Dianne Borsenik also incorporates full moon in the window. I get the sense that moon in this one is some sort of parental figure, or supervisor of some sort, sneaking glances inside of windows and keeping an eye over what we’re doing. The only difference between a moon and chaperone is that the moon can’t snitch you out. We all have secrets and things that we keep to ourselves and don’t share with anything else, especially teenagers. It’s that age when you first start realizing that Mom and Dad won’t always be there to bail you out of things. You have to start making tough decisions and learning how to steer your own ship. The blacklight and poster in this one give me the sense that the room in question belongs to a teenage boy. At that age, it is also easy to get wrapped up in superficial things and desperately trying to fit it. We can lose sight of ourselves and the things that we personally find beautiful in an effort to gain acceptance from everyone around us. Some things may seem too dorky or uncool, so we don’t want to be associated with them. Another angle with this one could be that his poster is creating an artificial moonlight in his bedroom, making his own moon for himself in his sanctuary.
the nun begins her journey
with a backward glance
Peggy Lyles, To Hear the Rain, 20
Peggy Lyles has a knack for conveying a sense of finding beauty in the little things in her collections of works, with this one being no exception. Going along with the theme of the moon always watching over us, this one creates an interesting scene of a woman presumably leaving her life at a convent to start paving a new path for herself, but not without some doubt. We always hear people tell us to trust our gut and follow our hearts; but what if our guts and heart get confused? There are some things like love that we are told to just go with the flow, but that can be really hard to do. Life is so full of uncertainty and regrets that it can be difficult to break away from the familiar and leave it behind. The moon in this one described as being hazy, with I think translates into meaning that it isn’t giving much opinion on the matter. We can search high and low for the answers to all of life’s questions, and we’re never going to find them all. Sometimes you just have to make a decision going with what you know now and hope if works out for the best, and even the all knowing moon in the sky may not being able to always steer us in a clear direction. I’m hoping everything worked out for our former nun.
from an empty cup
the thin winter moon
Peggy Lyles, To Hear the Rain, 40
Lyles returns again to incorporate the moon in a haiku that embodies the spirit of the holidays right down to the bone. There is nothing more satisfying after an incredibly stressful month of exams, finals, projects, and chaos than snuggling up with a warm cup of tea on the couch and having absolutely nothing to do and no where to be. This one captures that lingering sense of calmness and relaxation left over from the empty cup. The description thin suggests that the moon is at a smaller stage in its cycle, hiding away apart of itself from our view. I picture the empty tea cup sitting on a kitchen table in the middle of the night, it’s owner already fast asleep in a warm bed with a skewered shadow of moonlight illuminating a section of the kitchen. Everything is in it’s place and everything seems to be okay, although it rarely ever is. The moon doesn’t necessarily create the most prominent imagine in this one, but it definitely adds to the atmosphere and tone.
the blue of the sky
right through it
Jim Kacian, Presents of Mind, n.p.
In this final example, Jim Kacian mixes it up and uses in the moon in the daylight. We always think of the moon only visible at night time and therefore always associate it with that time, but it is often faintly visible in the day as well. It’s almost as though the moon is sleeping in the sky. The image this haiku creates is absolutely stunning. I remember standing outside on a clear, frigid winter day in elementary school waiting for the firemen to give us the go ahead to go back inside into the heated building after a routine fire drill. We were all supposed to stay quiet and did as we were told, and I remember looking up at the crystal clear sky and being able to see the faint outline of the moon over the school. Sometimes the moon can show up in unexpected places. We just have to learn to see the beauty in that.
After all this analyzing and examples about moon showing up in haiku, what does it all mean? Why does it show up so many times in works and why do we care? In short, I think it’s partly because the moon is just like us. It goes through life cycles and it sometimes hidden by the clouds, out of sight. It may not look like anything that special on mere physically terms, but just the existence of it can be just as, if not more, breathtaking. While the moon is like us, it is also different from us. The moon is far out of our reach, and aside from a few astronaut footprints, has been untouched by man’s industrialization here on Earth. Whether or not we can see it, it’s always there. It’s something that connects all of us and will always be there watching. Sometimes, it watches us do things we’re not proud of or want to keep a secret. Sometimes it’s our only companion deep in the night when we can’t fall asleep or don’t want to. The moon has been around longer than we have been, and it’s still going strong. It can be mind boggling to think that something so big can look so small to us, small enough to reach out and grab with our fingertips. While we all see the same moon, we all see it a little differently. It can help us find beauty in the small things and provides a little bit of light even when the world is at its darkest.
Brooks, Randy M., & Gurga, Lee (Eds.). (1997). A Solitary Leaf. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books.
Kacian, Jim (2006). Presents of Mind; Haiku by Jim Kacian. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press.
Kacian, Jim, & Red Moon Editorial Staff (Eds.). The Red Moon Anthology 1997. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press.
Lyles, Peggy (2002). To Hear The Rain: Selected Haiku of Peggy Lyles. Decatur,
IL: Brooks Books.
Swist, Wally (2005). The Silence Between Us; Selected Haiku of Wally Swist. Decatur, IL: Brooks Books.
Ueda, Makoto (1982). The Master Haiku Poet; Matsuo Basho. Bunkyo-Ku, Tokyo: Kodansha International.