Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Shannon Kroner

Shannon's Haiku

Profile on Harter



A Comparison of Penny Harter and Chiyo-ni:
Women Who Embraced Haiku Through Nature

Penny Harter and Chiyo-Ni share an inherent similarity in the style with which they write/wrote haiku. Harter demonstrates an appreciation for nature and all that the natural world encompasses. She has a heightened awareness of animals, insects, and even astronomy as they relate to nature and the intrinsic beauty of the planet. Chiyo-Ni, similarly, illustrates a "oneness with nature" in her haiku (Donegan and Ishibashi, 77). She very closely followed Basho’s theory that a "poet should make a faithful or honest sketch of nature" (Donegan and Ishibashi, 77).

Both Chiyo-Ni and Harter wrote many of their haiku as a result of being immersed in nature and as a result of their appreciation for their surroundings. For Harter this has most recently meant Santa Fe, New Mexico, and for Chiyo-Ni this was Japan. Chiyo-ni frequently wrote her haiku about the small things in nature, while Harter’s seem to range from the small to the very large. For Chiyo-ni "the most important thing to her was honoring the sacrdeness of everyday life" (Donnegan and Ishibashi, 85).

Furthermore, both Harter and Chiyo-Ni incorporate female imagery in their haiku work as well. Chiyo-ni wrote haiku that portrayed women as sensual and delicate and "all show a careful observation of the details of everyday life more often honored by women" (Donnegan and Ishibashi, 80). Harter’s female imagery, though not as prevalent as her nature and nighttime imagery, also seems to highlight the everyday nature of a woman’s life. Her haiku are not as sensual and delicate, however; they are more straightforward and natural.

evening rain—
I braid my hair
into the dark

Penny Harter
heron's nest

putting up my hair
no more—
my hands in the kotatsu

, p.208

~Penny Harter(

These haiku are a good match for a comparison of their female imagery, with emphasis on women’s hair. The image of the woman braiding her hair into the dark paints two pictures. I see her braiding her dark brown hair in the late evening before she goes to bed. She has just gotten out of the shower. She is braiding her hair until you can barely see the bottom of the braid because it is so dark in her room. The darkness of her hair and the darkness within the room begin to blend together until you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins (one image). There is also rhythm in Harter’s haiku; the rhythm of the rain compliments the rhythmic twisting of the woman’s hair. When someone braids strands of hair, it becomes patterned and natural after a few minutes. This makes the poem very calming and peaceful as the image of the braiding and the sound of the rain could almost put someone in a trance (second image). The sensory appeal in this haiku is wonderful. It incorporates the sound of the rain, the sight of the darkness, the feel of the hair (wet hair in my vision), and the smell of the hair as well. It seems like a woman’s hair always smells of flowers or some perfume-like scent.

Chiyo-Ni’s haiku presents a very different feeling through the context and imagery in her haiku. In contrast to Harter’s, the woman in Chiyo-ni’s haiku is letting her hair down, which is a surprise to the reader in actuality. The first line suggests that she is putting it up, but the second line clarifies that the woman will no longer put her hair up. There is a sense of freedom in the haiku. It is as if the woman feels trapped or constrained when her hair is up. Traditional images of Japanese women are those where their hair is in buns or wraps on top of their heads. As a result, this was my initial reaction. I would have never known that Chiyo-ni was actually referring to time period in which she shaved her head after becoming a nun. She no longer had to wear her hair up and worry about the frivolity of this female characteristic; she could now truly focus on and "fully live in the Way of Haikai" (Donegan and Ishibashi, 208).

There are a few contributing factors to the reasons why I prefer Harter’s haiku. The most basic justification is most likely the cultural differences. It is difficult to prefer one thing to another when it is hard to identify with it on some level. I can put myself into Harter’s haiku, but this is nearly impossible for me to do with Chiyo-ni’s haiku. Perhaps another reason is that I have background information relating to the context of Chiyo-ni’s haiku. Often, when critically responding to haiku, it is more natural for the critic to do so if he/she is only able to draw upon his/her own interpretations. I also feel that Harter’s haiku communicates more of a woman’s natural beauty. The image of a woman just out of the shower, braiding her hair is natural and esthetically pleasing. Again, this preference could be due to my cultural bias, and furthermore, knowing that Chiyo-ni is referencing her hairless period as a nun, I fail to sense the inherent beauty of this woman.

deepening into the sea
twilight sky

Penny Harter
Heron's Nest

green grass—
between, between the blades
the color of water

, p.105

~Penny Harter (

This haiku pair deserves comparison in their structure and in their imagery of nature. Harter’s haiku is much more spatial than Chiyo-ni’s. Hers encompasses the sea and the sky, while Chiyo-ni’s focuses on only blades of grass, which are miniscule in comparison to the sea and sky. Chiyo-ni’s haiku is a perfect example of how she liked to focus on the small things in nature. In this pair, I prefer Chiyo-ni’s haiku, and I think it is due to this very emphasis on the small things. I receive a much clearer image from her piece. I see a patch of very green grass, the kind of grass that has been nurtured by the spring rain and the early summer sun. It is thick and cool. It’s the kind you don’t mind sitting on in the summer. However, in this image, it is early morning. There is dew on the ground, and in between the intricate blades of grass, you can see the droplets of water. I really like the phrase "color of water". In reality, water is colorless, but by describing "clear" as a color, it gives the haiku much more strength. Color suggests richness, and as a result, Chiyo-ni’s image is more than just a wet patch of grass. You can actually see individual blades as if they were life size, covered in morning moisture.

Harter’s haiku contains powerful wording, however, I lose context right away when reading it. At first I asked myself, "What is deepening into the sea?" I finally realized that she meant the twilight sky. The placement of twilight sky in the third line is what confused me. My initial response was that there was some other tangible entity deepening into the sea and that the twilight sky was simply a backdrop. I was trying to think about the haiku too deeply. Maybe it is the immense visual scope of Harter’s haiku that causes me to prefer Chiyo-ni’s more specific focus. However, I also feel as though something is missing from Harter’s haiku. It might lend itself to more personal connections with readers if it provided more of a sense as to what differentiates this sea and twilight sky from any others.

The structures of these two haiku are also interesting. While both present nature imagery, they both also contain repetition of words. The main difference is that Harter repeats one of the most integral words in her haiku, where Chiyo-ni repeats one of the more insignificant words in her poem. I think this definitely affects the effectiveness of the haiku. In Harter’s, it makes her haiku more profound, but in Chiyo-ni it might take away from the crisp image of the blades of grass and the dew.

at dusk a cloud
of fireflies rises—
the Milky Way

Penny Harter
Shadow Play: Night Haiku, p. 18

only in the river
darkness flows:

, p.152

This pair of haiku is very similar in many ways. They both express the same magnitude of nature, and the imagery itself is similar, both with the use of darkness and fireflies. However, Harter’s haiku has a more natural flow with a more effective use of a break, in my opinion. "A cloud of fireflies" is a really beautiful image, especially at dusk. Dusk conjures a different feeling from the rest of the night. It does not have the deep darkness of midnight, and it does not have the coolness of the early morning darkness. It is a warm, sensitive atmosphere, and it is presented quite nicely in the haiku, as a background for the rising group of fireflies. I also like the image of the sky that I get. Dusk can be so interesting because, while it can feel as though it is still partially daytime, the stars and the moon begin to show. It is this quality that paints such a clear image of the Milky Way in this haiku. I picture the cloud of fireflies rising up toward the sky, as though they are headed for the Milky Way. This haiku is only one of Harter’s many haiku that incorporate nature and nighttime into her imagery.

Chiyo-ni’s haiku is very similar in its content. The darkness is very poignant within the river, and you can see a very clear image of the intense light coming from the fireflies, as they are the only source of light above the river. I do enjoy the imagery in Chiyo-ni’s haiku, because there is a contrast between the river and the fireflies. The river is portrayed as very dark, because the fireflies are hovering over it lighting up the night. The play on the word "flows" also enhances the imagery. Typically, "flows" would be used in reference to the river, but here it is referring to the darkness within the river. This surprise in meaning contributes to the depth of the darkness in the poem. I think the abruptness of the third line in Chiyo-ni’s piece causes the reader to lose the image too quickly that is painted elaborately in the first two lines. Not only is it an abrupt ending, but it also follows a very distinct break. This combination interrupts the flow I felt from the first two lines.

in from the cold—
only my hands
to warm my hands

Penny Harter
Global Haiku, p.59

on her day off
the prostitute wakes up alone—
the night’s chill

, p.167

The connection between these two haiku is not as apparent as the previous three. However, this is an excellent match for critical comparison, and I truly cannot choose which one I prefer. Chiyo-ni’s haiku is stronger in its presentation of female imagery, although it does have an element of nature with "the night’s chill." I think the use of the phrases "day off" and "the night’s chill" is interesting. A prostitute’s job certainly takes place at night, so her "day off" would be a night in reality. The double meaning of "day" creates a sort of play on words that I found intriguing. However, because of the cultural differences, prostitutes in Chiyo-ni’s day may have operated during the day, thereby negating the play on words perspective. This haiku does not warrant much interpretation. It is a straightforward image that is very perceptive. It captures the essence of a prostitute’s profession and conveys the icy feeling of loneliness and darkness such a career breeds.

Harter’s haiku also conveys loneliness, and although it is not explicitly stated if the person in the haiku is a woman or a man, it can be assumed that it is the author who is within the poem. If placed in the context of prostitution, Harter’s poem is very similar, in feeling and emotion, to Chiyo-ni’s. This is a somber haiku that makes the reader feel sorry for the author, as she has no one to warm her hands from the cold. The cold that inflicts bare hands is often very bitter and difficult to get rid of. You feel an increased sense of pity for the author because she is both alone and physically cold. These two haiku could even be placed together to form a renga, because they are linked, yet separate, distinct images.

The haiku of Penny Harter and Chiyo-ni share many similarities in content, structure, and imagery. One of the biggest differences that can hinder the critical comparison of their haiku are the cultural variations that span space and time between Chiyo-ni’s life and country and Harter’s work today in America. While Chiyo-ni may write about an insect, plant, or setting that is very sacred in nature to her culture, Harter may write about the very same images, but only because she experienced them in her day-to-day life.

This comparison has demonstrated that similarities between two artists may really be the result of unalterable differences. This raises interesting questions. Is the work of Chiyo-ni and Harter similar because they are both women? Or is it because they simply draw from the same type of influences? Haiku definitely meant something different in the days of Chiyo-ni. Basho’s ways and work were the largest influences behind haiku writing.

Today, any number of factors can influence the writing of a haiku author. It is very interesting to think that perhaps the nature of haiku really has not changed much over the centuries. If Harter and Chiyo-ni share many similarities, it may not be far-fetched to presume that haiku is not that different from its early days in Japan. Haiku obviously changes as the times change, but perhaps at the core it has remained constant.

Both Harter and Chiyo-ni place much emphasis on nature, although the scope of nature differs in their individual haiku. Likewise, they share commonalities in the presentation of their haiku that contain female imagery. Both portray women in everyday life, expressing the strong emotions they feel through very few words. Thought it can be easy to distinguish which haiku I like out of a pair, it is much more difficult to determine whose work, collectively, strikes me and is more to my liking. I thoroughly enjoy both Penny Harter’s and Chiyo-ni’s haiku. To me, they represent nonconformity, yet through their work, they also blend beautifully with the culture they illustrate through their haiku.

—Shannon Kroner

©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors