Lidonna Beer

Contemporary German Haiku:
A Reader Response Study

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Lidonna Beer


Contemporary German Haiku:
A Reader Response Study

German haiku writers seem to capture the essence of "being alone," much like Matsuo Basho would extol in his haiku. Many of the subjects in these haiku are observations by lone viewers, and several have messages of sorrow. Numerous German haiku include a reference to nature. The 5-7-5 pattern is closely observed in the German haiku community. They welcome the challenge and discipline of limited syllables.

Professor Horst Ludwig, who spoke at the Global Haiku Festival, says that when haiku was introduced to Germany, "the poetry had some friends, but these friends had quite a bit of trouble understanding its essence." I believe he is correct, because of some examples of German haiku he provided.

my entire glory is nothing
compared with this dewdrop
sparkling in the sun

—Arno Holz

Because of the way we have studied haiku based on reader response criticism, I do not think this is a good haiku. It tries to provide a central image, the dewdrop, but the poem is too "literary." The number of adjectives severely reduces the impact of the poem. Also, the topic of personal glory strays from the intent of the haiku—to be inclusive of the reader. We do not know what Holz’s previous opinion of himself was, nor should we concentrate on the feelings of the author. It would be a tough call between trying to re-write this haiku or just discarding it. I would offer my own variation, trying to retain the two elements, sun and dewdrop:

in the sun
this dewdrop
enlightens me

Yet I am not entirely satisfied with this haiku either. "Enlightens" still holds the connotations of human values forced upon a natural phenomenon. The author of the original haiku needs to employ "the light touch." A good example of the light touch is the following haiku.

when crows came
from somewhere, fogs
began to talk


Here the natural world is not left completely alone—the author still interprets the fog sound as "talk." However, the human feeling is not present. The author alters the environment enough to let us see the unique observation, to put ourselves into the moment where a fog seems to talk because of masked crows. The author did not call the fogs "eerie" or "heavy"—they are left to our reading. This haiku is more true to the Japanese tradition. It leaves the moment as an experience that can be relived by many people.

Another German haiku that I felt was over-the-top in its approach is as follows.

The farmer plows the field
Will harvest?

—Bertold Brecht

The image of the field is minimal. He uses the haiku as a way to phrase a question, rather than preserve a moment. The existential question makes us think about the farmer, as individual, verses the collective fate of death. An idea of reward is present, too, as it asks us to consider who will benefit from our hard work—ourselves, our inheritors, or those who steal the harvest. This is not the purpose of a haiku. I could propose a variation on this haiku, but it would not be anything close to the intent of the author. My haiku about a field and a farmer would be:

in the field
a farmer
wipes his brow

This haiku is flawed as well, because of its lack of momentous subject matter. It is an inconsequential moment, even if it does portray a single farmer and his toil. A haiku must give us something to consider, and it helps if it is something common to our own experience.

Among her twenty rouges
She looks for a full pot:
Turned to stone

—Rainer Maria Rilke

According to Professor Ludwig, "haiku does not create a subjective reality that needs to be explained to others." We take pleasure, as readers, if we can read a haiku and create a personal mental picture. A haiku that is approachable, no matter what language it was composed in, is successful. A woman preparing herself with makeup is an important and routine occurrence. Here, not everyone may know the reference to rouge pots, but I feel it is a better haiku than several other German-language haiku I have read.

I find that German haiku is not as good as I had expected. Perhaps I have found poor examples, but many of them seem to be complex. Part of this is in the translation, but it is also because of the approach of various writers. All of the haiku I have cited so far have come from different authors, and I have more to examine.

moon peeks through the clouds
the snow shines in the cherry tree
brighter than blossoms

—Imma von Bodmershof

Although it originated with a German author, this haiku has two key Japanese images for haiku. The moon on cherry tree has a rich history for Japan, but not so for America. Would Germany be able to appreciate this haiku? I cannot answer this, but it brings me to a question posed by Ludwig: "Is there a German haiku?" Is there something in a haiku which makes it distinctly cultural? I think so, but only in a limiting sense. If we call a haiku an "English language haiku" we are referring to the language it was written in. But if we call a haiku an "English haiku," aren’t we saying that the haiku holds more meaning for citizens of England? Can a haiku be American, without being exclusive of other cultures? I don’t think so. When you identify a haiku as Canadian, or German, or French, you are leaving it to full interpretation only by the people of those regions. A German-language haiku can be translated, and understood by others, although it retains a German style. The beauty and serenity modeled by this haiku gives the reader a sense of place. It does not infer emotions. This is a good haiku. I also enjoyed another haiku by the same author.

the old geese are moving
an old monk looks
through the barred window

—Imma von Bodmershof

The use of repetition, an old monk and old geese, creates an instant link despite the separation depicted in the haiku. An inside/outside juxtaposition lets us look at each situation. The monk has chosen his barred window, but he still looks to the outside, to those who have freedom. It does not make me feel sad, really, but it does strike me as a poignant moment because it allows for reflection on choices. It is a human quality to wonder "what if…" and religion, as represented by the monk, gives us answers about purpose.

only half-opened
still not deciphered—
scrolls of fern

—Conrad Miesen

I also liked this haiku, for its creative description of what an opening fern looks like. It avoids using words that would make it a metaphor or simile (i.e., "like a") and so it keeps the focus of haiku.

a wind gust shakes
its blossoms wave like dancing flames

lonely this house,
on the window, the rain

—Arno Holz

sound of a bell from far away
from a quiet forest
along dark paths

—Paul Ernst

lute, sing your song:
the wind shoos spring and blossoms.
the moon weeps in the reeds.

—Hans Kanzius

last winter moon
it pours cold and hoarfrost
into the chalices of the crocuses

—Margret Buerschaper


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors