Humour in Haiku: A Critical Analysis
by Colin Stewart Jones
What may be funny to one person may not be funny to the next. It would be foolish to try to narrowly define such a broad subject area with one simple definition, but here goes anyway: it’s funny if it makes you laugh! The masthead of Haijinx Journal boldly declares that it is ‘putting the hai back in haiku’—hai, meaning humorous or joke—but what is humour in haiku, and has it ever been there? The pun is perhaps the simplest form of wordplay and yet also the most disdained. Generally speaking, people seem to fall into two categories when it comes to wordplay: they either totally embrace it; or reject it in all of its forms, mainly because of the negativity that has come to be associated with punning. Yet, as we will see, wordplay is a device that has often been adopted in haiku.
For an example of brilliant use of wordplay let us firstly look at Bashō’s most famous poem:
at the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water 1
Bashō turns everything we think we know on its head with this poem. We know it is the action of the frog that disperses the water to make the sound and not the frog entering into the sound; yet something immediately registers and one instinctively understands the poem. Even though Bashō is saying the opposite of what is true in the natural order of things, his quirky reversal of the laws of cause and effect, which is absurd in the truest sense of the word, is humourous.
In ‘The Narrow Road To The Interior’ Bashō quotes Du Fu in these final lines of prose before writing his ‘summer grasses’ haiku.
‘Selecting his royal retainers, Yoshitsune fortified himself in the castle, but his glory quickly turned to grass.’
Bashō seemingly repeats the imagery:
summer grasses –
the traces of dreams
of ancient warriors 2
Dreams may also be translated as ambition. There are also many legends surrounding Yoshitsune and his death or his escape. In any case there are multiple readings. There is a pun with some translations with the word ‘remains’, i.e. bodies. One is also struck, however, by the inclusion of the word ‘great’. On further examination the haiku maybe a veiled indictment and rather than feeling any sadness for the dead is Bashō commenting on their defeated ambition? The Japanese do have many expressions where the real meaning is not quite what is said; nin-mari for example. This haiku seems like elegiac poetry yet an alternative reading may be that war is futile when something as simple as grass can cover the great and the noble. Buddhist teaching on the three marks of existence state: that the world is transient, sanbōin; attachment to the world causes suffering, ku; and all reality is emptiness of self nature, kū. This is the three-part primer for all Bashō’s haiku. Whatever reading you choose ‘summer grasses’ is more ku than hai. Bashō was not always so subtle and resorted to plain sarcasm when he described his imitators as melons.
Buson also mocks in a veiled fashion:
nobly, the great priest
deposits his daily stool
in bleak winter fields. 3
Buson is so deadpan in his rendering of the scene that even the translator, Sam Hamill, fails to see it. He notes that Buson is ‘reminding his audience that nobility has nothing whatever to do with palaces and embroidered robes, but true nobility is obtainable in every human endeavour.’ 4 This may seem the case to Hamill. The word nobly, however, in conjunction with human toilet actions should immediately alert the reader that there is more going on here than simple description of a scene. ‘Nobly’ sets this poem up so perfectly and allows one to instantly see the irony and impossibility of the situation: try as he might, the great priest cannot be noble while being observed doing something as common as his toilet. One can almost hear Buson’s irreverent laughter. The fact that it is a bleak winter day just makes the priest’s attempts at being noble all the more ridiculous, but completes the poem. No amount of pomp can disguise the fact that even the high and mighty are just the same as common people because they must also shit every day.
Plum blossoms in bloom,
in a Kitano teahouse,
the master of sumo 5
In the above by Buson, we see the delicateness of plum blossoms in bloom, symbolising the freshness of youth, juxtaposed with the strength of the old wrestler. The master of a sumo wrestling stable is a retired wrestler and would have been a great wrestler in his prime. The image of a presumably very large man sipping his tea in a teahouse, which was usually very small, is a funny one. The job of the master is, of course, to bring blossoming talent to fruition. Though the fruit is never mentioned, the reader’s mind is also projected ahead of time to envisage the plum fruit, and by extension the fat and full, purple face of the master wrestler.
If there is one word that best describes Issa’s poetry, it is probably whimsical.
my noontime nap
disrupted by voices
singing rice-planting songs 6
The humour in Issa’s haiku is more obvious than either Bashō or Buson. Issa is seemingly more concerned with his rest, and how dare they who sing, through the necessity of planting, wake him. However, one also sees a tongue firmly planted in Issa’s cheek. Part of Issa’s charm is that he seems not to care what other people think of him as he wanders along observing or talking to creatures:
Under the evening moon
The snail Is stripped
to the waist. 7
In this haiku, Issa cleverly shows us juxtaposition without directly telling it. We see the shell juxtaposed with the moon as the snail extends outwards. The image of someone stripped to the waist usually implies work or action – maybe even love-making. The humour of the haiku is contained in the absurd idea of a snail being stripped to the waist and ready for action ... but the ‘action’ is at a snail’s pace.
The poem below by Jack Kerouac is an excellent example of how several layers of humour can be employed in the one haiku:
In my medicine cabinet,
The winter fly
Has died of old age. 8
Due to an accidental incarceration in Kerouac’s medicine cabinet, a fly manages to survive into the Winter. Even though surrounded by medicine, the fly does eventually die and one realises that Kerouac has been in good health because he did not need to visit his medicine cabinet throughout the Winter. The fly’s incarceration in the cabinet had ensured a lengthy extension to the its life but Kerouac’s good health, paradoxically and simultaneously, eventually caused its death. In the final irony the dead fly is only discovered when Kerouac needs to take some medicine; if only he had been unwell sooner the fly may have survived.
The following haiku, by Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, breaks what some modern writes may consider to be “rules”: firstly, it has a title, albeit a date; and secondly, it follows a 575 metre. It is worth mentioning here that there are many who still advocate a strict metre. The Scottish poet, Norman McCaig, used to say of poems that did not follow the syllabic count “they are not haiku—they’re just wee poems”.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick. 9
To many readers this haiku may not seem funny at all but, in fact, it is quite the opposite. On first reading we notice Heaney now has to face his old age with his father’s stick. One presumes his father has died and the stick has been passed on to him. There is a wonderfully slow sense of progression and continuity as we go from generation to generation with the stick being handed down. One must be very careful with 575 haiku to avoid padding: notice the “but” at the beginning of line two, some may ask if it is really needed to convey the message of the poem. Forget about the metre for a moment and consider the haiku without ‘but’:
I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.
Is it not just simply a haiku about cycles of death and ageing now, as I have outlined above—with the pathos being clearly evident. Heaney is cleverly playing with the casual reader and while he is happy if you think this, he certainly wants people to look further. Look again at the complete poem and ask why did Heaney include ‘but’? Do you hear the unvoiced laugh and the devil-may-care tone of Heaney before he has even ventured outside?
But I face the ice this year
With my Father’s stick.
We could add more lines:
He got through it.
And so will I.
Though modern writers of haiku seem to mainly look for juxtaposition of concrete images, it could be argued that, they should also be trying to be more creative with their word choice and usage to highlight any humour in a scene. Whether one likes the idea or not, the basis of all poetry is wordplay; and a joke must also depend on wordplay to deliver its message. Of those who write humorous haiku today many seem to take Issa’s questions to creatures as their reference point. I have done this myself:
was it you
you little worm? 10
What else can one do when drunk and confronted with the dreaded empty bottle but blame someone else. The Mescal worm was promptly eaten and, therefore, lost the argument; but did add much needed protein to my diet.
In the following example Alan D. Taylor also uses the questioning technique to humorous effect:
wasp in a jar—
is there a point
to your anger? 11
While this is essentially a pun, it is a very good one, and seems like a valid question to ask. Likewise, Jeff Winke points out the pointless and has keen sense for the absurd with his haiku:
her training bra
with nothing to train:
bra in training 12
Is it the bra that is in training for when it will be needed to be a training bra? By using clever wordplay and repetition of the same imagery, Winke, poses this unstated question which also ultimately asks; “what’s the point?” Sometimes the joke is much funnier if it takes a while for you to understand its subtleties.
outside the pub
faces the wind 13
There is the obvious and mildly amusing allusion to being drunk and “three sheets to the wind” in Chuck Brickley’s haiku. However, it also hints at other funny possibilities. Sailors seldom face the wind because it is difficult to make headway. One assumes he is listing badly. There is also a very real possibility his bladder is full and he needs to piss. Any sober sailor would know of the danger of facing the wind in that situation.
An objective writer would never disregard any device at his disposal which is capable of rendering a scene with the most precision to achieve the desired effect. Poets are not meant to be reporters who simply ‘tell it like it is’ but, rather, by careful observation and inventiveness with words, they should be capable of spotting life’s ironies and elevate the seemingly ordinary into something special. It takes great wit to play with words, and laughter is also a special gift which should be cultivated. From the sublime to the ridiculous, humour in its many forms has always been, and still is, present in haiku. If the moment requires humour, then as writers, should we not keep on putting the hai with the ku.
Colin Stewart Jones
First published ‘Haiku Matters’ Notes from the Gean, volume 3: Issue 4 March 2012
- Trans; Sam Hamill, The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa and Other Poets,
(Shambala, Boston 2000) p.6
- Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900 edited by Haruo Shirane, (Columbia University Press 2004) p.221
- The Sound of Water ibid, p.55
- ibid, translators introduction, p.xii
- ibid, p.66
- ibid p.91
- Peter Washington, ed, Haiku, (Everyman, New York, 2003) p.69
- ibid p.237
- Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things, (Faber and Faber London, 1991) p.20
- Colin Stewart Jones, A Seal Snorts out the Moon, (Cauliay, Aberdeen, 2007) p. 56
subsequently published in: New Resonance 7, Red Moon Press, (Winchester, USA, 2011)
- Alan D Taylor, first published in: Clouds Peak #1, July 2006, online
- Jeff Winke, Frogpond 1999, XXII:i, HSA publications, p.47
- Chuck Brickley, The Haiku Anthology, 3rd Edition, Cor Van Den Heuval Ed (WW Norton & Co, London, 1999)
A Seal Snorts out the Moon, Colin Stewart Jones (Cauliay, Aberdeen, 2007)
Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900 edited by Haruo Shirane, (Columbia University Press 2004)
Haiku, Peter Washington, ed., (Everyman, New York, 2003)
Seeing Things, Seamus Heaney, (Faber and Faber London, 1991)
The Haiku Anthology, 3rd Edition, Cor Van Den Heuval Ed (WW Norton & Co, London, 1999)
The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa and Other Poets,Trans; Sam Hamill (Shambala, Boston 2000)
clouds peak #1, online journal 2006 (no longer available online)
Frogpond, XXII:i, HSA Publications (USA, 1999)