Chrysanthemums and Black Battleships: Haiku and Social Engagement

A monk on board

how quietly

the black battleship leaves

The thunder is young

moving in her womb

already an orphan

These are two haiku of Saito Sanki (1900-1962) who was one of the greatest of twentieth century haiku poets. Much of his early life was spent in poverty, scraping a living as a dental technician. He was one of that heroic minority of haiku poets (and Zen Buddhists, like Santoka Taneda ) who spoke out against Japanese imperial aggression. The police considered such avant-garde haijin a threat to national security and locked him up, only releasing him on condition that he didn’t write any more haiku. The third poem above refers to the long hunger years after the Second World War, but could stand for the experience of the common people anywhere during the Terrible Twentieth Century.

Classic haiku are inspired by a “haiku moment” of direct and authentic experience, the fruit of a cultivated alertness. They aim for simplicity, brevity, understatement and concrete imagery, and eschew simile, explicit metaphor, heavy symbolism, philosophising, explanation and abstraction. Instead, the best haiku of social engagement display the characteristic haiku virtues of irony, ambiguity and paradox. And at the least they deploy effective imagery to tell just how it is. They are the antithesis of the black-and-white ideology and polarisation typical of much social engagement, the “subjective contamination” described by George Orwell as “a sort of masturbatory fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matters” (1). In their own modest way, socially engaged haiku embody the bodhisattva ideal of a clear-eyed acceptance of the rumpled reality of our world. And from this liberation from self-serving distortion there springs the compassion and energy to try to make it a better place.

Traditionally haiku are confined to nature subjects, but almost from the beginning they also concerned themselves with human frailties and follies, as with this contrasting pair by two of the greatest haijin, Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) respectively.

The ends of the warriors’ bows

as they go, brushing

the dew

How piteous --

beneath the helmet

a cricket

The atrocious civil war in Yugoslavia produced haiku that just tell how it was, amidst the nationalistic rhetoric and bombast. These are from the Croat poet Mirko Vidovic:

Hush, for the

tramp of cicadas

across the drum

Doll’s eyes

blown out by a mine

replaced with sweets

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, a “haiku moment” from Ty Hadman:

Waiting in ambush

our hands touch as he hands me

an extra grenade

And a woman’s experience ? Here is Karen Sohne’s, with characteristic haiku understatement:

The men on both sides

have taken

my armrests

There is also institutional suffering, compassion and violence, as in these two examples from Sean O’Connor and Honour Thomasin Stedman:

He attacks me

my raised arms blocking punches

our eyes connect

Above this floor

screams and bangs from the locked ward

how near we all are

The following are variously about run-down industrial areas and urban threat and deprivation. Peter Finch writes from the South Wales valleys, and Ruth Yarrow (on the right) from the American rust belt:

Cherry blossom on the coal shed

kid inside

killing a cat

Last street light

my shadow lunges on

into the dark

And here are two very different encounters with city poverty, the first, from Tom Tico, observing it, and the second, from Jim Norton (a Shambhala practitioner, who had lodgings in run-down inner-city Dublin), appreciating it:

In predawn silence

as I walk beside the park

A cough from the bushes

Even the plates rented

but the glazed persimmons --

ah !

Ignoring romanticism and fanaticism socially aware haiku often have a dry irony about them. Here are two of my own from Wales, where flags and language can be hot issues (“Cymru Rhydd” – “Free Wales”):

Battered bus shelter

in runny letters


So calm a day –

whose flag

hangs from the pole ?

Today the ancient haiku ideal of being at one with nature takes on a more urgent significance. “Perhaps we can learn to think like a cricket, a rainforest, a river or a coral reef,” writes Patricia Donegan. “This is the heart of deep ecology. The practice of writing haiku is a way of thinking and being in nature – a deep way to practice deep ecology” (2). She quotes Seishi Yamaguchi:

On the winter river

a sheet of newspaper

floats open

Of the many ecological paradoxes and follies to be observed, here are two about renewable and unrenewable energy, the former my own and the one on the right by Marco Fraticelli:

Beside the roaring torrent

chattering in its little hut

his diesel generator

As she fills my tank

we chat

about endangered species

Finally, what of the life of the activist, with its own conflicts and ironies ? Here is my own take:

"Green Activist"

standing upright

in the waste bin

Out of the brightly lit house

off to the brightly lit meeting

the moon at the gate

The haibun is an altogether more ambitious member of the haiku family, the best known example being The Narrow Road to the Deep North of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694). Extinct in Japan, the haibun is now evolving in the West as an exciting new literary form. Here haiku interact with a more – or less –poetic prose composed in the haiku tradition.

“A Wind from the Thames” is about that million-strong London demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. I found it a playful and open-hearted experience, as in the first haiku. And yet at the same time nothing could have been more serious and determined, as expressed in the mysterious sense of exultation in the concluding paragraph, and in the everyday conventions of control, still futilely signalling to us, but engulfed and ignored in that great flood of protest. And also on that day I delighted in the tolerance, eccentricity and genial good humour which came in so many different varieties. If that’s what “Britishness” is about then I’ll happily settle for it.

Network of Engaged Buddhists at protest march

A Wind from the Thames

Poets for Peace

our "p"s and "o"s hollowed out

to let the wind blow through

Every time I edge closer to chat with my fellow banner bearer our message above gets convoluted. And so a couple of spare poets have been inserted to hyphenate us. We sway to a rumba band behind, which is itself getting entangled with Oxfordshire Pagans against the War. In front we walk in the shadow of a huge anonymous banner with spidery black lettering: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters.

Dykes against Blair, ranged on top of a bus shelter, give us a rousing cheer. And we are joined by an ancient bearing a home-made placard: Old European. Another is waving on the end of his walking stick a papier-maché head of President Bush. The head nods genially to the crowd.

The march winds for several miles. From time to time, and for no apparent reason, there passes along it, like a gust of wind sweeping through grass, a convulsion of exultant sound, of shouts, horns and whistles.

Traffic lights

engulfed in a river of peace

green – amber – red – green – amber…

An ardent Francophile, I am deeply moved by the recent history of the country, and enjoy hanging out in the more obscure places where there is still plenty of it about. My “Love and War in the Berry” invokes the folie de grandeur of France’s episodic “war” which stretched from 1870 to 1945, embracing three successive wars with Germany in a to and fro of karmic retribution. In most of my haibun reality has an elusive quality; things are never quite what they seem. And past and present recall the Ch’an koan “There is no time; what is memory ?” In the spirit of haiku, there is space enough for the play of the reader’s imagination. And, following the haiku dictum of “Show – don’t Tell”, feelings and ideas are conveyed for the most part through the imagery.

The piece opens with dreamlike evocations of the long passing of time, of a romantic nostalgia – a lost generation of the marching dead. Even at breakfast next morning, history hangs heavy in the air, though it livens up in the bar that evening. And then the story is spelt out, in a granite memorial in the village square, and in stubborn young rams, butting head to head.

Love and War in the Berry

A broken sundial

in a drift of leaves

Propped on the bolster, I read myself to sleep with Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, with its dreamy nostalgia for a lost generation.

Chiming the long night through

ancient clocks

each keeping its own time

And then I hear their lusty singing, growing nearer.

Aupres de ma blonde

il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon

The marching dead

crunching gravel

under a scudding moon

I tear myself from the bed and fling open the shutters. A silent night, with the empty road stretching away between the two lines of poplars.

Pensively stirring my morning bowl of coffee in a room of shadows. Winter light through velvet drapes. Here in a rundown manoir, in the ancient province of Berry, the day hangs heavy in the air. On the walls are the ancestors – royalists, clericals, pétainistes to a man. The last, a photograph of a colonel of some regiment of the line: tight collar, waxed moustache, he gives nothing away. Neither does his widow, my landlady, when she comes in to clear away my breakfast things. “Monsieur is not the first to sleep in that bed and dream that dream.”

Bar – Tabac – Alimentation. That evening I drink with the survivors of war – mutilés de guerre. And listen to old stories – like the uhlans, the Prussian light cavalry who spread terror through the French countryside of 1870. A fly-blown Marshal Foch looks down from above the zinc bar, through the clouds of tobacco smoke.

The Clack!

on slate

of the winning domino

Glad of the company of “a fellow intellectual” the school teacher treats me to an anise and tells me the story. The colonel’s regiment was involved in the mutinies in the trenches in 1917. Every tenth man was court-martialled and shot. Again the officers blew their whistles. And their surviving comrades went over the top, crying ba ! ba ! like sheep to the slaughter. Three quarters of the men of this commune were butchered. In the village square a stone faced Marianne proclaims MORT POUR LA PATRIE !. *

Pale lichens spread

forgotten names

chiselled in the granite

The colonel was one of those who came back, only to die a broken man some years later. His wife was rumoured to have had a lover who fell at Verdun – together with some 800,000 other lovers there, French and German.

Butting skull to skull

yearling lambs

penned for slaughter

* Marianne – female figure representing patriotism

Socially engaged Buddhism is now well established in both Asia and the West. To its substantial literature socially engaged haiku and haibun do have something unique to contribute. Of some concern, however, is the apparent lack of interest of Western Buddhist poets in classic haiku and haibun. These are, I believe, an important and neglected resource. A group of British Buddhists who follow the Way of haiku have joined together in a Haiku Sangha, and would welcome contacts with mainstream Buddhist poets. Our website, which is still under development, is


(1) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1968, v.3,pp293-299.

(2) “Haiku and the Ecocastrophie” in Dharmagaia: a Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner, Parallax Press, 1990, pp197-207.

First published in 'Urthona: Journal of Buddhism & the Arts'