LYRIC COMPANION Basho “Composed on Horseback”

The roadside hibiscus has been eaten by my horse.

translated by Hiroaki Sato, ON HAIKU (New Directions, 2018), p. 42.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The best definition of the traditional haiku I’ve seen says that it is a one-line poem with two main descriptive elements that can’t be divided into lines. HIROAKI SATO On Haiku, p. 67.

The anglophone public resist Sato’s definition of haiku, which is based on Japanese practice. The history of Haiku in English translation has been until now dominated by the pioneering work of scholars and poets steeped in the sounds of English verse. The 5-7-5 convention recuts the traditional unit of English verse but retains its rhythms and syntax. Sato, by far the most authoritative translator of Japanese poetry into English, argues for a one-line poem with this complication: that it resist being divided into lines. That is, the very essence of haiku is a unity of thought. Since it comprises “two main descriptive elements,” the principle of unity is not … obvious? Is this where Zen creeps into the conversation?

I find the hibiscus poem cited above fun to read. I think it’s a good poem, not because it satisfies Sato’s definition but because it satisfies my take on the lyric narrative. Apparently these two definitions are complementary in my mind’s eye. The roadside hibiscus is clearly THERE (roadside adds the crucial touch of contingency). The predicate HAS BEEN EATEN satisfies the narrative’s need for opening the aspectual range of the nature of hibiscus (it is good to eat, which reveals its place in at least one scheme of things, one which the reader should find interesting in several senses).

The picture is completed by the last bit—by my horse. Picaresque? Realism? Zen “shit happens”? What’s the point? But in our study of the lyric narrative the point is MORE than the completion of the thought. The poem’s whole is beyond the individual reader’s sense of the whole. The poem packs an extra, excessive punch. That energy fuses the syntactic bits into a radiant whole beyond the subject/object divide.

I’m spending today rereading Geoffrey Hill’s final critical writing as preserved in COLLECTED CRITICAL WRITINGS. I think his argument about “to get within the judgment the condition of the judgment” is really important. It speaks to the mindfulness of the poem (and allows me to give that battered dulled word some edge). Basho’s hibiscus poem resists easy reduction to principle or sentiment. Rather it honors what is beyond our mind’s circuitry. Horses and hibiscus get along in ways we can’t ever quite grasp. My horse judges that THIS hibiscus would make a good snack on the journey. We often forget about our horse’s horsy needs. My horse makes a judgment, Basho’s poem supplies the condition of the judgment, which I call “the finite other.”

So, despite the controversy about lineation, if you ask me, this haiku is a good poem.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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