he two word phrase "wabi sabi"
originated in the Japanese language but has made its way into English largely
because English lacks an adequate equivalent.
Even in Japanese the exact meaning of the phrase is difficult to pin down.
It is first and foremost a beauty seen in aged or worn objects; objects that
contain deep patterns, patina, character, or qualities of authentic individuality.
This article presents examples of haiku that exhibit wabi sabi or focus on
a wabi sabi subject. The commentary that accompanies each poem discusses the
images the poet chose, what the poet left out, what is implied, and what techniques
contribute to the success of the poem.
Except for the first poem from the Master Poet Basho, all other haiku are
used by permission. All rights are reserved and none of these poems may be
reproduced without the author's permission.
When a haijin (a writer of haiku) writes a haiku about something wabi sabi
she will often attempt to capture both its transient beauty AND the abiding
qualities within the beauty, what haiku masters in years past called, Fueki
. Such haiku
stimulate feelings of favorable melancholy. The most successful haiku of this
type produce a clarity of perception in which the reader sees the subject
of the haiku for what it is. There is a release of any desire to repair or
arrest the effects of time, experience, or age. Everything is just right the
way it is, defects and all.
Below are 9 examples of haiku that succeed in communicating wabi sabi or which
use wabi sabi elements to suggest Yugen or Karumi. You may want to scroll
down and read all the haiku in the blue boxes first, before reading the accompanying
commentary. See if you can identify a common quality being expressed in these
poems. Then, if you wish, return and read the commentary.
the morning’s snow
I can chew dried salmon
This haiku by Basho* reveals several important techniques that help capture
wabi sabi in a poem.
First it presents two simple images without subjective interpretation. This
makes the meaning of the poem satisfyingly ambiguous. Is Basho saying that
because of the snow he can not go out and be with friends and must eat a cold
meal at home alone? Or is he saying that because of the snow, he "gets"
to stay home and enjoy an unhurried meal by himself? Or is he simply looking
out on the snow while he eats his morning meal thankful that he can still
chew? Or is he noting the time he takes to savour the view by coupling the
image with a second image of a "long slow chew"?
Secondly, the images presented in the poem are humble and common. They have
a wabi quality. Thirdly the word "alone" is crucial to the success of the
poem, because it points to the significance of the humble images. This word
"colors" the images and is the sabi element.
xxxx- Matt Morden
This haiku, which appeared in Canada pawEprint #63, is a good contemporary example
of a haiku that exhibits wabi sabi. Both the thunderstorm and the chalk lettering
are transient, each lasting for less than a day. The lovely echo of a transient
storm washing away a transient sign is further highlighted by the sign itself,
a special that is only offered on one night. This reverberation, like the thunder
itself, continues in the image of meals half-eaten, conversations in progress,
all against the backdrop of a darkening sky. A simple image filled with deep
sounds and resonance.
xxxxxxfainter and fainter
xxxup church steps
xxxxxxxxx- Michael Dudley
This haiku by
Michael Dudley has a clear sense of impermanence contrasted against the relative
permanence of the church.
The steady chronological progression in the first two lines is light and ephemeral.
The eyes move upward, searching for the object that grows fainter. Then the
last line restores an earthy reality, the word "damp" especially
evokes smells and that memory of being inside a rain coat. Someone or several
people have passed into the church where they found, perhaps incidentally,
shelter and dryness. There is, if the image is pushed a little further, an
echo that inside the church the reality of the wet footsteps fades away. It
harkens back to a time when the inner sanctuary was holy, higher, and hallowed.
Or conversely it suggests that when we leave the street for the church, we
leave our footprints, or individuality, behind.
Regardless of the interpretation a reader makes, the image itself is beautiful.
Are you drawn to footprints? Do you enjoy seeing them in snow or sand? They
reveal others, provide evidence that we are not alone, show where someone
has gone. If they are your footprints, seeing them authenticates your existence,
your movement through time and space, your journey across the days.
How would the poem have been different had Mr. Dudley written "stone"
instead of "church?" Fading footprints on church steps elicit for
me a deep emotional resonance, hinting at a deeper meaning. By contrasting
impermanence and the recurring tendencies of human behavior this poem leads
the reader to a sense of Yugen,
a deep nameless
mystery filled with quiet longing.
lambs inside the barn
inside the ewes
This masterful haiku by Harriot West is enjoyable on several levels not least
of which is the twist in perception created by the last line.
The second, less immediate enjoyment, comes from the deep emotional satisfaction
delivered shortly after the twist in perception. It is as if our minds have
been pregnant, waiting for this image to come along and birth a new awareness.
But with the awareness comes a deep longing for something lost, some elemental
connection with nature that we seem never to maintain.
The full extent of what is going on here is difficult to describe. The drifting
snow suggests a cold winter storm and the barn glows warmly against the storm
as a refuge created by humans for tender young animals. Then, with the entry
into the very body of the mother sheep we begin a spiral out of sight and out
of easy explanation.
In this image we have a scene that reveals a key cycle of nature and the deep
mystery of nurture, the way human structures and sheep biology care for the
young. We are left with questions about the ultimate fate of the lambs, the
ultimate effectiveness of barns against the storm, and the curious attraction
we have to animals that reflect both our affection and our hunger.
The tingling feeling produced by this haiku is also Yugen
and the combination of generations of animals and the presence of animal husbandry
combine to reveal wabi sabi.
the hush of a concert hall
between each note
I realized while assembling these haiku that this is the third poem with snow
in it. Curiously the haiku tradition recognizes that certain images have universal
meaning, and perhaps snow lends itself to yugen
Some art historians have suggested that yugen in Japanese culture is the highest
goal of an artist, a goal in which the suggestion of deep meaning is made by
In order for this technique to work, scholars suggest, there must be a homogeneous
culture which sees objects and experiences through the same lens. To a degree
I believe this to be true. In my study of different world literatures I have
often puzzled over phrases and images that seem to hold great importance to
the writer but which escape me because of my ignorance of the culture or religion,
or literary tradition. In this I have found great worth in commentaries which
provide the missing details that allow me to see what knowledge the writer requires
in his or her reader.
So, is snow universally understood to hint at a deep mystery in life? In this
poem Michele Root-Bernstein connects the falling of snow with the generally
un-observed attention of a listening audience.
Two things happen for me reading this poem. First I remember several walks with
my wife during snowfalls. There was on those occasions a hush imposed by the
snow itself. Sounds were softened by the soft flakes.
Secondly I remember sitting in a concert hall in the seconds following the end
of a powerful performance, that instant between the end of the last note and
the beginning of thunderous applause. That millisecond of silence has always
impressed me, like an extended pause between heart beats. In it I remember a
Roshi's admonitions when plied by a student with questions about Zen. The Roshi's
clearly enunciated answer held such authority: "Attention. Attention. Attention."
Here we see that attention indirectly in the rapture of a silent audience.
But there is more. Deep within this experience of both falling snow and an attentive
audience is an interesting contrast. Snow, while it is falling, limits a person's
ability to see while at the same time draws out that person's attention towards
the beauty. The same is true of a powerful piece of music. While listening to
it, a person is both lost in the experience, and highly focused on listening.
Yet Ms. Root-Bernstein here is not comparing falling snow with music, but the
hush of falling snow with the hush of an audience listening to music. The contrast?
falling snow blocks sound and in its silence makes the experience profound,
whereas the hush of the audience allows the music to reach its full power. Two
hushes, one the cause of wonder, the other the result of it.
wings aglow -
gulls rising above
xxxx- Eric Houck Jr.
This poem by Eric Houck Jr. contains wabi sabi elements; the humble gull and
the downright unattractive garbage, but we see these commonplace objects in
a new light, figuratively and literally, because of the first line. Why are
the gulls wings aglow? Perhaps because they are rising into sunlight, or perhaps
because they are white objects in an otherwise gray surrounding. Whatever the
case we see these "rats of the air" differently.
This poem contains a lightness itself, no razor sharp preaching on the virtue
of the gull, no condemning diatribe on the polluting of our environment, but
instead a rising above both in the recognition of the presence of the creatures
Yesterday while on a walk with my son we observed two herring gulls alight on
a lamp pole. They seemed to be a pair and one stuck out its neck and emitted
the common and recognizable call gulls everywhere make. I thought of Mr. Houck's
haiku and watched as the two birds leapt into the air and soared over us. Looking
up at these birds I was struck by their clean appearance, the sharp line between
the white feathers and gray ones. Their bodies, when they glide, are smooth
and elegant, heads pivoting on otherwise plane-rigid bodies. I was charged with
a subtle joy, not overwhelming, but hopeful.
Mr. Houck's poem is an excellent example of a haiku that contains karumi
the quality Basho considered to be the hallmark of his mature style.
rumors of war
up into a darkening sky
— a child's newsprint kite
xxxx- Angelee Deodhar
Another example of a haiku that contains karumi is this poem by Dr. Angelee
Deodhar which won third place in the 2003 Robert
Spiess Memorial Haiku contest
. In Wabi
Sabi for Writers
I discuss Basho’s evolving style and suggest that he saw
karumi as the most refined expression of sabi. In karumi there is plucky fortitude
that accepts pain and darkness as a backdrop to human character.
This haiku exhibits karumi in two ways. Firstly it contrasts the darkness of
war with the lightness of play, and secondly it combines rumors and news and
turns them into a kite, a child’s toy. This is a rich combination of images
that does not minimize the fear and apprehension of the possibility of armed
combat, but points instead toward the hope we see in the kite, rising in a darkening
sky, testimony to a child's innocence and to the value of that innocence for
our own lives. This poem also indirectly serves as a reminder to warriors and
warlords to consider alternatives to combat. The dark words that make up the
rumors and the news can be treated lightly, can be transformed into something
paddles at rest
the trout rise
xxxx- Kay Grimnes
This poem, published in
the February 2003 issue of Haiku Canada newsletter (VolumeXVI), captures the
classic feel of wabi.
The origin of the wabi ideal goes back past the tea ceremony
to a time when Japanese literati would retire to simple wilderness huts to gain
inspiration from a tranquil natural environment.
This haiku particularly resonates for me because I am a paddler and know the
feel of gliding in silence after resting my paddle, but also because so much
is accomplished in the poem. The author is describing the kind of paddling I
think is important, the kind where you paddle a bit and then stop to simply
listen to the silence and watch the fish rise and the insects skip about the
surface of the water. This choice to stop and take nature in, this going into
wilderness to “be” rather than to conquer or master it, was, and
is, central to the wabi experience.
What makes Ms. Grimnes' poem work so well is that it uses a passive image first
to create a sense of stillness that is subtly tinged with anticipation. Then
the image of the fish rising from depth to ring the surface of the water provides
motion, but a smooth motion that echoes the gliding of the canoe. Finally the
last line provides the confirmation that what is beneath this moment is a depth,
not of water, but of non-action. The trout does not literally rise into stillness,
but it rises into an almost bodily awareness of being still.
the tom asleep
on the widow's porch
is losing his sun
xxxx- William Hart
This poem is a good contemporary example of a haiku that exhibits sabi in the
way that Basho pioneered. There is a dusty feel to the poem evoked by the words
“sun” and “porch” and this dryness suggests a loneliness about the tom and the
Yet despite its sombre surface, the poem manages to stay on the light side of
despair. The tom is not decrepit or bedraggled, just asleep, and the widow is
not resigned to a rocking chair on the porch with the cat, so maybe she is off
somewhere doing something interesting or important. The ambiguity of the poem
is part of its charm. The tom is losing his sun, but we can predict that as
he cools in the shade he will stir and move back into the sun. His lazy life
of ease allows us to smile at his minor misfortune. This balance of humour and
loss lends a quiet dynamic to the poem, which is one of the pleasures of wabi
There is a certain satisfaction in staring down hardship and loss, a certain
deep steeled knowing in accepting the constant change of champions and scapegoats.
In this complicated world it is nice to see a clear image, feel a poignant moment,
realize a multileveled flavour. To sip in the smoothest nectar while the bees
hover nearby, to look past the failing body of a favorite elder and see the
wisdom, to savor the irony of a young person's pride, to see in a common utensil
something almost sublime, these are the subjects of a wabi sabi haiku.
If you have enjoyed reading these examples and would like to enter further into
wabi sabi through your own writing, consider purchasing Wabi
Sabi for Writers
or win a copy by entering the Still in the Stream Haiku
. This contest is intended to raise awareness of the pleasures of
haiku and the expression of wabi sabi and related aesthetics in the haiku form.
©This article is copyrighted by Richard R. Powell. All haiku are used by
permission and the copyright remains with the authors. For a list of websites
for these authors please view the About
the Authors Secton
on the Site
* Basho's haiku is a paraphrase by the author.