Allan Ginsberg, the poet, first introduced me to haiku. “There are four great Japanese haiku writers,” he declared, holding up a finger for each one as he named them, in front of the class in summer 1976. We were at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki.”
No women? I thought. Okay, I’d take the boys on and learn what I could from them, sure there were some women hidden in history.
He also told us that the formal five syllables, then seven, then five, often taught in Western schools, does not necessarily work in English. In Japanese each syllable counts. They don’t have the, an, that, those articles of speech, so he encouraged us not to worry about the count if we write or translate haiku. Only make sure the three lines make the mind leap.
“The only real measure of a haiku,” Allen told us that one hot July afternoon, “is upon hearing one, your mind experiences a small sensation of space”—he paused; I leaned in, breathless—“which is nothing less than God.”
Now, on the cusp of age 66, I am about to search for a grave near the foothills of Mount Hiei: Buson’s. The eig …