Precise in structure yet allowing artistic creativity, the haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that can well be compared to the meticulously designed gardens that prove inspirational to those who craft using the power of the pen. This poetic art form goes back to 17th century Japan and the trick is to convey meaning within seventeen syllables in a precise five-seven-five format. Traditionally, haiku was used to express views and impressions of the natural world.
Matsuo Basho, whose birth name was Matsuo Kinsaku (1644 to 1694) one of the most recognized poets of Japan’s Edo period, is credited with fine tuning the “hokku” format. A hokku was an opening verse that introduced the “haikai no renga”, a form of collaborative poetry popular at the time. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, long after Basho’s death, that the word hokku was changed to haiku and the format became a standardized, stand alone art form.
Just as the haiku uses discipline for creating beauty, so does the Japanese garden. The Karesansui, or dry landscape style of garden is perhaps the best comparison. These gardens were influenced by followers of Zen Buddhism, who found the simplistic design conducive to meditation. One well known example of this garden style is in the Daisen-in sub-temple, part of the Daitoku-ji grounds in Kyoto, Japan. It was completed in 1513.
Much like a haiku, where the words on paper need to be studied to get the full meaning, these dry landscape gardens must be studied to interpret what the designer intended. In a Karesansui garden you must use your imagination to see that carefully raked gravel or sand as a tranquil pond. You must imagine that those rocks strategically placed in that pond are islands. The beauty of the garden and the haiku is this is that no two people will have the same vision, the same interpretation.
In Basho’s poem “Temple Bells Die Out” shown below, the poet describes dusk experienced by someone relaxing in a Japanese garden. The chiming of the bells is man made. The fragrance of the flowers is nature personified. The contrast, much as that found between carefully constructed pathways and the timeless sound of water cascading into a pond, both features of Japanese gardens, make for “a perfect evening.”
words upon a page
pathways through tended gardens
lead to inner peace
M. Rose 2010
temple bells die out
the fragrant blossoms remain
a perfect evening
Matsuo Basho (written between 1686 and 1691)