The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield

“The moon and sun are travelers of a hundred generations.  The years, coming and going, are wanderers too.  Spending a lifetime adrift on boat decks, greeting old age while holding a horse by the mouth–for such a person, each day is a journey, and the journey itself becomes home”

-Matsuo Basho

The Heart of Haiku is a short book written by Jane Hirshfield in which she investigates the evolution of Matsuo Basho’s writing and poetry.  In this book, Hirshfield takes the reader on a journey through the key points in Basho’s life such as the death of his mother, his early literary achievements, renga and the culture of poetry in early Japan, his introduction to Zen, and his walking journey’s that spurred the creation of several travel journals.  Throughout this book, Hirshfield uses Basho’s own words and haiku to demonstrate his impact on the poetic world.  

Some of my favorite quotes from this book are related to Basho’s own teaching of haiku. For example, 

“To learn about the pine tree, go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study the bamboo”

 And,

“But unless things are seen with fresh eyes, nothing’s work writing down”

Along with,

“The works of other schools of poetry are like colored paintings; my disciples paint with black ink”


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Hirshfield points out that Basho’s work was influenced by Zen practices.  She explains, “Zen is less a study of the doctrine than a set of tools for discovering what can be known when the world is looked at with open eyes.  Poetry can be thought of in much the same way. “  Hirshfield further explains, “The fidelity of Zen is to this world, and to how we see and taste it in our lives and our lives in it.  Basho’s haiku. . .have a similar allegiance.”  

In his mid-30s Basho contemplated becoming a Zen priest but instead decided to take the vow to become a lay monk. From this point on Zen became a big part of his life. By the time he began teaching his own students, Zen had helped him free his mind from the “habits of conventional perception” and shifted his writing from a form of entertainment to an expression of art.

Hirshfield explains, “Art can be defined as beauty able to transcend the circumstances of its making”. As Basho matured, his writing evolved from simple wordplay to a deep “lightness” that was influenced by Zen and Taoist themes, along with ancient Japanese and Chinese poets such as Sogi Saigyo, Tu Fu, and Li Po.  Hirshfield states a great example of this maturity in poetry is this haiku:

On a leafless branch,
a crow’s settling:
autumn nightfall.

Basho was about 40 years old when he wrote this haiku and it was around this time this his works began to evoke a sense of sabi

Sabi in Basho’s poetry means that the reader feels their “own impermanence” and “almost weightless as a sand grain, yet also vast”.  With this profound shift in Basho’s approach to haiku, his writing embraced the transcending nature of artistic expression that he has become known for.

Crow on Branch
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About the Author

Jane Hirschfield is an award-winning poet, author of nine poetry collections, two collections of essays, and has edited and translated four books of poetry.  Hirshfield has also been a visiting poet at Stanford University and UC-Berkeley and served on the faculty of Bennington’s MFA Writing Seminars.  In 2012, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2019, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Hirschfield is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets. “The Woodpecker Keeps Returning” and ““Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight”,  are two poems that I think are great examples of her unique ability to capture the natural world in verse. 

Hirschfield was quoted on the Poetry Foundation website as saying:

“Poetry, for me, is an instrument of investigation and a mode of perception, a way of knowing and feeling both self and world…I am interested in poems that find a clarity without simplicity; in a way of thinking and speaking that does not exclude complexity but also does not obscure; in poems that know the world in many ways at once—heart, mind, voice, and body.” 

I think this is a quote that Basho would approve of. 

Heart of Haiku Cover

The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield can be found on Amazon as a Kindle Single. At just $0.99 it is a great deal.

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Are you interested in reading more about haiku as a nature connection practice?  Check out this post

Some of Jane Hirshfield other books are Ledger(2020) Come, Thief ( 2011), and a collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997). You can learn more about Jane and her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

Want to support our work? Visit the Naturalist Weekly bookstore and browse our curated lists of books of poetry and haiku. Or pick up a gift card that can be used throughout the store.   

Naturalist Weekly accepts donations for coffee and journals
Naturalist Weekly accepts donations for coffee and journals.
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15 thoughts on “The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield

Add yours

    1. Hi Barbara, I hear that about the orders. I was hoping that I could find other options for people but I was unsuccessful. I wonder if it might be available in The Haiku Foundations archives since this was written in collaboration with them.

      1. thanks for drawing my attention to the Haiku Foundation, Mark. Btw, is Jane Hirschfield the maiden name of the late Jane Reichhold. I have her writing and enjoying Haiku book. Somehow failed to get int tho.oit

  1. Excellent post, Mark. As you know, any mention of Basho perks my ears, so this was a real treat. I’ll add this book to the list of tomes on Basho I need to read. His haiku about the crow is magnificent–such a simple scene, yet so much to contemplate beyond the obvious. Thanks as always for such in-depth writing on themes I care about so deeply. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I found it really interesting to hear about the evolution of Basho’s work. The crow haiku is only one that I have enjoyed frequently.

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