Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

The Poetic "Ah!": Haiku and the Right Brain1
By David Lanoue

Bashō, the master haiku poet of seventeenth-century Japan, had a clear idea of what one must do to achieve excellence in poetry or, for that matter, in any art. In his Oi no kobumi ("The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel"), a travel diary written in prose with interpolated haiku, Bashō explains:

Saigyō in traditional poetry, Sōgi in linked verse, Sesshū in painting, Rikyū in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year. Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon. The first lesson for the artist is, therefore, to learn how to overcome such barbarism and animality, to follow nature, to be one with nature.2

Art, for Bashō, begins as a matter of perception and direct natural experience. The artist, he insists, sees flowers and dreams the moon; only a "barbarous mind" sees and dreams otherwise. To understand Bashō and appreciate his poetry on its own terms, one must therefore attempt to understand precisely what he means by obeying, following, and being one with Nature. Conversely, a misunderstanding of what the poet means here can lead one to serious misconceptions about the nature of Japanese haiku and the spirit in which they should be read.

Bashō's advice for artists first to follow Nature calls to mind the mimetic notion prevalent in Western aesthetics; one recalls Hamlet's instructing the players to hold up a mirror to Nature—a classical idea that perhaps finds its most succinct formulation in Alexander Pope's couplet: "First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame/ By her just standard, which is still the same..." 3 However, one need not probe deeply into the actual verse of the European Pope and the Buddhist Bashō to discover fundamental differences as to what is meant by following Nature in the two cases. In fact, such a comparison is instructive, particularly since Pope, to borrow a term from popular psychology, is a predominantly "left brain" writer whose poetry reflects a cultural attitude toward Nature that, while extreme, typifies exactly the sort of cognitive block which prevents many Western readers from partaking fully in the pleasures of haiku.

In the West, a dualistic notion of Nature versus the supernatural, body versus soul, has prevailed largely as the legacy of Greek thought and Greek-influenced Christianity. For Pope as for legions of Western poets, particularly before the artistic revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the cosmos was split. Nature was conceived of as a lower realm that one must ultimately transcend in one's quest for higher spiritual and intellectual goals. While Nature held her beauties, the purpose of the Christian pilgrimage of life—and of poetry written in terms of this myth—was to escape Nature, so that one might gain, in the end, Heaven. Pope expresses this perspective in his Essay on Man, in which the dualism between reason and passion, the divine and the bestial in man, is expounded on. While Pope asks poets and critics to look to Nature for basic aesthetic principles, Nature is certainly not the ultimate goal in life or in art. For Pope, Nature is only half the picture, a necessary but impoverished half which, spiritually and intellectually, the aspiring Christian must go beyond.

Anyone who has read Pope's urbane verse would agree that here is a poet who would find it most difficult to appreciate—or even to recognize as poetry—Bashō's famous piece about a frog plunking into the water of an old pond. One can only imagine the dismay and utter lack of comprehension a Pope would exhibit if treated to the unlikely cross-cultural experience of a Bashō haiku. The Japanese poet's insistence that artists be one with Nature—seeing flowers, dreaming the moon—is a statement entrenched in quite a different myth system than that of neoclassical England or, for that matter, of the atomic age. This is why R. H. Blyth, in his important study entitled simply Haiku, devotes much space in the first volume to roots of Japanese culture, particularly to Zen Buddhism, before even attempting to elucidate the art of haiku.

Instead of duplicating what Blyth has said about Zen and haiku4, I propose to address the problem of Bashō's approach to Nature in terms of a neuropsychological model that I alluded to previously: that of brain hemisphericity—left brain, right brain. While much is still to be uncovered in this rapidly expanding field, certain patterns pertinent to the question at hand have emerged. The left hemisphere of the brain, long known as the center of speech and language comprehension, is also the home, many believe, of analytical, linear consciousness.5 The so-called right brain, in contrast, is the locus of spatial and musical perception and, it is hypothesized, a holistic mode of consciousness. Robert E. Ornstein and Arthur J. Deikman belong to a growing number of scientists who relate brain hemispheres and the modes of consciousness typical of them to culture.6 The argument goes that a highly linear, ratiocinative culture—like that found in Western society—is left-brain centered. On the other hand, Ornstein and Deikman suggest that the mystical, meditative experience so central to Eastern religion is a function of a receptive, right-brain mode of consciousness, a way of perceiving reality that is radically different from that of objective, left-brain analysis. In this view, the holistic experience of oneness with the cosmos, an experience that lies at the heart of Eastern mysticism, is a decidedly right-brain affair. In a meditative state, one allows one’s senses to perceive what they will, reposing, as it were, in the delicious concert of color, sound, smell and touch as it unfolds; Zen and contemplative Taoism, the latter a Chinese way of liberation which had profound influence on Japanese culture, seek to provoke this mode of consciousness that Ornstein and Deikman relate to the right brain.

Although researchers such as Springer and Deutsch caution against drawing premature conclusions, the basic left brain/right brain model is useful in appraising fundamental differences between Bashō and Pope, in other words, between Eastern and Western aesthetics. Pope's heroic couplets are primarily left-brain productions; his discourse proceeds logically, one thought following another in a coherent, abstract, and treatise-like manner. Poetry of this sort, to borrow an image from Robert Bly, rolls along much like a train on a well-established track. Bly relates such poetry to Christian ethics, wherein the so-called "animal instincts" traditionally have been suppressed, leaving poetry a largely rational, conscious activity.7 If one accepts the Western dualism of body and spirit, and if the former is a realm of bestial impulses that must be suppressed, one inevitably feels more at home, so to speak, in the left brain. For a poet such as Pope, poetry is no place for startling associations, surreal image, or dark dreams. Such a poet, while he plays lip service to following Nature's forms, in actuality is intent on screening out Nature while denying his intimate connections to it.

Bashō, on the other hand, can be viewed as a poet who delves deeply into the right brain and who expects—in fact requires—his readers to do the same. His haiku startle the reader into a sense of real awareness of deep connections with moon, flowers, and frogs. Haiku, in terms of Ornstein’s and Deikman's model, triggers the right-brain, holistic mode of consciousness, a perceived oneness with one's surroundings. While such poetry is decoded in left-brain speech centers, its images somehow bestir the other side of the corpus callosum, where the haiku results in a right-brain appreciation of flower or moon—and the powerful emotions that they inspire.

Such a model helps one to see how haiku is commonly misunderstood by Western readers. The problem is not that these poems are deliberately obscure or in any way keeping with the stereotype of the "inscrutable East." However, if one reads the simple content of haiku exclusively in a left-brain mode of consciousness, a mode which seeks logical connections, main ideas, and delineated themes, one simply misses the boat. Herein lies the origin of the college sophomore's common query when exposed to haiku for the first time: But what's the point? To create the haiku experience, to complete the psychic circuit, the right-brain mode of receptive awareness is required. Deikman gives an example that has some bearing here. He points out that, while the left brain's analytical mode is proper for certain tasks and contexts, such as driving a taxi to the airport, it is totally inappropriate for others. When one visits a museum and approaches art in a wholly left-brain mode, one is likely to be bored or frustrated, going from painting to painting, wondering, like our sophomore, what's the point here?

The same situation applies to haiku. A haiku, if successful, startles the reader out of a rational mode of thought into a deeply emotive, visionary, right-brain experience, an experience which I shall refer to, for lack of a better term, as the haiku "ah!" Without this experiential component on the reader's part, a one-breath Japanese poem is not, precisely, a haiku.


Perhaps no haiku has spawned as many translations, imitations, and critical commentaries as Bashō's:

old pond
a frog jumping into water

Because it is so famous, this haiku is often the first one that Western readers (many of them perplexed sophomores in World Literature classes) encounter. If such readers remain in a left-brain mode of linear thinking, the poem seems trivial, indeed. It stipulates, merely, the existence of an "old pond" (furu ike), into which a frog jumps (kawazu tobikomu), creating, in turn, a "water sound" (mizu no oto). Before he retired, my father was a mechanical engineer by profession, and he remains a consummate left-brain intellect. I can only imagine his bemused expression if presented him with such a poem and asked for his opinion of it. If, as I suspect, he would react by scratching his head and wondering out loud what exactly this "frog jumping into water sound" is all about, his lack of understanding or appreciation would make perfect sense, culturally. Western civilization has taught its citizens to read texts, including the one-breath texts of haiku, as informational messages; in this case, a message reporting the incident of a frog jumping into an old pond, then a plop. For my dad, a devout Catholic who subscribes to a religion of strict causality (Adam to Jesus to Last Judgment) and no-nonsense clarity (follow the Ten Commandments = go to heaven), there is nothing wonderful, nothing significant, about Bashō's plunging frog.

Many Japanese readers today are, surprisingly, of like mind with my father, a fact that attests to the extent to which Japanese culture has moved away, over time, from its Buddhist roots. Japanese critics of Bashō love to point out that the significance of this haiku is merely the fact that the frog in question is not singing, as was the custom in their native poetry up to that point, but rather jumping and splashing. Such an observation is decidedly left-brain: dwelling on the surface of the text, perceiving and making much of a factual difference between this particular haiku and its antecedents in Japanese tradition.

Bashō and his ardent follower Issa did not appreciate haiku as factual messages intended for left-brain processing. A haiku is not an e-mail message, not a shopping list. These great poets had to have also been great readers of haiku. After absorbing the linguistic content of a poem, the left hemispheres of their brains must have easily, generously tossed the gist of that content over to their right hemispheres where it would inspire contemplation and stir deep feeling. "Old pond": they would imagine an ancient place, perhaps a mossy temple garden, where the thought of all the past generations of people who once lived there and now are gone evokes a kind of empty loneliness, what Bashō termed sabi and considered an important element in haiku. Then, drenched in this feeling of ancientness and loss, the minds of Bashō and Issa would snap back to the present, to the surprising "water sound" of a frog interrupting this stillness and history. I suspect, if one could go back in time with the proper equipment and examine the brain scans of Bashō and Issa meditating on such a poem, one would observe a colorful bloom of activity in their right brains, as they were appreciating the "this-ness" of that frog's leap, that plop.

Such this-ness cannot be explained or linearly analyzed. Western culture that prepares its mechanical engineers so aptly to plan and build utterly fails to prepare them to read a poem with their whole minds—and this is a great pity.



1. This essay was first published in Japanophile (1987-88), under the title, "Bashō's Poetic 'Ah!': Haiku and the Right Brain." The present, expanded version was read at the Haiku Society of America Southern Region Conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas, November 3, 2006.

2. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 71-72.

3. Quoted from Geoffrey Tillotson’s Eighteenth Century English Literature (555).

4. Some critics argue against the importance of Zen to Japanese haiku: none more vehemently than my former co-director of the World Haiku Association, Ban’ya Natsuishi.

5. Sally P. Springer and Georg Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain (1981), 184-88.

6. Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness, 2d ed. (1977), 21-38; Deikman, The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy (1982), 66-76.

7. Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (1975), 4-5.

8. Japanese text: 古池や蛙飛こむ水のをと (furu ike ya kazazu tobikomu mizu no oto); from Higginson’s Haiku Handbook, 218. My translation might surprise some readers who have encountered, in the past, translations of this haiku that present three distinct parts corresponding with their three lines: an old pond, a frog jumping, a splash. However, since the particle ya serves here as the “cutting word” (kireji), I read everything that follows it as a single phrase modifying the final word, sound (oto). What kind of sound is it? A "frog-jumping-in-water sound!"



Bly, Robert. Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949-1952; rpt. 1981-1982 [reset paperback edition]. 4 vols.

Deikman, Arthur J. The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.

Higginson, William J. with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985.

Ornstein, Robert E. The Psychology of Consciousness. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.

Springer, Sally P. and Georg Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1981.

Tillotson, Geoffrey, Ed. Eighteenth Century English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.


name Born in Omaha, Nebraska, David Lanoue earned his BA at Creighton University (1976) and his MA and PhD in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (1977, 1981). He is presently a professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

From 1984 on, he has published original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies—including Modern Haiku and Frogpond.

He conducted research in Japan in 1987 and 1988, and participated in
the N.E.H. Literary Translation Institute at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989. The result of this labor was his book, Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems; Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991).

Additional publications include Haiku Guy (Red Moon Press 2000), a novel about haiku, life, love, and mad, moonstruck poets, and Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa.