The Drunken Master

The Haiku of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940)

Rules, rules, rules.

Of all the forms of poetry in the world are there any with more rules than haiku?

  • exactly 17 syllables!
  • include a season word (a kigo)!
  • no metaphors!
  • remove all unnecessary words!
  • no rhymes!
  • describe a single moment, in the present tense!
  • etc. etc. etc. 

Maybe this is why I love haiku so much? Because it has so many rules to break? Of course different authorities on haiku have different ideas of what the essential rules of haiku are, and many of the rules which you read seem to contradict rules that you have read elsewhere: “exactly 17 syllables”, “remove all unnecessary words”.

So what would happen if a haiku poet threw out, pretty much, all the rules? We know one possible result from the life and work of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940).

The short biographies I have read of Santōka tell of: an unhappy childhood with his mother committing suicide when he was ten years old; failed careers and a failed marriage; alcoholism; a suicide attempt of his own in his forties; and spending most of the the rest of his life homeless as a wandering beggar.

Like his life, his haiku were unconventional:

Wet with morning dew,

I go in the direction I want.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

He had little regard for the normal 17 sound symbol pattern of traditional Japanese haiku. One of the translations of Santōka that I own, For All My Walking translated by Burton Watson, refers to his haiku as “free-verse haiku”:


and fell down

mountains are silent.

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Both the translations of Santōka that I own (the other is Mountain Tasting translated by John Stevens) often render his haiku in two lines, as opposed to three, or in three lines of very uneven length, giving a feel for Santōka’s unconventionality: 

The few flies that remain

Seem to remember me.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

There are differences between the way the two books render Santōka’s haiku. It feels like Stevens tends to give the words “as written” leaving the reader a little more work to do in finding the meaning:

From the back,

Walking away soaking wet?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Where as Watson maybe adds a little more interpretation into his translation to help the reader. Watson renders the same haiku from Santōka as:

how must I look

from behind

going off in the drizzling rain

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Many of Santōka’s haiku are child-like, almost comical, in their simplicity:

The rain from that cloud

Made me wet.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

The mundane details of everyday existence, including the scatalogical, have long been considered acceptable topics for haiku, but it is hard to imagine any of the other famous haiku writers being quite as blunt as this:

Making my way through the fallen leaves,

I have a good shit in the fields.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

And this, decades before Piero Manzoni or Gilbert and George. Well played Santōka, well played.

Some of Santōka’s haiku could be seen as quite political, taking up anti-war themes:

The moon’s brightness –

     Does it know

Where the bombing will be?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Other are almost cynical:

nice road

going to a nice building


Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

The short biographies I have read of Santōka do not gloss over his heavy drinking and many of his haiku deal with drinking in one way or another. This one I particularly like: 

Slightly tipsy;

     The leaves fall

One by one.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Well, I like a teacup full of saki myself, from time to time. 

Now, everybody knows that there are four famous haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki … but every time I try to count them up  …  every time I try to count them up (maybe I am tipsy?) it always comes to five.  

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


For All My Walking, Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 2003.

Mountain Tasting, Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda, John Stevens (Trans.), John Weatherhill Inc., 1980.