A Hundred Gourds 4:4 September 2015

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Essay: Chiyo-ni and Aisatsu: The Poetry of Greeting

by Terry Ann Carter

One of Japan’s most popular female haiku poets of the Edo period (1603 – 1867), Chiyo-ni – also known as Chiyo-jo, Kaga no Chiyo, and Matto no Chiyo – was born in 1703 in the small town of Matto in the Kaga region (Ishikawa Prefecture) at the foot of the Haku – san or White Mountain, the source of sweet spring water for her town.

It is believed that Chiyo composed her first haiku as a child of seven when she observed some geese flying overhead:

the first wild geese
still coming

By the time she was twelve, Chiyo worked for Hansui (1684 – 1775) as a servant girl. With Hansui she learned Chinese characters and the practice of haiku poetry. She was well educated for her time.

There were many haiku poets living in her Kaga – Matto area. Many had been students of Basho’s. Chiyo was born nine years after Basho died, yet his spell was everywhere. Chiyo was also influenced by his “way of haikai”.

Scholars are unclear as to whether Chiyo ever married. There are different opinions considering the sensuous poetry that she composed later in life.

a woman’s desire
deeply rooted
the wild violets

Some records allude to a husband and a small child. But both allegedly died. Around this time there were deaths of family members, both her parents and two close friends. The interesting thing about Chiyo’s life was her combination of the secular world of the busy road that went past her door on the way to Kyoto, and the sights and sounds of her garden world. Later, her sorrows brought her closer to the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and she joined a Buddhist nunnery. (“ni” means “nun”.) Chiyo-ni continued to lead a simple life. Another poet, Koko, wrote of Chiyo-ni’s humility with the following poem:

the morning glory
in this floating world
there is no fence

There was “no fence” from the everyday world. Chiyo-ni was a social being. An aisatsu poem is social; it serves as a greeting. Chiyo-ni was the perfect personality for aisatsu. She was known to have many friends, but her strong relationship with Suejo was the deepest. It is not known if the following greeting was composed for her, or another friend:

just for now
I spread the morning snow
over the dust

It is easy to see Chiyo preparing for her friend’s visit: spreading snow over the stones of her walkway where dust might have settled. “Just for now” also focuses on the moment of arrival, the moment of happiness shared when the two friends meet.

This poem was composed for a friend who was departing:

if only I could tie
the string of my kite
to the hem of your kimono

aisatsu poems (whether for arrival or departure) were often composed in the spontaneity of the moment. They were given as a gift. In her book Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master, Patricia Donegan writes, “Since haiku were traditionally meant to be a greeting or dialogue with the world and nature, rather than writing carefully and revising in solitude, spontaneity was important . . . Basho said there shouldn’t be a breath’s hesitation between the perception and the writing of what is perceived.”

There were many stories telling of Chiyo-ni’s spontaneity. One such tale concerns the Lord Maeda of Kaga who asked her to write a poem for him. She produced this:

looking up
at the plum blossoms –
the frog

Donegan continues to write, “The spirit of aisatsu, on the whole has been lost to the modern world, with poets writing more objective, individualistic, “art” haiku, which is more of a monologue than an engaged dialogue with the world.”

Haiku critic, Kenkichi Yamamoto has written that haiku originally were composed with a dialogue aspect, with an unspoken question:

the silence
of the moon
enters the heart (doesn’t it?)

Quoting Chiyo-ni, he explains that the deepest sense of haiku is a greeting to the world. And since haiku originated from the linked verse form (haikai no renga) written by two or more poets, there was an attention to whatever was going on in the world. The first verse, the hokku, was composed as a greeting or a toast to the poets present, establishing the season, the mood, the occasion. Later these hokku were written as individual poems (haiku). In Chiyo-ni’s time, the spirit of aisatsu was deeply embedded in haiku.

In a contemporary context, following in the spirit of Chiyo–ni’s aisatsu, a number of North American haiku poets have composed poems of greeting (or leaving). In Dusting the Buddha, the twenty first title in the Hexagram Series, Angela Leuck, living in Verdun, Quebec, (at the time) writes of her anticipation of a visit from her Ottawa friend, Marianne Bluger:

the poet Marianne Bluger
coming to call –
I dust the Buddha

Interesting to note that both Angela and Chiyo were busy either dusting or removing dust in anticipation of a friend’s arrival.

Penny Harter, living in New Jersey, offered these poems from her sequence “Over the Autumn Garden” from The Monkey’s Face:

over the autumn garden
the crows' harsh cries
no word from you

opening the door
the visitor’s feet
so much like yours

and from Orange Balloon:

a train whistle
your features shrink
on the station wall

missing you
the cry of the peacock
in his pen

home now
the taste of your toothpaste
still on my brush

In the painful images of goodbye, Penny creates some of her finest haiku.

Claudia Coutu Radmore offered this poem written as a greeting to a lover visiting her for the first time, with tangerines. On that winter day, “they seemed to be bursting, not only with sun, (and themselves) but with his not-so-secret longings.”

he brings
six perfect tangerines
with themselves

On a cool clear evening, Claudia writes, “I stopped on the door step of a friend’s country house, taking in the night, the scents, and the quiet. Then came that lovely song. (To tell the truth, I have no idea what bird it was, but I thought it might be a sparrow.”)

just before knocking
of a sparrow

Stretching the concept even further, my own haiku “in the glass case of skulls” might be considered a greeting, albeit a solemn one, to the country of Cambodia with its torturous past:

in the glass case of skulls
a reflection
of my own face

This haiku was written on a folded piece of paper and placed with memorial flowers in the Stupa outside Choeung Ek, the “Killing Fields”, outside Phnom Pehn. In this way it might be considered both a greeting and a departure poem.

Montreal haiku poet, Marco Fraticelli, writes this haiku to a friend he was leaving at the ferry:

saying goodbye
our shadows
almost touch

And a few more poems of leaving in Marco’s characteristically sardonic humour:

another dead cat
by the side of the highway
your note of goodbye

train whistle
the taste of mouthwash
in your kiss

He also writes of another kind of leaving:

between each wave
my children

These poems possess a sweet longing, a wish to “tie a kite to a kimono hem”.

aisatsu, and its gift of spontaneity, should not disappear from our practice. Imagine the joy of finding a poem of greeting in a mailbox, in an email or text, in a small handmade book. Let us welcome the spirit of Chiyo-ni’s generosity. Send an aisatsu to someone you love. Today.


Carter, Terry Ann. Day Moon Rising. Black Moss Press, 2012.

Donegan, Patricia (with Ishibashi, Yoshie) Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master. Tuttle Publishing, 1998.

Fraticelli, Marco. Instants. Guernica Editions, 1979.

Fraticelli, Marco. Drifting. Catkin press, 2013.

Fraticelli, Marco. Carpe Diem. Les Editions David/Borealis Press, 2008.

Harter, Penny. Orange Balloon. From Here Press, 1980.

Harter, Penny. The Monkey’s Face. From Here Press, 1987.

Leuck, Angela. Dusting the Buddha. King’s Road Press, 2010.


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