Three Simple Lines

Natalie Goldberg on Three Simple Lines

and Her Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku

Posted 4/4/21 | Updated 5/21/23

Tell us about that famous frog haiku that ends in plop!

It's probably the most famous haiku in all of Japan. Basho wrote it in the sixteenth century. I found it enigmatic and studied it for a long time:

Old pond
Frog jumps in

You might have heard of this haiku. One day out of the blue I realized it was so simple, so ordinary that at first in my busy life I could never grasp it. I hesitate to tell you. I want you to work at it as I did. But I will tell you because it is in the book: Basho's mind was so present, so quiet that there was nothing else but the sound: plop. Sometimes it is translated as "water sound" instead of "plop." But when you don't understand it, the second translation reveals nothing, doesn't help.

At the time in Japan they mostly imitated Chinese culture and so the Chinese would have noted the frog's croak. For Basho to have the experience of the sound of water instead broke a paradigm and made this haiku very Japanese. I think for that alone the Japanese would have loved it, loved claiming their own voice. I only discovered that information a lot later. But for that singular leap of the mind it became a national icon.

What is the true secret of a haiku?

That's a good question. We are taught in elementary school that haiku is 5/7/5 syllables and I think that is relied on to teach young students how to count syllables. It is true in the Japanese language that they adhere to the count, but English is a different animal. Japanese doesn't have words like 'the' or 'that' that counts for syllables. It seems their language can get to the heart of a haiku faster.

Many people now in English adhere to the idea instead of syllables to write three short lines. But then how do you know it's not just a short poem? Haiku plays with your mind. Upon hearing one you feel a pause, huh? You experience a little sensation of space. You smile. Allen Ginsberg claims that that space is, 'nothing less than God." I will say that some poets writing in English; for instance, Richard Wright who wrote the wonderful autobiography Black Boy, wrote an excellent book of haiku, did adhere to 5/7/5. It was a good practice for him, while he was sick and living in France.

You discovered a well-known woman haiku writer that we normally don't know about — can you talk about her?

Chiyo-ni. I knew there had to be some women in Japan writing haiku—and taking it seriously. She was born right after Basho died in the time of Buson, another famous haiku writer. She was very serious about it and like Basho followed the way of haiku, like someone else would follow the way of Zen. In her later life she became a nun, but didn't enter a monastery. Being a nun gave her great freedom to wander and even meet with groups of male haiku writers to compete with their haiku on full moon evenings. But she did have a following of women haiku disciples, just like the men did. I have a friend in Japan, Mitsue, who says she studied some of her haiku in school but no teacher ever mentioned it was a woman. There is even a small museum in her hometown in Matto, Japan dedicated to her. I took my students to it in 2019. Luckily for us, Pat Donegan and Ishibashi, together compiled a wonderful book about her life and haiku but it is now out of print.

What piqued your interest in haiku?

I was a very serious Zen practitioner, studying for 12 years with Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master, living in Minneapolis. But I also always wrote and wanted to be a writer. I was in my thirties. One day Katagiri said to me, why don't you make writing your practice. I was stunned by that. The other Zen students seemed to have an attitude that nothing was as important as meditation. Lucky for me, Katagiri had a bigger perspective and over time I realized he gave me permission and good advice. But there was nothing in our society that reflected that idea. I'd already studied Basho, who went on long haiku pilgrimages and even on his deathbed was writing haiku. So I used that as an example for me as a life of dedication to writing. Out of that I wrote Writing Down the Bones in l986 about using writing as a practice.

The poet Allen Ginsberg is somehow connected in your book to haiku — how did that happen?

In the summer of 1976 I studied for six weeks with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado and he talked about haiku and liberated the form for me, saying it did not have to adhere to 17 syllables. He also gave me a great translator of Japanese haiku, R.H. Blyth, who learned Japanese and studied haiku in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Ginsberg also was the one who told us about that sensation of space that you experience upon hearing a haiku and I never forgot that. That afternoon when he told us it electrified my life. From then on I read haiku. I didn't realize till I finished writing the book and wrote the epilogue that it was a quiet homage to Allen, who I later taught with in l990 and 1991 in Los Angeles after Writing Down the Bones came out in l986.

Shiki, the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century haiku writer had great influence on haiku today. Can you tell us about his unusual life?

Shiki died young at 35 years old. He had tuberculosis and coughed up his first blood when he was thirteen. The last five years of his life he was in great pain and was bedridden; yet, he would drag himself to the edge of the tatami in his bedroom and stare out at his garden, waiting for a haiku. All his life he knew death was near and yet it did not deter him. The depth of his dedication inspired many haiku disciples and he is the one that dared to criticize Basho, opening the way for modern haiku. He was influenced by Japan's opening to the west in 1900 and the west's vision of literature which he applied to haiku — that haiku could also express the feelings of the haiku writer in clear unsentimental terms.

What propelled you to write Three Simple Lines?

To be honest I consider this book to secretly be the third and last in my cancer trilogy — it would make no sense to anyone else. In 2013 after I returned from my trip to Japan with Upaya Zen Center that I write about in this book I discovered I had cancer. A month before I began to write about haiku, having gone to Buson's grave on the trip but let go of the project during the year and a half I was dealing with the disease.

During treatment I wrote The Great Spring, a series of essays that came out in 2016 but I never mention cancer. This I consider cancer book number one. I wrote about memories that I wanted recorded in case I didn't make it through. For example, playing ball with my father when I was young or hiking to the Stone Lions in New Mexico. When I found out I would survive I wrote Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, addressing the ordeal of cancer and how I learned a month into it that my partner also had cancer. After I finished that, I went back to my notebook to see what I had written about haiku after the trip to Japan. For me writing this book was not only expressing my love of haiku but also saying, 'you see cancer, you didn't get me.' What I started to write about I got to finish. It's my personal cancer trilogy. No one else would tag it that. And as I say it I don't want to sound arrogant. I was just lucky.

What was it like for you to be at the graves of these haiku masters that you loved?

It was a bit odd to be at the graves of the haiku masters. I often visit the graves of painters and writers I love. Just recently I took a detour on my way to be writer in residence in Port Townsend, Washington to go to Hemingway's grave in Ketchum, Idaho. But at least all the peoples' graves I have visited were alive when I was alive. But the haiku writers in Japan were dead for at least 400 years. I felt almost ridiculous. Who was I? I couldn't even speak their language; and yet, it seemed right. I was honoring them. Their work had meant so much to me. At each one I did full length prostrations. And I wasn't always sure I found the right grave. In the case of Basho, I first accidentally bowed to the frog haiku he wrote and that was written in Kanji on a stone.

How many times did you travel to Japan and what was it like for you?

I've been to Japan four times. The first time was in l998 and I was looking for ancient Zen, which almost isn't practiced any more — that's why many of the great Zen teachers came west — to revive the practice with people who were interested. I went to a Japanese monastery then, which I wrote about in The Great Spring published in 2016.

Then I went again in 2012 with Upaya Zen Center which I write about in Three Simple Lines. At that time I went to Buson's grave.

In 2016 I went again with two friends to follow in Basho's footsteps. And in 2019 I led a group of ten students who had studied with me for a long time to Japan.

Each time was memorable and different but in all four, no one spoke in English, even though they say every Japanese student learns English in school. Maybe they do but they can't speak it or are too shy to try. And in all fairness I have not been good at learning Japanese. It's also difficult because all signs are in Kanji so there isn't even a hint of what you are seeing, tasting, experiencing. You need a guide.

Why do people love haiku? Why did you dedicate it to Upaya Zen center?

I think people love haiku because it is simple, because it is only three lines and on one level everyone can understand it. I think all people have a longing for poetry and haiku is accessible. On another level I am very surprised how people respond so eagerly to haiku when I present it. They are delighted, joyful, and very brave. They jump right in and try to write them and they don't care about criteria.

I dedicated it to Upaya Zen center and to the founding teacher Joan Halifax because it's two blocks away from me in Santa Fe and I often have the wonderful opportunity to teach there. Seven years ago I suggested we teach a haiku weekend at Upaya, me, Joan Halifax and Kaz Tanahashi. I know Joan was a bit hesitant and the first one in 2003 did not have many students, but we continued every year and it has built energy. Now it is an important event with many people signing up. And each year we had to make up a new angle so it has given me the opportunity to study the great haiku writers that Allen Ginsberg suggested so long ago.

Natalie GoldbergNatalie Goldberg is the author of many books, including classic bestseller Writing Down the Bones, which has changed the way writing is taught in the United States. more

Three Simple Lines

Excerpted from the book Three Simple Lines: A Writer's Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku by Natalie Goldberg. Copyright ©2021 by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted with permission from