Tea and poetry have an inextricable link. The mere process of drinking a cup of tea invites quiet contemplation which, in turn, provides the proper mental terroir for self-expression, like poetry. As a result, there’s no dearth of tea–inspired poetry.
It seems to me, though, that haiku is the most well-suited style of poetry for tea. On the surface, tea is a simple drink: leaves and water, steeped and then consumed. But in that simple cup are layers of complexity not initially evident: the scent of the wet leaves, the aroma and color of the liquor itself, the astringency, any vegetal tastes, the oxidation, and the mouthfeel, not to mention the differences from cup-to-cup, closely tied to water temperature and quality and brewing time. Haiku is similar. The form is very basic: usually a mere 17 syllables split into lines of 5-7-5. Again, though, the outward simplicity of a haiku initially hides the complexity of wordplay and imagery, and the difficulty of conveying an emotion or image in only a few words.
I thought I’d share a few of my favorite tea haiku today.
The first few are from the poet Issa, an 18th/19th-century Japanese poet from the village of Kashiwabara in the mountains of Japan’s Shinano Province. Issa wrote many, many tea haiku, which can be viewed here (the source of the poems and translations shared here).
The first is beautiful for the mental image it evokes.
cha no kemuri yanagi to tomo ni soyogu nari
the tea smoke
and the willow
The next shows the parallel between the peacefulness of a still deer and the quiet, meditative task of plucking tea leaves by hand.
orifushi wa shika mo tachisou cha tsumi kana
now and then the deer
stand close by…
The third is what we all shoot for as tea drinkers: a deeper appreciation and enjoyment with each cup.
asa-asa ya cha ga mumaku naru kiri oriru
morning after morning
my tea tastes better…
This final one from Issa is an amusing haiku that describes that terrible feeling of tasting a newly purchased tea and being severely disappointed:
he no yôna cha mo ureru nari natsu kodachi
they even sell tea
not worth a fart!
The translator notes that “he no yôna (“fart-like”) is an idiom for ‘worthless.’”
The last one I’m sharing here today, from 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho, is my favorite of all tea haiku and, as a result, served as the inspiration for my own budding tea shop’s name. The original poem reads:
asacha nomu sō shizukanari kiku no hana
There are a number of translations I like, each presenting a slightly different angle:
drinking morning tea
the monk is peaceful
the chrysanthemum blooms
A monk sips morning tea,
the chrysanthemum’s flowering.
For his morning tea
A monk sits down in utter silence —
Confronted by chrysanthemums.
And the final, which is my favorite translation because of the “quiet/mum” wordplay:
drinking morning tea
the monk is quiet
as is the mum flower
Please share some of your own favorite tea-themed haiku.
This article was originally posted in December 2012.