Classifying Animals as Meat

person fishing

One of the research questions that surfaced for me earlier this year was when the presence of an animal in haiku meant that it was a food poem, and that I should add it to my collection. I wrote an initial post about meat in haiku during Season 1 of this project, but that question hadn’t occurred to me at the time.

Through reading and reflection, I’ve established some guidelines to help me decide whether or not an animal haiku is also a food haiku. Before I get into that, though, I feel the need to establish that these guidelines only apply to animals that are commonly used as food. I realize that to some degree, what constitutes an edible animal is culturally specific (such as crickets, guinea pigs, or the ortolan bunting), and I do my best through research to avoid my own cultural biases. However, there are certain animals that we rarely (if ever) see used as food. For example, eagles, hawks, and vultures are not likely to wind up on a rotisserie. Some animals simply do not need to be considered, and if I did find a haiku in which a skunk was roasting on a spit, I would certainly add it to my collection, if for no reason other than novelty.

Here are my criteria for when an animal could be considered meat:

  1. The haiku also references hunting, trapping, or fishing.
  2. If the animals are in captivity, they are on a farm or ranch, with the implication that they are being raised for food.
  3. The haiku references cleaning or butchering an animal, the initial stages of preparation for food.
  4. The haiku references cooking or preserving the animal.

The above criteria all indicate the intent to eat the animal, in one way or another. Even if the poet won’t necessarily be the one eating, the reader understands that the animal in the poem is one likely to be consumed by someone.

Next I’ll discuss six example haiku: three that indicate the animal is meat, and three that do not. All of these classical examples are translated by R.H. Blyth, and I found them in the haiku anthology from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series.

The octopus trap:
Fleeting dreams
Under the summer moon.


The above haiku starts with the image of an octopus trap. In Japan, these traps are called takotsubo; they are traditionally ceramic vessels attached on a rope and cast into the ocean. Octopi hide in the pots, or use them as nests, making them easy to capture. Since this haiku describes a form of fishing, with the intent of eating the octopus, I consider this a food haiku.

(Although takoyaki is my favorite Japanese street food, I admit that the thought of an octopus thinking it was getting a nest and then being turned into food makes me want to not order it for a while!)

A woman
Under the azaleas placed in the pot,
Tearing up dried cod.


In this haiku, the fish is caught and dried. It’s long dead, and has been preserved for the future. In fact, this one might be a debatable food haiku because the woman mentioned in the first line appears to be using the dried fish as azalea fertilizer rather than food! (Azaleas are also toxic to humans; the poem does not reference the fish being used for garden fertilizer.) However, since dried cod could be used as food, I’m including it here.

In the fisherman’s house
The smell of dried fish
And the heat.


In Shiki’s haiku, we don’t see the dried fish, but we smell them; one can only imagine how the summer heat makes that more intense. The first line references a fisherman, someone who’s job it is to catch food not just for himself, but for others as well. The scent of his trade permeates his whole life, including his dwelling space. Since this is a haiku that is again about the catching and processing of fish, it is a food haiku.

A school of trout
Passed by:
The colour of the water


In contrast to Shiki’s other haiku in this post, here, the trout simply swim by. Although trout is a common sight at grocery counters and on restaurant menus, here, there is no indication that the speaker of the poem is doing any fishing. We do not see an attempt to lure or trap them. The speaker is sitting by a river, but the fish are simply there, and then they are not. To that end, I cannot consider this a food haiku.

A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
In the bed of the stream


Again, we have a trout, which we can consider a food source. However, as in the previous haiku, Onitsura presents the trout as leaping while clouds move overhead. We do not see anyone, either the speaker or an observed third party, doing any fishing. There is no sense that the trout is leaping toward its doom. Instead, we have the haiku moment of the interplay between water and sky. Once again, it’s not a culinary poem.

In an old well
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of water is dark


Finally, we have a haiku from Buson in which the fish is the one doing the hunting. While we don’t know whether the fish was successful in catching the gnat, we do see it in action on its own quest for sustenance. Since no human is in pursuit of this fish, it’s not a culinary haiku.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below!

By the way, I am happy to announce that the podcast is FINALLY available via Apple Podcasts! So if that’s your preferred player, you can find that link here:

One thought on “Classifying Animals as Meat

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: