Haiku happen all the time, wherever there are people who are in touch with the world of their senses, and with their own feeling response to it. ~ William J. Higginson
My attempts at writing haiku bring me a lot of pleasure. I love the intensity of the initial experience and the inner stillness, serenity and focused, centred composure required at the capturing stage. I love the restrictions of haiku and the way they comfort yet inspire me, and I love how the process reminds me to be aware of the beauty and ‘lifefulness’ in everything, from flowers and birds to cityscapes and domestic details.
I’ve read hundreds of haiku that are astonishingly beautiful in their simplicity and vast in their scope, like this one by Lee Gurga:
the milky way
But in addition to the pleasure I’ve had in reading haiku, I discovered a while back that adopting a haiku mindset is a talisman against the stresses, anxieties and overwhelm that so often accompany western lifestyles. Writing haiku requires a level of engaged awareness in the present that wards off the fears and Shoulds and But what if…?’s that live in the future, and the grief, regrets and If only’s that so often haunt the past.
Writing haiku is also a wonderful way to journal, and our notebooks can provide rich material for inspiration or word gifts, or become a legacy for our loved ones.
Experimenting with haiku expanded my love of life and my awareness of the essence of every living thing, but learning to make word-sketches also improved my writing.
The following paragraph, taken from The Empty Jug, evolved from one of my attempts at haiku. In haiku, every syllable and the sound of every word earns its place. What you want to say has to be pared down, and every syllable justified. I wrote this haiku (the linked part shown in mauve) in response to a creative stimulus I gave folk on a haiku post last year. It was only when I read it that I realised how aptly it described my sense of isolation and my despair at being separated – by something unseen – from the inspiration I need to write and fill my life to overflowing.
I stood at the kitchen sink, robotically washing dishes. I paused, my gaze landing on a hand-painted jug on the window ledge, raindrops running down the glass. I clung to the sink with soapy hands, hunched forward, eyes clenched shut, terrified that I might miss another deadline, that I’d never have another moment of revelation, the inspiration that flows in and fills me up then spills over into my writing and my online coaching.
As with all forms of poetry, there are divisions and differing beliefs among experts, with regard to form, subject manner and approach, but as a rough rule of thumb, when I say ‘traditional’ haiku, I mean those written by the Japanese grand masters, or written by devotees who have studied the masters and are experts in Japanese culture, language and aesthetics. My personal favourite haiku were actually written by North Americans. I love how they took the ball and ran with it. I also love urban haiku, and the grey area where haiku meets senryu, the poetry that focuses on human nature.
Essence, awareness and compassion
A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe…a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. ~ Albert Einstein
Haiku, real haiku, help us see into the life of things, to become more spiritual, compassionate and aware. Traditionally, haiku are direct, sensuous and real, and they centre us in the eternal NOW, even if they also allude to a literary heritage or recognised seasonal representations. If we write a haiku, we don’t tell the reader how we felt, or how they should feel, we simply paint the perception, in all its fresh immediacy, and let them experience it themselves. In haiku, something is what it is.
The aim of every haiku is to recreate the poet’s experience in the reader, and then ripple outwards like the ripples from a pebble in a pond, as the reader adds their own life experiences to the emotion conveyed by the poet. In some ways, the best haiku are invisible, because in reading them, we are taken directly to the emotion the poet was experiencing, and in that way are connected to something universal and eternal.
We write haiku to keenly perceive – and then re-create – what we experience in Nature; in that way, our awareness is strengthened, and we are reminded that we are part of the life force that is in all things. In traditional haiku, human nature is secondary to what’s referred to as Greater Nature.
Haiku are deceptively simple. Although writing them requires a sharp eye, an accute inner ear, deft use of simple but vivifying vocabulary and skillful juxtaposition of carefully chosen images, they’re not full of poeticism, abstract anthropocentricity, intricate personal symbolism, figurative language, complex poetic devices or intellectual cleverness; nor are they puzzles or simply word games that seem like a great way to introduce beginners to poetry. For many people, haiku are a form of Zen meditation, a mindset and a way of experiencing life with heightened awareness, compassion and empathy for all creatures.
to the pouring rain ~ Michael McClintock
In their purest form, they capture concisely, in a flash of awareness, the essence of something in Nature, or one of life’s fascinating dramas or everyday occurences.
at dusk hot water from the hose ~ Marlene Mountain
That one reminds me of how, in my friend’s seaside home in Greece, I always washed off the sea salt with an outdoor hose after swimming in the sea. The loops and coils of the hose lay spread out in the dusty yard all day, the water in them warming in the sun.
Haiku don’t have to describe the beautiful, but they do need to convey some kind of life essence.
The very best haiku alter our perceptions and change the way we see things.
On nearing the surf,
every footprint becomes
that of the sea… ~ James W. Hackett
They can also help us connect two seemingly disparate things and often seemlessly merge details with the universal.
The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves
I love the poignancy of this one by Eric Amann, and its gentle power to take us beyond the graveyard to issues of life, memory and death; nature and the passing of the seasons claim us all as equals in the end.
In the following poem, not only is the image beautiful, but when I read somewhere later that the author, Richard Wright is an African American, it added an extra, though not necessary, dimension.
In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white
In writing haiku, we learn to love the details of our lives and treasure our own experiences as life-filled beings in the grand scheme of things.
My next post will be focusing on the How (the form) of haiku and will probably present an analysis of a few of my favourite haiku before we have our next wee poetry writing flurry!
Until then, here are a few places to read some wonderful haiku. Why don’t you share a few of your favourites with us and explain why they touched you.
- Get a library or second hand copy of Fresh Scent by Lee Gurga.
- If you’d like to learn how to write, share and teach haiku, please help me send my kids to college by buying Higginson’s definitive book on haiku from my bookshop. 😉
- This interesting essay is full of examples from The Haiku Anthology, which is also for sale in my bookshop.