The Why In The Way Of Haiku
Everyone has read a haiku. Perhaps you have even been enchanted by one. So much so you found yourself remembering the few lines. Or maybe you couldn't remember the exact words, but the memory persists of how you felt when you read them. The tiny thrill of discovery to the depths of the poem. How similar it was to your own moments of inspiration. And yet so many other haiku you have read leave you, as we say, cold. Unfeeling, or if any feeling, it one of, "so what?"
Perhaps, by clinging to the miracle of one haiku, you have even written a few. Later, finding your haiku attempts in a notebook among your longer poems, you may have felt they were too minimal, too slight, not worth saving and certainly not worth publishing. Perhaps you have been missing something.
As some who has been writing haiku since 1967 (I still remember my first one!) I want to share a secret with you. Haiku, as poetry, are not important enough to publish. I feel 99% of them, being treated as poetry, should not have ink wasted on them. And yet, paradox that it is, you should read every haiku which you can find.
Before you toss this article aside in disgust let me back up to the first secret. Haiku are not important as poetry. Among writers of haiku, this statement alone would illicit shouts, fists, dire threats. In the calmest situation would be debates involving warnings of legal action and damnation to Netherworlds. Persons drawn to haiku are passionate (in spite of the coolness the genre shows) and extremely thin-skinned (for all the right reasons).
On one side, the voices of the hard realists, maintain that haiku are too short to engage the mind for a sustained effort to build to a fitting climax. Maybe a sequence of haiku could be tried, but still, the short and extremely compact stanzas do not have a flow that we poets use to float our reader into our reality. Each haiku seems a tightly rolled bundle – complete in itself. You can string them together like beads but they do not function as clothing – to cover nakedness. As poets, we feel we have too much to say, to be limiting ourselves to the too-few syllables of haiku to be concerned with ornamentation when there are worlds to conquer, souls to save.
Still someone has to ask, "If haiku are not poetry, why are poets so interested in the form?" The quick answer can save your having to read the rest of this article – because the writing of haiku, the seeking for haiku material, changes one's way of relating to this world. You may protest that you are old enough to know how to relate to this world and you have your poetry to prove it. But if I could show you a way to open up your world to bring you to a new level of appreciating and exploring it? Would that not be helpful? Or at least interesting?
Like all secrets to eternal life or the fountain of youth, just reading the map does not get you there. You have to practice doing something. "Well, what?" you ask, impatiently – as your next poems stirs fetus-like within you. It is hard to explain. Basho is credited with saying, "Go to the pine. Become the pine." And that is not wrong. It just is not enough.
Okay, so first you have to find a bit of nature. If you live in the city you may be reduced to going to a potted plant or head of lettuce. The skinny tree growing out of bare cement sidewalks along a busy thoroughfare is not the place to start. You need quiet. Quiet for you and for the bit of nature. You need to make yourself quiet. Even if you have climbed to the very top of a mountain you will need to get quiet. (Here on the mountain, or in the wind and crash of waves at the sea, it could take longer than sitting with a cauliflower at your kitchen table.) You have to create an island of quiet within yourself. If this sounds impossible, and improbable, you may want to study some form of meditation. It can only help you. If you are already acquainted with meditation, you know the procedure for shutting off your internal dialog.
This action can be very frightening for poets because out of internal dialog comes all the poetry! Shut it off? What if it never starts up again? Don't worry it will. All too easily. What is hard is the job of getting it to shut up for a second. Some people get very stuck at this point, others sail on by as if second nature. Either way you are still on the same path.
That path is a way to let another entity, the soul – the spirit – the essence of the bit of nature you are contemplating come to your island of quiet. Welcome it as a guest. There is a part of you that is lettuce, or houseplant. Let the two parts of this oneness join within your awareness.
Usually you will find the two parts are either associative – something in you is like an aspect of the lettuce. Or contrasting – the lettuce has an aspect no other thing has. Or some aspect of the thing in nature can be compared in some way.
As a part of you explores these ideas; searching for the oneness of you and whatever you have invited into yourself, a shift will occur. You may, or may not, be aware of it. You will surely be aware of it, when you pop back into your ordinary reality.
Don't be so shocked by the experience that you forget what you felt as you contemplated the invited object. It still has value beyond its considerable benefit in being able to transport you into a new awareness – another level of existence. It can teach you to write.
We use writing for so many purposes – from grocery lists to notes to remember to take out the trash. But writing only becomes Writing when it is challenged to follow certain rules. "Ah," you are thinking, "now she hits us with those damned rules of haiku – silly syllables of 5-7-5, three lines, nature, kigo, sabi, wabi and who knows what else." Not necessarily. But you have to edges to your writing, margins or rules. You give meaning to your words by framing them to enclose definite spaces. So there have to be rules. The good news is that you can make them up. True. I kid you not. You are a free being. If you decide you want rules to guide you in setting down your experiences when you have "stopped the world", then you have to take the responsibility of making them up.
So much has already been tried in the 300 + years of haiku (counting, of course, its beginning in Japan) and in this century in English, you would have to go very far afield to find something new. But that is not necessary. Just take some of the oldest, most basic ones. Maybe you are well-read enough to know that 5-7-5 onji (sound syllables in Japanese) do not equate English syllables, so you can choose to write in beats of 3 - 5 - 3 or whatever feels right to you. Line lengths of short, long, short. Does that do it for you? If not, go back to the first haiku that ever knocked your socks off. Figure out the rules that author was following and try them on for size. Don't worry about getting locked into a box. As soon as you become accomplished using any set of rules, the genius in you will ask for a new set and you will be off exploring your capabilities with them.
One word of caution. If you ever come to the idea of publishing your haiku, you will be forced (the editor's rejection slips) to follow the set of rules s/he follows. This situation is not all bad. From it you can learn new ways of writing, you can find a group of people on the same wave-length as yourself, and you can find out what bores you intensely so that you move on to something else.
Return with me please, to that moment when you realize you have just experienced a shift in realities – you have found a new relationship between separate entities. A light goes on and you see a linkage you never saw before. With your few rules in place, you write down the experience. Well, one of two things can happen. Either the words fall into place in your mind and your hand records them and your heart delights in them. Or, you will write (scribble in the excitement) attempt after attempt to convey your enlightened experience. Take heart, I am still not totally happy with my haiku from my first haiku moment. I have tried and I have moved on to other moments. Enough to get addicted to the joy, delight and pleasure of getting the few words to carry a reader's mind to my experience so they can relive what I have.
This joy, delight and pleasure are the sugar on the stick. That is not what nourishes. It only pulls you into the realm of experiencing the basic essences of things (all things are nature, you will learn – the wood in your desk, the fanciest computer, and even the humans around you!).
As writer, as poet, you have one purpose. To go where other people do not have time or interest or ability to go. And to return. And then report. You go to gather your visions. You come back mentally refreshed and charged up with those energies. Then you transform that silent knowledge into words. The very best words in the best order you can.
At this point you will be dimly aware that you have been given gifts – gifts from the other side of the world. Now what do you do with them? A few people will be strong enough to hide them forever in desk drawers. Most will not. The urge to share the haiku (or poems – haiku has no exclusivity on this) will be so powerful – often an indication of the power of the original experiences! -- that you will spend money, spend time, spend, spend spend to get the poems into the hands of others. Well, is that so terrible? No, of course, not. If you had not read the haiku someone else spent all this care, money and time on, you never would have had the mind-altering experience of writing haiku. You would not have lived your days with a great openness in your being which has welcomed the entities of so many parts of your world. And isn't that what we are here for? To experience this plane as deeply and broadly as we can in one lifetime? And then to make sure the person coming along behind us can grab the flickering baton that illuminates again and again.
And maybe the form will not be only haiku. At the edge of your fingertips exists tanka and renga, sijo, cinquains, ghazals – so much mystery and majesty for you to fill from yourself.