School of Haiku 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Three
Finding Haiku

If you have not already found haiku popping up in your mind, here are some thoughts that may help you let the haiku find you.

Each of us will have our own personal reason for wanting to write haiku, but for me the way I live in order to be prepared to receive haiku inspiration is more valuable to me than the poems I finally do write. You see, in order to be open to being given the haiku (and I do believe they are given to us as gifts) we need to go through life with a certain attitude. People actually speak of living The Way of Haiku. This does not mean you must become a Zen Buddhist, or live on a remote mountain wearing one robe, sit with your legs crossed or try to be anyone but yourself. But there are distinct attitudes that will increase and enrich the haiku you write and your life.

  1. Being aware – This means just being in the moment, using your senses to test each environment anew all the time - noticing what is around and how each part relates to the other. Instead of thinking thoughts, you use your mind to check out what is. This is also called ‘centering’ because when you can shut down the voice within that nags, complains, and irritates, you reach a state of equilibrium.

    out of earth
    the flower shape
    of a hole

    By actually seeing that the hole dug for the seed already has the shape of flower, one has a new awareness of dirt and flowers and their relationship.

2.  Being non-judgmental - most of our lives and much of our inner dialogue with ourselves concerns saying, “This is good.” and “That is bad.” This kind of thinking about ourselves feeds and supplies that nagging voice within that is so disruptive to our peace of mind. The more we can view everything and everyone as being neither good nor bad but as simply being what it is, the easier it is to shut down that inner voice and open ourselves up to the majesty of the world around us.

a mouse and I share
her nest in the sock drawer
a house in the woods

Instead of freaking out over finding a mouse in the drawer, one accepts that living in the woods, where mice live, means that living spaces are going to overlap.

3.  Being reverent - to appreciate the smallness which is the grandness of haiku one needs a reverence for life. This means not only a kindly feeling for other persons, and a gentleness with other living beings but also for the things that we normally do not think as living – rocks, rivers, mountains, houses, rooms, and  utensils. When one lives as if everything is sacred, which it is if you really think about it, we relate to the things in our environment in a much more responsible way. When one really understands the marvels in a square inch of earth – its history, its journey, its purposes, the vast richness of its being, how can one pollute it, desecrate it or demean it?
            There is a story told of Bashô and his favorite student, Kikaku. One day Kikaku, who was very impulsive and the wit of the group, came running up to Bashô with his newest and most wonderful verse. Probably dancing and gesturing broadly Kikaku read:

pulling off
the wings of the dragonfly
a red pepper

            You see what his thought was, don’t you? In Japan there is a species of large dragonflies with bright red bodies. If you pulled off the wings, the curving, pointed body, what remained would look like a small red pepper.
            Very quietly, and with a gentle smile Bashô offered a correction:

adding wings
to the red pepper
a dragonfly

4. Having a sense of oneness - the above example also exhibits the idea that all things are in all things. There is a red pepper in the dragonfly. Often the reality of this thinking comes in an experience known as “satori” or enlightenment when the person comprehends the completeness, the oneness of all existence. Instead of looking at the world for differences, if one searches for the common ground, it becomes easier for us to get along with each other as humans and in the world of nature. Some of the techniques of haiku are built on the idea that even very dissimilar things have a common bond. Finding this fulcrum point is the basis for many, many haiku.

all the days of a life
going into a gull

One aspect that pulls the things of the world together is the food chain. Life, and the passage of the time of a life, is taken from one to be given to another. Even the material of stars is exchanged between us.

5.  Having a sense of simplicity - haiku, as no other poetry form, demands simplicity. Not only are the subjects of haiku the simple things of life, but the way of writing must be in the most simple with a succinct and  exact use of words. In paring down our words, as well as our view of the world, we come to understand that in this age of increasing commercialism, it is beautiful to adopt simple ways, simple things – to have in life only the necessities. To surround ourselves with the beauty of form instead of ornamentation, with the patina of the well-used instead of the shine of new, with the genuine thing instead of a copy, is a way to profoundly change one’s inner being.

slender coolness
a finger-wide waterfall
into cupped hands

  1. Having humility - the writing of haiku is a practice in humility in many ways. First of all, you will be humbled as you begin to explore the majesty of even the most common things around you. As you learn to look more deeply into each aspect of the universe, the reason, the intelligence, the glory of it will fill you with awe. Secondly, contemporary poetry is based on what the author feels or thinks – which is extremely ego-inflating. Haiku is based on what the author observes. Thus, the focus is not on the inside world, but on that of the outside world. Often this is a step that is very hard for some beginners to take – to stop wanting to tell others what they think, feel, believe or wish to have be reality. For them it is a major advancement to put these goals aside and to simply report on what is. The putting away of personal pronouns is the witness that this step has been taken.
                Another factor of humility that haiku teaches is that you are not the author of any of the haiku. They are gifts given to you by your spirits. They come through you but are not yours. Thus, there is no way the greatness of any of your haiku can add to your estimation of yourself. As soon as you understand that you are already great, wonderful and magnificent, as you truly are, you are on the way to loving yourself and will not need the adulation of others. If someone likes your haiku this tells you much about that person and adds nothing to your own value. Because the haiku only come through you, you can be genuinely proud of them.  In the same way you would show a marvelous gift which your closest friend has made and given to you, you bring a basket of the most perfect apples from your tree to your neighbor.

                        Being in this state or even having a flash of inspiration will not guarantee that the haiku is good, great or even a haiku. For that, one must know how to write and even more specifically, how to write a haiku. There has been a myth passed around the haiku scene that if one has a worthy, deep or lasting “haiku moment” the resulting poem will be a great haiku. This, as all myths, is partly true and fraudulently false. If one knows how to write haiku, the inspiration may seem to write itself in a haiku by itself. Even if one is only barely acquainted with haiku this moment may bring the greatest haiku of all. It can also be that the experience is so mind-blowing that one never really finds the one best haiku to convey the feelings. What surely will happen is that the glory of the moment of inspiration will be so fantastic that no matter whether the resulting haiku is seen as good or weak and poor by others, it remains as a touchstone for you and your special moment.

Since it takes only a little training to become an excellent haiku writer (believe it or not!) there has to be another factor in determining whether work will appeal or not. In addition to being about to write, and to use words effectively, I believe the author’s other most important job is spiritual training. I find that I most easily appreciate the haiku of the most developed souls – the persons who have attained a certain emotional and spiritual maturity.

So how do you know something you are looking at is full of haiku material? One signal I recognize is when I have the urge to turn to someone, even if no one is actually there, to say, "Look at that!" Then I begin to let myself into the thing and from that center, observe what is around it.

I look for images that associate, contrast or compare with the thing that caught my attention and seemed to want to speak with me.

If I am attracted to a wild iris some associative images would be its leaves, the other plants supporting its life, the weather, the season, or the sea meadow.

A contrasting image for the iris could be the unseasonably warm or cold weather, a yellow bug on a purple iris, or a person who plucks the flower, or, or.

A comparative image could be the length of the grass (wild iris are very short here on our seas meadows because of the strong winds) or the great joy a simple flower gives, or, or.

As exercise, pick a thing - a flower or tree you can see - and find an associative, contrasting and comparative image to put with it.

May this little exercise inspire you with many haiku!

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