A favorite haiku of mine by the Japanese poet Hokushi
[d. 1718] carries a transcendent message:
ashes my burnt hut
but wonderful the cherry
blooming on my hill
When I'm feeling overwhelmed with my two teen daughters,
with the stress of work, or with difficulties in
a relationship, I like to visit these ancient poets.
Hokushi reminds me that these difficulties are about
being human, that life is composed of a series of
burned huts followed by blooms on the hill. Of course,
when ones hut is burning, looking to the blooms
isn't as easy as it sounds. Still, it helps to have
Hokushi's haiku singing in my ear.
I became interested in haiku poetry while photographing
and then building a web site on the Kurimoto Japanese
Garden, located near my home in Edmonton, Province
of Alberta, Canada. I decided to provide a mix of
Asian poetry and information on Japanese Gardens
on the site. Using the Internet I found my way to
a number of Asian poetry web sites, became enthralled
with the poetic power of haiku, and started to read
haiku poetry. While exploring, I found a number
of lists where current haiku poets [called haijin]
share their work and where interested novices can
get instruction. I was on my way to writing my own
haiku. What could be easier, I thought, than writing
a 17-syllable, 3-line poem!
But, like producing quality photographs, it wasn't
so easy to write a good haiku. Also like photography,
composing quality haiku turned out to be more a
process, a way of being in the world, than a quick
route to a product. Both photography and haiku composition
lead to an intense focusing on direct experience
that is different from normal daily living. For
example, normal practice when visiting a place like
the Kurimoto Garden might be to walk around, chat
with a friend, enjoy the sunshine, hold hands, look
at the elements of the garden, that sort of thing.
Instead, when engaged in the process of photography,
I focus in, attempting to isolate forms and colors
that strike my aesthetic sense. Looking through
the lens, composing the frame, selecting the camera
settings, imagining the print, all these provide
a deeply relaxing contemplation of place. Time becomes
frozen, passes quickly. I spent 5 hours at Kurimoto,
shot 3 rolls of film, and suddenly found myself
in darkness. Where did the day go?
Similarly, the process of haiku composition is
not an activity that takes place exclusively at
ones desk. Instead, on a walk in the woods or when
visiting a coffee house, one learns to pay attention
to events [called 'haiku moments'] that stand out.
This spring, when the geese and ducks had just begun
returning to Canada, I was deeply immersed in the
silence of a nearby forest and heard a single sound
-- the call of a male mallard. I stood listening
in on his conversation with his smaller mate. Louis
Armstrong's raspy voice came to mind. If you've
ever heard Louie sing, "I'm in the mood for
love," you understand the power of the rasp
as I experienced it on that quiet day. I began to
compose a haiku in my mind, played with possible
verses, continued my walk, caught a streamside glimpse
of Mr. and Ms. Mallard, and when I returned home,
wrote this haiku:
the rasp of a mallard
calling his mate
You may or may not like this haiku, and, yes, it
matters to me whether you do. But, whether or not
I produced a great haiku, I had a great walk, one
that was enhanced by the practice of focusing my
attention in the mallard's love talk, of paying
attention to the stream of associations that flowed
from that experience.
The Japanese haijin greats like Basho [Matsuo Basho,
1644-1694] were wandering monks. In his mid-30s,
Basho spent years traveling the Japanese countryside
visiting Buddhist monasteries and holy places. The
name Bashó (banana tree) is a sobriquet he
adopted around 1681 after moving into a simple hut
with a banana tree alongside. Influenced by Buddhist
precepts, his haiku captured those fleeting, momentary
sensations on the edge of perception to which we
don't normally give our attention. Here's Basho
using his perceptions to describe life as a series
of connected associations:
the swinging bridge
is quieted with creepers -
this tendrilled life
The haiku process encourages a meditative focus:
stopping, looking, listening, contemplating, paying
greater attention. And, later, back at the desk,
the composition of the haiku itself is another meditative
experience: remembering, re-experiencing, composing.
I had but 17 syllables in which to attempt a description
of my 'haiku moment' in the forest with the mallards.
As I continued my walk, and then later at my desk,
I played with phrases, tried to eliminate my natural
tendency to interpret: 'a beautiful mallard,' 'his
wonderful, raspy call,' 'the delicious afternoon
silence,' the Louis Armstrong sexiness of the drake's
call,' -- each of these phrases tell rather than
describe. Instead, the goal is to describe in such
a way that a person reading the poem has an experience
akin to the immediacy of the poet's experience.
A final component of haiku practice, itself meditative,
is the reading of the haiku of other poets, the
old masters as well as current writers. I've now
formed the practice of reading aloud, of allowing
my critical voices to pass and of moving imaginatively
into the experience that the poet presents.
Given its origins in the wandering and writing
of Japanese ascetics, it's understandable that many
of today's competent haiku poets emphasize the Zen-like
aspects of the process of haiku composition. For
example, among the practices for writing good haiku
offered by James Hackett are the following:
- NOW is the touchstone of the haiku experience,
so remain centered in this eternal present of life.
- Remember that Greater Nature -- not human nature
-- is the province of haiku.
- Contemplate natural objects closely: unseen wonders
(and dramas) will reveal themselves.
- Spiritually interpenetrate and empathize with
nature. Become One with 'things,' for ultimately,
"That art Thou."
- Reflect upon your notes of nature in solitude
and silence. Allow these recollected feelings be
the basis of your haiku poem.
James Hackett, Suggestions For Creating Haiku Poetry,
World Haiku Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1: March 2003