An Invitation to Haiku

Written by Sean Felix

Growing up I learned very quickly that most words that people use are empty. We’ve created language so that we can convey ideas and emotions, but our words often fail us, either because we don’t think through what we are saying, or we are hiding what we truly want to say. The act of speaking often gets garbled. Hell, I’m a good reader, and when prepared, a good speaker, but if I want to tell someone I’m attracted to them I fall apart into the worst mealy-mouthed imbecile. So, I still suffer from the worst of our human tendency, though I am trying my damnedest to get better.

This is why the economy of language is so attractive and important, particularly in writing. As a writer, and as a reader, I want each line to function like a spell. They should retain their own power while lending themselves to weaving a greater whole. The poem, in this particular case should begin and end with words and phrases that evoke. The image/feeling should appear the moment you start, and not let go until the poem ends. Longform poetry presents a problem in this case, if the poet doesn’t have command of what they are trying to say. Mixed metaphor, poor line structure/breaks, weak imagery, and stilted voice are some of the most obvious problems that even great poets encounter. Shorter forms present a challenge and a freedom in this respect, which brings us to haiku.

A poetic artform created by the Japanese, known for its elegance and beauty and also its seeming simplicity has spread throughout the world. In some cases the haiku gets used as a child’s introduction to poetry, because of its easy to learn structure. The traditional haiku is three lines, follows a 5-7-5 syllable, or sound unit pattern, and is generally about nature. You give this to the kid and say “go!” But if you step away from that classroom and take a cursory glance around at the haiku produced by the Japanese masters: Basho, Buson, Shiki, and Issa, and then those by some American practitioners: Kerouac, Wright, and Sanchez; you’ll see that haiku has an infinite power.

Within three lines, and in the case of American haiku sometimes two or four, the poet is challenged to evoke an image/feeling in the reader, which then challenges the reader to complete the image/feeling in response to the evocation. For example, an autumn haiku by Buson:

Three times it cried out
but now not heard anymore,
a deer in the rain.

 Here the scene is set with a crying out, a desperation. We want to know what it is that is crying out, and we begin to craft possibilities in our heads. When we move to the next line the poet may give us a resolution, but Buson challenges us further by telling us that the cries have ceased. What are we witnessing? If it was crying out, it must be experiencing some sort of pain, but what has made the pain stop? Did it get better? Or, was the pain so overwhelming that the “it” succumbed? We are drawn deeper. Finally, he tells us what is crying out, “a deer in the rain.” Now we see can see it fully. For me, I see a rainy day in the woods, with hunters stalking their freshly shot prey. Deer are normally very quiet, so something very painful must be happening to it. It must be dying, and we are witness to its final breaths. I imagine an autumn forest with the leaves changing color, and the raindrops sliding across reds, yellows, and greens onto the body of the deer, as the hunters approach from afar. The only sound that can be heard at the end is the sound of the rain falling.

Wow! What an incredible scene. But notice how much work that I did in reading this poem, which is why I say that the haiku requires not only a talented writer, but also a fully engaged reader. A short search online and you’ll find very famous haiku by Basho (my personal favorite), and many other writers, all of whom are capturing moments in time that are at times revelatory, humorous, sad, crass, and beautiful.

I’ll end this post with a challenge. Find something near you, or think about an experience you’ve had today. Try to write about the singular thing or moment from 3 different perspectives using the haiku form, just for practice. Again, if you are unfamiliar with the haiku, traditionally, it is a 3-line poem that follows a 5-7-5 syllable or sound unit pattern: so, first line, 5 syllables, second line, 7 syllables, third line, 5 syllables. Usually, a haiku will have a cutting word, and a seasonal reference. For our purposes here and because the pandemic sort of creates a special circumstance I would count the pandemic as its own season. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, your haiku should be written in the present tense.

You’ve been reading some of my haiku on the site for a while now. Please continue to check those out and engage. I’ll leave you here with one of mine from a walk in the woods this winter. Good luck, happy writing, and check in as I write more about haiku!

the heron’s footsteps
hush in the bamboo forest
snowbells bow their heads

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