by Tom Clausen
Ten years ago, when I first dipped my toe into the haiku pond rather tentatively, I was nervous with excitement and amazed at how kindred and welcoming my first contacts were. The feeling that I got from haiku was true gladness to have discovered a manner of expression that completely clicks for me – it just simply felt right, perfectly concise, precise and not telling me how or what to feel as much as simply giving me the wholly decent chance to get there on my own. The brevity and discipline of the haiku form was the obvious antidote to combat my tendency toward wordiness, overstatement and excess. It was entirely refreshing to me that haiku insisted on the writer utilizing the fewest words possible – to convey the poetic in the ordinary anywhere, anytime.
I can remember early on being so happy with haiku that internally I vowed to read and write haiku for the rest of my life. Such was the appeal and strength of feeling I had then and still have to this day.
Admittedly, in these past ten years there have been moments of doubt, dry spells, lulls and wonders – if I had maybe lost my way and lost interest in haiku. Yet repeatedly, I’ve discovered that reading haiku and finding good poems can and will spark my interest and get me going again. A great haiku is its own best endorsement. To read a great haiku is bound to reinvigorate anyone who has at any time felt the magnetic charm of haiku. The true satisfaction I get from each great haiku is but one of the reasons I avidly remain engaged and feel assured now as I did ten years ago, that I’ll keep reading and writing for a long time to come if not for the rest of my life.
Haiku puzzle me. There are many haiku I read that don’t move me and do disappoint. Yet I find most haiku at least pleasant and many I find wonderfully intriguing, even inspiring. The very best haiku often appear seamlessly “easy” to have written. This, of course, is rarely so, which makes the illusion of ease beguiling. Speaking for myself here, I feel no closer to any consistent ability to write a good haiku now than I did when I began ten years ago. This phenomena is both compelling to keep at it, and of course, a bit to a lot frustrating. It does guarantee a perpetual state of beginningness that is somewhat unique and humbling. It is quite appealing that haiku are highly portable and can be worked on as an exercise in the mind wherever you are until it becomes itself, just right.
John Stevenson once wrote in a letter to me that he viewed his joining the haiku community on the order of moving to a new small town where the community was both welcoming and eclectically interesting. I knew what he meant – it spoke well for my own sense of connection and camaraderie that began almost immediately after I read a news article in an Ithaca paper profiling Ruth Yarrow. Shortly after reading this awakening article, I sought out anything “haiku” I could find – my first source was Cor’s HAIKU ANTHOLOGY through which I then subscribed to Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Wind Chimes and Brussel Sprouts, to name a few.
The breadth and brilliance I discovered in the many voices I read at that time instantly aroused in me a sense of deep inner knowing and inspiration that is the connection of a well-conceived haiku. I’ll never forget the initial immersion and beautiful opining I felt reading poems like these from Cor’s Anthology:
time after time
caterpillar climbs this broken stem
then probes beyond
– James Hackett
the swan’s head
turns away from sunset
to his dark side
– Anita Virgil
turning the pillow
to the cool side
– Cor van den Heuvel
leans upon the snag
just beneath the boat
With my own writing, I have learned repeatedly not to trust myself and to graciously place my trust in the editors, haiku community, friends and my wife to discern what is truly worthy of being submitted or published. Here is my sense of what goes into haiku creation – from a letter written to Jim Kacian:
Over the years I’ve valued very much the little notes of feedback from editors – we each find our way more or less collectively by virtue of the community where the group is constantly giving guidance to the individual. I often feel than any little success I’ve had is less about me and more about the range of editors and haiku friends, and the guidance I’ve received simply be reading widely what’s out there, then forgetting it, but letting the spirit of it seep into and permeate my
I am tremendously grateful for the work of editors who in tireless devotion sift and cull from the masses of submission those that they deem worthy. The number of off-base, uninspired, and maybe even embarrassing attempts at haiku I’ve created over this past decade is highly relevant to why I must keep at it. With hope that an improved sense of craft and consistency will develop!
Somewhere I read that Basho wrote about 2000 haiku in his life of which 100 or so are considered excellent, and of which he believed there were maybe ten that truly hit the mark. This is a tough ratio but perhaps holds a realistic perspective for us all. Excellent haiku craft requires tireless resolve to keep at it despite the misses and bunches of weaker attempts, with hope that out of the effort will surely come some keepers, and, if we are lucky, serendipity may provide an opportunity to create a haiku that will stand the test of time.
There is no way to predict what will become worthy, but the whole process of jotting notes, refining, submitting and seeing what gets selected is a near endless divination of what is and is not haiku. This could playfully be called the Haiku Wars and they are no doubt as endless as the poets putting their heart into the form. It is worth keeping at it just to see what and who next will break the surface of our haiku pond, either jumping in, feeding or getting out.
A major reason I keep reading haiku is that I hope to find good ones or another haiku that simply “wows” me and fills me with a grateful sense of being alive, so that I am one with that haiku moment (even if just a flash!).
At work nearly ten years ago, I posted this poem by Ryokan:
the thief left it behind
at the window
- Keep it simple. The more you say
- the less people remember.
after the garden party the garden
HAIKU HAPPENS, as a bumper sticker proclaims, will happen to us only if we remain open and ready to engage in the range of myriad nuances and subtle cues from nature that are voices simultaneously taking us inward and outward, connecting us with the nature we have come from and will return to.
In R.H. Blyth’s THE HISTORY OF HAIKU, he lists thirteen characteristics of the state of mind which the creation and appreciation of haiku demand. They are:
- 1. Selflessness
- 2. Loneliness
- 3. Grateful acceptance
- 4. Wordlessness
- 5. Non-intellectuality
- 6. Contradictoriness
- 7. Humor
- 8. Freedom
- 9. Non-morality
- 10. Simplicity
- 11. Materiality
- 12. Love
- 13. Courage
- 1. Faith
- 2. Sharing
- 3. Discipline
- 4. Concision
- 5. Solitude
- 6. Humility
- 7. Awareness
- 8. Ritual
- 9. Creativity
- 10. Centering
- 11. Truthfulness
- 12. Curiosity
- 13. Patience
Creativity is moving with one’s life and recognizing it to be worth recording and recreating in part of in whole.
No one escapes unscathed the pains and burdens in life. We each develop ways of dealing with these inevitable aspects of life. For me, haiku and the centering that it inspires has provided a useful strategy for coping with more difficult times. At times, our existence creates a paradoxical tension where we feel a potential to be unified with everyone and everything, yet feel simultaneously, every alone and separate . . . to me, a haiku is a harmonizing of unity and separation.
Basho, in the following taken from Eric Amann’s highly recommended book on haiku, WORDLESS POEM, further suggests the utter truthfulness of haiku when he states, Haiku are a way of seeing, hearing and feeling, a special state of consciousness in which we grasp intuitively the identity of people and nature and the continuity between ourselves and the larger cosmos.
Further, Basho said, Learn from the pine about the pine, from the bamboo about the bamboo. But always leave your old self behind, otherwise it will get between you and the object. Poetry springs out of its own when you and the object have become one, when you have looked deep into nature to see the hidden gleam. No matter how well worded your poems may be, if the feeling is not natural, if you and object have not become one, your poems are not true haiku, but merely imitations of reality.
I’d like to conclude with a final thought that summarizes what sustains my haiku habit. Haiku for me is the perfect record of my simply existing here and now. Each haiku, in a way, can be thought of as a farewell poem – an acceptance of the transitory nature of everything. Reading entries from a lifetime’s worth of my journals is at this point, only of minimal interest to me, and I’m sure not even that to anyone else. Yet the better of those haiku I’ve written, I am pleased to return to and would be happy to have someone else find and read someday.
- the damsel fly leaving
- the lily again and again
- only to return
The above paper was read by the author at the Haiku Society of America meeting, September 19, 1998. Grateful thanks to the poets for permission
to reprint their haiku here.
BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE
Learn how to listen as things speak for themselves – Basho