On Haiku

I am now a dad!! Truth be told, I could barely get through reading Daphne one paragraph from Alice in Wonderland before losing it. Since then, I have resorted to reading Haiku. It’s perfect! If she gets fussy (or if I get sentimental), we only need to finish a couple of syllables before finding ourselves at a good place to pause.

I am a bit ashamed of myself that I have not yet explored Haiku as fully as possible. It seems that in the hype surrounding ecocriticism, one of the oldest genres that epitomizes deep ecology somehow slipped past me. Daphne and I are half-way through Haiku Moment: An Anthology of North American Haiku—and as a consequence of delving into the introduction and of experiencing Haiku—I have deepened my understanding of Haiku. By experiencing Haiku, I mean not only reading it, but writing it. I hope to write 101 Haiku in the next month or so.

For those interested, here are five basic (but no less profound) guidelines to reading and writing Haiku.  (Note, all facts on Haiku are found in the introduction to Haiku Moment.)

1) For starters, throw out the 5-7-5. Truth be told, the Japanese syllabic unit is much shorter than the English. As a result, it only takes twelve or so English syllables to span the same amount of time as seventeen Japanese syllables. Syllabic count, in my opinion, is not as crucial as the sense of brevity. The whole idea is that a Haiku should read in one breath. The philosophical implications of this are many. One breath. One moment. Being present in one moment, even if it is only one breath of one’s entire life. We die in one breath. We also read Haiku in one breath. It accentuates our mortality.

2) Haiku is not simply painting with words. It is not simply an image. It is image based, but there is something more going on in the depiction of nature. I used to think that Haiku was simply using language to play close attention to the details of nature, but such attention to detail ought to lead to a union with nature. There should be an explicit or implicit dynamism within this movement from attention to union. Part of the reason why I decided to begin writing Haiku is because this is precisely what I seek to accomplish through my nature photography. I am not only trying to capture the wild details of a moment, but through that, to evoke a deep connection with nature.

3) However, this union with nature is complicated by a paradoxical tension. A sense of existential loneliness permeates Haiku. I am reminded of what Dr. Briggs calls “the primal paradox”—the fact that we are simultaneously individual and communal. Haiku accentuates this paradox, for the existential loneliness coexists with a profound union with nature. I am also reminded of Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” juxtaposed with Song of Myself. In the former, the speaker seeks connection with nature. Song of Myself celebrates the innumerable connections his soul made. All said, the tension between loneliness and union is one reason why Haiku is not as simple as one might think. Moreover, this tension is perhaps one of the most prevalent motifs in all of art. Once a person becomes sensitized to it, it emerges everywhere (I think of Dorothea Lange’s “White Angel Breadline”:

4) Haiku has a distinct (but varied) rhythm and sound. Often, there is a sharp break, accentuated either by a line break or by some form of punctuation. There should be, as most people know, an epiphany, a lightening, a clarity created in part by the break. But the sound is what most interests me. One way poets seek to emphasize the dynamism of interrelationships in nature, through Haiku, is through the cross-stitching of sounds. “Cross-stitch” is the apt metaphor, for when a sound surfaces again and again in various syllables of a Haiku, the repetition reinforces the idea that the various nouns and verbs are interrelated, sharing the same sounds, sharing the same breath of a moment. To illustrate, here is one of my recent attempts:

dew drops slide down
a linden leaf into
a caterpillar’s crawl

Five d’s and one l of the first line blend into the two l’s and one d of the second. In the third, the l’s continue within the new sound of the c’s. The dew, after all, slides down a leaf and into a caterpillar. The dew and leaf and caterpillar are all related, and the cross-stitching of the sounds helps reinforce the idea of union. (Of course, it is a solitary caterpillar, which still preserves the sense of loneliness and isolation…it is a paradox).

5) I have saved the best for last: grammar. Ha ha. If you read this far, you might as well keep going. I have found that, compared to all other genres of poetry, grammar is most apropos in Haiku. Because of the sparseness, every word counts. We get one verb, maybe, to do everything. That verb has to count. Many Haiku present the context, give a subject, and then spin it with a verb. Other Haiku simply present nouns. However, I am most fascinated by the participles. As a refresher, present participles are verbs (often “ing” words, but watch out for irregular conjugations) that are used as descriptors. Consequently, a properly placed participle adds a tremendous amount of verbal energy. Think of it. Using motion as an adjective. Here is another one of my attempts served to illustrate this principle:

old weeping willow—
swaying branches
leaping squirrels

There is no verb!—yet everything moves. The grammar of Haiku raises a philosophical conundrum. Our language divides the world into objects (nouns) that move (verbs) which is a gross translation of what is actual. Perhaps it is the participle that is most actual as it modifies a noun (rather that telling us what the noun does) for nouns are never not doing something. I notice that even in our grammar, the tension between loneliness and union exists. Words are isolated and can be given parts of speech; yet each word exists in and depends on a union with other words.

Well, that is all I have on Haiku now. I hope that the following (re)creates moments of clarity I have experienced:

fir forest
distant scent
stirs the nostrils of bear

butterflies alight
with vermillion wings
amongst ponderous sequoia

ruby throat wing beats
flutter the ochre leaves
of alpine aspen

alpine storm—dusky
skyscape of color above
a tree’s purple cones

solitary stand
of cottonwood filters
rising sounds of stream

old weeping willow—
swaying branches
leaping squirrels

through the spacious crown
of a winter elm
a hawk swoops

cauldron of color
bud of poppy

caterpillar—one end
wrapped to a rock by spider

innumerable mosquitoes—
flitting bats

gusty gale
two eagles finesse
a landing

stagnant summer air
scarcely a puff
colossal lead fails

raccoon vanish through
the cracked corner
of an abandoned trailer

precipitous cirque
cradles a lush meadow—
innumerable columbine

deep fresh powder—dawn
floods everything but the hollows
where rabbits leapt

dust swirls around the thud
of a sequoia cone’s

bumble bee
circumnavigates a bulging
bud of peony

storm-blasted spruce
merely jostles in the rush
of avalanche

one owl dead—
the other perches
on a yellow line

dew drops slide down
a linden leaf into
a caterpillar’s crawl

shadow of sequoia
engulfs a lumbering
black bear

spring thaw—a pine’s
icicles chime beneath
the feet of songbirds

catalpa blossoms—
in midnight’s moon

dust settles
on the shaggy flanks
of bison

plowed mountain road (sides
eight feet high)—beneath distant
stars a moose trots

aspen leaves quake
from the tines
of a snorting elk

midsummer sun—
in the bark’s thick folds
a bat hunkers

granite batholiths
heavy summer rains
infinite rivulets


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