It’s always a good idea for someone who’s deeply and passionately immersed in any activity to take a step back and look at why they and others devote so much time and energy to it.
I’ve decided to present my rationale for haiku, an ancient type of poetry, in the form of a 21st century listicle in five parts.
Haiku as poetry form
Haiku as a stand-alone form emanated from 17th century Japan. It was named and championed by Basho, known as ‘the Shakespeare of haiku’. In those days, the form tended to be nature-based, but nowadays it also embraces urban living. As the shortest poem in the world, it is seen as being very accessible, and easy to write, but this can be a deceptive perception.
Haiku in English were embraced in the early 20th century by Ezra Pound and the Imagists, and have grown in popularity ever since, with writers as various as Jack Kerouac, REM and Paul Muldoon giving it a go. They are probably best known for their traditional 5-7-5 syllabic count, but this isn’t strictly applicable in the English language, and many feel that capturing the present moment is more important.
Nowadays haiku are often included with sonnets, villanelles and sestinas as exercises in poetry workshops. No harm in that, but the approach to haiku is very different from that to other forms, since inspiration comes from sensations and not from ideas.
Haiku as aide memoire
Because a haiku strives to capture a moment in time, it can act as a little bead of amber on the insect of experience, preserving it for future memory. There are some such moments that I don’t think I would remember if it wasn’t for the fact that I wrote haiku about them. One example of that struck me recently. My siblings and I had been clearing out the family home in preparation for its sale. On our last decluttering trip, as my brother and I were locking up, a song came on the radio. It was Gershwin’s Summertime.
Straight away I was transported to a summer afternoon twelve years earlier, to a house where I lived at the time, right on the river Liffey. My parents, now both gone, had called in to see me, and we were sitting out on the deck. We started singing that song together, a lovely moment that I aimed to capture with this haiku:
late afternoon sun
my voice, my parents’ voices
It’s a memory that’s comforting, especially when you consider the last lines of the song: ‘But till that morning / there’s a ‘nothing can harm you / with daddy and mamma standing by’.
Haiku for editorial rigour
When you have a short number of words and lines to play with, you tend not to be too verbose. Each word has to be chosen carefully. Good haiku poets, like all good writers, primarily use nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are luxuries to be indulged in occasionally, like a cocktail with an umbrella or that slice of tiramisu! A few fiction writers I know have told me that their (occasional) practice of writing haiku really helps with the writing and editing of their short stories or novels. I know this also to be true for writers of longer-form poetry, myself included.
The shortest type of haiku is a one-liner (also known as a monostich), a sub-form that I’ve found myself being increasingly drawn to in recent years:
tall ash tree the smell of last night’s fire
shoulder stand watching the rain fall up
Haiku as mindfulness tool
Nobody could have foreseen the runaway success and popularity of mindfulness practices in western society, particularly in this decade. They are used for relaxation, for concentration, for stress management and in counselling contexts. They have also been used with schoolchildren and adults, including prisoners, with interesting and positive effects.
In my view, the practices of haiku poetry and mindfulness complement each other beautifully. Why is this? In order to write haiku, ideally you need to be in the present moment, experiencing and observing it simultaneously. Basho famously advised his students to ‘learn of the pine from the pine’, to lose themselves so that poet and pine became virtually indistinguishable. So, you see, the hippy hobby of communing with nature owed more to 1670s Japan than to 1970s California!
Haiku’s origins stem from both the Buddhist and the Shinto traditions, the former with its emphasis on meditation and interconnectedness, and the latter on finding divinity in nature, so it’s not surprising that the two practices would have such synergy. Many haiku practitioners say that writing haiku helps to keep them anchored in the present moment, and vice versa.
my sweet pea flowers
Haiku as a way of life
Whoa! Haiku as a way of life? Isn’t that taking it a bit too far? Well, is it? Surely any writer who’s serious about his or her chosen form would find it hard to imagine their life without it? Many seasoned haijin (haiku writers) talk about ‘The Way of Haiku’ to illustrate their lifelong commitment to the form. This doesn’t necessarily connect with getting the work published or winning awards.
For some haijin, the discipline of writing haiku is conducted in parallel to practising the Dharma, but being a Buddhist is not a prerequisite for being a haiku poet. Either way, reading and writing haiku change your way of relating to the world.
To answer the very valid question of ‘why haiku?’ my response is simply this: ‘why not haiku?’
Maeve O’Sullivan’s poems and haiku have been widely published, and some of them have won awards, been anthologised or translated. Her collections are Initial Response (haiku, 2011), Vocal Chords (poetry, 2014) and A Train Hurtles West (haiku, 2015), all from Alba Publishing.
Maeve is a founder member of Haiku Ireland and the Hibernian Poetry Workshop, and performs with The Poetry Divas. She co-leads Writing from Within, an annual June workshop in haiku and mindfulness at Carousel Creates (www.carousel-creates.com). You can find her on Twitter @writefromwithin.